When a Sex Offender Wants to Attend Church
These steps can help ensure a smooth integration.

How would your congregation react if they knew a convicted sex offender was worshipping among them each Sunday morning? This controversial question is something congregations across the country are currently asking themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Experts recommend that staff members proactively address this question by developing a sex offender policy.

Kristen Blanford, partner at Hermes Sargent Bates law firm in Dallas, Texas, understands that liabilities are attached when religious organizations are dealing with sex offenders.

"How it's handled really comes down to each congregation's individual faith beliefs and ministries," Blanford said.

She recommends that leadership teams consider a few critical questions when developing a sex offender policy for their congregation:

  1. What are the core beliefs of the organization?

    Do you support including everyone, or do you specify who is able to attend or become a member of your congregation?
  2. Do you have established ministries for urban communities or walk-in traffic?

    Do you already have a prison ministry or an urban community outreach program that might attract convicted sex offenders?
  3. What will your congregation tolerate?

    Will your congregation react positively or negatively to opening your doors to sex offenders?
  4. What are the risks to the congregation?

    Will allowing the offender to participate in the organization put any current members at risk?

The answers to these questions will likely be different for each congregation. Some might decide not to allow a known sex offender to remain or become a member of the congregation. Others might allow a known sex offender to remain involved but with the stipulation that he or she adhere to specific guidelines. No matter what policy you choose, the protection of children, youth and others in your congregation is paramount.

If an organization chooses to create guidelines for sex offender participation, the process for developing guidelines should be handled carefully, notes Richard Hammar, an attorney, CPA, and senior editor of Church Law & Tax Report who specializes in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

"A practice some organizations follow is to have a sex offender policy drafted and then presented to the church membership at an annual or specially called business meeting for consideration, modification and approval," Hammar said.

Service offerings

Some congregations welcome sex offenders into regular services by restricting the person to a specific service or by requiring the offender to report in and be accompanied by an escort at all times. If a congregation is not comfortable with sex offenders attending regular services, there are many other options to consider.

Some pastors choose to meet regularly, one-on-one, with the offender to provide spiritual support for the person outside of the congregation's weekly services.

Other congregations, such as First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, Wis., are introducing adult-only services to help sex offenders who aren't allowed to be in the presence of children.

Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of prison ministries for the Madison-based church, became aware that a number of people were unable to attend religious services with children present for therapeutic or legal reasons. To meet this need, he established a biweekly, adult-only service—which is not just for sex offenders but provides a service where convicted sex offenders are welcome to worship. During the service, there are no children's activities anywhere on the property.

Child interaction

For many religious organizations, the biggest fear is that by allowing sex offenders in their house of worship, they are endangering the children in their congregation. With this in mind, many organizations will stipulate in their sex offender policy that a known sex offender cannot participate in any of the child or youth programs in any way.

Most organizations already have child protection measures in place, such as no child should ever be alone with fewer than two adults, all Sunday school classrooms must have windows and all child and youth ministry volunteers must undergo background checks before participating in activities. These preventive measures help ensure that children in the congregation remain safe at all times.

Disclosure

Another factor that religious organizations should consider when developing a sex offender policy is whether to disclose the identity of the sex offender to the congregation.

Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), advises religious organizations to provide some level of disclosure and communications to their congregations.

"Open communication allows members to ask questions and usually helps everyone feel more comfortable with the decision to allow sex offenders to worship," Christopher said. "It's best to have these discussions before the sex offender begins attending the service."

For legal reasons, some experts recommend that disclosure be provided to all members of the congregation. Others suggest notifying only parents of minors if the offender was convicted for adult to child sexual abuse.

"Because of legal issues implicated in providing congregational notification of the presence of sex offenders in the church, it is advisable for religious leaders to seek legal counsel when formulating disclosures," Hammar said.

Individualized plans

Christopher reminds faith-based organizations that not all sex offenders offend in the same way and suggests that supervision should be tailored to the offender through collaboration with the offender's parole or treatment officer.

In some cases, it is a violation of probation or parole for an offender to attend functions at which minors are present, which makes consultation with a probation officer essential.

"Sometimes, broad policies are established to proactively protect the congregation," Christopher said. "But it's critical for the staff to meet with the offender to understand his or her individual situation in order to determine the best way to integrate him or her into the community."

Hammar has found that in some cases, exclusion of specific offenders from church is the only viable option. This option is advisable if (1) for any reason the offender cannot adhere to the guidelines outlined in the organization's predetermined policy, (2) if the offender's crimes are so frequent or heinous that exclusion is the only appropriate option or (3) one or more of the offender's victims attends the church.

