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Introduction and Overview

  • A person who is a known sex offender is invited by one of the lay leaders of the congregation to join the faith community.
  • During a pastoral care session, a man reveals to the minister that he feels like he is “on fire around children.”
  • A twelve-year-old (who attends religious education) from the congregation is babysitting for a four-year-old boy, who later that evening, tells his parents that the babysitter asked him to touch his penis.
  • A person who used to be a member of the congregation writes the minister (who has never met him) to say that he is about to be released from jail for a sex offense and wants to return to the congregation.
  • A convicted sex offender decides that the restricted access agreement he has been asked to sign is too restrictive at one congregation and begins to attend another one in the area.
  • A newly settled minister of one month discovers that a person in the community was arrested for child molestation over fifteen years ago; when the previous minister departed, he never told anyone.
  • A long standing member of the congregation is charged with uploading child pornography on an Internet bulletin board.

All of these situations involving sex offenses—and undoubtedly others—have happened at Unitarian Universalist congregations. In each case, the minister, the board of trustees, and key lay leaders didn't know what to do. One minister reports that “this was the most difficult decision I have faced in fifteen years in ministry.” These situations can exacerbate people's most painful personal histories, and congregations often experience divisive conflicts over how to handle such situations.

This manual is designed to help. It offers information and procedural suggestions for leaders faced with the difficult task of helping the congregation decide if and how to include a sexual offender in their religious community. The facts and circumstances of the particular situation you are dealing with are of critical importance as you seek to make the best decisions for all involved.

Note to Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: 
By reading this report or your congregation deciding to include people with a history of sexual offense, you may experience increased feelings of physical, emotional or spiritual pain. The work described in this manual must be done in conjunction with efforts to address the experience and needs of survivors and victims as well. Go to Safe Congregations for more information including the report "Restorative Justice for All."

Child sexual abuse is a devastating social and public health problem. It is also a crime. Half a million children are thought to be sexually abused each year. [i] These children are violated in the most soul scarring ways, and in the majority of cases, by people they know and trust. The results are often pernicious and life long. Many survivors of child sexual abuse experience depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, reduced sexual desire, and problems with intimate relationships in adulthood. [ii]

There have always been people who are sexually attracted to children in congregations. In every congregation, there are abusers, victims, survivors, and bystanders of childhood sexual abuse. The recent crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church dramatically illustrated that people we love and admire may turn out to be sex offenders, causing irreparable damage to people's lives. Unitarian Universalists are not immune. We also know that most sexual abuse occurs among family members, and we may not be aware of the abuse that is currently occurring in families that are in our congregations. Many of our children and youth who have participated in the Our Whole Lives program are speaking up as a result of receiving education about child sexual abuse.

As a result of a 1996 federal law, every state now has a notification law for sex offenders who have served prison time and are now back in the community. The federal law required states to pass laws mandating that convicted sex offenders register with the local law enforcement agency after release and that states make these registries available to the general public. Over time, each state and the District of Columbia have adopted statutes modeled after the federal legislation, referred to as Megan's Law. This law is in memory of Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old girl, raped and murdered by a neighbor who, unknown to her family, was a convicted sex offender. [iii] In 2000, the Supreme Court found the laws constitutional. These registries include people who have committed a wide range of offenses, from child molestation to rape to exhibitionism and voyeurism to 19-year- olds who had sexual intercourse with their 15-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend and were reported by irate parents. It is estimated that as many as half a million people may be listed on these registries; the State of California alone has more than 75,000 people listed. [To find out how to obtain the local registry, contact the local police department or sheriff's office. The KlaasKids Foundation has an updated list of state laws based on Megan's Law—click on the button for “legislation” to be directed to your state's law and registry.]

Despite these shockingly high numbers of registered sex offenders, it is still true that the vast majority (88%) of sex offenses are not reported. [iv] The large majority of people who commit sex offenses do not serve time in prison or receive mandated treatment. The fact is that even with registries, there is no way we can know for sure who may abuse children.

