I am a licensed marriage and family therapist certified to provide court ordered sex offender assessments and treatment. Most of my clients are extremely socially isolated. I have indicated to those in my treatment group that they are welcome to come to my church.
Recently I was pleased when a member of my sex offender treatment group accepted my invitation to attend my church. Because he was required by his probation officer to notify the church's leadership of his desire to attend the church, I arranged a meeting to introduce him to our pastor and the moderator of the cabinet.
The meeting, however, did not go well. It seemed clear from the start that our leaders were uncomfortable with the idea of having a sex offender in our worship even though he would be accompanied by another responsible adult and would never be involved in any children's programs. My premonition was confirmed when they informed the petitioner, "that we would have to deny your request to attend our church."
It seems to me that there are two serious problems with this decision. The first problem is that it is based either on ignorance or an irrational fear or both.
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On September 29, 2012, the Herald-Leader reported on the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl at Southland Christian Church. According to Matt Branaugh, editorial director of the church law tax group at Christianity Today, "In 2011, allegations involving child sex abuse were the top reason that churches were in state appellate and federal courts nationwide."
According to Kentucky State Police Lt. Shane Bates, commander of the electronic crimes unit, "It's not the scary, demonized, back-alley person that we always warn kids about in 'stranger danger' talks. It could be the person coaching your team. It could be the person at your church."
In contrast to the danger posed by those already ministering to children, I have never heard of the abuse of a child at a church by a convicted sex offender on a public registry.
Children in a church are more at risk of being abused by staff or volunteers than by a convicted and supervised sex offender who attends. Turning a sex offender away from the church in order to protect the children has no rational basis.
The second problem with the refusal to allow a sex offender to attend my own church is the inconsistency with that decision and the mission of the church to continue the ministry of Jesus, who did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. A hospital exists to serve the sick. A church exists to serve the sinner. A hospital that refuses to admit the sick has denied its reason for existence. A church that refuses to admit the sinner has denied its reason for existence. The words of Pope Francis are relevant: "Being with Jesus demands that we go out from ourselves, and from a tired and habitual faith."
Paradoxically, excluding sex offenders with restrictive laws regarding where they can live and rejecting them in public worship serves to increase the risk of reoffending. We put our children more at risk when we do not reach out to these men and women in compassion in order to reintegrate them into our community.
Thankfully, some churches have policies that both guide their ministry to sex offenders and protect children. As a professional credentialed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky to assess and treat sex offenders I would like to offer my services to any church or other group that would like to learn more about these criminals and how we can responsibly reintegrate them into society as productive citizens.