Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Sex Offenders and your Youth Ministry: What Would You Do?

    I had a conversation recently with a colleague who has run into a challenging situation regarding youth and boundaries.  Maybe you can help.

    A young man, whose family attends the pastor's church, has recently begun attending again after a conviction for a sex offense.  He is now a registered sexual offender and has been in counseling with the pastor.  The pastor feels the young man is not a threat to the congregation and the young man has agreed to follow guidelines such as always having a chaperone when he is on church property and having no direct contact with the children or youth of the church.  The congregation has appropriate boundary policies in place to make certain no youth or children are left alone with adults.  

    So here's the question:  How much of this situation does the pastor share with his or her congregation? Who is in a "need to know" position regarding this young man's legal status?  How would you communicate this information to those who will be affected by the young man's presence? Would your own church welcome such an individual? (Feel free to contact me email if you prefer more anonymity.)


    Chris S. said...

    We have actually had two of these cases over the past couple years and it has worked well for us to simply communicate the information to a few key people in the children's min & youth min and keep it to that. Everyone doesn't need to know and having everyone know would probably create more of a problem than actually having the guy around church since he is being upfront and willing to work within the guidelines that have been set up.

    Brian Kirk said...

    Thanks Chris! In my conversation with this pastor, we thought what you are suggesting here might be the right way to go, but having never encountered this situation before, it's helpful to hear from someone who has.

    Brian Kirk said...

    One reader responded to me via email and suggested connecting with the Mennonite Central Committee's Restorative Justice program. MCC creates "Circles" around former sexual offenders to provide them support in reintegrating to society and reducing the risk of re-offending...the MCC staff can help set the parameters for how it might work to protect the individual and young people.

    Here are the links to that help:

    Anonymous said...

    I agree with Chris, although we haven't actually had the situation happen at our church.

    Anne Jackson wrote about this topic a year or so ago, and I thought the comments were really interesting:

    Brian Kirk said...

    Thanks for the link!

    Indie said...

    I have really mixed feelings about this. I don't think that we should bar people from church. But, when I was in high school, we had a teen who was a sex offender in our youth group. It was a small community and pretty much everyone knew. I don't know what the church leadership's official plan was, but I do know that when I was 16 years old I saw him walk into a dark empty room with a toddler in his arms. Nobody except me noticed. Where the hell was the leadership of the church who I know for a fact knew about the situation? I followed him, tore the toddler out of his arms, and took her back out. But as a 16 year old I didn't know to do what I would do now, call the police, his parole officer, his parents, the girl's parents, etc. I can only pray that he never did it again, but who knows?

    As a Christian, I want to be welcoming to everyone, but as a parent, it scares the hell out of me that you all think that "telling a few key people" is enough. Its not enough. Someone has to be on his ass every single moment. EVERY moment. You have to follow him into the damn bathroom because boys will be in there too. EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. If you can do this, then go ahead and welcome him with open arms. But please, please, please don't just tell a few key people.

    If you want to understand how potentially dangerous this is to your young people then read Bill Zeller's suicide note. This is what sexual abuse does to people.

    Brian Kirk said...

    Indie, thanks for your heartfelt comments. You name some important issues here and make clear that this is not a simple issue to figure out. I agree that constant supervision of this person is a necessity -- and many churches have holes in their boundary policies that sexual predators are waiting to exploit. My camping program was set to join another camping program this summer until it became clear that they were willing to house kids in cabins with just one adult (our policy mandates it be two unrelated adults). They argued that they put only their most trusted adults alone with children. This is s perfect example of the sort of exception in a boundaries policy that predators are waiting to exploit.

    Joe said...

    My question would be is he even legally allowed to be in the building because minors will be present? I would find out what the judges ruling was so that first off no laws are broken. I lean towards protecting the children. This man can get "discipleship and fellowship" from a mens small group or some setting like that. He needs restoration but not at the risk of the kids. I was personal friends with a yp who had a shaky sexual past even just before going on staff at a church. The church took a chance on him because he was the "whole package", the right looks, charisma, leadership, etc. Needless to say he is currently serving a multi year prison sentence for sexual offenses with a minor. My default button says look for a way to minister to the individual but don't allow ANY opportunity for kids to be at risk. My guess is if there was a conviction your individual probably will not be able to be on property when children are present with or without supervision.

    Anonymous said...

    We actually face this quite a bit, because we check every visitor we know about against the national sex offender registry, and every so often, a visitor matches someone on the registry. Here's what we do:

    -Every ministry lead that has the ability to clear an adult to volunteer or is in charge of a particular area is alerted about this person, including a photo when available.