Identification

For congregations wondering how to find out if they have convicted sex offenders in their midst, Blanford recommends conducting some simple research.

All states have an online sex offender public registry that is freely available to search. These registries exist to inform the public of the identity and whereabouts of all registered offenders.

If an offender is identified through research or even if someone provides the information up front, religious organizations should conduct a criminal background check to determine the exact charges and conviction.

Blanford also suggests that congregations revisit their sex offender policies annually. As laws and members change, it's important to have fresh perspectives on this topic.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Church Mutual Insurance Company's Risk Reporter. Used with permission.

Richard Hammar will present "Key Liability Risks for Religious Organizations," including child protection policies, counseling practices, and staff computer privacy concerns, through a free webinar sponsored by Church Mutual Insurance Company on Thursday, November 1, 2012. Seats will fill up fast—sign up today!

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations

Comments

Displaying 1–5 of 5 comments

Michael

January 19, 2014  7:50pm

I am a registered Sex-offender in Texas. I attend a church that lets me attend their congregation. There is no one answer or cure all for this situation as mentioned in the introduction; and not all sex-offenders are on parole or probation. So the first problem is Identifying if there is a sex-offender attending your church. Your first line of defense is the greeter. When someone new arrives at church they should be greeted warmly and inquisitively. A sex-offender usually will answer questions on sports, employment, and family: but may not be so forth coming about questions about their past. It also is a good idea to have all guests fill out visitor cards. If the information is correct it only takes a few minutes to go on-line to check a Sex-offender registry. If the information is faulty then a red flag should go up. I am fortunate that the church I attend requested that I participate in counseling sessions as part of my stipulations of attending worship services. The church pays 90% of the cost. The counseling is mostly one-on-one with some group meetings. The sessions are not always easy but without them I may have already given up and gone back to prison.

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LH

July 11, 2013  6:29am

I am dealing with this right now. The man in question is a homosexual admittedly. We have talked with him and he is unrepentant. He does not claim to be a saved man, but he keeps coming to church. I searched his name and he is a registered sex offender with the victim being 11 years old. He is also a member of a pedophile message board (that is the self-description of the website, not my words). So what would you say in my situation? I have been forgiven much, and I love the Lord with all my heart- I want to love this man and be a witness to him. But I am very concerned. We are praying for this man and continue to give him respect and try to witness with him, but I honestly do not know how to deal with this.

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Robert Curtis

June 10, 2013  11:23pm

Listen very carefully. There are very important fundament issues here. It's really quite simple and clear. The Gospel is based on grace and even more than that Jesus himself gave an example of that grace as it related to sex offenders. The woman caught in the act of adultery had an immediate sentence of death, but how did Christ handle that? It disturbs me greatly that churches even consider this issue. If they are repentant then they are forgiven. God said it and for me and my house that is enough. If the church put more on that individual than others in the Lord then their church isn't worth spending time or waisting time attending. They insult the very reason Christ came. If your church differentiates against these people I'd suggest you find one that doesn't. Otherwise you bend your knee to this registry that is no more than a form of LIVING DEATH. It gives no place for redemption. That not the kind of America I wish to be apart of let a lone a kind of church I'd attend. TRUTH.

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onceavictim

February 11, 2013  11:35am

Personally as a christian i have no problem with a sex offender attending the church i go to, as a former victim and a mother i have the right to know if there is someone with a conviction for hurting children near my children. They may never do it again but the temptation may be there. a bank robber may be reformed but you wouldnt give him the keys to the vault.

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oncefallendotcom

November 12, 2012  2:21pm

Personally, if a church has a problem with a so-called "sex offender" in church, then they aren't following Christ's teachings. After all, Christ hung around with society's least-liked citizens of his day. Most of the Bible's "heroes" are miscreants. Paul had a guy whacked, and watched it all go down. King David had a guy whacked so he can cover up an affair. We all know how Samson was, right? Not everyone on the list is an imminent threat, you know. Only about 5% of those on the list are likely to reoffend, and I doubt you'd pick the one in a lineup of 20. Considering how little it actually takes to land on the list – such acts like couples having marital relations in a public park, albeit in a secluded area, teens sexting each other or having relations with each other, and the like– relying on the registry is a fool's game. Also, about 90-95% of sex crimes are committed by people with no prior record.

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