A careful grace: Accountability for sex offenders in the church

Print More
Exit - courtesy of Hernán Piñera via Flickr

Exit - courtesy of Hernán Piñera via Flickr

Many churches are faced with a terribly difficult dilemma of what to do when a sex offender wants to become part of the church community.  In my experience, most churches have little to no understanding of the many complex issues related to such a decision.  As a result, churches often make decisions that result in great harm to the children and abuse survivors in the congregation.

Simon Bass is a dear friend and colleague who spends his life protecting children on the other side of the pond.  He is the Chief Officer of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), which is an amazing organization that is  transforming churches in the United Kingdom into much safer places for children and survivors.  I am thankful to God for introducing me to Simon and believe that his thought provoking guest post will help spark a much needed dialogue in this country on a topic many would prefer to ignore. – Boz


For many years, I have worked with churches, advising them on how to receive sexual offenders into their congregations. I have also met and worked with many sexual offenders. In 1999, a church contacted me to help them with an offender who had downloaded child pornography (i.e. child abuse images). The offender had been convicted as part of Operation Ore, the UK response to Operation Avalanche in the United States. At the time, we were only beginning to understand the Internet’s harmful impact and could never have anticipated the proliferation of such images. Since then, barely a week goes by without a church contacting me about a sex offender in its congregation. Whenever I help a church, I urge them to extend a careful grace to sex offenders, including those convicted of online offences.

Exit - courtesy of Hernán Piñera via Flickr

Exit – courtesy of Hernán Piñera via Flickr

Child pornography is nothing less than the recording of the sexual abuse of children – each picture is a crime scene, a depiction of real children’s molestation. Sadly, such images show extreme, sadistic, and violent abuse against children. Viewing child abuse images is not a victimless crime; thousands of victims of sexual abuse continue to be re-victimized when perpetrators share those images. People who view such images demonstrate that they have a sexual interest in children, and they often have convictions for similar sexual offences. Unfortunately, a significant number of offenders will also have held positions of trust in churches, giving them access to children.

Recently, I learned about a pastor of a large church in the United States who publicly praised a church volunteer who is also a convicted sex offender for possessing child pornography. This church’s myopic understanding of care for the sex offender struck me. The church seems to have focused upon caring for the sex offender without considering how doing so impacts survivors or poses risks to children in the church. This church honored a sex offender in such a way that lessened the impact of his crime. This behaviour insults all survivors of sexual abuse who demonstrate real heroism in overcoming their abuse.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to minister to everyone in church including sex offenders, but we should never do so in isolation from child protection professionals or in ignorance of the harm done to their victims.

Simon Bass - Chief Executive of The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service

Simon Bass – Chief Executive of The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service

In fulfilling God’s mission, we should open wide the church doors as we minister to anyone who calls upon Jesus’ name (Romans 10:13). God’s grace through the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ, makes a way for all who have sinned, even if that sin is also a heinous crime (Ephesians 2:8). God wants us restored to him, and in right relationship achieved through our willingness to repent and seek forgiveness. I am so grateful that we serve a God of second chances. In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus teaches that God will always welcome with open arms those who come to him with an authentic, repentant heart. This includes sexual offenders (Luke 15:21-22).

When churches minister to sex offenders, they must implement a careful grace that is based upon an educated understanding of offenders and how they act. A careful grace starts with putting the needs of children and survivors first. A careful grace embraces the reality that actions must have consequences. A careful grace requires church leaders and workers to be trained in child protection, and our churches to have clear and effective child safeguarding policies and procedures. Only within a context of careful grace can churches effectively care for sex offenders. What does careful grace require of churches who minister to sex offenders?

In order to protect children, churches should require sex offenders to sign a written contract that articulates clear behavioural boundaries relating to any church-related function with consequences for failing to comply and that articulates on-going pastoral care that the offender must receive from the church. Church contracts for sex offenders enact Galatians 6:10, doing good to everyone as we have opportunity. Being a good steward in church includes stewarding risky conduct. We should not place a convicted sex offender in a place of temptation; we need to be wise (Matthew 10:16).

