Sex Offenders in the Pew
The first time Craig read the Bible was two decades ago, when he was in a county jail. "I'm a voracious reader, and after I had read all the paperbacks in the unit, I finally picked up the Bible and devoured it in four days."
When the prison chaplain asked Craig if he was willing to accept Christ as his Savior, he answered with a question: "Would Christ accept me?" Craig (who asked that his real name not be used) was serving a sentence for multiple sexual assault and abuse—crimes he committed against his young daughter and another girl.
Anglican theologian N. T. Wright states in Simply Christian that every society has one unforgiveable sin. Many would argue that the unforgiveable sin today is the sexual abuse of children.
Craig accepted God's pardon for his unforgiveable sin through Christ. He has been living under grace since then, but he still struggles with the consequences of what he did. "No one ever grows up thinking they're going to become a sex offender," he says. "One of God's greatest gifts is a child's innocence. I live with the knowledge that I destroyed this in these girls' lives."
The U.S. Department of Justice's Sex Offender Registry includes the names and locations of 549,000 persons convicted of or charged with sex crimes. The odds are that if you are reading this article, you have come into contact with a sex offender or a victim, whether you know it or not. This in itself may account for the emotionally charged responses to sex offenders.
"Lust, like any addiction, is inherently selfish," Craig says. "It puts walls between you and everyone else because you learn to objectify people. It robs you of the thing that makes you human."
Prison gave Craig time to examine his sin. "In group therapy, I was able to discuss every aspect of my crimes—how I had digressed to committing them and what my cycle of offending was. No more victims—this was my mantra in prison, and it continues today."
Post-prison, Craig has found in the local church support for recovery from what he calls "addiction to lust." For several years, he served as a small group volunteer for a sex addictions ministry at a large church. Today, he and his wife are in the process of changing churches. Before doing so, Craig made an appointment to meet with his new pastor to inform him of his past.
"I never want to blindside church leaders and have them hear from someone else, 'Hey, did you know he is on the sex offender registry?'" Craig said. "I know that not everyone is able to accept me and my past as a sex offender, and I respect their feelings. Rejection is one of the consequences of my sin." Craig awaits the pastor's verdict.
Nationwide, church leaders are facing the same dilemma as Craig's pastor: how to help restore and incorporate into church life persons who have served time for heinous crimes, while keeping the church safe.
Pastor and author Dick Witherow aptly refers to the sex offender as "the modern-day leper" in his 2009 book by the same title. When Florida became one of the first states to pass laws restricting where released sex offenders can live, Witherow expanded his prison ministry to help the shunned population with the re-entry process. He first opened a ranch for sex offenders, but a change in zoning laws forced him to close the facility. Undaunted, Witherow found a set of duplexes surrounded by sugar cane fields in rural Palm Beach County. He renamed it Miracle Village.
Today, a colony of 69 sex offenders and old-time sugar company workers and their families live side by side well "outside the camp" in one of the nation's wealthiest counties. On Sundays they attend the church where Witherow is senior pastor, as well as classes three days a week on anger management, relationships, and life skills.
"Sex offenders can change just as an alcoholic or drug addict can change," contends Witherow. He quotes 2 Corinthians 5:17 to support his belief: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
He is on a mission to educate people and undo the hysteria that has built up around sex offenders. While the government's focus is on creating laws to restrict those who have been prosecuted, Witherow says, "When you look at recidivism rates for criminals, sex offenders are the least likely to reoffend." That is true if offenders are part of a thoroughgoing accountability system (more about that below).
Beyond Risk Management
A new national survey reveals that most pastors, church staff, and lay leaders endorse Witherow's goals, but not necessarily all of his methods.
In April 2010, Christianity Today International (CTI) conducted a national survey of 2,864 people, including ordained church leaders (15 percent), church staff (20 percent), lay members (43 percent), and other active Christians (22 percent). Respondents were drawn from the readers of CTI publications and websites. The purpose of the "Sex Offenders in the Church" survey was to explore attitudes and beliefs on whether to allow sex offenders to participate in faith communities. The survey explored what practices churches use to keep their congregations safe when sex offenders are welcomed.
