“What do y’all do about sex offenders in church?” he asked.
A man named Andy had been coming to their church – a nice, successful, red brick, steeple church – for the last few months. He had attended their adult Sunday School, and everyone liked him. Andy was an older man, in his late fifties, with a short beard and horn rimmed glasses. He was well read, knew his Bible and listened with rapt attention in the service. He was thinking about joining the church, so he scheduled a meeting with the pastor.
“That was when it went south. He told the preacher he was a sex offender, and he wanted to join the church,” the deacon said.
The pastor told him he would have to do some research. He had then called the denomination’s regional office, who said that it was a no-go because of their “safe-child” policy. The pastor then called a meeting of the deacons to let them know what was going on, and my friend said he would talk to me, since I probably had had this come up before.
“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.Hmm.
What would you do if an adulterer showed up at your church? Or a gambler? Or someone who is currently sexually abusing a child? What would you do if someone who committed armed robbery showed up at your church? What would you do if someone who perpetrated fraud showed up at your church?
Would you know?
The truth is that we sit side-by-side with people with lurid pasts and people who hide a lurid present every day. A co-worker cheats on her husband. A neighbor spends money at the casino instead of putting it away for the kids' college expenses. The neighborhood mechanic sells a little weed. The middle school teacher shoplifts at Victoria's Secret.
“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”
He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.
I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.
I also said that all relationships have boundaries, and that it was a great sign that Andy wanted the pastor to know that he needed boundaries. I also told him that a lot of the research shows that recidivism rates for sex offenders are pretty low anyway, and even lower when the perpetrator has a support network, like, you know, a church family.Hollowell is well-educated about sex offenders. It is true that the recidivism rate for registered citizens is very low. It is true that registered citizens present varying risk levels.
It is also true that people not on the registry present varying risk levels. After all, most arrests--by far--for sex offenses are of someone not on the registry. We accept those varying risk levels without much thought.
Family and community support help offenders of every kind stay out of trouble. Can we all agree that helping someone stay out of trouble is a good thing?
What better way to help someone than to encourage them to come together regularly with like-minded people, whether it is a church or a quilting club?
A church, though, has a history to live up to.
... the Church was allegedly founded by a guy who tended to stick up for people who others had written off, and welcomed those others said were unwelcome because they were unclean. So there is some precedent.Yes. There is that.
He thanked me, and as he was walking toward the door, stopped, turned back and said, “So he could come to church with you guys, right? It wouldn’t be a problem?”One wonders if the word pusillanimous echoes in that deacon's mind.
I assure him it wouldn’t. He said he would talk to the pastor and let me know if there were more questions.
Think about this. A deacon doesn't want a sex offender in his congregation but he has no objection to the sex offender joining a different congregation. If the deacon genuinely believes the sex offender poses a danger to his congregation, then he has just foisted that danger on the more accepting congregation. That says safety concerns are only a good cover.
If safety is not the concern, then perhaps the deacon thinks sex offenders are something distasteful.
The easiest thing in the world to do is to confuse your comfort with your safety, and it is easy to be scared of what we do not know. And the work of relationship and accountability is much harder than telling a man like Andy he has to go worship elsewhere. After all, no one in your church is going to fault you for trying to “keep them safe”.
The problem is, the gospels tell us nothing about our safety, but do say that people like Andy – the underdogs, the pariahs, the unclean and the forgotten – are actually Jesus in disguise, and that when we reject them, we reject Jesus himself.
So by all means, pray to God, and sing your organ music and pass the plate and preach about Jesus. But if you do that, you have to be prepared for what to do when he shows up, looking like a sex offender.What does Jesus look like in your congregation?
I blogged earlier about churches and their treatment of sex offenders here (and maybe some other posts I have forgotten):