A church in Louisville, Kentucky, generated local and national media attention earlier this month, not because it allowed a convicted sex offender to attend its services, but because the church pastor decided to hire and ordain one.
WHAS-TV, a local television station, as well as CNN and newspaper wire services, covered the story when it first emerged. On Wednesday, the story picked up new steam when the Associated Press wrote its second piece about the situation (it was picked up here by MSNBC.com). During the past week, I've left three voice mails for Pastor Randy Meadows on the church's main phone line, hoping to learn more about his decision, and the circumstances surrounding it. My calls haven't been returned.
We know the following facts:
• The City of Refuge Worship Center, a small, independent congregation based in downtown Louisville, ordained Mark Hourigan on September 13. The church's website shows he is the music minister and leader of the church's "Pride Committee."
• Hourigan, 41, is listed on the Kentucky State Police's Sex Offender Registry. The site lists Hourigan's offense as "Sexual Abuse 1st Degree," and also notes he faced two counts. His victim was an 11-year-old boy, according to the site.
• Media reports indicate the abuse took place in 1993 and 1994. The AP's first story, quoting an interview between Hourigan and CNN, said Hourigan told the cable network he completed a sex offender treatment program and was upfront with Meadows regarding his criminal past.
• According to the AP, " ‘I don't take anything lightly when it comes to someone's past,' Meadows told CNN. But he added, ‘God gives everyone a second and a third and fourth chance.' " Meadows also told the network that Hourigan will sign an agreement not to minister to children.
• The ordination drew protests from at least one abuse victims group, and the departure of at least one church deacon, who disagreed with the decision, according to media reports.
Undoubtedly, a church faces numerous challenges when a sex offender begins to attend. In ChurchSafety.com's "Dealing with Dangerous People," an electronic training resource, the tension that arises with a sex offender's attendance at a church is best summed up in this way:
• A church can't allow the person to stay unconditionally and hope that nothing happens;
• But to ask the offender to leave will raise tough questions about the church's position on forgiveness;
• If the offender is repentant, the church needs to overcome members' objections and protect the vulnerable, which potentially can be accomplished through:
o A covenant with the offender;
o An accountability partner for the offender;
o Restrictions on the offender's involvement in church life activities (including restricted contact with children);
o Possible ongoing counseling;
o Open communication with the congregation.
In other words, with a lot of work and supervision, a church can make it possible for a sex offender to attend. As the resource says, that's a "tall order." Nevertheless, it's possible.
But in the case of churches like City of Refuge Worship Center, the tension grows only stronger with the hiring of a sex offender onto the staff. The "Leader's Guide" for Reducing the Risk, a comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention program, explains the three risk factors that a church must address in order to minimize the odds of an offense and to limit its liability:
Despite the best efforts of churches to ensure that clergy and staff do not end up in isolated situations, such as one-on-one counseling, and to maintain good accountability with staff and congregants, many churches fall short of implementing best practices in these areas. Isolation and accountability remain significant risks when considering whether to bring an offender into the fold, much less onto a staff.
But it's the third risk—power—that makes hiring an offender to serve as a ministry leader especially problematic. Because of the offender's prominence on the church staff, he or she gains a level of stature, implicitly and explicitly, among other staff members, congregational members, visitors, and community members. As a respected leader within a faith community, an offender has tipped the balance of power in his or her favor, and unfortunately, this power can be wielded in dangerous ways.
Underlying all of this tension is one basic question: What if an offender commits another offense in the future? Some believe the rate for a reoffense is high. A Wall Street Journal blog post from 2008 collects some of those positions here and the AP's story on Wednesday cites Keith F. Durkin, a criminologist at Ohio Northern University who says the recidivism rate increases when the crimes involve prepubescent children.
A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study, Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994, however, suggests the likelihood of reoffending is much lower than what's commonly assumed. Since the truth probably lies somewhere in between, and often depends on the circumstances of the offender and the offense involved, a church can't predict for certain what level of risk they're facing.
For church leaders who potentially face this question in the future, they have to ask themselves whether it's really worth any risk. With so many needed protocols and precautions, and so many variables that are far too difficult to predict, the answer, it seems, is simply no.
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