By Eric Spacek, JD, ARM
If a sex offender wants to attend your church — or is already worshipping with you — how would you respond? Roll out the welcome mat? Exclude them entirely? Try to find middle ground?
These are questions church leaders regularly face.
More than 60 percent of the 800,000-plus registered sex offenders in the United States are currently under some form of community supervision, which often includes faith-based treatment and guidance. The delicate balancing act of providing spiritual support to offenders while protecting your congregation — especially children and abuse survivors — makes the situation particularly tricky.
Answers come easier when your church is prepared with an approved, go-to policy on sex offenders before a situation arises. This policy should be developed with fellow church leaders and legal counsel, and should be applied consistently. Plan and implement your policy with these seven strategies:
#1: Get the facts. A false accusation is an easy way to attract a lawsuit, so first confirm that the individual is indeed a convicted sex offender on the National Sex Offender Public Website: nsopw.gov.
Also research local laws and ordinances regarding sex offenders during your fact-finding mission, because offenders might be banned from places where children gather or having any contact with minors.
#2: Consider your congregation’s needs. The safety, security and well-being of your church members should be an essential part of your decision-making process. Address the following when reviewing your options:
• Your ministry’s values and beliefs
• Your congregation’s reaction
• Risks to church members — and how to mitigate these risks
• Resources for working with sex offenders (Can you assemble a team dedicated to ministering and monitoring activity?)
#3: Be safe, not sorry. If you decide to grant registered offenders permission to attend your church, determine the extent to which they can participate. Allowing full, unsupervised access like other members have is a liability risk. Requiring chaperoned attendance and limiting participation to certain supervised activities at specific times — adult worship services, for example — is a more moderate approach.
#4: Set clear boundaries. In conjunction with legal counsel, create an agreement that all registered sex offenders must sign — and comply with — in order to participate in church activities. The agreement should contain straightforward guidelines such as the following:
- I understand that I may not attend any youth activities.
- I understand that I may not sit with a minor during worship activities.
- I understand that I may not engage in one-on-one conversation, or have any electronic communication with, a minor.
- I understand that I may not venture into youth or children’s areas of the church building, or use restrooms in those areas.
- I agree that violating any of these agreements will result in my being prohibited from attendance at any church function, whether on or off church premises.
#5: Meet with the offender. If a registered offender is involved in your church (or would like to be), schedule an in-person meeting with the offender and at least two church leaders. Use the conversation to:•
- Inform the offender that you’re aware of his or her background•
- Explain your church’s policy on sex offenders
- Discuss the offender’s ministry needs
- Gain written approval for a background check and release of probation / parole information
- Review who you’ll disclose information to within your church, whether it’s the entire congregation or parents of children
- Have the offender sign the limited attendance agreement
#6: Contact the probation officer. With the offender’s authorization, contact his or her probation officer and gain an understanding of the terms and conditions of the offender’s release.
#7: Assemble your team. If your church will provide chaperoned attendance, assemble the team involved in that undertaking and review the policies and the schedule with them. Stress the significance of reporting any violations of the agreement to appropriate church leadership.
Developing your church’s sex offender policy provides an opportunity to review and implement other methods for protecting church members, such as forming a safety and security team and conducting comprehensive background checks on volunteers and paid staff. Activating these and other safety precautions will provide peace of mind for you and your congregation.
Eric Spacek, JD, ARM is the Director of Risk Management and Loss Control at GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, IA. Before joining GuideOne, he served as Minister of Operations for a large Methodist church in Raleigh, NC, and was a liability litigation trial attorney in Washington, D.C.