[Articles & Essays - S] [Register by subject - Treatment & Help]
Churches grapple with allowing sex offenders to join spiritual community
Southcoast Today, May 25, 2008
Religious communities minister to people's spiritual needs, offering a place for healing -- but what happens when the person seeking restoration is a convicted sex offender?
The First Unitarian Church in New Bedford and the Unitarian Memorial Church in Fairhaven faced this dilemma last March, when a Level 3 sex offender asked to join their congregations.
Both churches considered the request but ultimately turned the man down.
For the Rev. Dan Harper of New Bedford's Unitarian church, the primary goal is to provide a safe and sacred environment for children, teenagers and their families.
The church ministers primarily to families with children and to empty nesters and retired people, according to the Rev. Harper. In this specific situation, which the Rev. Harper declined to talk about in detail, the church decided it could not maintain a safe environment while welcoming the offender in question.
To reach a decision, the New Bedford church -- and other churches who have faced this situation -- must weigh the needs of someone who has committed a crime, but is seeking help, against the needs and the safety of their existing congregation.
Religion, or spirituality, can play an important role in instilling values in ex-convicts who are trying to rebuild their lives, said Jodi Hockert-Lotz, the assistant deputy superintendent of classification and re-entry at the Bristol County House of Corrections.
Inmates who work with the religious groups that come into the prison and who are connected to support groups in the community tend to be more successful at adapting to post-incarceration life, she said. At the same time, it is important to keep children safe, she said.
Both the New Bedford church and the Fairhaven Unitarian Universalist Memorial Church had safe congregation policies in place prior to being approached by the offender in March.
For instance, there are always two teachers in every Sunday school class, Ms. Walsh said, and for the past four years or so, all teachers have had a criminal background check.
Those policies, however, did not cover this specific situation. Thus, Ms. Walsh said, the question church leadership asked themselves was: Can we integrate this person into our church and still make sure the children are safe?
After much research and discussion, the answer they came up with was 'No.'
The decision was not one the church leadership made lightly, she said.
They reviewed literature from the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a national organization, which suggests that congregations offer "limited access agreements" to convicted or accused sex offender.
This type of agreement would detail what aspects of church life the offender could and could not take part in. Adult worship and adult social activities would be acceptable, whereas religious education or youth group activities would be off limits, according to an article by the Rev. Debra Haffner on the UUA's Web site.
However, the Rev. Haffner writes that
The Fairhaven church's leadership also tried to understand how other churches have handled this issue and found out more about the individual in question.
Ultimately, she said,
The New Bedford and Fairhaven churches are not alone in facing this issue. The Middleboro Unitarian Universalist Church had two different known sex offenders seek to join the church in the late '90s, according to the Rev. Patricia Tummino.
The first man was invited into the church by a member who knew he was a sex offender and "saw his loneliness," the Rev. Tummino said.
When the man attended services, he would always have a "buddy" with him, according to the Rev. Tummino, someone to protect both the offender -- from any false accusations -- and the congregation.
That man ended up fully integrated into the church and though he eventually moved away, he continued to express his gratitude to the church, the Rev. Tummino said.
With the second man, however,
Church leaders tried to talk to him about his background, the Rev. Tummino said, but he tended to say what he thought they wanted him to say and made light of his crimes.
Then the man was arrested for a new sexual offense, she said, which was very emotional for the congregation.
Coming out of those incidents, the church developed a policy -- a sort of checklist -- to guide its decisions in the future.
The policy allows
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said he believes that spirituality is an important aspect of rehabilitation for ex-convicts.
Although going to church is not the only way to access spirituality, it does give people an opportunity to connect with a broader community, he said.
Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, the government cannot tell religious organizations who they must or must not accept into their congregations.
The jail sponsors a program called Residents Encounter Christ, or REC, that offers inmates options such as fellowship meetings and church services. REC also holds meetings on the outside: There's a meeting the second Sunday of each month in Fall River, and in New Bedford, a meeting is held the fourth Sunday of the month. The program also maintains a P.O. box to which current or former inmates can write.
The Rev. Haffner, who is the director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing in Westport, Conn., has written extensively on how churches can safely integrate sex offenders and often receives calls from congregations seeking advice.
However, she said, that must always be balanced against keeping the congregation's children safe, which is of paramount importance.
Ideally, churches will have a policy in place before being faced with a sex offender, according to the Rev. Haffner.
A church's approach to the topic should be two-fold: how to prevent abuse from happening in the first place, and how to handle a known sex offender -- or how to cope if a member of the community is accused of a sexual offense.
According to the Rev. Haffner, if a known sex offender is to join the congregation, the church should take certain steps:
The Rev. Roger Landry, pastor of St. Anthony's of Padua on Acushnet Avenue, said his congregation has not faced the issue of a sex offender asking to join them, but the issue has come up at the food pantry the church offers.
Many families with children use the food pantry, said Rev. Landry, so the pantry's organizers arrange separate times for the offenders to receive food.
To some, the question of whether or not to let a sex offender join a congregation raises another question:
It's a difficult -- almost impossible -- question to answer, he said. A woman taking her 5-year-old grandson to temple might react differently to a sex offender in the congregation's midst than a 35-year-old single man would, said Mr. Goodman.
What if the crime in question were not a sexual offense, but a homicide, he continued.
Religious communities do have a role to play in helping people turn their lives around, said the Rev. David Lima, executive minister of New Bedford's Inter-Church Council.
However, safety always must be the most important thing, the Rev. Lima said.
[Articles & Essays - S] [Register by subject - Treatment & Help]