Contracts should be in place for anyone who the church knows has committed any type of sexual offence, whether against an adult or a child. Sexual offences should include both physical, sexual abuse and online abuse (i.e. child pornography). Such contracts should remain in place indefinitely, and be reviewed on a regular basis, irrespective of whether or not the offender is under the jurisdiction of the court.

A risk assessment should be a condition of any offender contract, with the understanding that the church may decide that the offender must worship somewhere else. Most sex offenders want to be accepted into the church and will likely attempt to minimize their crime. Thus, it is critical for the church to ascertain whether or not it is even possible for the offender to join the congregation. When evaluating an offender for membership, a church should obtain a professional risk assessment from the offender’s probation officer or any other professional whom the court has ordered to supervise and manage the sex offender.

Church contracts should also severely limit sex offenders’ participation in any form of public ministry in the church. The contract should outline the service boundaries sex offenders must keep in the church and in the wider church family. Sex offenders commonly target children in the church in order to gain their trust for the purpose of eventually abusing them outside the church building. Therefore, an offender must never be placed in a position of trust or responsibility that in any manner communicates to children that they are safe.

A church should not ask a sex offender to be part of the public platform. They should not share their testimony about their offences for a number of reasons:

  1. An offender’s testimony is insulting to survivors of abuse who hear offenders describe their past sins.
  2. An offender’s testimony may give the impression to kids and parents that the church considers the offender to be safe.
  3. For some sex offenders, they will get sexual pleasure in re-telling their story.
  4. An offender’s testimony can distance survivors in the church, who rightly will be asking where is their opportunity to share their stories about the harm done to them, and God’s healing.
  5. An offender’s testimony can also cause disunity in the church as people have very strong emotional responses to sex offenders, with the result ranging from vigilantism towards the offender to people leaving the church.

Truly repentant sex offenders will understand and accept the limitations within the contract. Churches who implement contracts for sexual offenders are not being judgemental. Instead, they are recognizing that true repentance is demonstrated by embracing accountability and a lifetime process of authentic transformation. Most critically, churches who implement contracts for sexual offenders understand that the principle aim of such a contract is the protection of children who are a precious part of the church family.

Simon Bass is Chief Executive of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) a UK safeguarding charity. His background is in social work. He is part of the government national working group on child abuse linked to faith or belief and member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS)

  • Rudy101

    It should be noted, that ALL are sinners! I want to know if the author to this story has a contract with his church so-as to minimize the effect his sinful ways will have on the church.

    The author is a saint?

    The problem is, the State is doing the labeling, of which the Church is reacting. The question becomes, is the State labeling those that are actually dangerous?

    The issue then becomes about FAIRNESS and JUSTICE.

    Everyone in the congragation is a survivor of abuse of some sort or another. There are no exceptions. Most of the abusers in the congragation will never be identified.

    All that is being done is the Church gets to label someone that may or may not be dangerous while the congragation gets to differentiate themselves from the “sinner.”

    The most dangerous people to children will always be parents. Abuse is swirling all over your church and you all ignore it for a protection that you can’t get. The reason is, 95% of all sexual abuse is by…

  • Rudy101

    *continued those who have no prior convictions.

    You know what you can do? Just be careful. Have background checks for those in a position of trust like teachers and counselors. That is all.

    If you are leaving children in the care of people just because you like them, you are doing more FOR sexual abuse then making people sign a contract will ever lessen sexual abuse.

  • Dominic

    Known sex offenders should be treated individually by their pastor, similar to the invalid being visited at home. This would protect all parties from unchristian thoughts or behaviors.