Yet, we have a responsibity and a commitment to keep our children and youth safe from the person sexually attracted to children and/or youth whether or not they have a history of molesting children/youth. There are policies and practices that we can implement in our congregations to assure that the possibility of sexual abuse is greatly reduced. These policies can also address the safety of vulnerable adults, especially those who may face developmental delays.

This manual is grounded in our Unitarian Universalist principles and practices. We believe in the dignity and worth of every person – EVERY person includes the person who has abused children, no matter how morally repugnant that person's past behavior has been. We believe in justice, equity, and compassion in human relations - qualities that we must bring to thinking about this difficult issue. We affirm the use of the democratic process in our congregations, and must honor that in the hard work we do together in community. We are challenged to confront the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love and called to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science. The report entitled “Restorative Justice for All” stated it this way, “We place a high value on creating a culture of sanctuary within our congregations. Anyone should be able to enter our houses of worship without fear of being exploited in any way.” [v]

The preamble from the safety policies of one Unitarian Universalist congregation expresses this commitment in these words:

“Our commitments, as Unitarian Universalists, to the inherent dignity and worth of every person and to justice and compassion, compel us to create a safe environment that protects children and youth from harm and promotes their spiritual growth.

We believe our church must respond to this challenge, because it is a special place that highly values the ideals of community and the search for truth. It is a place that encourages personal growth, allows for personal truths, and supports individuals and families in their efforts to build better lives and a better society. As a caring, intergenerational community we can respond to those in need in broader, more flexible ways than many other institutions.

We accept the responsibility to educate ourselves and our children about sexual misconduct, abuse, molestation, harassment and exploitation. We pledge to do our best to protect and support those who come either at risk or in crisis. We as a congregation pledge to conduct ourselves in a manner which conveys mutual respect and consideration.”

This manual is based on three tenets that indeed present a balancing act, as faith communities develop policies:

  1. We have a responsibility to assure that children and youth will be safe in our congregations from sexual abuse, sexual assault and harassment even or perhaps especially when we do not know if there is an offender in our congregation. Indeed, we have a responsibility to see that our congregations are sexually healthy congregations and free of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation for all of our members – children, youth and adults – as well as visitor and staff.
  2. We are called to treat every person with worth and dignity, and to offer a congregational home to all who are seeking one like ours, while honoring that in the case of an individual with a history of sex offenses, there must be limitations to congregational involvement. That commitment means that only in rare cases will a person be denied access to ministry and fellowship. In the words of one congregation's policy, we must provide “compassion, support, affirmation, and protection against further harm.” [vi]
  3. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves about child sexual abuse and healthy childhood sexuality, to be well informed about sexual offenses and offenders and to develop processes that will help us make good decisions about the actions that we are called to take. We must be willing to listen, to use a democratic process, and to be humble about our own certitudes in creating these policies.

This manual is first about primary prevention. We hope that by raising the issues around sexual abuse and sex offenders, congregations can institute policies before there is a crisis. Some UU congregations may want to think “these issues don't affect us. After all, no one in our congregation would do these types of terrible things.” Unfortunately, even the “nicest people” may do these types of things. One estimate is that between 7 and 10% of the population may have a sexual inclination towards arousal by children. Many of these people will never act on their feelings, and some will. With the increased use of sex offender registries, we will often know (or can find out) when a convicted sex offender enters our community.

If the congregation does not address these issues before they occur, there is likely to be a sense of panic and crisis when a sex offender starts attending activities at the congregation, if someone in the congregation is accused of abuse, or when the minister, Religious Educator, or a member finds out that a congregant has a history of abusing children or youth. If you are in the midst of one of these situations and do not have policies in place, you may want to first go to "During A Crisis."

