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:
- 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?
- 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?
- What will your congregation tolerate?
Will your congregation react positively or negatively to opening your doors to sex offenders?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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