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Debra W. Haffner
There have always been people who are sexually attracted to children in congregations. In every congregation, there are abusers, victims, survivors, and bystanders of childhood sexual abuse. The recent crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church dramatically illustrates that people we love and admire may turn out to be sex offenders, causing irreparable damage to people’s lives. Unitarian Universalists are not immune. We also know that most sexual abuse occurs among family members, and we may not be aware of the abuse that is currently occurring among families in our congregations. Many of our children and youth who have participated in the Our Whole Lives program are speaking up as a result of receiving education about child sexual abuse.
The Unitarian Universalist Association commissioned me to develop a manual for how to welcome a person with a history of sex offenses into our congregations while assuring that our children, youth, and vulnerable adults are safe from abuse and exploitation. I interviewed more than a dozen congregations that had struggled with this issue, consulted with experts in sexual child abuse and sex offender treatment, did an extensive review of the public health literature, and convened an expert advisory board for the publication. The complete handbook was published as an online publication, “Balancing Acts: Keeping Children Safe In Congregations”. This essay is excerpted from that. The Unitarian Universalist Association is the first denomination in the United States to publish a resource on this difficult issue.
As a result of a 1996 federal law, every state now has a notification law for sex offenders who have served prison time and are back in the community. The federal law required states to pass laws mandating that convicted sex offenders register with local law enforcement after release and to make these registries available to the general public. Over time, each state has adopted statutes modeled after the federal legislation, referred to as Megan’s Law in memory of Megan Kanka, a seven- year-old girl raped and murdered by a neighbor who, unknown to her family, was a convicted sex offender. In 2000, the Supreme Court found the laws constitutional.
People who are required to register have committed a wide range of offenses from child molestation, to rape, to exhibitionism and voyeurism. Even a nineteen-year-old who has had sexual intercourse with a fifteen-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend and been turned in by irate parents is subject to this law. It is estimated that as many as half a million people may be listed on these registries; the State of California alone has more than 75,000 people listed. To find out how to obtain the local registry, contact your local police department or sheriff’s office. The KlaasKids Foundation (click on the button for “legislation” to be directed to your state’s law and registry) has an updated list of state laws based on Megan’s Law.
Despite the shockingly high number of registered sex offenders, the vast majority (88 percent) of sex offenses continue to go unreported. The vast majority of people who commit sex offenses do not serve time in prison or receive mandated treatment. Even with registries, there is no way we can know for sure who may abuse children.
Yet we have an obligation and a commitment to keep our children safe—from the person who is known to have a history of molesting children and from the person whose sexual attraction to children is unknown to anyone but themselves.
As Unitarian Universalists we believe in the dignity and worth of every person, and that includes the person who has abused children, no matter how morally repugnant that person’s past behavior is. We believe in justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, qualities that we must bring to thinking about this difficult issue. We affirm the use of the democratic process in our congregations, which means we must honor that this is hard work that we must do together in community. We say we are challenged to “confront the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love” and we must “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.” The Restorative Justice for All Report states it this way: “We place a high value on creating a culture of sanctuary within our congregations. Anyone should be able to enter our houses of worship without fear of being exploited in any way.”
Three tenets underlie our efforts to balance the protection of children with our Principles:
We hope that by raising the issues around sexual abuse and sex offenders, congregations can institute policies before there is a crisis. Some UU congregations may want to think, “These issues don’t affect us. After all, no one in our congregation would do these terrible things.” Unfortunately even the “nicest people” may do these things. One estimate is that between 7 and 10 percent of the population may have a sexual attraction that involves children. And although many of these people will never act on their feelings, some will. With the advent of sex offender registries, we will often know when a convicted sex offender enters our community.
If the congregation does not address these issues before they occur, there is likely to be panic and a sense of crisis when a sex offender starts attending activities at the congregation; someone in the congregation is accused of abuse; or the minister, religious educator, or a member finds out that a congregant has a history of abusing children or youth. If you are in the midst of one of these situations and do not have policies in place, you may want to first go to the “During a Crisis” section of the online manual “Balancing Acts” at.
The full manual provides background information on child sexual abuse, sexual abuse prevention, and pedophiles and others who abuse children.
There are three important facts to keep in mind that counter prevalent myths about child sexual abuse. First, it’s a myth that the greatest threats to children are known sex offenders or strangers. The fact is that in 90 percent of cases of child sexual abuse, the abuser is an adult whom the child knows and trusts. No policy for dealing with a convicted sex offender will assure that the children in your congregation are safe unless there are also safe congregation policies in place.
It’s also a myth that nearly all sex offenders will re-offend. The research tells us that many sex offenders who have completed treatment and made a commitment to never abuse another child can resume healthy lives in the community without committing other offenses.
