Thursday, August 7, 2014

how a congregation should respond to sex offenders among them

Yesterday, I congratulated The Lutheran for publishing Same Table, an article that talked about sex offenders in church. Its loving attitude and efforts to dispel myths about sex offenders were like the smell of bread fresh from the oven. Comforting. Promising something wonderful at the table.

The article linked to some suggested resources for churches trying to decide what to do about registered sex offenders. Heaven help the sex offenders!

Perhaps now that The Lutheran has made it known that...

1. "public perception of the risk of repeat sexual offenses [is] much higher than it is"

and

2. "offender registries and notification systems have little to no effect on recidivism rates and may, in some cases, increase the risk they will commit future sex crimes"

...the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) can rethink the "help" they offer congregations.

Numerous studies in recent years point to an extremely low likelihood that pedophiles can or will change. Without extensive professional treatment, virtually all child sexual offenders will re-offend. Repentance, prayer and pastoral support can be crucial elements when combined with life-long treatment, but, in themselves, they offer little hope of changing the behavior of perpetrators.
Let's begin with the casual use of that frightful word, pedophiles. Most sex offenders are not pedophiles, not even those who offend against children. Most pedophiles are not sex offenders. Pedophile is a word meant to frighten you.

As for that hopelessly grim statement, virtually all child sexual offenders will re-offend, see #1 above. The recidivism rate of sex offenders is extremely low.

The ELCA document continues:
A convicted sex offender who wishes to be part of a church community, whether one he or she has attended for some time or a new one, should expect to have conditions placed upon his or her participation. This can best be done through the development of a written covenant, signed by the offender and by church officials, preferably by both the pastor and the chairperson of the Church Council (or other administrative body of the church).
The covenant should begin with a clear statement of the role of the church as "sanctuary," with appropriate Biblical reference(s).
There's more but this is the point where I started laughing. The role of the church as sanctuary? Not for sex offenders! Sex offenders should expect to have conditions placed upon his or her participation. Forgiveness? Pfft.

The appropriate Biblical references in this case are meant to warn the sex offender that the need for sanctuary for people who are uncomfortable with former sex offenders trumps the need for sanctuary for the sex offender who wants spiritual nourishment.

Surely there must be some appropriate Biblical references about forgiveness and mercy that could guide a congregation in welcoming a sex offender. Maybe something like this:
Ephesians 4:32 - And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.
Back to the covenant that sex offenders must sign:
As part of your growth and penitence, you shall prepare and deliver written acknowledgments and apologies for the pain caused directly or indirectly by your actions. At the very least, you shall address these statements to your victims, their families, your own family and the members and supporters of this church. (Requests for forgiveness shall not be included). This will become part of an open letter to the congregation, informing them of your presence and of the conditions of your participation.
My, that's quite stern. I am trying to imagine the effect on children in the congregation. I am trying to imagine the effect on the family of the sex offender in the congregation.

Another condition for the covenant:
You may not use restroom facilities in the church buildings.
Welcome to church; stay away from the coffee.

Yesterday, I stood on my well-worn soapbox and was gently pulled down by someone reminding me that other people do have stories that make them fearful -- someone betrayed by a financial advisor, someone whose family suffered a murder, for example. Some fear they could be victims of another crime.

Members of the congregation who have been convicted of non-sexual crimes such as assault or fraud -- possibly leaving someone critically injured or leaving a family in dire financial straits -- those convicts can come to church with no covenant demands. They can even use the restroom.

Crimes and the effects of those crimes fall in a wide range. Some sex offenders perpetrated a violent rape; some touched no one. Some assaults don't do serious injury; some leave the victim in a vegetative state.

After serving their sentences, some criminals are allowed to continue with their lives without public self flagellation; some are seen as needing only a quick stop at the restroom to return to wicked ways.

The reason so much attention is on sex offenders is that there is a list of them. Once there is a list, the fear seems justified. They must be dangerous if the law requires them to register!

How to square this cold, demanding document with the compassionate Same Table article? At first, I assumed the document was very old but no, it was last modified November 2013. Better information was easily available at that time. I hope the ELCA realizes the disconnect between the myth-based covenant and the recent fact-based article and moves to update the document with better information and with more attention to the role of the Church in the world.

