According to the federal Center for Sex Offender Management, “the criminal justice system manages most convicted sex offenders with some combination of incarceration, community supervision, and specialized treatment…the majority are released at some point on probation or parole (either following sentencing or after a period of incarceration in prison or jail.) About 60% of offenders managed by the U.S. correctional system are under some form of conditional supervision in the community.” [xiii] And many of them want to attend worship and participate in the life of a faith community. In fact, attendance and membership in a local congregation may be encouraged by their treatment provider and parole supervisor, often to cut down on their social isolation.
There are those who believe that a convicted sex offender never belongs in one of our communities. In fact, one of the ministers I interviewed for this manual was quite clear about this: “I told the Board that they could have the minister or the pedophile. Not both.” A former Director of Ministry for the UUA, took this position in a 1991 article, “my own bias is this, based on what I know now—that an identified pedophile should not be part of congregational life. They must cease any physical presence.” [xiv]
This manual offers information and guidance for congregations wishing to consider including a person with a history (or an accusation) of sexual abuse. This manual also offers resources for inclusion such as a sample Limited Access Agreement. A review of the literature on sex offenders, interviews with congregations that have successfully integrated a convicted sex offender into adult worship and education, and a theological commitment to the dignity and worth of all people, even those that have committed morally repugnant acts, suggest that inclusion is possible. And each congregation faced with this situation will make its own decision about what is right given the particular facts and circumstances.
Peer reviewed literature suggests that, depending on the nature of the offense and assuming successful completion of treatment, most treated sex offenders do not recidivate. As religious communities, we can provide compassion, support, and reconciliation to those who truly have indicated that they have changed and have taken responsibility for their actions. We believe in the healing power of involvement in a spiritual home, and in the words of one affirmation heard in many Unitarian Universalist congregations, “to seek the truth in love and help one another.” Sex offenders who have completed prison sentences and mandated treatment as well as registered with the state have according to the court system complied with their punishments. As faith-based communities, we can provide support and compassion with awareness and vigilance so that all are safe as those who have sexually offended return to or join our church community. "A Case Study: A Sex Offender in Church" discusses how one congregation has faced these issues and is follows the list of Resources at the end of this document.
In many ways, the person with a history of sex offenses has the same needs for a faith community as the rest of us. But the sex offender needs more to assure that his involvement doesn't pose risks to the congregation and that standards are in place for protection against false allegations and suspicions. “Such involvement needs to include helping him manage his behavior and not get into situations which in the past led to offences…an offender who truly wishes to participate in the life of the church, who realizes the extent of his crime and the difficulty his presence may cause to survivors, and who is truly committed to a new life will understand and accept the need for the imposition of restrictions…”
But in order to do so safely, we must assure that the convicted sex offender does not have the opportunity in our congregations to re-offend again. This includes avoiding situations where they can be accused falsely. The fact is that a person with a history of sex offense against children should never be allowed to be with children, work with children and youth, or socialize with children at the congregation. No person who has been convicted of, or with an unresolved accusation of, any sexual misconduct can be permitted to be involved in any religious education or youth group activities.
The core response of the congregation to a convicted or accused sex offender is a Limited Access Agreement. This agreement invites the person with a history of sex offenses to participate in certain aspects of congregational life, setting clear boundaries including what the individual will not do. Typically a Limited Access Agreement will specify participation in adult worship services, coffee hour, committee meetings, adult education, all-adult social events, and well-supervised intergenerational events as acceptable. It asks the person to avoid all contact with children on congregation property or congregation-sponsored events. This includes not talking with children, volunteering or chaperoning children's events, including children's religious education classes, talks with children during worship, and children's activities during intergenerational events. It generally requires the person to remain in the presence of an adult who knows their situation at all times when children are present, including in some cases, asking the person to suggest a group of people to act as companions at church events where children may be present. It denies the person access to keys to the building and asks them to avoid being in the building unsupervised when activities involving children are in session, such as nursery school or youth group. The sample Limited Access Agreement that can be modified based on the feedback of the committee and the individual circumstances of the offender, can be found in the Appendix of this document. It includes two introductory paragraphs: one for a person who has been accused of a sexual offense, the other for someone who has been convicted. It's available in check list format as well. The message to the sex offender should be that they are both welcome to participate in adult worship, adult social, and adult educational activities and that they must covenant with the congregation to avoid all contact with children.
Many congregations already have policies on how to deal with disruptive behaviors including
- perceived threats to the safety of other members
- disruption of church activities
- diminishing appeal of the church to its current and potential members
In general, these policies first ask the minister to meet with the offending individual to address the concern. If the behavior continues, the offending individual may be asked to leave the congregation for a period of time, with reasons for suspension and conditions of return made clear. Individuals are generally not excluded from the congregation completely except by agreement of the Board of Trustees and the Minister, who will communicate the decision.
In the words of one policy, we strive “to be an inclusive community, affirming our differences in beliefs, opinions, and life experiences. However, concern for the safety and well-being of the congregation as a whole must be given priority over the privileges and inclusion of the individual. To the degree the disruption compromises the health of this congregation, our actions as a people of faith must reflect this emphasis on security.”
If your congregation already has a policy for dealing with disruptive behavior it can be amended to include a section addressing the inclusion of sex offenders as many of the same conditions apply. It is good practice for a congregation to develop a draft of a Limited Access Agreement or check list that can be a template when a situation arises.
There are generally a few ways that the presence of a convicted sex offender becomes known in a congregation. In an ideal world, a person with this background would come to the minister before they started coming to the congregation to discuss limits on their participation. Sex offender treatment specialists often encourage their clients to do just that. One community facing this issue wrote, “The Board's response to this situation would have been made easier if, before becoming so deeply involved in church activities, the individual had approached our church, explained his situation, asked whether there was some arrangement under which he could participate, and then awaited our response.”
This is probably not often the case. In some cases, people reveal their backgrounds to the ministers. In other circumstances, another congregant may discover a congregant's history of sexual offenses. Congregants should know that in these cases they should make their concern known to the minister. In other cases, someone may see a familiar name on the sex offender registry. Or, perhaps it becomes known that a long standing member of the congregation has been accused of a sexual offense.