In 1996 a parishioner invited a known sex offender to First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society in Middleboro, Massachusetts, because he felt the man (let’s call him Dan) was trying hard to make a fresh start and could use the support of a church family. The minister was informed and met with Dan and welcomed him. Dan agreed to have a “buddy,” who could be with him while he was in church. The purpose of the buddy was both to assure the safety of parishioners and to protect Dan against accusations as well.
A few months later, news of Dan’s background leaked out. Many people were angry. Some parents with young children were particularly angry because they had unknowingly invited this man into their home. The minister supported Dan’s right to be in the church.
For his part, Dan didn’t hide his past. Most people were genuinely moved by how hard he was working to heal himself through therapy and twelve-step programs. Some kept their children away from him as a precaution, but challenges over his right to attend church subsided over time. Eventually Dan entered into a loving relationship with a woman and left First UU to attend church some fifteen miles away. First UU had changed ministers by this time. The new minister knew Dan and would sometimes bump into him in the supermarket. Dan credited his ability to have this relationship directly to growth that he had experienced as a result of being accepted by people at the church.
Eventually Dan entered into a loving relationship with a woman and left First UU to attend church some fifteen miles away. First UU had changed ministers by this time. The new minister knew Dan and would sometimes bump into him in the supermarket. Dan credited his ability to have this relationship directly to growth that he had experienced as a result of being accepted by people at the church.
The new minister invited Dan to do a “moment of fellowship” at the church. It was a proud day for both Dan and the church when he returned, stepped into the pulpit, and thanked the congregation for accepting him, helping him to grow, and making a new life possible. He received a warm ovation.
Two years later, a church member came to the minister because he heard that a newcomer was a convicted sex offender. The minister made an appointment with the man. From the outset, the minister felt that Ron was very different from Dan. The minister regretted that no policy had been developed the first time around. Ron agreed to have a buddy, and to allow the minister to inform the leadership, including the religious education director, of his presence. He also agreed to the minister’s exploratory request to inform the congregation in due time, once an appropriate, low key way to do it could be devised.
The minister then asked the Parish Committee to develop a plan for the church to create a policy regarding the participation of sex offenders in church life.
Shortly thereafter, Ron disappeared from church. It turned out that Ron had been arrested and charged (and would subsequently be convicted) of a new sex-related offense. The first offense had been with a woman; this time it was with a young man.
Emotions flew when the congregation learned that another sex offender had been among them. The minister immediately invited everyone with a strong view to form a Safety Committee to develop a policy. Out of the 110 members, 17 people in a church of 110 agreed to serve. Some, mostly parents, argued that because our children assume that any adult they see at church is safe, there should be zero tolerance of sex offenders. Social justice advocates argued that UUs should minister to this population because no one else will; if they’ve served their time, we should not continue to punish them through ostracism.
The committee members educated themselves, listened to experts, and argued to the point of exhaustion. They produced an interim policy that was accepted by the congregation at the annual meeting. This policy was crude and contained harsh language, and yet it represented the best work the committee was capable of at that time. It put something in place while the committee continued its work.
Experience had taught that every situation would be unique, so the committee sought to create a policy that could deal with offenders as different as Dan and Ron. The final guidelines called for a trained standing Safety Committee to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. It offered a process for reporting concerns and a flexible checklist that would allow anything from total access to very limited participation.
The church is now considerably more sophisticated about safety and sexual ethics because they have struggled with it so openly. In the end, the value of the safety policy is not nearly as great as the educational process to which the committee and church is dedicated. We now accept that no church can ever be a totally safe place because it is part of society at large. Our true measure of safety stems not from a policy but from our level of education on the issue and our continued willingness to talk openly.
With this in mind, we teach our children two safety classes a year and offer one to adults. The safety policy is published for all to see. The process is ongoing.
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