By Linda Sutter – June 16, 2022
From budgets to outreach, there is no shortage of decisions on church leaders’ minds. More and more, one of those decisions is whether or not to allow sex offenders in their congregations when an offender has been worshiping with them or would like to.
That’s because 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 guidance. The fine line that decision-makers like you walk makes the situation especially tricky. While you may choose to minister to the spiritual needs of the offender, your number-one priority is protecting your congregation – especially children and abuse survivors.
A formal sex-offender policy developed by church leaders and legal counsel is the best – and easiest – way to navigate this situation. Keep these strategies in mind when crafting your church’s policy:
DO consider consequences. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of all your options. For instance, treating the offender like any other member and granting him or her access to all church areas and activities poses a major liability risk. Excluding offenders entirely is a decision that should be made with legal counsel as you are effectively banning individuals from the premises. A more moderate approach is limited participation and supervised attendance – just be sure you have a team in place to oversee chaperoned attendance. Whatever route you choose, make sure you use it consistently moving forward.
DON’T assume anything. False accusations are damaging to the individual and to your church, so you should be 100 percent sure that the individual is a convicted sex offender before labeling him or her as such or informing the congregation. You can confirm someone’s sex-offender status on the National Sex Offender Public Website. Next, look into local laws and ordinances regarding sex offenders to help guide your church’s policy. Offenders might be banned by law or by the terms of their probation from places where children congregate or from having any contact with minors.
DO set boundaries. A signed conditional attendance agreement is one step toward allowing offenders to participate in church activities while holding them accountable for their actions. Work with your church’s legal counsel to develop your agreement, and keep guidelines as straightforward as possible.
Here are a few examples:
I understand that I may not sit with a minor during worship activities.
I understand that I am never to be alone with any minor on church property.
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.
DON’T ignore compliance. If a convicted sex offender is attending your church – or wants to – schedule an in-person meeting with the offender and at least two church leaders. It’s a good opportunity to inform the offender that you’re aware of his/her background, explain your church’s policy on sex offenders, and discuss the offender’s ministry needs. During the meeting, you’ll also want to:
Gain written approval for a background check and release of probation/parole information.
Review who you’ll disclose information to within your church.
Have the offender sign the limited attendance agreement.
If the individual agrees to your policy and authorizes a release of probation/parole information, reach out to his or her probation officer after the meeting to get more clarity on the conditions of the offender’s release.
As you finalize your church’s sex offender policy, think about other ways to elevate safety within your congregation. For instance, consider forming a risk management team if you don’t have one, and conduct background checks on employees and volunteers. Every precaution adds up and goes a long way toward protecting what matters most: your congregation.