  • JF

    We have previously attended a church in Arkansas that runs a great Celebrate Recovery group and therefore has an excellent policy in place for this very issue. Those with records and even merely struggles with this issue are assigned a church buddy who meets them in the parking lot, sits with them during worship and class, and escorts them to/from the bathroom and back to parking lot at end of worship time. They have the children’s area sectioned off in its own wing so the person with a record/struggles isn’t allowed in that part of the building. As a survivor of CSA, I greatly appreciated being part of a church family that so thoroughly cared for all its congregants.

  • Pingback: Accountability for Sex Offenders in the Church - ajcerda.com()

  • Arianna

    I’m all for setting up guidelines if need be for those labeled as “sex offenders” such as maybe having a chaperone and not being alone with kids or in a leadership position. However, we have to remember the definition of “sex offender” is broad and getting broader. Also, many have families they attend with and there needs to be sensitivity there. In short, this isn’t a black and white, cut and dried thing. Some may be innocent and have taken a plea as well.
    That’s the case in my family. My husband was falsely accused and took a plea after a trial with a hung jury. Thankfully, my church and pastor haven supportive through it all. My husband doesn’t put himself in situations that could be misconstrued. …doesn’t volunteer with or hang around with kids but is allowed to attend family functions like picnics and pool parties.

  • Loren Haas

    This comment is an example of “sin leveling”. It is commonly used by perpetrators, their allies and misinformed “biblical counselors”.
    Not all sins are the same. Not all sins represent a clear, serious danger to other innocent people. You would not hire a convicted arsonist to work in a match factory and if you had half a brain you would not let a convicted sexual offender run around loose in a church with small children.
    It is about consequences and accountability.

  • Duane A. Webb

    FACT 1: Each image in a video is an image of the same ‘scene’, not an image of an individual crime. That’s absurd.

    FACT 2: Viewing an image or distributing the image DOES NOT ‘re-victimize’. That’s a false-advocates money motivated lie where ‘X’ images = ‘X’ dollars. If an individual half way around the world views a minor in an image – does the minor telepathically know that it’s being viewed and suddenly begins to display ‘symptoms’ of being victimized? Equally absurd as fact #1.

    Nothing quite like the judgmental false Christian fraud who has nothing better to do than confuse the issue with their mythical garbage. There is no telling how many innocent people are in prison due to such apparent predisposition to misconduct.

  • bqrq

    “………each picture is a crime scene, a depiction of real children’s molestation. Sadly, such images show extreme, sadistic, and violent abuse against children. Viewing child abuse images is not a victimless crime; thousands of victims of sexual abuse continue to be re-victimized when perpetrators share those images. People who view such images demonstrate that they have a sexual interest in children, and they often have convictions for similar sexual offences……….”

  • Serving Kids in Japan

    There is no telling how many innocent people are in prison due to such apparent predisposition to misconduct.

    So…. Do you think it’s OK for people to take sexual pleasure in the abuse and rape of children? Nothing wrong or blameworthy about it?

  • It should be noted, that ALL are sinners!

    No argument from me. But not all are criminals, and certainly not all are child molesters or viewers of kiddie porn. That’s a special kind of evil right there, and if you don’t think it needs to be dealt with in a special way, you’re only displaying your ignorance.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “3. For some sex offenders, they will get sexual pleasure in re-telling their story”

    Maybe more than just the sex offender, if you get my drift.
    He’s sure to have a JUICY testimony and how else can Respectable Church-Lady types get their Forbidden JUICY porn fix and indulge vicariously in all that JUICY Sin while still staying Respectable(TM)?

  • richard

    I love that in both Matthew 6 and Luke 11, where Jesus instructed his disciples how to pray, is the phrase, “lead us not into temptation”. And we should follow Jesus and not lead others into temptation as well.

  • Velour

    This is a spot on article. The four pastors/elders at my former church in Northern California ordered that I be excommunicated/shunned for my inadvertent discovery while doing research for a prosecutor about another sex offender, that a new church member was a Megan’s List sex offender who had just gotten out of prison for child porn. When I reported to the pastors/elders, they met with me and defended him. Said he was *harmless* and their long-time good friend. They put him in charge of volunteer groups and didn’t tell all adults and families with children. They even invited him to volunteer at our children’s summer basketball camp, a 1-week long event where people in the community entrust their children to us and they weren’t told nor another denomination that rented their school’s gym to us.

