Anglican church informs parishioners of sex offender attendee after three years

Church of the Resurrection informed congregants in an email on Friday that a registered sex offender has been attending the church since 2019.

Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Image courtesy of Google Maps

(RNS) — Church of the Resurrection, an Anglican church that serves as a diocesan seat in Wheaton, Illinois, whose leaders have faced criticism for how they handled sexual abuse allegations, informed congregants Friday (Dec. 2) that a registered sex offender has been attending the church since 2019.

“We take with utmost seriousness the presence of someone who has committed a significant crime and will continue to show extreme care in the future,” Church of the Resurrection cathedral dean Steve Williamson wrote in an email to church members.

The church is the headquarters of the Upper Midwest Diocese, a subgroup of the Anglican Church in North America that since 2019 has been roiled by sexual abuse allegations against a former lay minister in the diocese.

John Hays, a former pastor at a different church, was charged in 2014 with aggravated criminal sexual abuse of his child neighbor between 2003 and 2009. Records from the Illinois State Police indicate that the victim was 7 when the abuse took place.

On Thursday, ACNAtoo, an anti-abuse advocacy group, published a post on its website alerting readers of Hays’ crimes and presence at Church of the Resurrection. A day later, Williamson’s email informed congregants that it “is not our policy to publicly inform the congregation of a parishioner’s past criminal actions” but that church leaders wished to address concerns that had been raised about Hays, whom Williamson referred to by first name only in the email.

Staff and leaders at Church of the Resurrection did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the email, which was shared with Religion News Service, pastors were aware of Hays’ criminal past. The email assures readers that church leaders care for abuse survivors but are also “committed to being a place where sinners, even notorious sinners, can belong and encounter Jesus (with appropriate safeguards in place).”

According to the email, Hays was permitted to attend the church but was required to be accompanied by a chaperone selected by church leaders. He was allowed only in the church sanctuary and narthex and was specifically banned from church events “geared toward children.” Williamson’s email also asserts that “all pastors and children and youth staff” were made “aware of his identity, crimes, and the requirements of this policy.”

In a 2020 post on this topic on her blog, Diane Langberg, a clinical psychologist and abuse expert with long experience in Christian communities, said, “When churches have asked what I recommend when dealing with someone whose has sexually abused children my response is — do not allow him/her to attend church.” Instead, Langberg suggests an alternate model where a small group of adults gather with the abuser to pray and worship outside of church settings.

Kelley Goewey, a former member of Church of the Resurrection who attended from June 2019 until July 2021, worked regularly in children’s ministry in both paid and volunteer positions. She told RNS she was never informed of Hays’ criminal history or the church’s procedures, and only learned of Hays’ crimes via ACNAtoo’s public post. She thinks congregants should have been alerted much sooner.

“Given the statistics available about the rates of recidivism for people who are pedophiles and who sexually assault children, it’s inadvisable to have them participate in a church service when children are present,” she said.

Goewey added that, without explaining his history, pairing Hays with a well-respected church member as a chaperone could come off as an endorsement of Hays, rather than a warning. She believes church leaders should have worked to find a middle ground that allowed Hays to receive spiritual care in a place where no children were present.

Abbi Nye, an ACNAtoo advocate, said the church’s announcement about Hays “lines up with their pattern of prioritizing the protection and comfort of abusers over victims.”

“If Church of the Resurrection chooses to minister to convicted child sex offenders in spaces where children are, they have a moral obligation to inform parents that this is their policy,” ACNAtoo said in a statement to RNS.

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