    -The registered sex offender is contacted by a particular member of our staff (same person every time) for the regular "welcome call" (every new person gets a call from someone, so this isn't out of the ordinary). During the conversation, she tells the person that we are glad he/she is here, and that because they are a registered sex offender, they are not permitted to have any contact with minors as a condition of being a part of our church family. And we do keep a close eye on this.

    -of course, this all requires that we have solid policies in place, which we do (secure check-in areas, young children are can only be checked out by parents and those the parents approve, background checks on all volunteers, and NEVER less than two people in a room with minors).

    It's a sticky situation, and you never want to turn away someone who is truly seeking God. But here's our philosophy: anyone who doesn't like us being up front about it and leaves probably wasn't here for the right reasons, and we have the sacred responsibility of loving our children and youth.

    Indie: you're right that sometimes we think that as long as a few people know, everything will be okay. Good policies are necessary, and the fact is that those who are repentant will actually embrace the restrictions.

    Thanks for covering an important topic, Brian!

    Brian Kirk said...

    Benjer, thanks for sharing your experiences. I think it is particularly important to note that if an adult is unwilling to go through the background check process, or commit to the boundary rules that are in place, is waving a red flag - that's a person who does not need to be involved in your ministry anyway.

    trazy said...

    A similar situation just recently arose in our youth ministry as well. It involved a student sex offender (middle school age). It wasn't much of an issue until we had an overnight event that his guardian couldn't attend. At that point, I made the decision to tell one of our volunteers that it was his responsibility to follow that student all night - not obvious to the other students, but just because he couldn't legally be in a room alone with any student under 13.
    Just myself and this other leader know about it and it seems like enough.

    As a family member of a sex offender, I am particularly concerned with privacy about this issue. With students, we have to respect the law, but also understand juvenile mistakes. Too many people knowing would blow it out of proportion. With adults, care needs to be taken to protect the students, but also the adults. When "concerned" people find out, it can blow up and not only push them out of church, but push them out of society. Where's Jesus in that?

    Marie said...

    Some of the basics for the program established for all of our church's is as follows:

    1. Anyone working with children or youth in any church sponsored activity or event must submit to a criminal background check and attend a two hour long orientation of identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect and maintaining a safe environment.

    Background checks are viewed by one person only and if there is a concern, that person is notified of why they cannot work with youth. The pastor, youth minister, or coordinator of children is notified that the person cannot work with youth.

    2. Adults are to be "two deep" with children and youth at all times, meaning you are to have two adults present when there are children or youth. All of our meeting room doors have unobstructed windows and any door without a window remains open.

    3. In our facility, when there is children or youth events being held, only parents or volunteers are permitted to be present. All adults working or volunteering with our programs wear photo name badges so that they can be identified as "safe environment trained" by our children and youth.

    Therefore, while anyone with a criminal history of harming or endangering children are free to attend church events, they would not be permitted to volunteer or be present for youth sponsored events.

    Marie said...

    The policy for protecting our children is proactive rather than reactive. Part of what has been established is as follows:

    1. Anyone seeking to volunteer or work with youth of our church must submit to a criminal background check. Should there be a concern, they are contacted and informed and the Pastor and Youth Minister is told they are not permitted to work with youth. Adults "passing" the background check must then attend a 3 hour workshop on identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect and how to create a safe environment for children. They also must obtain three recommendations from family and friends. These must all be met before the adult can begin working with youth.

    2. There must be two adults present at all times whenever there are youth present for functions or events.

    3. At youth sponsored events or functions, only "qualified" volunteers and parents are permitted in the facility. These adults are identified by ID name badges so the youth know who is a "safe environment" adult.

    Parents must check in with our volunteer at the front desk and be escorted if they are going anywhere past the front desk area of our facilities.

    4. All of our meeting room doors have unobstructed windows in them Any door without a window must remain open during meeting times.

    Brian Kirk said...

    Trazy, thanks for sharing your experience. You point out, I think, why grace needs to be part of our discernment around this issue.

    Marie, I think your list of boundaries is excellent and very helpful. These parameters, carefully followed, would go a long way to ensure that all in your care are being respected and protected.

    KtMcEwen said...

