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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.

"We really felt that it was something that our congregation wasn't going to be able to handle," said Catherine Walsh, president of the Board of Governors at the Fairhaven church.

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.

"We're not a big church; we're fairly small," he said.

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.

"They can never be finally reconciled," the Rev. Harper said. "It is a balancing act."

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.

"We always encourage inmates to get connected with a religious group in their community, find a church, get to know who the priest is," said Ms. Hockert-Lotz. "They need a support system. They need somewhere they can go to."

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.

"There is no easy fix for the solution," Ms. Hockert-Lotz said. "The reality is these people exist, and we can't just keep turning them away ... We need to be more creative, not create more barriers to their success."

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 

"each congregation faced with this situation will make its own decision about what is right given the particular facts and circumstances."

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.

"It was done with a lot of discussion and dialogue to make sure we were true to our principles," said Ms. Walsh.

Ultimately, she said, 

"You have to make the decision with the children and youth in the center of the decision, because they do assume that the people who are involved with the church can be trusted."

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.

"Here he felt a whole new possibility for himself," she said. "He felt that he was made ready for a healthier relationship, a new stage in his life, by his acceptance here."

With the second man, however,

"red flags were going up all over the place," according to the Rev. Tummino.

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 

"us to have the flexibility to say, 'Yes,' to someone like the first gentleman and no to someone we did not feel safe with," the Rev. Tummino said. "I feel that that's something churches have to be allowed to say."

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.

"Obviously in the case of sex offenders, it becomes a little more complicated," Sheriff Hodgson said. "There's a balance between making sure people can access, if they want to, spiritual access, but also the opportunity for worshippers to go to church and not worry about other parishioners."

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.

"I do feel that this decision should be a careful process that involves really determining whether a particular individual is safe to participate in the adult life of the community," she said. "These are people who have needs too. Again, I think we have an obligation to offer ministry and support to people."

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: 

Find out the person's story and history; talk with his parole officer and treatment providers; 

set limits on his access; and 

make sure he has a support system in the church, a group of people who know his story.

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.

"We have encountered a few (sex offenders) in our lines for our food pantries on Thursdays," he said.

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.

"We do try to exercise some vigilance," he said.

To some, the question of whether or not to let a sex offender join a congregation raises another question: 

"Where is it that you draw the line?" asked Milton Goodman, the executive director at Tifereth Israel, a synagogue on Brownell Avenue in New Bedford.

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.

"Obviously, (homicide is) a heinous crime," said Mr. Goodman. "What do we do to that person? Do we not let him come to services? At some point, a community -- religious community -- has to say, 'That's not our job to monitor this behavior.'"

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.

"There are many people who make mistakes in life, and society sometimes says, 'This is not a mistake. This is an animal that has to be put away,'" he said. "Sometimes it's just a life that has to be changed."

However, safety always must be the most important thing, the Rev. Lima said.

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