William was slight of build, quiet, and a little hard of hearing. He didn’t look to be in his early thirties. If one would venture a guess, William would be identified as a 20-year-old. Beneath his boyish appearance was a history that is so similar to those who end up in prison. In and out of foster care. Moved from school to school. Labeled as a special education student early on by both teachers and peers. William lived on the edge of his social surroundings. Consequently, his social IQ was low, and his perspective-taking barely developed.
William ended up in prison, after serving a stint in the Navy, because of bad judgment. He met a young woman at a party. She lied about her age. He believed her, and they had sex. Her parents found out and were not very happy to discover that their 16-year-old had slept with a 33-year-old man. And that’s how William ended up in a medium-security men’s prison, where he participated in a sex offender treatment program.
The laws we have promulgated have created quite a large tent under which many, many acts are labeled sex offenses. From statutory rape, as in William’s case, to downloading internet pornography, to incest, the law paints with a broad brush. Once convicted and labeled a sex offender, no matter what the underlying crime may be, the stigma is attached for the rest of your life—whether successfully released from counseling programs or not. The difficulty in finding housing and employment are magnified when one has been labeled as a sex offender.
Are They Welcome?
In many ways, those who have committed sex offenses are the lepers of our time. Living, but not living fully, in society. While many crimes are heinous, most all of those labeled as sex offenders return to our communities. The question is, “Where do they go?” And for followers of Jesus, the question begs, “Are they welcome into the sacred spaces we have created as our churches and congregations?”
I began encountering those convicted of sex offenses when the Disciples of Christ in Kentucky began a prison congregation inside a men’s medium-security prison. Because this prison was the principal one offering a sex offender treatment (requiring completion if one wished to be paroled), there were a large number of men who had committed these crimes. We welcomed them into our prison congregation. For many, this was a safe place and a place where they heard that God was loving, forgiving, and merciful.
William was a regular and active church member. Like so many people in prison, particularly those convicted of sex offenses, his early childhood was a painful, tragic series of abusive events. He hoped to overcome that when he was released. He asked me if there was a church home that would welcome and accept him.
Hmm. This burning question opened several doors and, among other things, led to the formation of circles of support and accountability using the principles of restorative justice to work with sex offenders returning to the community. One of our Disciples of Christ churches, which had come to worship with us behind the bars, agreed to have several members trained and form such a group in order to work with William. The pastor and the elders were consulted, and a group was formed to assist William as he made his way back into society. Protocols were established in the church to assure safe boundaries. Concerned parents were consulted. Meetings were held to calm fears.
Upon his release from prison, his support group helped equip him for life in the community. At worship, he was accompanied by one of his group members. He made the transition. It wasn’t always easy. Mini-crises arose. Social skills had to be taught. Fearful congregation members had to be comforted. Along the way, William made some bone-headed decisions, but his support group never abandoned him.
On Easter Sunday, nearly a year after William had been released from prison after serving nearly five years, he was baptized in what had become his home church. The congregation understood, through the wise teaching of its pastors, that welcome meant welcome. Being prepared and vigilant was a key component of that. Education, awareness, and open communication were key. The love of Christ was at the heart of the process.
Providing Safe Sanctuary
If our churches don’t prepare themselves for such a welcome, who will? What we know is that those who are sex offenders are drawn to our churches because we are often so welcoming. We covet new members and volunteers. But we need to be wise as foxes because these folks aren’t a known commodity, as was William. There is a need for protocols that set healthy and safe boundaries. Background checks for those who volunteer with children and youth are essential. Education and awareness of those who may be predators are important components of Christian education. We can welcome because that’s what Jesus told us to do. He showed us how. It is up to us to do just that wisely and warmly.
William has relocated and is doing well. Well, that is with the continuing stigma shadowing him. Life for him will never be easy. But he has managed to work, find housing, and stay out of prison. For many, that’s a low bar of achievement, but for those who have been convicted of a sex offense, it’s a mark of success.
If you would like more information about implementing safe sanctuary protocols and policies in your congregation, please contact me. Proactive, preventive steps will serve your community of faith well. There are a lot of resources out there. If you have had success in your community of faith working with someone who has been convicted of a sex offense, please let me know. The more success stories we share, the more welcoming we can become.
Questions to Consider
- How does your congregation screen those who wish to work with children and youth?
- What are the barriers you see your congregation (or you) having to overcome to prepare for welcoming people convicted of sex offenses?
- What concerns and protections are there in place in your congregation for those who may have been victims of sex offenses when a known sex offender visits your congregation?
For a good introductory article with a list of helpful resources, see: “Integrating Sex Offenders at Church: Inclusion and Safety in Difficult Situations,” by Marian V. Liautaud, in Christianity Today, December 2010. View Liautaud’s online article and purchase the “Sex Offenders and the Church” report resource.