Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Should Pederasts be in the Pews?

I once had an odd experience while staying in Atlanta some years ago. I had run into a man in the hotel where I was staying who said he wanted to go to church with me in the morning. Said he was a regular attender back home in Kansas. I thought, well sure-- sounds fine. He then proceeded to tell me he was in counseling for child porn and for fondling children and was doing better. He was a doctor who had lost his job. At that juncture I had a dilemma on my hands. I didn't think I could decide for the church in question whether he ought to be there or not. I honestly didn't know what to say or do. The next morning I got up and went on to church early , and this man showed up as well. Well, I sat with him. We sang the hymns together, but I have to tell you I was more than a little distracted. I was watching him closely more than I was paying attention to the service. I am still not sure what I should have done, if anything.

In the NY Times this week there is an excellent article about this same subject. Here is the link-- .

The sign outside the Pilgrim Church of Christ, which is the subject of this article, proclaims that "all are welcome". Does "all" really mean all? This story is about a man who was a convicted sex offender who had molested various children, had given his life to Christ, was now out of prison, and has been attending this church. This has caused a moral dilemma for various of the members-- some saying he should not be there, others saying that of course he should be there since we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Shouldn't all be welcome to come to church as they are, since it is supposed to be a hospital for sick sinners, not a museum for saints?

One of the things of course that makes this such a volatile issues is that the church also reaches out to adult male victims of child molestation. And there are many of these. If we add to these adult women who have been molested by a male family member growing up, the issue becomes even more volatile. What both of these groups have in common is that it is men who have abused them.

One statistic I have seen suggests that over 95% of all molestation is perpetrated by men, and a comparable statistic could be brought out if we were asking about the percentage of rapists who are males. Only a slightly lower percentage would be found if we asked about who's regularly viewing or is addicted to pornography, including child pornography. These issues are overwhelmingly male problems. I already knew this that day in Atlanta which is why, if a woman had come up to me at my hotel and said she was a lesbian and wanted to go to church in the morning, that would not have worried me anywhere near as much in terms of the imminent potential danger for the rest of the unsuspecting folks there.

One of the issues one has to deal with honestly in thinking through this issue is what does conversion or sanctification really accomplish? Does it really snuff out aberrant desires of various sorts, or does it just give the person power to control and stifle them? Can people really be transformed by conversion? In other words, what do we believe the grace of God can really accomplish in the life of person whose sinful inclinations are so deep-rooted? I personally do believe real transformation is possible, and I have met various persons for whom it is so. I also know others who are real Christians but they struggle day by day to keep those inclinations in check.

The other issue is whether knowingly having such a person in one's midst might not ruin the warm fellowship of a church, and replace faith based thinking with fear based approaches to other members of the church. Would you always be looking over your shoulder, especially if you had children who could be victimized?

These are very hard questions. And when a church takes a stand to allow "whosoever will" to come into the church because they believe it is what Jesus would want, then it must be prepared to work through the consequences of such a stance.

In the case in the article, the man was not trying to hide anything. He wanted the help and support of a living body of Christ. Knowledge of his situation and past was made known to the other church members. Some accepted it, some rejected his being there, and left. And still others felt uncertain and ambivalent about it. It can change the ethos of a congregation in a heartbeat. And furthermore, it will reveal the secrets of some hearts. You will discover who is more self-protective, and who is more other-directed.

I do not pretend to have pat answers to these sorts of difficult questions. But this I do know. If I did not believe that God can change people, sometimes even dramatically, I would not be in the ministry at all. At the same time, I also know that change in some people can be painfully slow, and sometimes what change looks like in a particular life is simply the power of restraint of the things that drive one in unhealthy directions. This power comes from the Holy Spirit.

There is a voice that haunts me in all of this. He is saying "Come unto me ALL you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest". Should not this also be the primary posture of the church instead of mainly being self-protective?

God give us wisdom to know how to be compassionate without being naive, loving without condoning sin, caring without giving up accountability and responsibility to the body as a whole.


Tyler F. Williams said...

My wife is a social worker and I think that the case you describe is perhaps one of the toughest. While I would not want to accept such a person, they would have to be supervised at all times.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

He should be welcome. Do we believe what we say--that Christ's forgivness extends to all who seek it in repentence? He would need to understand that he will never be allowed to work with children, nor be alone with children, nor alone in the bathroom. I know of a church not far from me who has several convicted child molesters in the congregation. They are very careful about how they safeguard children. But who are we if we start picking and choosing who we will sit with?

Michael Gilley said...

Thanks for this post. This is a tough call. I just recently took a class on Child Abuse and Neglect and in some research was shocked to discover that outside of substance abuse, the majority of sexual abuse cases are within conservative Christian homes/families. Statistically, someone who has committed sexual abuse once is 2/3 more likely to commit the offense again. While I absolutely agree that we should be forgiving and deal in mercy, we should also be loving in not offering temptation. You don't encourage a former alcoholic to join your party at a bar, all to celebrate Christ's power in helping him overcome his substance abuse. There's a time and a place with a moral obligation. Seperation from children is a good rule of thumb along with a watchful eye. If you're not careful, you might invite one molester into the church and half the congregation with little ones will leave. If I was a parent, I'm not so sure I wouldn't either. It's a little more complicated than we'd like to make it.

Unknown said...


I normally enjoy reading your posts, but I just can't get past the heading to this one. In a newspaper, journalists can blame the headings on sub-editors, but I have to assume this one is all yours. Was this man, a self-confessed/convicted child-molesterer, nothing more than a pederast? Is that what now defines his very being? It's a catchy title, but I find it quite disturbing.

José Solano said...

Living the Christian life can be very dangerous. How the church “welcomes” and accepts such a supposedly repentant sinner has lots of latitude. Any number of responses can be correct. Singing Owl has some good advice. Certainly the men of the congregation must take responsibility for overseeing all of his actions and the congregation must be alerted about his condition so that really all may be watchful.

This man has confessed his sins and so is far less dangerous than those who may enter the church incognito. Nevertheless he is wrestling with some enormously powerful temptations. With a predator in the church the entire climate of the church will change just as when canaries recognize a cat in their midst. He may be the nicest most docile cat but canaries will have their doubts. It is very hard for canaries to have any form of fellowship with a cat. The church may lose members, especially those with children.