When I found Ephesians 4:32, I also ran across this:
John 3:16 - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
God gave his Son and the ELCA is putting conditions on space at the table?

This helpful document suggests that some in the congregation can partake of the Bread.
Some are allowed only to smell it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

a church welcomes registered sex offenders

In its July 2014 issue, Lutheran magazine published an excellent article by Ryan P. Cumming about a church that welcomes sex offenders.
After months of preparation and prayer, Redeemer held its first adults-only worship service at 4 p.m. Easter Sunday, welcoming 20 visitors, all registered sex offenders.

Paul (last name withheld upon request) was one of them. He hadn’t been to church for eight years and didn’t expect to go for another eight, when his parole would end. But a friend who attended Redeemer handed him a flier for the adults-only service.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to go back again until I got done with probation,” Paul said. “This church doesn’t judge. They accepted the fact that some of us had gotten into trouble and were learning from our bad decisions. A young man told his story and it struck home with me. … We had communion, which was awesome. I actually felt a sense of peace come over me. This makes me feel much better about life.”
Former offenders in church! A good thing, but why adults-only?
Ministry among registered offenders is particularly difficult. Many offenders can’t be in places where children gather.
Some former offenders are not allowed to attend worship services even with their own families. This article makes only glancing reference to families of sex offenders, profiling an offender who seems not to have one. Offenders do have families -- children, spouses, parents, in-laws, siblings, grandchildren -- families who welcome the offender back into their lives. It seems particularly cruel to withhold the experience of worshipping with family from someone who has paid his debt to society.
In addition, the stigma following [sex offenders] can be turned against congregations that would welcome all—including offenders. A primary concern for Hayden is that Redeemer could “be targeted” for backlash from its community.
Rightfully so, say many. Churches are supposed to be welcoming but also safe places where members can trust one another and where adults and children are protected from harm. In a 2010 survey, Christianity Today found that nearly half of respondents would oppose allowing a registered offender to serve in a ministry in their congregation. For many in the church, the risk of re-offending is too high.
But researchers have found public perception of the risk of repeat sexual offenses to be much higher than it is, especially when the specific characteristics of a crime are taken into account. In a 2010 study for the Justice Department, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, found that offender registries and notification systems have little to no effect on recidivism rates and may, in some cases, increase the risk they will commit future sex crimes. [My emphasis.]
The registries isolate former offenders at a time when a strong social network is a way for them to stay on a good course. Places of worship have traditionally been a particularly fine way to build that support network. Hard to do when attendance is prohibited by probation and parole officers, and harder when the congregation fears repeat sex offenses that research shows are unlikely.

If more places of worship follow the example set by this church, the rewards will be much greater than the perceived risks.
The transformation hasn’t been limited to former offenders. As plans for the service developed, a woman approached Hayden and said: “I hear you’re having this alternative service. I’m a victim of a sex offender. But I’m going to come, because I feel like I can be healed there, because we’re all going to be at the same table together.”
Kudos to The Lutheran for daring to publish a piece promoting the inclusion of sex offenders in church services. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Disney World, running amok with perverts; or, reading between the lines

Theme park employees from Disney, Universal Studios and SeaWorld caught in sex stings, the headline says.

Thirty-five Disney employees arrested in sex stings since 2006, that is. Thirty-five arrested over a period of nine years. Thirty-five out of 300,000 employees during those nine years.

Thirty-two of the 35 have been convicted. Well, of course they have! The other three cases will almost certainly end with a conviction, too. The article does not tell us how many of these people went to trial though I imagine the number is close to zero. Most prosecutions--not only for sex offenses--end with plea agreements.

A justice system where the prosecution never has to prove its case is no justice system at all.

The article provides details about some cases. In one case, a man was found in possession of illegal images that included "multiple scenes of nude prepubescent children engaging in sexual activity with adults and other children". For other cases, the illegal images are described only as "child porn."

Why the difference? I have a sneaking suspicion that some cases have more interesting, more shocking details than others. It simply isn't shocking to hear that someone was in possession of video that a teenager made of himself and uploaded himself. News media doesn't like to explain that the legal definition of child porn also includes images of teenagers, made by teenagers. When people hear about child porn, they assume it means images of small children being raped. What news outlet, hungry for advertising dollars, wants to get in the way of audience imaginings that will bring them back for followup articles?