Pastors, lay leaders, and churchgoers overwhelmingly agree that sex offenders who have legally paid for their crime should be welcomed into churches. In fact, 8 in 10 respondents indicated that registered offenders should be allowed to attend church under continuous supervision and subject to appropriate limitations.
Ian Thomsen, church administrator for Arvada Covenant Church in Arvada, Colorado, says, "If we can reach out to sex offenders, and through our efforts change their lives for the better and take a significant risk away from society, we see this as a tremendous challenge—but what a wonderful challenge. We want to take it on."
"Jesus said there's no unforgiveable sin except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit," says Mark Tusken, rector of St. Mark's Church in Geneva, Illinois. "Now that doesn't mean we want to condone sexual crimes. We're not out to hang a shingle that says Sex Offenders Not Welcome any more than we want to hang a shingle that says Come, Y'All. But my prayer has always been that St. Mark's would be a safe place—a place where people can come because they sense the refuge of Christ here.
"That means parents can come without even giving a thought about something happening to their kids, but also that somebody with a sex offense in their past ought to be able to come and fit in and not be judged." In the 16 years that Tusken has overseen his congregation, he has known of only one convicted sex offender attending.
According to the survey results, 2 in 10 respondents said they are aware of a church attendee or member who had been convicted of a sex offense. More than half of the time (55 percent), church leaders learned of the offender when he or she directly informed the pastor. Thirty-four percent of respondents said someone from the congregation, often another leader, tipped them off. This was the case for Tusken.
"When I accepted the call to lead St. Mark's, I asked the outgoing rector if there were any skeletons in the church's closet—any pedophiles, embezzlers, anyone I ought to know about. He revealed that there was one man in the congregation who they had learned from a visitor had been convicted for a sex offense."
Equipped with this information, Tusken decided to befriend this person and to establish better accountability. "For the past 16 years, I've had breakfast with this man once a month. Within a year of meeting, he told me what had happened. I took that as a great sign of health on his part, that within a year of us meeting he came to me and told me the problem." The individual also honors the church's policy of never being alone with a child.
Tusken feels good about this person being a part of his church, because of his repentant attitude, the number of offenses he had been convicted of (one), and the years since the offense had occurred (13 years prior to Tusken's tenure at the church).
The vast majority of survey respondents (83 percent) say that signs of a repentant attitude is the number one determining factor in whether an ex-offender should be welcomed into the church.
Trust, But Verify
While church leaders are looking for clues that reveal a broken and contrite heart, sex offenders are notoriously good liars. Anna Salter, a clinical psychologist who consults on sex offenders and victims, offers a word of caution in her 2003 book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders:
"Decades of research have demonstrated that people cannot reliably tell who is lying. Many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people."
One molester, who was himself a minister, told Salter, "I considered church people easy to fool. They have a trust that comes from being Christians. I think they want to believe in people."
"What makes fooling us so easy is not the worst in us," says Salter. "It is often the best." For too long, church leaders have erred on the side of trust instead of insisting on good boundaries and best practices to expose harmful behavior.
"One of the great things that Jesus said is, 'I am the light of the world.' I want to live into that," says Tusken. "I want his light to shine in the dark places of the abuser's heart and in the hearts of the abused."
St. Mark's lets its light shine—in every corner of its building. A recent remodeling project added interior windows to every room. A sign by the front door states the church's safety policies, and more than 300 adults in the church have gone through its child protection training program.
In southeast Michigan, Laura Kubenez, child protection program director at Woodside Bible Church, looks at the facts, plus the offender's words and actions, when making decisions about allowing him or her to attend one of the megachurch's six satellite locations.
"We sit down and create a covenant agreement with the offender," says Kubenez. "The terms of this agreement are based on two things: what their offense was, and how we feel they are doing in their journey toward recovery."
Under the Freedom of Information Act, Kubenez is able to examine court documents to learn the facts of an individual's case. "We tell offenders that it's not our place to be the judge and the jury; we base our decisions on what the courts say."
She then enlists the help of lay professionals in the church trained in criminal justice. "We have a defense attorney, a prosecuting attorney, a child court advocate, some child psychologists and psychiatrists, and retired police officers," Kubenez says.