The elders may wish to allow him to participate in the services to hear the word of God but explain to him that he must be reasonable and understand the normal apprehensions of the congregants. If he is truly growing in sanctification I think he will out of true love not impose himself and recognize that a degree of ostracism is understandable because of the crimes that he has committed. In some societies he may still have been in jail or executed. The consequences of his actions extend beyond the prison sentence that he may have served.

His communications now must be more with God directly and with a few select Christians who engage him in essential discussions of a spiritual and rehabilitative nature. He must be understanding of this response and overcome bitterness, always thanking God for his life and for the Christian friends who minister to him.

Robert Lukenbill said...

Let's not be ignorant about the consequences of our sins. Regardless of whether or not God forgives sins, man still has a hard time forgiving. Paul was an outcast to Jewish Christians who thought early in his career as a preacher that he was there to persecute them. It was not till others vouched for him that he was later accepted by some in the Church. Also, we should not tempt this man beyond what he is able to bear. Meaning, I would not take an alcoholic to a bar and grill and offer him a cocktail. Neither, should we take this man to a family based congregation that has a focus on children. He should find a commnunity of believers that will be able to minister to his spiritual needs and help him in his weaknesses. There are many congregations full of blue hairs that have little to no children. In any event, it is only proper that he disclose his former problem to the community so that they can help him in his infirmities and be sure he is not tempted to go back to hurting families again. Just my opinion....

PamBG said...

The British Methodist Church has set procedures for dealing with child offenders; I can't say I've memorised the procedures as it has not (yet?) come up in my situation. We have access to people at District level who have professional experience and responsibility for child protection.

My understanding is that the church must enter into an agreement for behaviour with the person involved. This is formulated by the minister and the chief steward on behalf of the church council and involves the superintendent minister, people in the circuit and district responsible for child protection and a social worker in the community.

Does and can conversion change people? Yes, of course. However, I don't know of anyone who would say "Alleluia, I've accepted Christ, now I am instantly no longer an alcoholic!" My understanding is that paedophilia - as well as the tendency to abuse one's spouse - are "addictive" behaviours.

It seems to me that if a paedophile has genuinely given their heart to Christ, that he or she would be willing to enter into an agreement with the church about restricted access to children.

Allan R. Bevere said...

"These are very hard questions. And when a church takes a stand to allow 'whosoever will' to come into the church because they believe it is what Jesus would want, then it must be prepared to work through the consequences of such a stance."

"God give us wisdom to know how to be compassionate without being naive, loving without condoning sin, caring without giving up accountability and responsibility to the body as a whole."

Thanks Ben for your excellent and eloquent words on this difficult issue!

Peter Kirk said...

Thank you for this. But I can't agree that "These are very hard questions". To me there is no question at all, these people should be allowed into the church from which Jesus turned no one away. Of course they, and for that matter anyone who is not well known, should be carefully supervised to make sure that they don't do anything inappropriate within the church. But there should never be the suspicion that anyone is unwelcome in God's house.

I can't help wishing, a bit tongue in cheek, that such a person would come into my church. Then maybe all the unforgiving Pharisees in the church would leave and we would be free to minister to the needy and outcast as Jesus did.

Pastor Burt said...

I was a childhood victim of molestation, so this issue is quite close to home for me. Today, I am also both a parent and a pastor, so I am prone to think about how these issues affect the church and possibly my children. In the end, I come down on the side of allowing such people into into the church. However, I think disclosure on the individual's part is a must and that real safeguards must be in place to protect children. Repentance must be demonstrated along with on-going humility and submission. The seriousness of the sin and the propensity for it to continue demand that the former perpetrator routinely go well beyond the extra mile to demonstrate a change of thinking and lifestyle.
The individual would need to be part of an accountability group of committed brothers who could pour into his life. Being part of the church means so much more than coming to the service.

Sam said...

@Peter: Nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

It all comes down to ecclesiology. If your church is being the Body, and this is someone who wants to belong to the body, the groom and the bride say: come. From a practical perspective, the Church (or at least some key leaders in the Church) should be made aware of the issue (nothing is more dangerous than a secret).
The question is whether or not the Sunday gathering U.S. evangelicals call 'church' is a devoted gathering of disciples, or if it's an 'outreach' event--I'd say different principles would apply in different cases.
And Hilary, yes, this is Dr. Witherington's blog (if there's another Dr. Witherington more 'famous' than this one, I don't know of him).

Bob MacDonald said...

Ben - good that you sat with him and sang the hymns - who was it preached: if you by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom 8) This usage of Christ's death for us is a power that gives light in the darkest places (Eph 5) where we fear the most whether for ourselves or for others. Paul applies to the present as well as the future. Keep singing of that acceptance and have confidence in the power of the Spirit to transform us. Part of the larger problem is that some sins are not so 'obvious' and we cling to them thinking they are our righteousness. Perhaps if we put to death our fear of such obvious sinners, we too will discover that unity with our Bridegroom of blood that builds our hope and transcends our hurts.

Dan said...

This is a timely article, as my church is dealing with this very issue. Our board has met numerous times, we have prayed and fasted, we have sought outside counsel, we have heavily relied upon the Holy Spirit to guide the decision-making process. We have truly agonized to the point of tears over this.

One of the things I've come to realize is that forgiveness isn't the issue. Of course Christ forgives all who are repentant. But it isn't up to the church to forgive here. Only Christ and the victims can forgive. The church is not the victim; it is not in the place to forgive. If this man is repentant, than I believe God has forgiven him. But to say "we have to forgive him and let him come among us" is a non sequitor. Forgiveness does not equal instant access to the local Body.

Really, reconciliation and redemption are the issues. And both are long-term processes. Both demand discipline, submission, and intense reliance upon the Holy Spirit. Both require strong leadership who are willing to ask the hard questions of the perpetrator, and willingness of the perp to submit to the process.

