Registered sex offenders abound. And while the Episcopal Church takes steps to prevent sex offenders from serving in various roles in the church, it ignores registered sex offenders who may attend or join a parish. That poses a significant risk, both to children and vulnerable adults.
While estimates vary, some sources report as many as 917,771 registered sex offenders in the U.S. That, of course, accounts only for those who have been caught and successfully prosecuted.
Even worse, studies suggest the vast majority of cases go unreported. For example, one study of 561 clinically diagnosed pedophiles suggested 281.7 illicit acts with an average of 150.2 partners. Meanwhile, one in four girls and one in six boys experience sexual abuse before adulthood. Similarly, only about a third of violent rapes are reported, while pedophiles who are polygraphed say most of their crimes go undetected.
Thus, persons not in leadership or volunteer roles may undermine the church’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse simply by being outside existing policies.
So what do you do if a registered sex offender shows up in church?
- Ignore the situation and keep your fingers crossed? This is the likely outcome, given the church’s lack of urgency and accountability. It may also result in a devastating blow to your parish’s reputation.
- Demand the offender leave? This is within your rights, but it may raise difficult questions about forgiveness and the church’s “All are Welcome. No Exceptions.” thing.
- Offer support and care if the offender is genuinely sorry? Doing so will raise hackles among some members, but it may be possible.
Similarly, what do you do if you learn on the grapevine that someone has boundary issues with children?
Maybe not enough to file criminal charges, but enough to set off alarm bells. These boundary issues may include inappropriate incidents with children. Or grooming behaviors intended to pull a child into a bad situation?
For the record, every parish experiences this situation at some point. Simply put, abuse is so common it’s a given.
Preparation is Key
The time to answer these questions is not once a predicament looms. Instead, all dioceses, schools, and churches should have written policies in place to deal with sex offenders. These policies should include:
- Identifying and publicizing methods to report concerns.
- Assigning clear responsibility for follow-up.
- Preparing a written action plan.
- Obtaining outside legal review of your plan.
It’s essential to learn about these issues.
For instance, there is a big difference between an adult pedophile with multiple victims and a teen who had sex with an under-aged partner.
Nor should you limit your focus to children. All of us are vulnerable at various points in our lives. So how can you protect adults who may be at risk?
Similarly, various laws may come into play. For example, is it legal for this person to attend an event where children are present? What are the terms of their release? Are they under court supervision? What about your church school?
Your insurer may be able to help. And consider consulting with outside legal counsel, preferably not a parishioner.
Discuss the matter
A sex offender in your church is not something to keep secret. Yet you also don’t want to be sued for invasion of privacy.
So, work with legal counsel to decide who needs to know. Then, plan how to share the information.
Establish an agreement
A sex offender who wants to be part of parish life must agree to full disclosure. This may include waiving privacy rights concerning ongoing mental health care.
Other conditions may apply, including:
- Receiving continuing counseling;
- Having an accountability partner; and
- Restricting participation. For instance, attending Sunday worship may be okay, but unsupervised parish events are off-limits.
Also important is context. For example, if your church has a large building and all the members have keys, you risk providing hiding places for misconduct. On the other hand, if yours is a small church and only the priest and wardens have keys, you may face less risk.
Consider how you will stay up to date on things. For instance, how will you determine if the offender violates his parole? Or offends again?
And how will you respond if the offender breaks his agreement? Priests are often conflict-adverse. But that won’t work in this situation.
For example, if you observe grooming behavior, what happens next? Will the offender be barred from the physical property? Will he be reported to his probation officer?
Also, consider how to respond to irrational complaints. For example, sitting in the same pew as a family with children may be okay. But an overly tired parent may disagree, even though nothing inappropriate happens.
Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. Counselors, probation officers, police officers, physicians, and other clergypersons may all be able to help.
Handle each situation individually
One reason to collaborate is that no two situations are the same. As mentioned earlier, there is a vast difference between a teen who has consensual sex with an underage partner and a pedophile. Understanding these differences may help you develop an adequate response.
Also, consider third parties. Every parish has adult members abused as children. Yet they may not be ready to share their fears or discuss their experiences.
There’s no one right way to address the issue of sex offenders in the church. But if the church wants to be truly inclusive, it needs policies to address the risk posed by sex offenders. It also must handle borderline or suspicious situations while caring for all involved.
As things stand, all but a handful of dioceses and churches are prepared for this tricky situation.