A Sex Offender in Church

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

“Love one another” and “forgiveness” are at the heart and core of the message of churches and other faith-based organizations. But one of the greatest challenges for a church can happen when someone in the congregation has been cast out from society because of wrongdoing. In particular, many churches struggle with what to do with a sex offender at church.

Unlike many other crimes, most sex offenders can be identified with a few clicks on a keyboard. They are often registered for life on the national sex offender registry. Once the news is out, it’s very difficult to contain the gossip. Some people believe that everyone should be welcome in church—with proper safeguards in place. For others, it’s an absolute, “I don’t want a sex offender in my church.” People leave the church over issues such as this.

So how do places of worship tackle this extremely sensitive topic? No matter what you decide, most experts agree that a plan and policy are first steps. If your church does not have a policy, there are many areas to include, and no easy answers. Consider the following:

Get help. It’s wise to seek legal counsel when assembling a policy. Because laws and crimes differ depending on the jurisdiction, it’s important to be aware of the laws in your own area. Depending on the crime, some sex offenders are banned from places where children congregate or from having any contact with minors. Get help from your synod or conference or other leadership, and consider how to handle disclosure to the church membership as a whole.

Safety is first priority. You may decide that your church is open to those who have served their time for this type of crime, but that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice safety. Make sure that everyone on your safety team and church leadership is aware of the circumstances and protocol when the person attends service. A known sex offender should provide documentation, including the name of his or her parole officer and any court documents relevant to the case.

Each person’s circumstances are different, and it’s important to be flexible. Your organization may choose to admit “low-risk” offenders. For the protection of the church and that person, he or she should be accompanied by one or two appointed volunteers at all times. In certain cases, such as when the victim also attends the church, the offender may not be permitted to attend services, whether on- or off-site. Churches may decide to exclude high-risk offenders.

Think through scenarios and how they will be handled. If an offender is identified through research or word of mouth, a church leader should make contact with that individual immediately to determine next steps. These are delicate, difficult conversations, and preparation and plans in place are essential.

Boundaries are important. In addition to a written policy, your congregation may consider a written agreement that must be signed by the sex offender. Examples include, “I will not have contact with a minor during church activities,” “I understand that I must be accompanied by an adult when on church property,” and, “I agree that violating any part of this policy is grounds for dismissal from the premises and potential legal intervention.” Having this signed agreement will promote understanding and lay out clear expectations.

Be ready for pushback. No matter which way your policy leans, you may have pushback from congregants or the community. The important thing to remember is your mission as a church and how your policy fits with the mission. Be transparent about the policy and the safeguards you have put into place to protect those in the congregation.

Is it worth it to minister to one or two while sacrificing the church body as a whole? Are you living up to your organization’s mission?  It’s up to you as a church to decide. Being armed with information and safety policies will help clarify and make decisions easier. Churches are not required to allow an individual to join the church or attend church services or activities. In some cases, it may be prudent to explore other options, such as visiting the person in the home or inviting the person to a Bible study off-site.

Whatever decisions your organization makes, laying the foundation with a written policy and procedures will help ensure that when the need arises, you can put your plan into action.