So my questions would be:
a) is he truly repentant? Based on this quote: "I went looking for an open and affirming church" I kind of guess not. He doesn't want a place that will challenge him to holiness; he wants a place that will accept him and love him and let him stay just as he is. In addition, is he truly repentant? Or is it just now that he's been caught, so it's out in the open? Does he understand the nature of his sin? Or is he just forced to put it out there because the law says so?
b) has he done anything to bring about reconciliation? He's done his time, but there are still victims of his crimes out there. God's Kingdom is about reconciliation. Jail time does nothing to restore the damage that's been done. We cannot make forgiveness so cheap that anybody who says "oops, I'm sorry" is suddenly let off the hook. The world's system is not set up to create reconciliation. Somehow, the church needs to fill that gap (I know, I'm going on a tangent. . .)

Sometimes in our quest to be "open and affirming" we forget just how hard the early church made it for people to get in. What was it - a three year process, in which you had to prove you were worthy? Yet we say that anybody who makes the formulaic statement gets instant access. I'm all for making the door wide enough for all who desire Christ to enter, but at the same time making it narrow enough that those who desire ONLY Christ are allowed in.

Todd Gwennap said...

Alfred Poirier has an excellent section on sex offenders (particularly those convicted of child molestation) being admitted to the church in his new book The Peace-Making Pastor. He gives an overview of a case at a church he pastored where a man abused children sexually, lied about it to garner church support, was convicted and served time in prison, repented, and wanted to be admitted back to fellowship in the church. I would recommend the book only for this section, as Poirier does a masterful job of discussing all the relevant issues--particularly the balancing act between forgiveness and discernment.

Russell said...

As a counselor and one who has worked with sex offenders (and there are Christian sex offenders) I'll offer some thoughts. Sex offenders function in secrecy and part of any treatment program is being open about the offense. As with alcoholics, a recovering sex offender must accept their condition and try to live openly with the problem. It is a way to be accountable and prevent relapse. The individual from Kansas may have been following his treatment plan (especially when in another city), which was to disclose the offense and visit the church in the company of another individual. He may have been working his recovery program by maintaining accountability. (If an offender desires to keep their offense a secret, I would be very cautious of their progress in treatment and desire to change.)

As for the responsibility of the Church, yes I believe the church and sex offender should have an agreement as to boundaries within the church and be actively monitored as part of his/her ongoing treatment plan. This is for the protection of and ministry to the spiritual development of our children (and others). However, monitoring a sex offender in the church is not simply self-preservation for the church - BUT ministry to the offender! Helping an offender maintain a recovery program is ministry. Accountability is ministry.

Does this have the potential to "change the ethos of a congregation in a heartbeat." Well yeah. It is like tearing the roof of the house and lowering a stretcher to Jesus. It can be messy and disruptive for those inside and very hard, tiring work for those bearing the stretcher. That day, Dr. Witherington, I like to think you were his stretcher bearer. It may have been uncomfortable for you to share his burden but you ministered by sitting next to him, keeping him accountable and allowing him to worship in openness and honesty instead of secrecy and sin. I like to think you helped give him hope - that his life long "thorn" is bearable and he has a place in the body of Christ - a freeing thought to me.

Deacon John M. Bresnahan said...

Very interesting conundrum. As far as worship goes, there is no bar of any kind to attending Mass and worshipping in a Catholic Church (receiving communion is another matter). I have never seen any kind of debate or discussion of THIS issue in the Catholic Church. This is surprising considering the scandals we have had lately.
There has also been no debate or discussion of membership. Baptized is baptized and in the Catholic parish system you are automatically a member of your territorial parish even if not officially registered (registration has little meaning in the Catholic Tradition).
However, the extreme goes the otherway nowadays as far as having an official poisition in a parish is concerned. It is almost like getting a security clearance for the White House. And this is predicated on the attitude that official positions are for the sake of the community to meet community needs, not some sort of "right" or aid to eternal salvation. I am sure others could explain this better than I.

TJW said...

I think this type of thing is very similar to the situation in 1 Corinthians 5. The basic questions are whether this person is a true brother in Christ, and if he is, then is he living in sin or not? If he is not a brother, then church is not the place for him. This is also true if he is a so-called brother but living in sin. If this man is a true follower of Christ, then he would be willing to submit to supervision and the church should be willing to embrace him fully, and should rejoice over the lost sinner who has repented.

Jacob said...

An interesting post and article. I must say that you refer to the Pilgrim church as a "Church of Christ" when in fact it is a "United Church of Christ." There is a world of difference between the two denominations. In fact, their views on Bible authority are almost opposites. The restoration tradition church of Christ would argue that a "sex offender" who repents is acceptable to God (and thus man). The United Church of Christ (judging from their TV advertisements) simply "accepts all" regardless of lifestyle. That is a very, very important distinction.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

I'm of two minds. The father in me says "not a snowball's chance". The Christian in me says, with firm guidelines in place that are agreed upon, then yes let him in. Many churches have several services and normally at least one does not have large numbers of children in attendence. He would need to be watched to protect the kids and himself.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

I might add that the church I spoke of has lost only a small number, and they insisted that the entire church be informed. It was done tastefully, but full disclosre was essential. Agreed upon boundaries? Absolutely!

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PamBG said...

I'd like to add a comment with respect to forgiveness.

Regardless of who has the "right" to forgive someone, the forgiveness of one human being to another does not necessarily have to imply completely forgetting someone's transgressions and treating them as 100% trustworthy. Miroslav Volf treats the journey toward "forgiving and forgetting" very well in his book Free of Charge and he sets out a sensible thought-process for deciding when to forget as well as to forgive.

Forgiveness of one human being to another does not have to include forgetting. Particularly if the perpetrator is abusive. Remorse after having engaged in abusive behaviour is common and usual; it most certainly does not imply that the person is "cured" and will never engage in that behaviour again and it would be naive and unwise for a church to behave as if it did.

I think that it is "open and affirming" for a church to set in place behavioural guidelines, transparency and accountability for paedophiles. I do not think that "open and affirming" means "anything goes". The British Methodist Church, at the national level, has simply assumed that we must welcome ex offenders; the guidelines have been set in place to do that wisely and help the abuser remain accountable and within the bounds of the law and of Christian morality.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Damian: The heading for this particular blog post is complete in line with the vice lists in the NT. Check out Gal. 5 sometime. There are times, when a behavior so characterizes a person in relationship to others, that such terms are appropriate full disclosure, not name calling.


