For evangelicals who uphold both the boundlessness of redemption and the care and protection of "little ones" (Matt. 19:14), having sex offenders in church makes it hard to apply both beliefs at the same time.
In mid-December a Superior Court in North Carolina upheld the case of two registered sex offenders who had been attending Moncure Baptist Church, which offers childcare for Sunday worshipers and other children's programs. James Nichols and Frank DeMaio were indicted in March under a year-old state law that orders offenders to stay 300 feet away from facilities primarily intended for use by or care of children. Nichols's story was highlighted in "Modern-Day Lepers," a reported piece in the December issue of Christianity Today.
Judge Allen Baddour determined that the state law was too vague to enforce, and violated the men's First Amendment rights to worship. "There are less drastic means for achieving the same purpose," Baddour ruled, noting that to meet constitutional requirements, the law should specify whether or not an offender has the intent to be in the presence of minors.
But, as State Rep. Julia Howard (who sponsored the state law) told the Charlotte News & Observer, discerning someone's intent for attending church or any other facility can be tricky. "The word intent is the most precarious word in the world. Who knows what my intent is? Anytime you see 'knowingly' or 'intent,' there's something mysterious there."
Nichols, 31, has been convicted twice of indecent liberties with a teenager and of attempted second-degree rape in 2003. According to the News & Observer, Nichols had told authorities that DeMaio, convicted twice of indecent liberties with children, had "manhandled" a teenage girl in Moncure Baptist's parking lot. The Chatham County Sheriff's Office eventually charged both for being on church property, and Nichols for staying with a church member who was hosting teenage girls in her home.
Nichols expressed frustration that the law left offenders no room to seek church-based help. "The law gives you no room to better yourself," he told the Associated Press. "I just started asking the question, 'Why? Why am I being treated this way after trying to better myself?' "
"I have heard it said that sex offenders are modern-day lepers," Prison Fellowship vice president Pat Nolan told CT in December. "That is probably pretty accurate. And we know that Jesus didn't shun lepers. He loved them and healed them. He expects us to do the same."
But the sex offender/leper comparison doesn't always hold up, especially when the modern-day leper comes to the house of God not for healing but to infect others, often the vulnerable. "Pedophiles are scary people because they are highly manipulative, controlling, patient, and coercive," said Ron Clark, a Portland-based Church of Christ minister who works with sex abuse agencies, in a letter to CT. "While forgiveness is an important virtue among us, what about repentance? … [The church's] best role is to train leaders to protect and let the authorities rehabilitate them."
What do you think? In order to protect potential victims, should churches leave the restoration of sex offenders up to federal agencies? Or would that only leave offenders lacking knowledge of the true restoration found in Christ? How should churches model a belief in the redemption of the unredeemable alongside Jesus' charge to care for children at great cost?