“All are welcome” is a common phrase on many a church sign and website. But what happens when a convicted sex offender takes those words literally?
Church officials and legal advocates are grappling with how — and if — people who’ve been convicted of sex crimes should be included in U.S. congregations, especially when children are present.
Last week, a lawyer argued in the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a convicted sex offender who wants to attend a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation with a chaperone.
“What we argued is that the right to worship is a fundamental right, and the state can only burden it if it has compelling interest to do so, and then only in a way that is narrowly constructed,” said Barbara Keshen, an attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union who represented Jonathan Perfetto, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to 61 counts of possessing child pornography.
On June 28, the Seventh-day Adventist Church added language to its manual saying that sexual abuse perpetrators can be restored to membership only if they do not have unsupervised contact with children and are not “in a position that would encourage vulnerable individuals to trust them implicitly.”
Garrett Caldwell, a spokesman for the denomination, said the new wording in the global guidelines tries to strike a balance between protecting congregants and supporting the religious freedom of abusers in “a manifestation of God’s grace.”
On July 1, a Georgia law took effect that permits convicted sex offenders to volunteer in churches if they are isolated from children. Permitted activities include singing in the choir and taking part in Bible studies and bake sales.
The Rev. Madison Shockley, pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, CA, whose church publicly grappled with whether to accept a convicted sex offender three years ago, said he hears from churches several times a month seeking advice on how to handle such situations.
“The key lesson for churches is this: The policy, however it winds up, must be a consensus of the congregation,” Shockley said. “I talked to so many pastors who decided they’re going to make the decision because they know what’s theologically and spiritually right — and that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
Shockley’s church will soon commission a minister to address prevention of child sex abuse. The church also distributes a 20-page policy on protecting children and dealing with sex offenders.
Shockley declined to say how the church handled its admission of a known abuser in 2007, citing the congregation’s limited disclosure policy.
Beyond the thorny legal questions, theologians also find that there are often no easy answers to the quandary of protecting children and providing worship to saints and sinners alike.
“My own theology of forgiveness is not that it’s a blanket statement — ‘You are forgiven; go and sin no more,'” said Rev. Joretta Marshall, professor of pastoral theology at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School. “Part of what we have to do is create accountability structures because damage has been done.”
Sometimes, legal and religious experts say, crimes are so severe that convicted offenders must lose their right to worship.
New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Cort argued in court documents that Perfetto should not be permitted to change the conditions of his probation to attend a Manchester congregation because “restricting the defendant’s access to minors was an appropriate means of advancing the goals of probation — rehabilitation and public safety.”
Barbara Dorris, outreach director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said it may be possible for convicted offenders to attend worship if “proper safeguards are in place,” but offenders “forfeit many rights when you commit this kind of a felony.”
In other cases, the wording of laws has made it difficult for offenders who want to worship to be able to attend church legally.
In North Carolina, attorney Glenn Gerding is representing James Nichols, a convicted sex offender who is contesting a state statute that made it illegal for him to be within 300 feet of a church’s nursery. He was arrested in a church parking lot after a service.
“Technically a person could go to an empty church and violate the statute if that church has a nursery,” said Gerding, whose client was convicted in 2003 of attempted second-degree rape and released from prison in 2008.
In Georgia, the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights successfully argued for the removal of a legal provision that would have prevented registered sex offenders from volunteering at church functions, said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the center.
Experts say churches need to abide by state laws and be prepared to handle the possible presence of sex offenders, which could mean ministering to them outside the church building.
Steve Vann, co-founder of Keeping Kids Safe Ministries in Ashland City, TN, said children’s safety must be paramount, but giving convicted abusers social support could help reduce additional offenses.
“We talk about covenant partners,” he said, using his ministry’s phrase for chaperones. “They’re not just there to watch what the person does. They’re there to assist the person in spiritual growth.”
Andrew J. Schmutzer, a professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, is editing a book called The Long Journey Home, which includes essays from theologians and ethicists about how churches can both address sexual abuse and predators.
“The churches are on the cusp of trying to figure out what they can do,” he said, “without scaring the public and without breach of confidentiality.”