Some of the arrests were of men who met a kid online and eventually tried to meet in person for sex. Where do you suppose these men were hanging out online that they met kids eager for sex? Nickelodeon? PBS Kids?

Let's think. If the men had been trolling websites meant for children, what reporter would fail to lead with that detail? Look at the headline above: It doesn't leave it at theme park employees; it says Disney, Universal Studios and Sea World. If the websites had been those intended for children, the headline would have included that juicy tidbit. But it doesn't and that tidbit doesn't show up in the article, either. We are probably safe in assuming that the men were using adult websites.

But what children hang out on adult websites looking for sex? As it turns out, it seems there weren't any children looking for sex. There were only law enforcement officers pretending to be children. Is it possible that some cases did involve real children? Let's go back to the question about what news outlets would like to include in their stories. If an actual child isn't mentioned in the story, it is safe to say there were no actual children involved.

So: we have men spending time on websites meant for adults, in conversation with adults pretending to be children. Who starts those conversations? Who brings up the possibility of sex? If the pretend child introduces the idea of sex, that is very different from an adult approaching children in a chat room for children and asking for sex. The reporter does not tell us who introduced the idea of sex with the minors.

Now that Disney has been named in a headline as an employer of sex offenders, what does Disney have to say about it?
In a statement to CNN, Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said, “Providing a safe environment for children and families is a responsibility we take very seriously. We have extensive measures in place, including pre-employment and ongoing criminal background checks and computer monitoring and firewalls. 
Background checks, hey? If that means the kind of background check that would have exposed a job applicant as a registered sex offender...that must mean that none of these 35 were registered sex offenders. Once again, we see that arrests for sex offenses most often are of those who are not on the registry. Once again, we see that the registry protects no one.
“The numbers reported by CNN represent one one-hundredth of one percent of the 300,000 people we have employed during this time period. We continue to work closely with law enforcement and organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as we constantly strengthen our efforts.”
Huh. Now that Disney has been named in a headline as an employer of sex offenders, they have no choice but to cooperate with law enforcement. Imagine the headlines if they did anything else.

What is said in a news article can be interesting. What is not said can be even more interesting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

police want to force a 17-year-old boy's erection so they can photograph it

For the last week, the Internet has been chewing up a story about child pornography. Radley Balko sums it up:
...the efforts of officials in Northern Virginia to forcibly induce an erection in a teenage boy in order to pursue “sexting” charges against him has deservedly provoked national outrage. ... Manassas police have since backed down and now say that they won’t execute the warrant. Of course, there remains the problem of why the warrant was issued in the first place. No one in the Manassas Police Department, the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert or the judge who signed off on the warrant was able to see what the rest of the country saw, here: an outrageous abuse of power and an unfathomable violation of this kid’s privacy. The Commonwealth of Virginia was prepared to create child porn in order to prosecute a 17-year-old kid for sending videos of himself to his then-girlfriend, who was 15 years old.
Seems clear: an outrageous abuse of power and an unfathomable violation of this kid's privacy.

Also clear: in the prosecution of a child pornography case, they were going to produce child pornography. 


As usual, it is a good idea to read all of Balko's piece. He talks about several other crazy cases in which teens landed in huge trouble for playing doctor while texting.


The trend is toward dragging more minors into the justice system.  

In an effort to register their contempt for child exploitation and sex crimes, lawmakers have defined sex offenses so broadly that a teen sending an explicit photo to a boyfriend or girlfriend can qualify. Typically, when critics point out that a new law could be used in ways lawmakers never intended, supporters point to prosecutorial discretion. They argue that it’s ridiculous, even insulting, to suggest that a prosecutor would twist a law to bring charges against someone in ways the law clearly never intended — or that a judge would allow it. That police, a prosecutor’s office and a judge all saw nothing wrong with forcibly inducing an erection in order to pursue charges against a 17-year-old kid puts the lie to that argument.
Sex isn’t the only context in which we’re ruining kids under the pretense of saving them. We’re protecting kids from drugs by arresting and jailing them for marijuana possession. We’re protecting them from the (mostly nonexistent) problem of school violence by assigning law enforcement to patrol middle and high school campuses. The presence of law enforcement means that kids who were once reprimanded, assigned detention or possibly suspended for infractions such as fighting, throwing food or truancy are now fed into the criminal justice system.
I have written about how casually cruelty is directed at the children of sex offenders, here, here, and here. As demonstrated in the cases Balko discusses and in a 2010 prosecution of sexting minors, the cruelty can be even more astounding when minors are the offenders.

