Steps to Take
- No matter how the situation is revealed, the minister as quickly as possible should meet privately with the individual to discuss the concerns that have been raised. The minister may want to check the local sex offender registry before meeting with the person. (If the minister is the one being accused, this manual and these steps do not apply. Instead, the President of the Board should be contacted immediately and the president should contact the Director for Congregational Services at the UUA and/or the District Executive serving the congregation.) If the person is a member of the congregation and has a partner who also attends the church, then the minister should reach out to the partner as well.
- If the minister determines that there is genuine cause for the concern, the person should then be asked to meet with the hopefully pre-existing Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Response Team (hereinto referred to as the Response Team). If such a team does not exist, the Minister in consultation with the President of the Board of Trustees, should convene such a group, consisting of the minister, the Religious Educator, and if possible at least three members of the congregation who have professional expertise with this issue.
- The individual should be asked to sign a release form so that the minister can contact his/her sex offender treatment provider and/or current therapist. Ask if those people are members of ATSA, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. The therapist and, if applicable, the parole officer should be asked for their professional assessment of the likelihood that the sex offender will re-offend and whether additional restrictions beyond the standard Limited Access Agreement ought to be placed on the person's participation. It will be helpful to know the number, timing and nature of offenses. Such information allows consideration of different situations. For example, an 18 year old male who had sex with his 16 year old girlfriend and against whom her parents pressed charges or the person who has served time in jail for sex offenses against neighborhood children. In the second scenario, if the person has been in the community for some time and has previously completed mandated treatment, the committee would be wise to ask the person to go for a professional assessment with a therapist who specializes in working with sex offenders. The congregation may choose to provide the funding for this assessment. If the offender refuses permission to contact the therapist or refuses to go for an assessment, the congregation would be right to refuse participation in any congregation activity. For more information on this issue, go to "Reasons for Excluding a Person from All Congregation Activities."
It is beyond the scope and experience of congregations to assess the risk or probability that a sex offender will re-offend. According to the Center for Sex Offender Management, even therapists with special training in treating sex offenders can be wrong. They write, “There are no absolutes or magic bullets in identifying these risk factors. Rather, this process is an exercise in isolating factors that are associated with specific behaviors. While this association reflects likelihood, it does not say that all individuals who possess certain characteristics will behave in a certain manner. Some offenders will inevitably commit subsequent sex offenses…likewise not all sex offenders who have re-offense characteristics will recidivate.” [xvi]
The question the Response Team (or other responsible entity in the congregation) must be able to answer is this: given what professionals have advised you, will this person sign and obey a Limited Access Agreement that they can maintain with the leadership in order to assure the safety of children and youth?
- If the assessment indicates that the person has completed or is participating successfully in treatment and is not at high risk for recidivism, the Response Team may choose to develop a Limited Access Agreement. If the professional assessment indicates that the person is at high risk for re-offending, it is appropriate to deny that person involvement in the faith community until treatment is successful at reducing the risk. One denomination that has developed a resource for assisting congregations in making these decisions recommends that “a small group should be set up, consisting of approximately five persons, including the minister, persons who have agreed to offer pastoral support for the offender, and accompany them in worship and other church activities, someone with expertise or experience in this field, and someone to represent the wider church community. The group should acquaint itself with any therapeutic program the offender has undergone or will continue to be part of. The group should meet the offender, their probation officer, and other appropriate people so that clear boundaries can be established for the protection of children and youth and to reduce the likelihood of false allegations or suspicions. This group will, at best, operate alongside other agencies in a multi-agency approach to the offender's rehabilitation.” Meeting with the other support people in the offender's life—their family, therapist, probation officer—can powerfully demonstrate the faith community's desire to support the person and hold them accountable. If the person has a partner in the community, that person should be involved in developing the Limited Access Agreement as well.
It is important to point out that a person with a commitment to avoiding future abuses will welcome the opportunity for controls on their behaviors. Stop It Now! writes, “You can show your support of the abuser's willingness to live a different life that keeps children safe. Your support and watchfulness can help in his or her recovery. It is also a chance to let the abuser know that you are aware of the past and are watching his or her actions today.”
All persons with past histories of sexual offenses should be asked to sign a Limited Access Agreement or Check List. Upon entry into the congregation and depending on the circumstances, the person may be asked to sign one annually. If the offender refuses to do so, it is then appropriate to deny the person access to congregation functions and church property. An offender who refuses to sign a Limited Access Agreement should know that if they enter the congregation or its property, they will be asked to leave by a member of the Response Team or the Board of Trustees. If the person further refuses, the local police will be called for assistance.
The Response Team should meet at least quarterly with any individual with whom it has a Limited Access Agreement to review the arrangement and address any concerns. If the minister or the Religious Educator changes, as well as the chair of the Board of Trustees, it is important that the departing person inform the new person of this situation to ensure provision of pastoral support for the offender as well as continuity of awareness of the situation. In sharing information appropriately it is also important to remain aware of confidentiality and privacy for all involved. Copies of files including Limited Access Agreement information should be treated with care, and kept in a secure file drawer.
If and when legal questions arise, the minister and/or Board President should contact a lawyer who can provide information and advice informed by local and state statutes that apply.
- Decide who needs to know. One of the very important and difficult questions is who needs to know that a congregant has a history of sex offense. Clearly, key people, including the Minister, the Religious Educator, the Chair of the Board and the Response Team need to know that the person is attending church, that he or she has agreed not to have contact with children, has signed a Limited Access Agreement or check list, and that he or she should never be alone with children and adolescents.
According to the Methodist Church of the United Kingdom, “there is much to be said for explaining the circumstances to the whole congregation, to promote understanding and support for the individual but also to ensure that church members do not unwittingly allow children contact with the individual concerned. However, this needs to be weighed against any need for confidentiality or pastoral sensitivity…the need to know must be balanced with the danger that the offender may be hounded out of the community (to his detriment and to the greater danger of the other children if he decides to maintain a low profile next time around.) [xix] One congregation has devised a policy in between: the congregation knows the policies that have been developed to keep children safe. The name of a particular person with a history of sexual offending is known to the minister and the Religious Educator. The minister will share that name with any parent who requests it in a private meeting. The Board of Trustees in grappling with the issue of sex offenders in the congregation will want to make the decision about how confidentiality will be handled, and it is that decision that should be communicated to the entire congregation.