HS said...

As a Christian, I would like to think the church can be a place for offenders to make a new start. As someone with ugly memories and ongoing repercussions from the kind of pain these guys inflict, I would personally avoid the man, because frankly, the whole topic still literaly gives me the shakes. I like what Mr. Lukenbill said about the early church's mistrust of Paul. I note that it took divine intervention for Paul to even begin to be accepted by people from the group he betrayed.

It would definitely take God's intervention to get me past anxiety and adrenaline surges, to sit next to someone I knew to be a child molester or rapist; or to participate in, say, a small group with him. In fact, I would avoid such a situation.

I feel a split between my intellectual willingness to see that the church can be a place of healing for offenders, and the visceral bodily reactions I have to anything and anyone that reminds me of those attacks. And yes, I think if a church pushed me to accept and associate closely with an offender, I would have to leave that church -- that is, without the grace of divine intervention.

Dan Roth said...

Thanks for your courage in sitting with him, and your honesty about your struggle. I don't like cliches, but perhaps "what would Jesus do" is indeed relevant here. He would show the pederast love, acceptance, forgiveness, and admonition to "go and sin no more".

I have a saved friend who has confided only in me about his struggle with this very issue (carried over from his pre-Christian days). I show him love, acceptance, and repeated affirmation and reminder of his new eternal identity in Christ and of His 100% cleansing of the penalty of sin. ALL sin. On the other hand, I wouldn't encourage him (nor would he expect encouragement) to involve himself in children's ministry, or professional work around children.

Our position is a "new creation" in Christ (Hallelujah!), but in practice we struggle: saved thieves sometimes steal, saved liars sometimes lie, saved spouses sometimes cheat, saved pederasts sometimes abuse. "Love always trusts", but love also "always protects". Walking that fine line is extremely difficult and takes every ounce of wisdom, discernment, and love the Spirit gives us. But it is completely worth our effort.

Absolutely the consequences of sin can (and often should) trail into our lives post-rebirth. But don't we also have the responsibility to make every effort to "be one" as He commanded? Should we have separate pews (or churches) for certain sinners?

Like it or not, believe it or not, we will be spending eternity with born-again _______ (fill in the blank with your least-favorite sinners). Are we truly ready and willing for that eternal destiny -- and moreover, to strive to live that out here and now the best we can?

I'm not preaching, just struggling (out loud) with these questions like everyone else. :)

Dan R.

Dan Roth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Roth said...

Sorry, just wanted also to add to comments about % of women and porn. Following stats taken from "", not sure of survey methodology, sample size, or margin for error:

Breakdown of male/female visitors to porn sites: 72% male/28% female.
13% of Women admit to accessing porn at work.
17% of all women struggle with pornography addiction.

Assuming statistical reliability, it's still predominantly a "male" problem, but no longer overwhelmingly (certainly not 95%). Most importantly, for either sex, the consequences are tragic - and usually extend beyond the perpetrator (to marriages, kids, jobs, churches, communities etc).

Carrie Ann said...

As I study and prepare to enter children's ministry, I cannot help but think about this subject on a regular basis. While I do believe that this person should experience Christian fellowship, I think the recovering individual shouldn't put himself in a congregation with a large population of children. All churches, regardless of size, need to have a policy in place that will help protect the children. My home church is still dealing with a issue where a volunteer who was sex-offender who gave his life to Christ and ended up molesting a pre-schooler during VBS. We need to be careful and make sure we are protecting the congregation, especially the children, while reaching out to lost souls.
In response to this comment,
"He's one and the same, and some of us have the distinct honor of being able to study in Dr. Ben's classes here in Seminary. Trust me, if you think his books are good, then you should try his class!"

You should try one of his wife's classes across the street at the college! She can make any fall in love with Biology.

Jeffinoh said...

Jacob is correct that there is an important distinction between "Church of Christ" and "United Church of Christ." As a member of the UCC, however, I disagree with the suggestion that all behaviors are considered AOK. Yes, we welcome all, but we also consider sexual abuse to be a serious sin against children. The need to protect children is paramount, and the church I'm a part of has struggled with the need to welcome all sinners while protecting the most vulnerable members of our church family.

Dr. Witherington, I'm confused (OK, I'm bothered) but the comparison of a child molester and a lesbian woman. I know you were being generous by showing how much less of a danger the lesbian woman was than the molester... BUT, your wording leads me to believe you imagine is still some inherent danger for 'unsuspecting folks' worshipping with a lesbian. Those of us who advocate for LGBT persons tend to be very wary of associations people make between homosexuality and pedophilia, so I truly want to understand your intent. I don't want to start another internet rehashing of studies on the relationship between male homosexuality and sexual abuse, but I'm seriously interested in your response: Do you believe the sexual orientation of a gay woman or man poses a danger (small or large) to persons of any age worshipping in church?

Jeffinoh said...

Maybe I should clarify that question a bit more. Your post seems to imply that the danger is in homosexuality, but less so for a lesbian since woman are less likely to perpetrate sexual offenses than men. Apart from the issue of percentages related to sexual orientation (which has resulted in contradictory 'findings' through studies of sexual offenders), the majority of sexual crimes against children seem to be committed by heterosexual men. So... again... I'm wondering why the reference here to an assumed danger posed by the presence of either a gay man or lesbian woman in worship.

Apart from that issue, I really appreciate the way you've struggled with this issue in your post - and I agree with the essence of what you've written about welcoming 'whosoever will.'

Resmungo said...

Actually we had a psychologist lecturing at my seminary yesterday who said that statistics show that pornography is a pretty evenly distributed problem. It surprised me as well.

K.W. Leslie said...

For me the issue, boiled down, is whether the Church should receive sinners, repentant or not. We're all the most afraid of pederasts, because society really does see that as one of the few unforgivable sins.