This manual provides background information on child sexual abuse, sexual abuse prevention, pedophiles, and others who abuse children. There are three important considerations to keep in mind while reading this manual to help bring perspective to commonly held beliefs about child sexual abuse:

  1. Many people believe that the greatest threats to children or vulnerable adults are known sex offenders or strangers. Research indicates that in the vast majority of cases of child sexual abuse, the abuser is an adult that the child knows and trusts. They are parents, step parents, grandparents, other relatives, babysitters, teachers, coaches, and yes, clergy and Religious Educators. More than eight in ten sexual abusers are never reported. “So the police and the courts can't tell you about these sex abusers because they don't know who the abusers are.” [vii] No policy dealing with a convicted sex offender will assure that all children, youth and vulnerable adults in your congregation are safe. Each of our faith communities must have a commitment to implementing polices that help us do everything we can to assure that our congregations are safe places for all children, youth, and vulnerable adults. In addition, we must be committed to providing compassionate support to those who struggle with a personal history of child sexual abuse or face this problem today in their own families.
  2. Many people believe that all sex offenders will re-offend regardless of treatment or other factors that suggest otherwise. Sex offenders can resume healthy lives in the community, including not committing other offenses, if they have completed treatment and if they have a commitment to never abusing another child. In a comprehensive review of more than 61 studies, all treated sex offenders had a re-offense rate for another sexual crime of less than 13%. [viii]
  3. Many people believe that sexual abuse happens to other people. A significant minority of adults have survived histories of child sexual abuse. And, child sexual abuse occurs in all types of families, without regard to religion, ethnicity, or economic status.

There are a minimum number of policies that every congregation should consider in order to keep children and youth safe and to build the foundation for dealing with a convicted sex offender.

Here's a quick self assessment check list for your congregation.

  1. Institute a Safe Congregations Committee or a Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Response Team with primary responsibilities for these issues. Provide them with support to maintain their knowledge and skill strengths. Have opportunities for them to regularly inform the congregation of their role.
  2. Create and implement a written policy on safe congregations. Share it with the congregation. Train appropriate staff and leaders in its application. Review and update it as needed
  3. Make sure the Minister, the Religious Educator, and the Board Chair know the state laws for reporting concerns about child abuse. Implement annual training for all volunteers in the Religious Education Program on how to recognize possible signs of abuse and sexual abuse, and subsequent actions to take.
  4. Teach Our Whole Lives (OWL) Program including the sessions on sexual abuse at each of its grade levels as a routine part of religious education for all ages
  5. Adopt and use a screening form for all employees, regardless of position, and all volunteers who work with children and youth. The form should ask directly about histories of sexual offenses.
  6.  Create and use a Code of Ethics for persons working with children and youth. Review it with each such individual each year. Have them sign the Code annually and keep a signed copy on file.
  7. Create a template for a limited access agreement or develop a check list for convicted or accused sex offenders.
  8. Make education about child sexual abuse prevention a routine part of the religious education program. Offer such education at least twice during elementary school and once during middle school and high school.
  9. Offer annual adult education programs on sexual abuse prevention for parents and families as well as one for religious education teachers.
  10. Develop and implement a policy that requires two adults be present in each class or program for children and youth as well as in cars transporting young people to activities.
  11. Create and distribute a referral list of community organizations and therapists who specialize in sex abuse prevention and treatment in cases where such referrals are necessary and appropriate.
  12. Offer support groups and/or counseling for those who have survived child sexual abuse.

The next section offers information and guidance to assist congregations in implementing the recommendations in the above check list.

“We fall into a trap when we demonize offenders as another class of humanity and think all we have to do is figure out who they are for members of our congregations to be safe. Violence committed by strangers is not the greatest source of sexual abuse. We're wrong…if we believe that protecting ourselves against sexual predators is most importantly a matter of tightening the sex offender registry, educating children on ‘Stranger Danger', and knowing when a convicted pedophile moves into the neighborhood. Law enforcement officials and doctors tell us that these efforts fail to address one group that, statistically, poses the greatest threat to children: male relatives and trusted family or community friends.” [ix]
—Reverend Patricia Tummino