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Balancing Compassion and Protection
Conflict Management in Congregations, Safe Congregations

Debra W. Haffner

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 illustrates 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 among families 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.

The Unitarian Universalist Association commissioned me to develop a manual for how to welcome a person with a history of sex offenses into our congregations while assuring that our children, youth, and vulnerable adults are safe from abuse and exploitation. I interviewed more than a dozen congregations that had struggled with this issue, consulted with experts in sexual child abuse and sex offender treatment, did an extensive review of the public health literature, and convened an expert advisory board for the publication. The complete handbook was published as an online publication, “Balancing Acts: Keeping Children Safe In Congregations”. This essay is excerpted from that. The Unitarian Universalist Association is the first denomination in the United States to publish a resource on this difficult issue.

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 back in the community. The federal law required states to pass laws mandating that convicted sex offenders register with local law enforcement after release and to make these registries available to the general public. Over time, each state has adopted statutes modeled after the federal legislation, referred to as Megan’s Law 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. In 2000, the Supreme Court found the laws constitutional.

People who are required to register have committed a wide range of offenses from child molestation, to rape, to exhibitionism and voyeurism. Even a nineteen-year-old who has had sexual intercourse with a fifteen-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend and been turned in by irate parents is subject to this law. 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 your local police department or sheriff’s office. The KlaasKids Foundation (click on the button for “legislation” to be directed to your state’s law and registry) has an updated list of state laws based on Megan’s Law.

Despite the shockingly high number of registered sex offenders, the vast majority (88 percent) of sex offenses continue to go unreported. The vast majority of people who commit sex offenses do not serve time in prison or receive mandated treatment. Even with registries, there is no way we can know for sure who may abuse children.

Yet we have an obligation and a commitment to keep our children safe—from the person who is known to have a history of molesting children and from the person whose sexual attraction to children is unknown to anyone but themselves.

As Unitarian Universalists we believe in the dignity and worth of every person, and that includes the person who has abused children, no matter how morally repugnant that person’s past behavior is. 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, which means we must honor that this is hard work that we must do together in community. We say we are challenged to “confront the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love” and we must “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.” The Restorative Justice for All Report states 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.”

Three tenets underlie our efforts to balance the protection of children with our Principles:

  • We have a responsibility to assure that children 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 and free of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation for all of our members—children, adults, visitors, and staff.
  • We have a responsibility to treat every person with worth and dignity and to provide a congregational home to all who seek one, 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.”
  • We have a responsibility to educate ourselves about child sexual abuse and healthy childhood sexuality as well as background on sexual offenders and to develop a process 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.

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 terrible things.” Unfortunately even the “nicest people” may do these things. One estimate is that between 7 and 10 percent of the population may have a sexual attraction that involves children. And although many of these people will never act on their feelings, some will. With the advent of sex offender registries, we will often know when a convicted sex offender enters our community.

If the congregation does not address these issues before they occur, there is likely to be panic and a sense of crisis when a sex offender starts attending activities at the congregation; someone in the congregation is accused of abuse; or 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 the “During a Crisis” section of the online manual “Balancing Acts” at.

The full manual provides background information on child sexual abuse, sexual abuse prevention, and pedophiles and others who abuse children.

There are three important facts to keep in mind that counter prevalent myths about child sexual abuse. First, it’s a myth that the greatest threats to children are known sex offenders or strangers. The fact is that in 90 percent of cases of child sexual abuse, the abuser is an adult whom the child knows and trusts. No policy for dealing with a convicted sex offender will assure that the children in your congregation are safe unless there are also safe congregation policies in place.

It’s also a myth that nearly all sex offenders will re-offend. The research tells us that many sex offenders who have completed treatment and made a commitment to never abuse another child can resume healthy lives in the community without committing other offenses.

Finally, it is not true that sexual abuse happens to “other people.” The fact is that a significant minority of adults have survived histories of child sexual abuse.

There are minimum 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. Does your congregation:

  • have a safe congregations committee or a sexual misconduct and abuse response team with primary responsibilities for these issues?
  • have insurance coverage in the event that a claim of misconduct or abuse occurs?
  • have a written policy about safety practices and procedures?
  • have reporting procedures in place for a suspected incident of abuse?
  • make sure that the minister, the religious educator, and the board chairperson know the state laws for reporting concerns about abuse to children? Do all volunteers in the religious education program receive annual training on what to do if they suspect child abuse or child sexual abuse?
  • have a screening form for all employees, regardless of position, and all volunteers who work with children and youth, asking them directly about possible histories of sexual offenses?
  • have each staff person and each volunteer who works with children and youth sign a code of ethics annually?
  • have a draft of a limited access agreement or checklist for convicted or accused sex offenders?
  • teach Our Whole Lives sexuality education in the religious education program, including sessions about child sexual abuse prevention at least twice at the elementary school age level, once at the middle school age level, and once at the high school age level?
  • hold an annual adult education program on sexual abuse prevention for parents and families as well as one for religious education teachers?
  • have two adults present in each class or program for children and youth as well as in cars transporting young people to activities?
  • have a referral list of community organizations and therapists who specialize in sex abuse prevention and treatment in case you need them?
  • have support groups or counseling available to those who have survived child sexual abuse?