You can make excuses that people will accept for murder or theft; you can reform from scam-artistry or even rape. We accept former murderers into our congregations, and even let them take or hold the pulpit. But pederasty? The usual attitude is "Cast him into outer darkness!"

Jesus accepts and forgives sinners. Regardless of quantity, degeneracy, how recently those sins were committed, and the likelihood is that they'll be committed again.

Or even (to a point) repentance. When Jesus first appeared to Paul, Paul was unrepentant; but that encounter with Jesus definitely made him repentant. Who's to say that when a pederast encounters the love of Jesus, as demonstrated through us, His so-called followers, the experience might not likewise bring him to repentance?

...Unfortunately, most of us feel we're to say, and are more concerned with our comfort level (which is based on delusion more than anything else) than the lost sheep.

Matt said...

If my understanding is right, if there is a school at the church it is not legal for them to be there.

It is so tough because we know that church is a good place for people to be to get their lives right. We also know that these types of crimes often are very repetitive for people with these problems.

Here is another situation that my wife and I ran into. What do you do when some of the kids don't have proper care at home and are brining lice to church and infecting other kids and teens? In the instance we went through these kids were homeschooled specifically because if they went to school the family would have to deal with the lice.

My wife had lice non-stop for a year and a half that cost us several hours a day of looking and several thousand dollars in doctors visits and treatments, not to mention a strain on our mental health. We didn't really have the money to spend either because we were both in graduate school and working 3 jobs each. What do you do when people are a health risk to others?

We felt so bad for those kids and ultimately we had to go somewhere else after working with that church for 3 years while in grad school. It really broke our hearts.

Jeffinoh said...

k.w.leslie, I disagree that the issue is about folks seeing child sexual abuse as an unforgivable sin. If so, it's really just a theoretical/theological matter. As the parent of two children, I am very wary of a known sexual offender having access to my kids, no matter how much I believe in that person's redemption. I think Dr. Witherington did a good job of balancing the issues of forgiveness and protection. I'd still like to hear from him on the rather odd connection he made about homosexuality and the safety of worshippers.

djps said...

I am a convicted sex offender living in Ireland. Five years ago I was investigated by the police for possessing child pornography. I was convicted of possessing 12 ‘lower level’ images of child pornography and I received a three month prison sentence suspended for two years, had to attend a sex offender treatment programme and I am a registered sex offender.

I also attend church and was for a long time a very active member of the congregation. At various times I have been involved in just about every ministry our congregation except worship music (if you heard me trying to sing you would understand) and children / youth ministry - because although if I had been in the least ways interested in it I would have had ample opportunity to be involved I have absolutely no interest in working or being with children or teenagers besides my own.

I am married with three children.

In the years following my conviction I found the support I had from my church community invaluable in all sorts of ways. I found friends who loved me despite what I had done, to whom I could be accountable and who worked, hoped and prayed for my rehabilitation. With these people I was not reduced to a one dimensional character - ‘sex offender’. I was some one who had done something wrong but I was more than just this sin alone.

I had a network of people who ensured I was lovingly but rigorously accountable. Among them were people who I was directly accountable to and then others who I was not directly accountable to but who ensured that I was staying accountable to appropriate people.

Since then for a variety of reasons our congregation has changed. For a variety of reasons many of my friends have left and we have a new pastor and new pastoral staff. And while I have disclosed my offense to the new pastor I have not had the time (- or he has not had the time? - to discuss it detail. Most of the people in the congregation are now strangers to me and I am frightened going to church. I am frightened for myself, and even more so for my family, as to what their reaction to my offense will be if I disclose it too them. The case of the Pilgrim Church pointed to by Ben Witherington tells me that I have good reason to be. My daughter is changing schools next September to go to secondary school. My wife and I are currently organising counselling for my daughter to prepare her for the harassment that we have been advised by her current school principal teacher that she is going to receive from pupils at her new school on account of my offence. My offence is well known in Ireland and a quick search in Google or Yahoo under my name immediately throws up newspaper and television news coverage of it. My court case dragged on for almost a year while despite my early guilty plea the judge took a long time and several court appearances to decide what to do with me and the case got a large amount of publicity, far more than most far more serious cases typically do.

From the community’s point of view the safest place to have sex offenders is to have them involved, accountable and supported. Sex offenders are least likely to re-offend when we are in meaningful employment, have a sense of contributing to the lives of others and surrounded by friends and family who are realistically hopeful for our rehabilitation but who are also informed about and watchful for signs that we might be about to re-offend.

However the fear, anger and revulsion that most people feel towards us means that it is very difficult for us to be in this situation.

How realistic is the fear that we will re-offend? Well in the case of the Pilgrim Church and in the case Ben Witherington writes about you are dealing with offenders who are bing open and honest about their offences and who appear to be seeking accountability and support. On this basis and assuming that they are met in their requests for accountability and support their risk of re-offending is low.

So what are the recidivism rates for sex offenders? It is difficult to give a definite answer since it is a moving target. Recidivism rates may change over time but more significantly in terms of affecting the determination of the rate are factors such as

the definition of a sexual offence - this changes over time and between jurisdictions (for what is an extreme example for Irish people, urinating in public is a sexual offence in some states in the USA)

the definition of recidivism - some studies include convictions for sexual offences only some include convictions for any offence, some include convictions for offences which were carried out before the date of the first conviction but which only came to light afterwards, and some include convictions or returns to prison for violation of parole conditions, release licence conditions or violation of sex offender registry conditions.

Overall one thing is consistent, aside from murders - who are usually incarcerated for a long time or are executed, sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates of any category of offender and besides murderers they are the only category of criminal where the majority do not re-offend.

However sex offenders are a diverse bunch and some sub - categories have lower recidivism rates than others, some include extremely dangerous people.

One of the most influential series of studies had been conducted by Karl Hanson now of Public Safety Canada and formerly of Canada’s equivalent to our Department of Justice or one of its subsidiary agencies.

A summary of the latest finding can be found here:

Hanson’s studies have been influential since they have based on a meta-analysis of other studies conducted in Canada, UK, and USA.

