By Eric Spacek, JD, ARM
If you believe a sex offender has started attending your church, take action. Not doing so could result in significant legal liability if a situation occurs on your property.
Step 1: Learn the local laws. First, be certain that the individual is a convicted sex offender. Double-check that the person is on the sex offender list by verifying with the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) at nsopw.gov.
If so, research your local laws and ordinances regarding sex offenders. While these laws typically involve restrictions on where an offender can live, some also prohibit an offender from having any contact with minors or being anywhere children congregate, such as a church.
Step 2: Formulate a plan. If possible, decide in advance on what approach you’d take toward a sex offender. Among your options, you might:
- Allow unfettered access to programs and facilities.
- Exclude the individual from the congregation entirely.
- Limit access to certain programs or areas at specific times.
- Require other conditions, such as monitored attendance and/or coordination with the individual’s probation officer or treatment provider.
On one end of this spectrum of options, you give offenders complete access to the building and congregation, which isn’t recommended. On the other end, you bar the individual from the property; this stance should only be taken with the guidance of legal counsel. In the middle of the spectrum, a range of possibilities exist. Perhaps the safest approach — without barring sex offenders completely — is to allow restricted access to certain church programs and activities.
Once you’ve chosen an option that works best for your congregation, be consistent in its application.
Step 3: Meet with the offender. With a policy in place, your organization is better prepared to address situations if they arise. When the church becomes aware that a sex offender has become involved, the minister and at least one other person should schedule a meeting with the individual. It:
- Lets the offender know the congregation is aware of his/her background;
- Affords an opportunity for the congregation to provide and explain its policy;
- Provides an opportunity to discuss the ministry needs of the individual;
- Allows signing authorization for a background check and release of probation/parole information to your
- Provides a time to discuss who else will be made aware of the situation.
If the individual won’t agree to the church’s guidelines, or is prohibited by the terms of his or her probation or parole from going where children congregate, by default the individual will be excluded from participation in services and activities.
Step 4: Implement the plan. If the guidelines are agreeable to the offender, a team approach should be used to implement the plan. The team should function cohesively to minister to the individual, while at the same time working to safeguard the congregation and its children. If monitored attendance is included in the plan, the team will need to determine who will be the offender’s chaperone on each Sunday, or during other church activities. Even a seemingly innocent violation of the agreed guidelines must be taken seriously.
Safeguard your children
While all these precautions might seem harsh, it’s always best to err on the side of being overcautious. If an incident was to occur, and the church had knowledge of a person’s past sexual misbehaviors, it would face tremendous legal liability if it provided the setting for the crime.
Eric Spacek, JD, ARM is senior church risk management & loss control manager at GuideOne Insurance [guideone.com] in West Des Moines, IA.