When someone who is a registered sex offender shows up at church and wants to participate — even in such a simple way as attending worship — what should church leaders do?
There is a five-step process pastors and lay leaders should follow, according to two panelists at a workshop titled “Grace vs. Law: Should Churches Welcome Known Sex Offenders?” The Aug. 26 workshop was part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s 2021 virtual general assembly.
While there are some possible ways to allow participation by some registered sex offenders in some circumstances, the number of successes will be extremely low, according to Jay Kieve, CBF’s global abuse prevention and response advocate, and Carrie Nettles, an Alliance of Baptists-endorsed chaplain at the Julie Valentine Center in Greenville, S.C.
“I would much rather apologize for taking too much precaution than to apologize for children being harmed.”
They acknowledged the desire of most churches to welcome all people to worship as a good impulse. However, they warned that protecting congregants — and especially children — from predatory behavior must take priority.
“I would much rather apologize for taking too much precaution than to apologize for children being harmed,” Kieve said during a question-and-answer session.
One of the foremost barriers is the manipulative personality of true sex offenders, according to Nettles, Kieve and others participating in the virtual conversation.
“With this population of people, start by assuming they are lying,” said Nettles, who works with rape victims.
Even if they try to explain that a past situation wasn’t really as bad as others reported it to be, church leaders should beware, she explained. “That is the MO of most perpetrators, to use a known truth to come across as genuine. There’s usually a drastic difference in what really happened.”
This is an urgent issue for church leaders to think about in advance, Nettles said, because sex offenders like to come to church. She reported that 93% of sex offenders identify as “very religious,” and, “the ones who are more religious have more offenses and more victims.”
Kieve and Nettles offered five steps for congregational leaders to take when considering if and how to allow a known sex offender to participate in church activities.
First, never allow a known offender into the community with their victims. “The church isn’t the sanctuary for people anymore if they are forced to worship alongside their offender,” Nettles said.
Even if a repentant offender wants to attend church, they should not be allowed to attend alongside the person or persons they offended, she said. One loving response is to help such offenders find other communities that could welcome them and provide safe boundaries.
Second, pay attention to discovery versus disclosure. “We want offenders to come and disclose their status before they become a part of the community of faith,” Kieve said, adding if they don’t disclose but are discovered, that should be an “immediate disqualification.”
If a known or convicted sex offender does disclose their record in advance, “we want to see repentant behavior,” Kieve added. Disclosure is not enough without evidence of repentance.
Nettles said congregational leaders should ask what charges were filed against the person, as well as what they were convicted of (those may be different). “If they don’t fully disclose, that is red-flag behavior. A fully repentant person will be fully willing to accept the consequences of their behaviors.”
Third, start with no and move toward yes. “The church’s inclination is to begin with yes,” Kieve noted, but this is one case where it is best to begin with a no and then seek reasons to move toward a yes as more information is gathered and verified.
Fourth, get help from professionals before including offenders. They advised seeking help from local police units that deal with sex offenders or local therapists or nonprofits with expertise. “Find people who can help you understand the offender’s experience on your way to yes,” Kieve said.
This is important because most church leaders are too trusting and don’t know to be wary of the kind of compulsive behavior that drives most sex offenders, she added. “Reach out and connect with your local rape crisis center or child crisis center. These are some of the people who know the MO of sex offenders and how they operate. Also reach out to the law enforcement division that deals with such crimes.”
Fifth, everyone needs to know. Unlike the kind of privacy that would be appropriate for many other offenses, information about the presence of a sex offender in the congregation must be shared with the congregation in some way, they advised. To understand why this is essential, Kieve said, imagine a family with young children who sees a person at church, then sees that person at the grocery store and doesn’t know not to begin a friendly relationship that could make their children vulnerable.
Information about the presence of a sex offender in the congregation must be shared with the congregation in some way.
Nevertheless, congregations that need to disclose the presence of a sex offender in the congregation can find gentle ways of doing so that are not about shaming, he said. “The purpose is not to heap more trouble on the person.”
Beyond these five steps, there are other practical considerations Kieve and Nettles discussed, such as limiting where in the building a sex offender may go; prohibiting volunteering or interacting with children or youth, if that is the nature of their offense; and creating a team of three to five people to be present with the sex offender at all times on the church campus.
Kieve and Nettles offered a handout that included a model policy churches might adapt for their own use. It reads:
Safe Baptist Church seeks to demonstrate the love of Christ for the world by being open to, and accepting of, all people who seek to be a child of God. In order to be a safe place for all who attend, individuals who must register as sexual offenders (“offenders”) must comply with the following policy in order to participate in the congregational life of Safe Baptist Church.
Safe Baptist Church retains the right to deny attendance, participation, and/or membership to any individual who fails to comply with this policy. Furthermore, Safe Baptist retains sole discretion to deny attendance, participation, and/or membership to any person whose behavior, criminal conviction, and/or sexual offender status gives reason to believe that person would endanger others, regardless of policy compliance. Additionally, offenders are disqualified from participation if their victims are members/attenders of the church. Failure to comply with Safe Baptist Church’s request to vacate the campus or activity will result in reporting to law enforcement for criminal trespassing.
When a known sexual offender seeks participation with Safe Baptist Church, the senior pastor or designee will consult an independent child safeguarding specialist to evaluate the participation request and formulate a ministry plan. The proposed plan must include notification to the congregation of the presence of the known offender and the protocols being put into place.