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Churches torn on child molesters in pews
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
July 06, 2010
5 MIN READ TIME

Churches torn on child molesters in pews

Churches torn on child molesters in pews
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
July 06, 2010

“All are welcome” is a

common phrase on many a church sign and website.

But what happens when a

convicted sex offender takes those words literally?

Church officials and

legal advocates are grappling with how — and if — people who’ve been convicted

of sex crimes should be included in U.S. congregations, especially when

children are present:

  • On June 23, a lawyer

    argued in the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a convicted sex offender who

    wants to attend a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation with a chaperone.

“What we argued is that

the right to worship is a fundamental right, and the state can only burden it

if it has compelling interest to do so, and then only in a way that is narrowly

constructed,” said Barbara Keshen, an attorney with the New Hampshire Civil

Liberties Union who represented Jonathan Perfetto, who pleaded guilty in 2002

to 61 counts of possessing child pornography.

  • On June 28, the

    Seventh-day Adventist Church added language to its manual saying that sexual

    abuse perpetrators can be restored to membership only if they do not have

    unsupervised contact with children and are not “in a position that would

    encourage vulnerable individuals to trust them implicitly.”

Garrett Caldwell, a

spokesman for the denomination, said the new wording in the global guidelines

tries to strike a balance between protecting congregants and supporting the

religious freedom of abusers in “a manifestation of God’s grace.”

  • On July 1, a Georgia

    law will take effect that permits convicted sex offenders to volunteer in

    churches if they are isolated from children. Permitted activities include

    singing in the choir and taking part in Bible studies and bake sales.

Madison Shockley,

pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., whose church

publicly grappled with whether to accept a convicted sex offender three years

ago, said he hears from churches several times a month seeking advice on how to

handle such situations.

“The key lesson for

churches is this: The policy, however it winds up, must be a consensus of the

congregation,” Shockley said. “I talked to so many pastors who decided they’re

going to make the decision because they know what’s theologically and

spiritually right — and that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.”

Shockley’s church will

soon commission a minister to address prevention of child sex abuse; the church

also distributes a 20-page policy on protecting children and dealing with sex

offenders.

Shockley declined to

say how the church handled its admission of a known abuser in 2007, citing the

congregation’s limited disclosure policy.

Beyond the thorny legal

questions, theologians also find that there are often no easy answers to the

quandary of protecting children and providing worship to saints and sinners

alike.

“My own theology of

forgiveness is not that it’s a blanket statement

— ‘You are forgiven; go

and sin no more,’” said Joretta Marshall, professor of pastoral theology at

Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School. “Part of what we have to do

is create accountability structures because damage has been done.”

Sometimes, legal and

religious experts say, crimes are so severe that convicted offenders must lose

their right to worship.

New Hampshire Assistant

Attorney General Nicholas Cort argued in court documents that Perfetto should

not be permitted to change the conditions of his probation to attend a

Manchester congregation because “restricting the defendant’s access to minors

was an appropriate means of advancing the goals of probation — rehabilitation

and public safety.”

Barbara Dorris,

outreach director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said

it may be possible for convicted offenders to attend worship if “proper

safeguards are in place,” but offenders “forfeit many rights when you commit

this kind of a felony.”

In other cases, the

wording of laws has made it difficult for offenders who want to worship to be

able to attend church legally.

In North Carolina,

attorney Glenn Gerding is representing James Nichols, a convicted sex offender

who is contesting a state statute that made it illegal for him to be within 300

feet of a church’s nursery. He was arrested in a church parking lot after a

service.

“Technically a person

could go to an empty church and violate the statute if that church has a

nursery,” said Gerding, whose client was convicted in 2003 of attempted

second-degree rape and released from prison in 2008.

In Georgia, the

Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights successfully argued for the

removal of a legal provision that would have prevented registered sex offenders

from volunteering at church functions, said Sara Totonchi, executive director

of the center.

Andrew J. Schmutzer, a

professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, is editing a book called The

Long Journey Home, which includes essays from theologians and ethicists about

how churches can both address sexual abuse and predators.

“The churches are on

the cusp of trying to figure out what they can do,” he said, “without scaring

the public and without breach of confidentiality.”