“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.
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
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
“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.”
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
“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.”