"Cooperation is absolutely mandatory," she adds, "or you won't be allowed to attend our church." For example, Woodside needs to agree on what conditional attendance will look like. According to Arvada's Ian Thomsen, this was his church's biggest sticking point.
"One of our church's ministries had 'adopted' a low-income apartment building and was spending a lot of time tutoring the kids and engaging in all sorts of activities with the residents. We invited these folks to church, and we even provided transportation. Then I found out that a couple of the people who were coming were registered sex offenders."
Although a lot of issues factored into how to handle their attendance, Arvada's council agreed on one thing: "We all wanted to minister to them. We feel that they are probably among the neediest in terms of finding Christ and being coached and mentored by Christians."
Arvada Covenant got bogged down on whether offenders should be chaperoned in church at all times. "Do we have escorts for these people? That was probably the most contentious question," Thomsen says. Half of the church council felt that escorts would be too intrusive. The other half (Thomsen included) insisted on them to protect children and youth.
"We have children and youth all over the place, and a person would have unlimited, unsupervised access to kids. I just couldn't bear the thought of that happening," Thomsen says. In the end, it took about six months for Arvada Covenant to agree on and adopt a sex offender conditional attendance policy.
Is it worth the effort to include registered sex offenders in local churches? Wouldn't it be easier to exclude them, even though 95 percent of sex offenders are eventually released from prison?
A majority of the CTI survey respondents believe exclusion may be justified, but not for the sake of convenience. Sixty-six percent would consider excluding registered offenders if their victims attend the same church. Sixty-one percent, before permitting an offender to attend church, said they would review the offender's probation terms and criminal record.
In addition, 62 percent of survey respondents say they are either not sure or do not believe a sex offender can be rehabilitated to the point where they no longer pose a threat to others.
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, the largest professional organization on treating sex offenders, states on its website that "although many, if not most, sexual abusers are treatable, there is no known 'cure.' Management of sexually abusive behavior is a lifelong task for some sexual abusers." The organization says repeat sexual crimes can be reduced significantly through prevention, assessment, treatment, supervision, and collaboration involving all parties. Based on the survey, church leaders said churches want to be one of the parties in the re-entry and prevention process.
But why do nearly a quarter (24 percent) of surveyed leaders report that they are doing nothing to provide a church-based recovery ministry to people with sexual addictions? Further, nearly half (49 percent) provide referrals to other ministries.
Miracle Village's Witherow says, "Most churches are not equipped to handle the negative environment that has been created in how we perceive sex offenders."
Don Bryant, former pastor of a small congregation outside Boston, has his theories too. "In my 30-plus years as a minister, I have never asked someone to leave the church because their redemptive process was too messy. But what I learned in trying to work with a sex offender at our church is that you need more of a critical mass of people invested in recovery as a ministry."
With only about 75 members in his congregation, Bryant said there were just not enough people to sustain the level of care and attention the sex offender's presence required.
When the church dwindled to 35 people, Bryant went to his church board and suggested they close their doors. Although those who left the church never admitted it, Bryant sensed a diminished energy among them for having to deal with the offender.
"The sex offender is the broken and bruised man," says ex-offender Craig. "He is isolated by the nature of his crimes. To come alongside and reflect Christ through accountability and assistance, to offer mentorship—these would be the most helpful things a church could do. But most churches don't even want to talk about sex, much less sex offenses. And yet to have someone to talk to honestly and openly about their struggles—that's what being a Christian is all about."
Another reason many churches don't have recovery programs may be that they simply do not have a working model. But one group may have cracked the code.
A New Model
In 1994, the Mennonite Central Committee in Canada created a program that models a simple and effective gateway into society for ex-offenders. Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) began as a pilot project in Ontario. Its mission: to reduce the risk of re-offense and ease offenders back into society.
A 2007 study of COSA groups across Canada showed that offenders who participated in the program had a significant reduction in recidivism in contrast with a matched comparison group. Today, COSA is being established in all of Canada's provinces, and several U.S. states have also begun implementing the program.