More on the Virginia case from Robby Soave at Reason, from Shelly Stowe at Justice For All, and from Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids here and here.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

how long is long enough?

Nebraska has a math problem.
Nebraska’s prison screw-up is much bigger than originally estimated: 873 inmates erroneously received reduced sentences over the past 20 years, state officials revealed Friday.
The fix will cost the state dearly: an estimated $50 million or more to house current prisoners for the 2,050 years just added to their collective sentences.
In a state already trying to solve the problem of overcrowding because the prisons are 58% over capacity, now this.

When the Omaha World-Herald discovered that Nebraska Corrections had been miscalculating release dates for twenty years or so, the governor's first response was that those released too early would be "rounded up."

His plans have changed. Now the State Patrol is bringing in a couple dozen people who were released too early and would still be serving time if not for the calculation errors. 

Those who were released long enough ago that their correct release date has already passed are not being "rounded up" to complete their sentences. The word is that they will be investigated to see if they committed further crimes after their early release and before their correctly-calculated release date. If they did commit more crimes, it's back to the hoosegow for them.

It's a mess. The Omaha World-Herald is doing a fine job of investigative journalism.

Another area ripe for investigation: When they discover that most of those released too early have not committed more crimes, will someone suggest that the miscalculated prison sentences appear to be quite long enough?

Monday, June 23, 2014

flash-bang grenade...the cops just couldn't help themselves

When we complain about the chaos and dangers of SWAT-served search warrants or home invasion-style served warrants, we often hear that the person who broke the law is the one to blame for a family's pain, not the cops who invade homes. A Georgia family would love to hear those people make sense of what happened to their 19-month-old boy.

Jacob Sullum writes about a 3 a.m. drug raid when a flash-bang grenade was thrown into a child's playpen, critically injuring the toddler. The police said they had no idea there were children in the home or they would not have used the grenade.
"If there's children involved in a house, we do not use any kind of distraction devices in those houses," [Sheriff]Terrell told AccessNorthGa.com. "We just don't take the chance on it....According to the confidential informant, there were no children. When they made the buy, they didn't see any children or any evidence of children there, so we proceeded with our standard operation."
Standard operation? It is standard to throw flash-bangs where the landing place is not clearly seen?

The lawyer for the family said,
"This is a stay-at-home dad who was out in front of the home, playing with the children on a daily basis. Any surveillance that was done would have revealed there was a father with four children who played in that driveway."
Surveillance?
...the SWAT team was relying on the report of a confidential informant who briefly visited the home on Tuesday night, just a few hours before the raid...
Despite an avowed policy of not using flash-bang grenades when children are present, it seems that neither Terrell's office nor the Cornelia Police Department did anything to investigate that possibility aside from asking the informant, who according to Terrell did not even enter the home. 
So, no surveillance.
Beyond the lack of due diligence on that point, there is the question of whether tossing an exploding, potentially incendiary device into a home that may be full of innocent people in the middle of the night is A-OK as long as you are reasonably sure all those people are 18 or older.
Think about this. Laws are often described in terms of protecting the innocent and yet police take no precautions to protect the innocent or even to ascertain if there are innocents present. 

Remember those people who blame the law-breaker for the chaos? The sheriff is one of them.
Terrell continues to blame [drug]transactions for the horrible injuries police inflicted on a sleeping baby. "The information we had from our confidential informant was there was no children in the home," he told WXIA, the NBC station in Atlanta. "We always ask; that determines how we enter the house and the things we do.... Did we go by our training, did we go by the intelligence? Given the same set of circumstances, with the same information dealing with a subject who has known gun charges on him, who is selling meth, they would go through the same procedures...Nothing would change....Had no way of knowing the child was in the house. The little baby [who] was in there didn't deserve this. These drug dealers don't care."
The little baby didn't deserve this? If the grenade had landed on the bed of the baby's mother instead, the mother would have deserved it?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

fathers' day

Let's hear it for the dads who screwed up in a big way and are now showing their children how to own up to their mistakes, how to atone, and how to persevere through times of great difficulty.