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During a Crisis
If you have turned directly to this section, it may be because you are facing a crisis situation in your congregation. It may be that a person who has served time for a sex offense against children has come to the minister and said they want to become part of the congregation. Or maybe a member of the staff has scanned the sex offender registry and noticed that the name of a member of the congregation is on it. Perhaps it is that a long standing member of the congregation who is a teacher has been accused by a student of sexual misconduct. Or maybe you've just heard that a twelve-year-old in the congregation was found fondling a three year old while he is babysitting.
Almost uniformly, congregations that have dealt with sex offenders during the past few years report that there has been some degree of panic among members when the facts become known. In some cases, congregations have become badly divided over the issue of whether a sex offender should be allowed to attend worship services at all. In some cases, the minister has refused to allow the person to participate In many cases; those most alarmed about the possibility of a pedophile attending worship are themselves survivors of childhood sexual abuse or assault. This past history continues to affect people in their adult lives, and this kind of situation can evoke past trauma and an unwillingness to address even the possibility of attendance.
- Do not panic. There is no question that this will be a difficult issue for the minister, the Religious Educator, the Board and the members of the congregation who become involved. This issue is likely to take months if not years to address. Anxiety may be high among many in the congregation. Staff and leaders are challenged to be less anxious.
- Ask for help. Contact the District Staff who serve your congregation. Contact the Director for Congregational Services at the UUA. They can direct you to resources and provide guidance and support.
- Know that this is likely to be a difficult and divisive issue. Some parents of children may threaten to resign if the offender is allowed to attend worship at all. Some people who were themselves sexually abused as children may be especially affected as old hurts are reopened. Provide opportunities for all sides to be heard. Recognize that reasonable people may disagree. Allow time for and facilitate the opportunity for people to share their feelings BEFORE you move to policies and guidelines.
- Seek outside expertise. While it is necessary for the facts and circumstances of the situation to be known and understood by congregational leaders, and they should do their best to determine these, it is also unrealistic to expect that the members of a church board of trustees will have the requisite skills to evaluate an individual situation or assess safety issues in a particular context. It is reasonable for the members of the leaders of the congregation who are dealing with the decision including the minister, to meet with the (alleged) abuser (and parents if that person is a minor), ask for written permission to contact their therapist, and parole officer, or in the case of someone who has completed mandated treatment, to ask the person to meet with a trained therapist (who is a member of ATSA) for an evaluation of their risk potential.
- Be sure pastoral care is available to those whose issues may be exacerbated. It can't be said enough: some people who are survivors of sexual abuse or assault may need special attention at this time.
- Remember that if the accused person is part of the community they also deserve support. There is likely to be a feeling of revulsion or antipathy towards the person, and the immediate response may be to want to isolate that person completely. According to the UU Church of Yarmouth, “it remains the mission of this church to recognize and support the integrity and inherent worth and dignity of that person even though we do not condone inappropriate behaviors, and to treat him or her with compassion.” It is also important to reach out to that person's life partner and/or children.
- Educate, educate, educate. If the whole community knows about this situation, it may make sense to call for a community meeting. An education session with outside experts on child sexual abuse and sex offender treatment can be very helpful. In some cases, it may be helpful to ask the offender to tell their story to the Board of Trustees or at a community meeting. Keep the community as a whole informed as the leadership of the congregation works to develop or implement policies.
- Seek legal counsel. Local and state laws may impact your course of action and decisions that you will need to make. Find out about the legal limits, liabilities and requirements.
- Allow enough time. The process for developing an informed, just response to this situation will likely be time consuming, messy, emotional, and not satisfying to all parties concerned. Recognizing that this will take time, may not be perfect, and is always difficult will help the healing process.