A congregation with a serious commitment to child sexual abuse prevention will answer yes to each of these questions.

Responding to Sex Offenders

There are those who believe that a convicted sex offender never belongs in one of our communities.

This essay takes another view, based on a review of the literature on sex offenders, interviews with congregations that have successfully integrated a convicted sex offender within adult worship and education, and a theological commitment to the dignity and worth of all people, even those who have committed morally repugnant acts. The peer-reviewed literature clearly demonstrates that the vast majority of treated sex offenders do not repeat their offenses. As religious communities, we can provide compassion, support, and reconciliation to those who indicated that they have truly 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, we commit “to seek the truth in love and help one another.” We must remember that sex offenders who have completed prison sentences and mandated treatment and registered with the state have complied with their punishments according to the court system. As faith-based communities, we can provide support and compassion with awareness and vigilance so that all are safe. (See the case study after this essay.)

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 a risk to the congregation and protect him against false allegations and suspicions. As the Methodist Church of the United Kingdom states,

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.”

The fact is that a person with a history of sexual offense against children should never be allowed to work with children and youth or socialize with children of the congregation. No person who has been convicted of or accused of (until all charges have been dismissed)—any sexual misconduct can be permitted to participate 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. The message to the sex offender should be that he is welcome to participate in adult worship and adult social and education activities, but he must covenant with the congregation to avoid all contact with children and youth. A draft Limited Access Agreement that can be adapted is on the UUA web site (click on Appendices.)

Many congregations already have policies on how to deal with disruptive individuals. These policies have been developed for:

  • perceived threats to the safety of other members
  • disruption of church activities
  • diminishment of the appeal of the church to its current and potential member

In general, these policies first require 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 and the 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 communicate the decision to the individual.

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.

A policy about disruptive individuals can be amended to include a section on sex offenders as most of the same conditions apply. It is good practice for a congregation to develop a draft of a Limited Access Agreement or checklist that can serve as a template should the need arise.

There are a few ways in which the presence of a convicted sex offender generally becomes known in a congregation. In an ideal world, a person with this background would come to the minister before he started coming to the congregation to discuss limits on 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 scenario doesn’t usually happen. In some cases, people reveal their backgrounds to the ministers. In other circumstances, one congregant may discover that another congregant has a history of sexual offenses. Congregants should know that they should make their concern known to the minister. No matter how the situation is revealed, the congregation should respond quickly by taking the following steps:

  • The minister should meet privately with the individual as soon as possible 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 determines that the concern is justified, the person should then be asked to meet with the Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Response Team, which ideally would have been established beforehand.
  • The individual should be asked to sign a release so that the minister can contact their sex offender treatment provider and current therapist. If not, at minimum they should be licensed or approved by the state to do work with sex offenders. If the therapist does not have this background, it would be wise to ask them more about their experiences in assessing sex offenders. If  you are concerned that it is not adequate, arrange for the person to be seen for an assessment with an ATSA member at your expense. The therapist and the parole officer should be asked for their professional assessment of the likelihood that the individual will re-offend and whether additional restrictions beyond the standard Limited Access Agreement need to be placed on the person’s participation.
  • If the assessment indicates that the person has completed or is participating successfully in treatment and is not at high risk for recidivism, the next step is to develop a Limited Access Agreement. If the professional assessment warns 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. Meeting with the other support people in the offender’s life, such as their family, therapist, and probation members, 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 with developing the Limited Access Agreement as well. All persons with past histories of sexual offenses should be asked to sign a Limited Access Agreement or checklist, upon entry into the congregation. 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, religious educator, or chair of the Board of Trustees changes, it is important that the departing person inform the new person of this situation to ensure continuity of awareness and continuing pastoral support for the offender. It is important for the Response Team to decide who needs to know about an individual’s history of sexual offense. Clearly key people, including the minister, the religious educator, the board chairperson, 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 and has signed a Limited Access Agreement or checklist, and that he or she should never be alone with children and adolescents. Some congregations have chosen to tell the entire congregation that a person with a history of sex offenses has joined the church and that there is a Limited Access Agreement in place. In some cases, the identity of the person is withheld to protect their privacy. In other cases, the person’s name is revealed.

Reasons for excluding a person with a history of sex offense from all congregation activities include:

  • refusal to give permission for the minister to contact the treatment provider and parole officer
  • refusal to go for a risk assessment with a qualified therapist
  • report by a treatment provider that the individual is at too high a risk for recidivism
  • refusal to sign a Limited Access Agreement
  • refusal to comply with the requirements of the Limited Access Agreement

If an individual later decides that they can comply with the conditions for participation in congregational life, the process of assessment should begin again.

If we are to honor our commitments to providing a safe place for all to worship, learn, and socialize, the complex and difficult issues surrounding people with a history of sexual offense must be addressed seriously and with integrity. We can keep our children and youth safe from sexual abuse and we can offer ministry and a congregation home to people who have been treated successfully for sexual offenses. We can honor our most basic Principle that every person has inherent dignity and worth and balance justice, compassion, accountability, and safety.

Read Next>> Creating Policies with Youth Groups

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