Sex Offenders in the Pew
"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.