  • Pingback: Linkathon! » PhoenixPreacher | PhoenixPreacher()

  • Jen

    Good article. Are the recommendations any different when the offender who wants to join the church was not a child molester but convicted for rape of (multiple) adult victims? This situation is playing out at our church. So far so good, I guess, regarding this ex-con’s behavior, but the pastor who advocated for us to accept this man into our congregation shortly after his release from prison did not do such a good job of really hearing and taking into account the voices of members, some of them sex crime survivors, who objected. This pastor facilitated some amount of discussion among the church members, but ultimately it was superficial and didn’t produce any of the accountability measures recommended here. Once oversight by the corrections system lifted, the church hasn’t had any policy of its own in place, AFAIK. Also, that pastor has moved on and a new one is coming on board now. What should concerned parishioners ask the new pastor to do?

  • Ben In oakland

    It’s a great article as far as it goes, Mr. Tchvidjian. Unfortunately, it makes the same mistake so many people make about child molesters: it makes them a group of people on the outside need to be brought into the inside. That simply is not the case.

    A certain set of statistics regarding child Molestation have remained remarkably consistent for decades. Some 70 to 90% of the victims are girls. In 75% of the situations, the child knows the perpetrator. And in probably half of the situations, the perpetrator is her own father, stepfather, or father surrogate. As a sidenote, and a barrier to a solution to the problem, is another fact: the molester is either a fixated molester, in other words, that’s all he does, or he is a man who is identified as heterosexual in terms of his interests, experiences And label in his community.

    You’re going to have child molesters in your church. You can’t avoid it. Unfortunately, there not a stranger at the gate, but the gatekeeper..

  • Ray

    Not all sex offenders are child abusers, or abusers of any sort, Indecent exposure (aka peeing in the alley, mooning someone as a college prank, etc) is labeled as harshly as child pornography. Is peeing in the alley stupid? Yes? Does that make one an abuser or threat to anyone? Definitely not!

  • ben in oakland

    You should check out BQRQ’s commenting history. His mind is one big sewer of people sodomizing everyone in sight.

  • steve

    not to mention many so called “abuse” labeling and “charges” like stuatory rape werent even biblical…if a 15 year old sits online and knows a 23 year old wants to screw him or her and goes out and sneaks around screwing the person with no force or coercion that is consent i dont care what legal constructs say and he is not a victim either..in the bible the 15 year old would have been put to death right along side the “abuser” if they were homosexual…

  • steve

    not to mention many child porn charges are 16 and 17 year olds jerking off on the internet or haveing sex with thier ten partners there is no victumzation or crime scene with that the pedo hysteria is over the top so is the stautory rape nonsense

  • steve

    most child porn is classified under bs now meaning you could have a video or image of a 16 year old jerking off on your computer and thatis classified as “child porn” its nonsense

  • steve

    and before you went to snitching around did you review his case? do you know what kind of child porn he had..you do know they can charge you for haveing apicture of a 17 year old masterbating as “child porn” now a days in which have the amaetur porn out there doesnt have thier ages announced…people have this wild eyed idea every time they hear child porn it has to be little 4 years olds getting raped

  • Anonymous

    Today I walked into church and the perpetrator who molested my daughter is standing as an usher, handing out communion and collecting the tithes. The court case has just begun. We haven’t even gone to court yet and he is still lying about what happened, yet he’s bern given a position of trust in our congregation. The leadership’s response to why they’d do this- he’s repented, of course! Ta da! All fixed. If he’s repented, why not put him in children’s church, supervising the pastors’ kids. I’m heartbroken and thoroughly disgusted.

  • KathleenMM

    Wow. Not sure I could argue with that! Your ignorance is breathtaking and masterful! Clearly, you, Sir, are the most genius moron I’ve ever encountered!