By Linda Crockett, Director of Safe Communities
“In July of 2011, just two years into my new role as minister, a victim disclosed to me that she had been sexually abused by my father, the former preacher at my congregation. Within seconds, my life began to unravel. My childhood hero was now a villain who had dozens of victims–all of whom were humiliated and violated in the worst possible way,” said Pastor Jimmy Hinton who blogs at www.jimmyhinton.org.
Jimmy Hinton’s dad is serving a 30-60-year sentence for sex crimes against dozens of children. A recent blog post he wrote titled “Why Chaperoning Abusers at Church is Unwise” got my attention, because our Safe Church program does include policy making around safely integrating sexual offenders into a congregation. In his post, Pastor Hinton critiques common “covenant” agreements churches make when including sex offenders in their congregation.
I don’t know Pastor Hinton, but I will say that he knows what he is talking about. The kind of “chaperoning” he describes is dangerous and naïve and does little to protect vulnerable children.
Studies have also shown that nearly 90% of convicted child sex offenders describe themselves as “very religious” and thought churches were easy to operate within. Many of them marry and some have children of their own. It is easy to prey on kids if you appear respectable, are a volunteer or church leader, and “speak Christianese.”
I will not argue with those who say that the greatest risk are the offenders who have not ever been caught. This is most definitely true, as child sexual abuse is a vastly underreported crime and prosecution is difficult, especially when the victims are very young. Many children do not disclose sexual violation until mid-life adulthood, if ever.
Safe Communities works with religious and non-religious institutions to protect kids from sexual harm. We have engaged thousands of people in congregations in our core Safe Church curriculum since creating it in 2011. (And NO, we are not one of “safe church” programs written by insurance companies or offered by some denominations). We are a third generation, social movement building, and culture shifting prevention program focused on preventing sexual abuse before it happens.
Our recommended practices and training on integrating “known” sexual offenders into a congregation have gotten more robust over the years, based on our experiences in the field. By “known”, I mean those who have been adjudicated by a court to have committed a sexual offense against a child under age 18. Integrating some offenders can be done safely and well, but it takes a considerable amount of time and resource. We have worked with churches that have successfully done this, but it cannot happen before the congregation, not just a few leaders, are educated about how to keep children safe from sexual harm – within and outside of the church.
The type of offender “covenant” Hinton described in his blog, and the laissez-faire prevention practices used by many churches, would in all probability not stop an offender like his father. Nor would it stop the offenders we have encountered in our Safe Church program who refuse to sign covenants we design because they are “too restrictive.” Big clue here: If a sex offender refuses to accept severe restrictions around interactions with kids, that’s a RED FLAG. Child sexual abuse at its core is about abuse of power and violation of boundaries.
For many congregations, offering hospitality to known sex offenders is based on their interpretations of biblical passages about forgiveness, restoration and grace. I cannot count the times I have heard leaders, when asked to establish very strict boundaries for participation of known sex offenders and be fully transparent with the congregation that an offender is worshipping among them, say something like “But he is a new man in Jesus! He has been washed clean of his sin, and we can’t shame him by disclosing his identity. We’ll just have the elders keep an eye on him and not let him lead in any children’s programs.”
This. Does. Not. Work.
Filled with the language of grace but very few actual restrictions and consequences for breaking the rules, these types of covenants put children and teens at risk – not only within the congregation but in the local community. Children are apt to believe this person is “safe” when they are groomed by him (or her) at church, the library, the park, or their sports team. After all, if he attends their church and no one has warned them he is NOT safe around kids, why wouldn’t a child believe the person to be “safe”? For those not familiar with the term, ‘grooming’ is a strategic process many offenders use to gain a child’s trust and establish a non-sexual relationship in preparation for molestation. It may include grooming the target’s parents as well. Tragically, it usually works. 90% of children who are molested are not violated by strangers, but someone their family knows and trusts.
Parents who are not educated about offenders and how they operate will easily include these folks in their social circles beyond the church setting. We have healing groups for parents of kids who were sexually abused, many of them by someone the parents trusted at church. The impact on these parents is enormous and they often blame themselves. A busy senior pastor in a large congregation with many children and teens said to me once “can’t you just give me something I can do in a few hours?”