    I am really struggling with this issue. We have a member of our smallish home church that is reconciling with her husband. I know this is what God would want, however, while they were separated there was an issue with an underage niece he was living with. He is now out on parole, and wishes to come to our church. The pastor wants him to come. I am the mother of 11 children. 2 of them have been adopted, and a sibling set of 5 are in the process of being adopted. Most of them come from sexually abused situations, where the parents did not protect there children from the person committing the crime. I just don't know how to attend church with this person. I know I need to forgive, but how do I turn my head to what he has done? We meet in the pastors home, and can try to supervise him, but the kids have enjoyed the freedom of being able to go play after service. I don't think it is fair for them to lose this freedom. We eat a meal together every Sunday after service. Further more, prayer service would be at his house on Thursdays if they fully reconcile. What would the Department of Children and Families say if they knew we were meeting at a sexual predators house? I love this church, and they are our support group, my heart is heavy!

    Sarah said...

    Just read a fantastic article from Christianity Today on integrating sex offenders at church. To start, the church should have a copy of Safe Sanctuaries:Reducing Risk of Abuse in the Church for children and youth and Reducing the Risk: Keeping your ministry Safe from Child Sexual Abuse in their library; and an updated Child Protection policy.
    This article also pointed me to their resources: that comes from a law perspective and the said offender signing a 'covenant agreement.'
    Churches are seriously liable if this person reoffends while on their property; not to mention the major pastoral care involved for the entire church!

    David said...

    If it's possible without "outing" the person, let your community know that sometimes sex offenders and those without convictions but who have present or past sex-offender-like attitudes visit and the church, following Christ's example to the thief on the cross, will welcome any truly repentant sinner. Then remind the church of your existing policies and practices that help keep children safe but also remind them that no policy or practice is a 100% guarantee. Offer age-appropriate "child safe" training to children and teens and offer seminars to parents so that even when the church policy and practice isn't followed or isn't sufficient the child or teen knows enough to protect himself and the parents know what to do when the child reports an incident.

    If you can do so without pressuring the person, ask if he wouldn't mind "going public" as part of a child-safety-awareness program. If values his privacy, honor that, but if he is okay being known to the whole church it opens doors of communication and reconciliation that would otherwise remain closed.

    Finally, there are only a few good reasons to deny a sex-offender a place to worship that I can think of and hopefully the last two only crop up in a very small number of churches:
    * You have reason to believe he is insincere.
    * You have reason to believe he lacks self-control and you do not have the resources to shadow him 24/7. You may, for example, be worried that he will contact single parents by telephone.
    * You are a very small church in a building where a person can hide and you do not have the resources to make sure he isn't inadvertently in the same hallway or bathroom as a child or to provide security-camera coverage to provide accountability.
    * Your church or its members are so highly impacted by sexual abuse that the person's mere presence will either trigger a high amount of pain or it will compromise the work of your church. Examples include a church who just saw their pastor convicted of molesting church members or a church with a high percentage of people who are early in their own healing from child sexual abuse.

    Nathan said...

    I am now an Associate Minister but before that I actually worked as Sex Offender Probation Officer.
    The question always came up as to wether they could go to church or not. I would encourage you to set up a few boundaries for the individual. For example make sure he sits at the front of the church so he cannot see other children or youth and fantasize about them. Also make sure he isn't passing by the nursery or youth rooms. I would let the church leadership know because of the potential lawsuit implications. For example if he reoffends and it is someone in the congregation in which he does and the pastor knows he is a sex offender how legally liable is the church for allowing him access?
    I have struggled with this exact situation for many years. I believe as Christians we cannot prevent anyone from worshipping God or hearing the Good News but we also have a responsibility to our little ones to ensure that church is always a safe place for them.
    On my specific caseload it was unfortunate that most of the offenders either were related to the victim or they met them at church. Have the pastor call the probation or parole officer who has his case and find out more about his offense to better taylor a program of support that helps him.
    Peace and Towels,

    Brian Kirk said...

    Nathan and David, thanks for adding to the conversation on this complex issue. It helps hearing different perspectives.

    71Sunshine said...

    This is to Nathan- My former youth minister is now a registered sex offender and he served 10 years in prison for sexual assault of a minor. He was innapropriate w/ a teen in my youth group (she testified against him), he left my church and went to another church. He had sex with a girl there. She was at least 18. He then went to another church where he began a sexual relationship with a 13 year old. He was discovered, the church asked him to resign and they let him go. He continued the relationship and ran away with the girl. They were caught and he was arrested. She was then 15. He served his time, was released in 2005 and has been a minister again at my church for almost 2 years and he very much has a leadership role in the church. I was a very close friend of his- one of his few supporters. The lightbulb began to come on in my head after he came back. I am uncomfortable with this situation and I believe he is still "playing the game". Thoughts?

    Brian Kirk said...

    71Sunshine - without a doubt this person should never have anything to do with teens or young children...period. I would hope that any church he might approach to work with their youth would run a background check and discover his background.