Churches debate welcoming child molesters
From Religion News Service. By Adelle Banks
“All are welcome” is a common phrase on many a church sign and website. But what happens when a convicted sex offender takes those words literally?
Church officials and legal advocates are grappling with how—and if—people who’ve been convicted of sex crimes should be included in U.S. congregations, especially when children are present:
-- Last week (June 23), a lawyer argued in the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a convicted sex offender who wants to attend a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation with a chaperone.
“What we argued is that the right to worship is a fundamental right, and the state can only burden it if it has compelling interest to do so, and then only in a way that is narrowly constructed,” said Barbara Keshen, an attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union who represented Jonathan Perfetto, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to 61 counts of possessing child pornography.
-- On Monday (June 28), the Seventh-day Adventist Church added language to its manual saying that sexual abuse perpetrators can be restored to membership only if they do not have unsupervised contact with children and are not “in a position that would encourage vulnerable individuals to trust them implicitly.”
Garrett Caldwell, a spokesman for the denomination, said the new wording in the global guidelines tries to strike a balance between protecting congregants and supporting the religious freedom of abusers in “a manifestation of God’s grace.”
-- On Thursday (July 1), a Georgia law will take effect that permits convicted sex offenders to volunteer in churches if they are isolated from children. Permitted activities include singing in the choir and taking part in Bible studies and bake sales.
The Rev. Madison Shockley, pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., whose church publicly grappled with whether to accept a convicted sex offender three years ago, said he hears from churches several times a month seeking advice on how to handle such situations.
“The key lesson for churches is this: The policy, however it winds up, must be a consensus of the congregation,” Shockley said. “I talked to so many pastors who decided they’re going to make the decision because they know what’s theologically and spiritually right—and that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.”