The answer to that is no…not if you are serious about keeping kids safe. I wanted to ask him if the parents of the hundreds of kids entrusted to his programs understood that he had things more important to concern himself with than keeping their kids safe from sexual abuse. I wish I had.
Here are a few points for safety for including known child sexual offenders into a church congregation. This is not a “how to” guide or a comprehensive list.
1. Do not attempt to welcome a known sex offender into your congregation unless you have first engaged in a process of fully educating all of the adults – parents, grandparents, and everyone who has a child out there that they love about child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Education on how offenders groom children, parents, and entire congregations is basic prevention.
– When your adults have been fully equipped, it’s time to educate the kids about healthy boundaries and how to stay safe from sexual harm – at home, school, church, and in cyber space. Faith-based curriculums can incorporate your values as well as communicate necessary safety information. By not talking about sexual abuse, it leaves your children extremely vulnerable to it.
2. The church’s basic child protection policy should include the minimum standards you will use when considering including any known sex offender and the policy should be widely available to the congregation.
– Minimum policy standards should include a group of supervisors separate from any fellowship group established for the offender. These supervisors should be trained in the dynamics of offenders and are responsible for accompanying the offender whenever on church property, and for directing children away from any contact or conversation with him or her. Their job is to ensure the rules are followed.
3. A standing ‘Child Protection Committee’ charged with prioritizing the safety of children and also trained on sexual abuse prevention and offender dynamics should review each request for inclusion of an offender. This group should also review court documents, arrest records, the status on any state registry listing, and talk to any parole or probation officers involved in the case.
– If the committee agrees, a specific covenant may be offered to that offender that includes details but in no case allows policy standards to be bypassed. Not all offenders are appropriate for inclusion in a particular church after review of the case specifics. It is OK to say no to a certain offender.
4. Covenants for each offender add restrictions and details, but do NOT fall below the minimum policy standard. Details include things like which worship service the offender is permitted to attend, bathroom procedures, prohibition of certain facility locations where children are concentrated, where to sit during worship, and much more.
5. Understand that this is a “lifetime” covenant and does not end when parole is finished or the offender is removed from being listing in a registry. When a person’s offense was many years ago, we tend to think the danger has passed. Yet research shows much higher recidivism risks at 15 – 25 years post crime for offenders who molest children vs those who assault adults. As child sex offenders age, recidivism rates go up, not down.
6. Be fully transparent with the congregation. In these days of easily accessible electronic news and court records, if you don’t tell them, I can almost guarantee someone in the congregation will find out, even if it may take a little time. People who are actively parenting, as well as adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often feel betrayed by church leaders if they have not been told. Before you have the offender first attend a worship service:
– Offer several education sessions for parents and others about how to talk to their children, at age appropriate levels, about having no contact with the offender. It is actually a good opportunity for deeper education about protecting kids!
– Since 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are violated before age 18, the number of adult survivors is statistically quite high in any congregation. You won’t know who most of them are, as their wounds are invisible, and many are silent about what happened to them. Including a known sex offender, even with a very strict policy, can be triggering and reactivate old trauma. Offer support groups for survivors to process the news that an offender will be worshipping with them and to offer additional support.
– Identify the offender and direct him to sit in a certain place during a particular worship service. This allows parents, survivors, and others to keep good boundaries and gives them much needed predictability. Congregants who feel able should be encouraged to sit near the offender and fellowship and socialize!
In conclusion, the only real solution is for a church to invest in proactive prevention before even thinking about including “known” sexual offenders. This means changing the culture of the congregation to one in which child sexual abuse is openly talked about, parents are educated about how offenders operate, and kids are taught about how to stay safe from sexual harm. The quick fix of a boiler plate policy and periodic training for volunteers or staff is not going to protect kids. Nor is “keeping an eye” on an offender with untrained chaperones. We have many horrifying stories to tell you if you think that is enough.
We also have some inspiring stories to tell you about churches who have done the hard work of creating safe environments for children as well as empowering spaces for adult survivors.
We agree with you, Jimmy Hinton, and applaud the work you are doing to advocate against child sexual abuse and raise awareness about the tactics used by child molesters.
If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, contact Lizz Durbin at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss all of the programs we offer and how we could resource your organization!