Finally, it is not true that sexual abuse happens to “other people.” The fact is that a significant minority of adults have survived histories of child sexual abuse.
There are minimum policies that every congregation should consider in order to keep children and youth safe and to build the foundation for dealing with a convicted sex offender. Here’s a quick self-assessment. Does your congregation:
A congregation with a serious commitment to child sexual abuse prevention will answer yes to each of these questions.
There are those who believe that a convicted sex offender never belongs in one of our communities.
This essay takes another view, based on a review of the literature on sex offenders, interviews with congregations that have successfully integrated a convicted sex offender within adult worship and education, and a theological commitment to the dignity and worth of all people, even those who have committed morally repugnant acts. The peer-reviewed literature clearly demonstrates that the vast majority of treated sex offenders do not repeat their offenses. As religious communities, we can provide compassion, support, and reconciliation to those who indicated that they have truly changed and have taken responsibility for their actions. We believe in the healing power of involvement in a spiritual home, and in the words of one affirmation heard in many Unitarian Universalist congregations, we commit “to seek the truth in love and help one another.” We must remember that sex offenders who have completed prison sentences and mandated treatment and registered with the state have complied with their punishments according to the court system. As faith-based communities, we can provide support and compassion with awareness and vigilance so that all are safe. (See the case study after this essay.)
In many ways, the person with a history of sex offenses has the same needs for a faith community as the rest of us. But the sex offender needs more to assure that his involvement doesn’t pose a risk to the congregation and protect him against false allegations and suspicions. As the Methodist Church of the United Kingdom states,
Such involvement needs to include helping him manage his behavior and not get into situations which in the past led to offences . . . an offender who truly wishes to participate in the life of the church, who realizes the extent of his crime and the difficulty his presence may cause to survivors, and who is truly committed to a new life will understand and accept the need for the imposition of restrictions.”
The fact is that a person with a history of sexual offense against children should never be allowed to work with children and youth or socialize with children of the congregation. No person who has been convicted of or accused of (until all charges have been dismissed)—any sexual misconduct can be permitted to participate in any religious education or youth group activities.
The core response of the congregation to a convicted or accused sex offender is a Limited Access Agreement. The message to the sex offender should be that he is welcome to participate in adult worship and adult social and education activities, but he must covenant with the congregation to avoid all contact with children and youth. A draft Limited Access Agreement that can be adapted is on the UUA web site (click on Appendices.)
Many congregations already have policies on how to deal with disruptive individuals. These policies have been developed for:
In general, these policies first require the minister to meet with the offending individual to address the concern. If the behavior continues, the offending individual may be asked to leave the congregation for a period of time, with reasons and the conditions of return made clear. Individuals are generally not excluded from the congregation completely except by agreement of the board of trustees and the minister, who communicate the decision to the individual.
In the words of one policy, we strive
to be an inclusive community, affirming our differences in beliefs, opinions, and life experiences. However, concern for the safety and well-being of the congregation as a whole must be given priority over the privileges and inclusion of the individual. To the degree the disruption compromises the health of this congregation, our actions as a people of faith must reflect this emphasis on security.
A policy about disruptive individuals can be amended to include a section on sex offenders as most of the same conditions apply. It is good practice for a congregation to develop a draft of a Limited Access Agreement or checklist that can serve as a template should the need arise.
There are a few ways in which the presence of a convicted sex offender generally becomes known in a congregation. In an ideal world, a person with this background would come to the minister before he started coming to the congregation to discuss limits on participation. Sex offender treatment specialists often encourage their clients to do just that. One community facing this issue wrote, “The board’s response to this situation would have been made easier if, before becoming so deeply involved in church activities, the individual had approached our church, explained his situation, asked whether there was some arrangement under which he could participate, and then awaited our response.”
This scenario doesn’t usually happen. In some cases, people reveal their backgrounds to the ministers. In other circumstances, one congregant may discover that another congregant has a history of sexual offenses. Congregants should know that they should make their concern known to the minister. No matter how the situation is revealed, the congregation should respond quickly by taking the following steps:
Reasons for excluding a person with a history of sex offense from all congregation activities include:
If an individual later decides that they can comply with the conditions for participation in congregational life, the process of assessment should begin again.
If we are to honor our commitments to providing a safe place for all to worship, learn, and socialize, the complex and difficult issues surrounding people with a history of sexual offense must be addressed seriously and with integrity. We can keep our children and youth safe from sexual abuse and we can offer ministry and a congregation home to people who have been treated successfully for sexual offenses. We can honor our most basic Principle that every person has inherent dignity and worth and balance justice, compassion, accountability, and safety.
Read Next>> Creating Policies with Youth Groups
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Last updated on Monday, June 23, 2014.
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