In February 2007, Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower, a Mennonite pastor, won a $290,000 grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop COSA through Fresno Pacific University's Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. Approximately 100,000 sex offenders are registered in California. In Fresno County alone, 250 prisoners are paroled each month. Up to 30 of them may be sex offenders. Like the Canadian original, the Fresno COSA is faith-based and built around volunteers, which, Ruth-Heffelbower says, is the genius of the program.
"When the community takes responsibility for its own safety and for assisting offenders to live productive lives, healing for all involved can occur in powerful ways," she says.
A COSA circle includes one "core member," a title she says is used to help the offender build a new identity based on something other than his or her criminal past. Three to four volunteers from the community serve as "circle members."
"It doesn't take a particular expertise," Ruth-Heffelbower says. "One circle includes a housewife, a student, and a retired person. But community circle members must be stable, mature, emotionally healthy, and available. They should be … willing to meet regularly and walk with a core member through the ups and downs of life, be ready to confront if necessary, and help him celebrate when good things happen."
Each circle works with one offender and begins with weekly meetings, generally at a church. Circle volunteers provide practical, physical, emotional, and spiritual support for at least one year. Some circles continue for years. Ten are now operating in Fresno, and more are being formed.
The key to COSA's success is simplicity. It follows two guiding principles: no more victims, and no one is disposable. But simple doesn't mean easy. "We get referrals primarily from state parole. We want the offenders who are considered high-risk with physical, emotional, spiritual, or other needs who do not have support from family, friends, or other sources," says Ruth-Heffelbower—"the ones people are scared of."
Initially, a circle group evaluates a core member's parole. "Sex offenders' parole agreements are more extensive than others," she says. "If you don't know what they are, you can't help them stay accountable, or you might inadvertently help them break parole."
COSA is designed to serve as one piece of an offender's successful re-entry into society. The model is based on relationships with individual offenders who want to change their lives. It does not necessarily substitute for a church. "My bias is that ultimately it's better for our core members to be part of a church, but the challenges of this are pretty great," says Ruth-Heffelbower. "Groups like Celebrate Recovery feature worship time and sharing. In many ways, the recovery groups become church for these people."
What motivates church and ministry leaders to invest in the recovery of sex offenders? In so many words, leaders told CTI that it could be a deeply enriching experience to work with sex offenders committed to church-based recovery.
"God put them on my doorstep when I wasn't looking for them," says Ruth-Heffelbower.
"The experience of sitting in a room with a sex offender and hearing him say how much he appreciates being part of a circle of people who will be his friends is moving. It gives me energy."
Witherow says he is called to minister to everyone, but that he's been given "a special unction for sex offenders, because not many will serve them."
Churches face significant competing interests when dealing with sex offenders in their midst. While Craig understands these challenges, he holds out hope—for himself and all sex offenders who want to be part of a faith community—of finding more people with Witherow's special unction.
"I never will reach the point where I don't identify myself as a sex offender," Craig says. "If I'm not to have any more victims, then I have to remember my past as a lesson for my future, especially from the standpoint of receiving God's grace."
Craig notes that most sex offenders commit crimes against a family member. The vast majority of sexual abuse is committed within homes, not by strangers lurking in bushes. About 5 percent of sex offenders suffer from significant mental illness. Cognitive behavioral techniques can teach the offender to control his thoughts and behaviors to prevent future crimes.
Based on Craig's interaction with other sex offenders in prison, he says their crimes are less frequently part of a larger pattern of committing crimes. "We don't want to do it again. We're looking for redemption—hope—that we will be able to successfully interact in society."
Craig experienced Christian redemption and salvation within the walls of a prison. To find it in the real world? That's the grace the church is powerfully able to offer.
Marian V. Liautaud is resources editor for CTI's Church Management Team. She edited Reducing the Risk, 3rd Edition, and the training resource "Sex Offenders in the Church." Both are available at YourChurchResources.com.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The report with full results from "Sex Offenders in the Church" survey is available.
Previous articles on sex offenders in the church include:
N.C. Court Upholds Sex Offenders' Right to Worship | When extending grace and protecting 'little ones' clash. (January 6, 2010)
Modern-Day Lepers | Churches try to balance grace and accountability toward sex offenders. (December 3, 2009)
Drawing the Line on Danger | What to do when someone scary enters your church. (YourChurch, March 2, 2009)