The question of congregational notification arises in any church that allows registered sex offenders to attend services and other activities with or without conditions. Note that some churches have adopted a policy of total exclusion of registered sex offenders. However, churches with a total exclusion policy are in the minority. A number of years ago, Christianity Today conducted a comprehensive survey of church practices in handling registered sex offenders. One of the survey questions asked, “In your opinion, do convicted sex offenders, who have been released from prison, belong in a church?” Nearly 80 percent of all respondents answered “yes, as attenders, under continuous supervision and subject to appropriate limitations.” However, one-fourth of all respondents answered “no, if one or more of the offender’s victims attends the same church.”
The survey results indicate that most churches allow registered sex offenders to attend services and other activities, usually with appropriate restrictions. These churches face the question of congregational notification. There are several points that church leaders should consider in making an informed decision on this question. These include the following.
1. The Christianity Today survey also asked: “When the presence of a registered sex offender who is a member or attender at church becomes known, who needs to be notified?” Only 18 percent of respondents listed the congregation. Other response were: church staff (90 percent), elders (78 percent), probation officer (64 percent), church attorney (42 percent), and insurance company (26 percent). This indicates that most churches do not inform the congregation that a registered sex offender is attending the church.
2. Since no federal or state law requires church congregations to be informed of the presence of a registered sex offender, church leaders are free to formulate a response based on all relevant considerations. These include biblical and ethical principles, as well as the protection of minors and potential legal risk.
3. A practice followed by some churches is for the church board to appoint a committee to draft a sex offender policy that details conditions that will apply to known sex offenders who desire to attend the church. This policy is then presented to the church membership at an annual or specially called business meeting for consideration, modification, and approval. This approach has several advantages:
- The policy becomes the property of the membership.
- Members have the opportunity to fully express their views prior to adoption of the policy. This results in a robust debate, and a final product that has taken into account members’ views and concerns.
- Members are aware of the terms of the policy that is adopted, and as a result are less likely to react emotionally and irrationally when they learn that a known sex offender is attending the church. Of course, a church’s membership may elect to adopt a policy of total exclusion, but this is unlikely if the committee is broadly based and includes persons who are widely respected for their judgment and spiritual maturity.
4. Congregational disclosure has the effect of making sex offenders more accountable, since there are more persons who will be observing them. One psychiatrist who has worked extensively with pedophiles has recommended that a pedophile never be allowed to attend a church unless he first discloses his orientation (and criminal record, if applicable) to the entire church congregation. In so doing, he places everyone on notice of the potential risk, and becomes accountable to the entire membership.
5. Some churches are more inclined to provide congregational notification for more dangerous offenders, such as “Tier II” and “Tier III” offenders as defined by the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (CPOSA) of 2006.
6. Some churches are more inclined to provide congregational notification in the case of pedophiles (child molesters having a sexual preference for prepubescent minors), since these persons pose the greatest risk to children. According to the FBI and other knowledgeable sources, pedophiles are characterized by the following four characteristics: (1) predatory behavior; (2) promiscuity; (3) incurability; and (4) high recidivism rate.
7. Be sure to check the probation or parole agreement of any sex offender who is allowed to attend church services and activities. Many were released from prison prior to serving their full sentence, or did not receive a prison sentence at all, due to such an agreement. These agreements typically impose various conditions and limitations. These agreements may prohibit church attendance, or permit it with certain conditions which may include congregational notification.
8. Any communications shared with the congregation may expose a church to liability for defamation or invasion of privacy. Truth is a defense to defamation, so sharing information about a sex offender’s criminal history cannot be defamatory if true. Invasion of privacy includes public disclosure of private facts in a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. Disclosure of criminal convictions that are matters of public record cannot be an invasion of privacy since they are public rather than private facts. However, church leaders sometimes share unverifiable information or opinions in informing a congregation about a sex offender’s presence, and such gratuitous comments may expose a church to liability. Also, note that communicating a juvenile’s criminal record is often prohibited by state law.
9. The risk of defamation, invasion of privacy, and other theories of liability can be reduced if information is disclosed only to members. The courts of most states have ruled that statements shared with church members are protected by a qualified privilege, meaning that they cannot result in legal liability so long as they are not made maliciously. In this context, malice means that they were made with a knowledge that that were false, or with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness. This means that church leaders should take steps to ensure that only members are present when the statements are made. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.
For example, a special meeting of members is called and only persons whose names are on the church’s current list of active voting members are admitted. As an additional precaution, members present at such a meeting should be asked to adopt a resolution of confidentiality, agreeing not to discuss the information with any non-member under any circumstances. Persons dissenting from this vote should be excused from the meeting. Alternatively, the statements are set forth in a letter that is sent to active voting members (with the notation “privileged and confidential” on both the letter and envelope).
10. Some churches only provide notification of the presence of a sex offender to parents of minors. This restricts the information to persons having the greatest “need to know.” However, if some parents are nonmembers, the availability of the qualified privilege may be jeopardized.There is a related privilege that applies to the sharing of matters of “common interest,” and it is possible that this privilege would extend to information shared with parents regardless of their membership status.
11. All states have an online sex offender public registry that is freely available to all. These registries exist to inform the public of the identity and whereabouts of all registered offenders. They are an additional means of informing church members of the identity and location of sex offenders. Because of the legal issues that are implicated in providing congregational notification of the presence of sex offenders in the church, it is advisable for church leaders to seek legal counsel in formulating a response.