His conclusion is that within 5 years of release from prison 14% of sex offenders have a new charge or conviction for a sexual offence and the twenty year recidivism rate is 27%. Most, 73%, do not re-offend. As a sex offender this gives me hope that I probably will be successful in my rehabilitation. Now, I have many other reasons to be hopeful as well as besides all these to be hopeful as well but when I read stories to the effect that all sex offenders will re-offend I feel cursed, that there is no hope for me. I practically end up believing that I have re-offended and have to spend hours going over the facts that I have not.

Hanson’s results also point to the applicability of the 85% / 15% rule to sex offenders. (Do not take the actual 85 / 15 per cent figures exactly). But the idea as applied in this case is that most (say 85%) offenders commit few (say 15%) of the crimes while a small number (15%) of the offenders commit most (85%) of the crimes.

And in line with that Hanson finds that first time convicted offender have lower re-offence rates (roughly half) than those with prior convictions.

After that ‘boy victim’ child molesters have the highest recidivism rates followed by rapists (adult victims) with ‘girl victim’ and incest offenders having the lowest rates in this classification. Other studies show results consistent with this.

Department of Rehabilitation: Ten-Year Recidivism Follow-Up Of 1989 Sex Offender Releases, State of Ohio, 2001:

This study showed a 10 year recidivism rate for sex offenders of 34%. However the recidivism rate for sexual offences was 8.0%. The remaining 26% of offences committed were for non- sexual crimes or for things like violation of parole conditions.

In the UK a study of sex offenders emerging from long-term imprisonment (and so presumably people who had been convicted of relatively serious sexual offences)
published in 2002 by a team led by Oxford University's Roger Hood, found that of
the 94 ex-prisoners followed for six years after release eight were reconvicted for a
further sexual offence. Another four were reconvicted and jailed for a non-sexual
violent crime. (New Statesman 19th March, 2007)

So the situation for the rehabilitation of sex offenders is not hopeless. Most of us will not re-offend. And most of us are not potential Ian Huntleys or rapid child predators. But people should not of course be naive about the dangers involved in having a publically acknowledged sex offender in church, both in terms of the real risk that it involves but also in terms of the effect it might have on those who have been the victims of sexual abuse (and any congregation of any size has these).

Hanson draws the following ‘policy implications’ from the results of his studies;
- The level of sexual recidivism in sexual offenders is lower than is commonly believed.
- Policies based on the assumption that all sexual offenders re-offend at a high rate or that all sexual offenders pose the same recidivism risk may lead to over-supervising lower risk offenders.
- Actuarial assessment tools can assist in differentiating high-risk offenders from lower risk offenders.

Perhaps these have some relevance to how sex offenders are to be received or not in church?

What is the danger from sex offenders?

I do not think any pastor or church congregation should be blasé about having a self declared convicted sex offender in its midst. But perhaps it should be even more concerned about those who have not declared their presence or those who have not yet been found out.

While those who have been convicted of sexual offences have a greater likelihood of committing a sexual offence, collectively more sexual offences are committed by people convicted of non - sexual offences and an even greater number of sexual offences are committed by people with no criminal history at all.

I do not know of any comprehensive study on the contribution of convicted sex offenders to the total numbers of child sexual abuse cases each year (I write here about child sexual abuse since that I think is what most people are concerned about when they think of a sex offender in church, or anywhere for that matter), but I have seen some partial figures for individual states in the USA. These show that less than 2 percent of all child sexual abuse cases each year attributable to already convicted sex offenders.

According to NBC2 News in (5th February 2007) Matt Heterick of Lee County, Florida’s Sheriff’s Office :"Parents in general are paying too much attention to the website and to the people who have already been convicted and already been caught," In Lee County there were 534 sex crimes reported in 2006, only 3 involved convicted sex offenders. Getting rid of all the convicted sex offenders from your community will at most lead to a reduction of 2 percent in the incidence of child sexual abuse. What about the other 98% plus?

While church congregations should take a sensible and cautionary approach to protecting the children in their midst (and I truly do not have fixed views on what this should entail, and maybe I should not be allowed in church) I want to draw attention to the fact that an obsession with convicted sex offenders draws takes attention away from where the greater danger to children lies.

It is common to see parents making statements to the effect that “as a mother / father I am really concerned about sex offenders about the place”. However statistically the person most likely to have abused a child the child’s male guardian - usually their father. If my children are ever sexually abused I am the person who statistically will be most likely to have committed the offence - not because I have already been convicted of a sexual offence but because I am their male guardian.

Most sexual abuse (80 per cent and more depending on how you define home, family and neighbours) of children takes place in the family home or is committed by relatives, close friends, babysitters, close neighbours, trusted professionals and others closely associated with the family - and this could of course include those in their church community.

And the person most likely to violently kill a child is ... the child’s mother.

Russell said...

To follow up on djps and a few points of clarification... in the Hanson and Bourgon(2004)study the recidivism rate of 31,216 sex offenders was 13%. It is true recidivism rates appear low but the authors go on to say the public should not base the "dangerousness" of sex offenders on recidivism rates. It is important to note that these statistics (and ones provided by djps) are based on repeat offenders getting caught. Many professionals who work with sex offenders acknowledge this population gets smarter in concealing future offenses and a true re-offense rate is difficult to know. The professionals I know and have worked with regarding sex offender treatment suggest we only see the tip of the iceberg, that those caught are generally the careless or "stupid" ones.

Another point of clarification: Fathers are not the most likely person in the house to sexually abuse their child(ren), but rather a male guardian or older male in the home not related to the child (such as a boyfriend of the mother) - an important distinction that needs to be made.

Research agrees that most children are sexually abused (or anyone sexual abuse for that matter) by someone familiar to the child - simply because of easier access to the child and trust already established with the parents/caregivers to get a child alone.

Churches need to have in place child care procedures that minimize (or eliminate) the chance of an abuse occuring. Churches also need to bring "sex" into the church dialog. Needless to say our culture is saturated with harmful messages of sexual openness, while it seems to me many churches/Christians desire to keep the discussion of sex confined. While I find it safe and comfortable to keep the issue/discussion of sex between my wife/family and I - I wonder if this attitude enables the sex offender to move more freely around the church.

Anonymous said...

