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"


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.