We have dealt with a similar issue in our church. A person was discovered to have molested a step grandchild (at an event not connected to the church). In the midst of the accompanying trial, etc... it became clear that this was not a one time occurrence. He, then, came to our church, where he had occasionally attended for years, in the midst of the trial, and asked to become a church member. We had conversation with him about this looking for signs of repentance. He reaction was "a church is supposed to help people," and "you have to forgive me, I've asked for forgiveness and Jesus said so." These are very close to actual quotes. During this time he continued to attend church and several times tried to slip away from the supervision that the Diaconate had arranged for him. We finally considered allowing him to only attend church worship services and no other church activities (potlucks, etc...) Finally a decisive factor in deciding against any participation in the church (in addition to apparently unrepentant behavior) was the fact that the molester could use "in church" time to build some degree of comfort with children who he might later attempt to take advantage of. We chose to officially ban him from the church. This was not an easy decision, it took a great deal of time, but we decided that the children of the church's right to safety outweighed his right to Christian fellowship. He had in a sense forfeited that right by molesting a child. This is not to say that he is not a Christian, but that his right to full fellowship is limited. To say it is pharisees who want to keep hurting people like this out of the church seems unfair. The mental and addictive problems of a pedophile are extremely deceptive even to themselves. The fact is no supervision can be complete or overcome the situation in which a child is offered a ride from that "nice man from church." That is one thing that all the "in church" supervision in the world cannot control. The interaction of a child who met the molester at church, but ran into him later in another context. That is a decisive consideration for me.

djps said...

This is much more enlightening than a recent discussion I participated in on an Irish discussion board following on the story about Pilgrim church.

After my post above I was upset on reflecting at Ben Witherington’s reaction to going to church with a self acknowledged sex offender and child molestor. Ben writes:

“Well, I sat with him. We sang the hymns together, but I have to tell you I was more than a little distracted. I was watching him closely more than I was paying attention to the service.”

This guy had come to you and openly acknowledged who he was and what he had done. He did not have to do this but he took the risk of disclosing to you that he was a member of the most despised and hated group of people on Earth. I was not there but having been in similar positions myself and I think he was looking for honesty, accountability, integrity and even some security. What were you thinking when you were distracted? Did you think he was going to suddenly jump out of the pew and assault a child in the middle of a worship song?

To follow up on seeker’s follow up to me. Hanson has, as it appears to me, though maybe I am wrong and you can correct me here if I need to be corrected, updated his work. His studies now conclude that sex offenders have a 20 year recidivism rate of 23 per cent as I cited above.

The point about the dangerousness of sex offenders is a general point about dangerousness. Danger is a function not only of the likelihood of an event occurring but also of the effect of it if it occurs. Some sex offenders may be unlikely to re-offend but might still be considered dangerous because of the devastating effects re-offending might have.

Hanson also explicitly makes the point that recidivism rates are much lower than are commonly thought and this conclusion is widely supported by other studies.

Hanson draws attention to the fact that not all sex offenders are the same. The public perception of sex offenders is often that we are predatory murderous paedophiles. A good example of this in Ireland and the UK is the advice prepared for churches by the CPAS on dealing with sex offenders. (Is this the basis of the policy that Pam BG refers to that is adhered to in the Methodist church in the UK?) This document while providing some sensible advice on the monitoring and support of sex offenders in church refers throughout to the danger of having an Ian Huntley in their midst. Now thankfully Ian Huntley’s crimes make him a pretty rare bird. To the end of his life now he is going to be fodder for the tabloid press - the personification of Evil, Satan incarnate that all good people will love to hate.

Seeker writes:

“Many professionals who work with sex offenders acknowledge this population gets smarter in concealing future offenses and a true re-offense rate is difficult to know. The professionals I know and have worked with regarding sex offender treatment suggest we only see the tip of the iceberg, that those caught are generally the careless or "stupid" ones.”

Well, I know many professionals who have worked with sex offenders and have come to different conclusions, so we can swop stories about this. I do know from anecdotal evidence from offenders in the USA and the UK that the quality of sex offender ‘treatment’ programmes varies and that one of the factors that makes a substantial difference to the effectiveness of the programme is the attitude and training of the people presenting the programme. Programmes may be well designed but implemented by people who have already made up their minds that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated and that really we are all lying cheats who will never tell the truth.

Well, honestly there is not much incentive for a sex offender to tell the truth because most sex offenders that I know agree that to be labelled a sex offender is to become a total pariah in our world, so leaving aside any issues of denial they might have about admitting the full impact or extent of their offences, there really is not incentive to a sex offender to admit to anything in these circumstances.

However when treated empathetically most (not all, as I have met some of the most incredibly recalcitrant people I can imagine in this category) sex offenders will begin to respond. Empathy does not have to mean losing sight of the seriousness of the offences we have committed. Most, though not all, of the sex offenders that I have known have been deeply ashamed of their actions. Seeker makes the point that disclosure is crucial to a sex offenders rehabilitation. For me and for many others disclosure was a relief. I am glad I was ‘found out’, I am not glad I was found out by the police however and as a result had to witness things like newspaper photographers photographing my wife on the public streets weeks after my trial was concluded.

In my own experience I was interviewed on two occasions by a probation officer who was preparing a report for the courts on my case. The report was ordered by the court to be prepared by a clinical psychologist with expertise in the treatment of sex offenders. These interviews were extremely unnerving, far worse than the very rigorous interviews I had with the police, simply because I realised that I was with someone who had already decided that he knew the right answers to the questions he was asking. The report appeared in court and contained several factual untruths (I am talking about facts here not matters of opinion or analysis) that were to my detriment, and the report was co-signed by an eminent clinical psychologist working in the field of sexual offender ‘treatment’ in Ireland who I have to this day I have never met. But that man probably honestly believed he was telling the truth because he ‘knew’ that I as a person charged with a sexual offence was a devious person and when I said one thing he ‘knew’ that another thing was really true.

I do not have any problem with a church that believes that I have to win their trust and that asks me to follow sensible rules to protect their children. I think Mark Pilska in the case of the Pilgrim church was also showing a willingness to follow such rules. The scenario that Pastor Jon has outlines for us shows how following such sensible guidelines can identify those who are a danger to children with the church congregation.

However this little discussion has been the final little step that had brought home to me that I should not attend church, I will have to find some other arrangements for Christian fellowship.

I do though really welcome when Seeker has to says:

“Churches also need to bring "sex" into the church dialog”.

I believe this is crucially important and not only for dealing with convicted sex offenders. For one example, one of the safe places I found refuge in church was with a group of homosexual men. These were men who were working n living chaste lives - typically much more successfully than many and probably most of their heterosexual brothers, but all of whom were afraid to be open about the temptations they faced within their own congregations. As a people We have really screwed up on this.

I also wonder about how the church deals with the victims of sexual abuse and those who live in fear of people like me? Can the church come to learn to be the place where people can speak with a hard headed but Godly love and hope about the issues surrounding sexual brokeness? The most fundamental thing about the way God made is our sexuality, we are made male and female in God’s likeness, it foundational to our being. I think if we can begin to get this right we will be taking a big step forward for the Kingdom of God. We all find it difficult and scary because it is so foundational.

I think more than anything is what I would like to see. Churches should be cautionary in their attitude and approach to convicted sex offenders such as myself, but they should also be aware that many more children and adults are going to be abused by people who have no previous convictions for sex crimes. Openness about sex and what constitutes true intimacy and the conviction that the truth sets us free can persuade members of families where sexual abuse is happening, sex offenders and would be sex offenders to seek help. Check out (for the USA version of the site).

Finally to take issue with Seeker.

“Another point of clarification: Fathers are not the most likely person in the house to sexually abuse their child(ren), but rather a male guardian or older male in the home not related to the child (such as a boyfriend of the mother) - an important distinction that needs to be made.

Research agrees that most children are sexually abused (or anyone sexual abuse for that matter) by someone familiar to the child - simply because of easier access to the child and trust already established with the parents/caregivers to get a child alone.”

No, I mean fathers and step fathers. Males in the home are collectively responsible for the bulk of sexual abuse but specifically fathers and step fathers (and I have not seen a break down between these two groups) are responsible for something between 20 to 25% of all cases of child sexual abuse reported to the police.

Anyway thanks for taking the effort to read my ramblings!


Danimal said...

This is a tough issue that definatly faces the Church. However, let me provide some more information as a therapist that has worked with sex offenders on probation and have court ordered therapy.
The issue actually arises not "if" we should allow people with problematic sexual behavior (encompasing all paraphillias that are compulsivly engaged in), but rather "how" the church should minister to this population.
The main issue is a poorly informed view of grace that accepts and does not seek to help a person on the road to change or dealing with such intense stuggles. Many times, I have seen offenders hide behind being "saved" and go on to reoffend and leaving a congregation with victimized parishoners because of the manipulation that many of these offenders use to gain acceptence and access to their victims.
Now, that is not to say that the cannot be redepmtion and transformation. However, religiosity is a pitfall that many sex offenders fall into, and thus place themselves in dangerous situations.
On the converse side, I have seen many wonderful pastors and elders wanting to be part of the offender's treatment and walk with them as they process through some of the deepest depths of human depravity.
As pastors, there is a need to understand the cognitive distortions and manipulation that research has demonstrated that offenders engage in. Researchers such as Anna Salter and Roy Hazzelwood can provide a good starting point.
One final thing about the statistics quoted about the majority of offenders being male. This is an inaccurate statistic and finally culture is beginning to accept that female on male sexual abuse is an issue and not "a right of passage" as it has been referred to in the past. The statistics are skewed. Also, research done by the Sex Offender Management Board of Colorado is finding that close to 95% of offenders released for treatment reoffend.
This is a depravity and illness that is not well understood and has such a high compulsion factor that treatment is very tough and success is not all that frequent.
With that said, as we all live in a fallen state there is still a place for grace in the process, and even if one does not get "cured" in this life, redemption is still avalible for the next.

José Solano said...

—I need to thank you Dónal for sharing so much with us and providing us an excellent education on this subject.

My prayers are with you and your family and I wish you God’s blessings. Find joy in your family and in the Christians with whom you may have fellowship. The Church of Christ is fully there where you gather in His Name. Experience the glory of God’s creation wherever you are.

The peace of Christ be with you.

risen_soul said...

Well I wouldn't let him teach childrens sunday school or anything, but he could be a faihtful member in my church. I'm a pastor who used to look at porn (not child porn) before Christ. I don't now, I've been made a new creation in Christ.

I understand the fear behind this issue as a father myself, but as with anyone else, we should look for the "fruit" of his conversions, and let his works show us his faith as the epistle of James says.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ben,

After reading a few posts, and re-reading your original article about the guy you met in Atlanta, I think you should have confronted this man about why he was in Kansas, and why he felt compelled to tell you this information, and if no satisfactory answer was forthcoming, then called the authorities. If he was looking for forgiveness for what he has done he must ask God, or Jesus, or those he has hurt, not a stranger in a hotel. As you claim he was still undergoing treatment and therefore was not yet fully "reformed" or "cured". A child molester unchecked in society is dangerous in the same way that a murderer or rapist or violent criminal unchecked in society is. If the man you met was truly a committed Christian he would acknowledge his sins to the whole community (in the form of a court hearing and whatever punishment considered necessary) and not prey upon soft targets in remote places such as yourself whom he could manipulate easily, which is what appears to have happened here. It sounds to me like this man was in a different area looking for new victims. If he had lost his job, why was he in a hotel in Atlanta? Was he a long-time church attendee in Kansas or was he just a recent member? If he knew he was having trouble with fondling and child pornography, why was his counsellor or fellow churchgoers not monitoring where he was, or having someone else keep an eye on his whereabouts? On closer inspection you might say, "well, he may be ostrisized from his home community for his actions and is looking for forgiveness elsewhere" but his words and actions are do not indicate any remorse - as stated, he was still undergoing treatment. As a responsible member of society the least you should have done is confront him and and tell him that he should not be out unsupervised, and then as a responsible Christian you should have done whatever you could to protect this man from children in the area, and from himself.

Jason H