In July of 2011, just two years into my new role as minister, a victim disclosed to me that she had been sexually abused by my father, the former preacher at my congregation. Within seconds, my life began to unravel. My childhood hero was now a villain who had dozens of victims–all of whom were humiliated and violated in the worst possible way,” said Pastor Jimmy Hinton who blogs at www.jimmyhinton.org.
Jimmy Hinton’s dad is serving a 30-60-year sentence for sex crimes against dozens of children. A recent blog post he wrote titled “Why Chaperoning Abusers at Church is Unwise” got my attention, because our Safe Church program does include policy making around safely integrating sexual offenders into a congregation. In his post, Pastor Hinton critiques common “covenant” agreements churches make when including sex offenders in their congregation.
I don’t know Pastor Hinton, but I will say that he knows what he is talking about. The kind of “chaperoning” he describes is dangerous and naïve and does little to protect vulnerable children.
Studies have also shown that nearly 90% of convicted child sex offenders describe themselves as “very religious” and thought churches were easy to operate within. Many of them marry and some have children of their own. It is easy to prey on kids if you appear respectable, are a volunteer or church leader, and “speak Christianese.”
I will not argue with those who say that the greatest risk are the offenders who have not ever been caught. This is most definitely true, as child sexual abuse is a vastly underreported crime and prosecution is difficult, especially when the victims are very young. Many children do not disclose sexual violation until mid-life adulthood, if ever.
Safe Communities works with religious and non-religious institutions to protect kids from sexual harm. We have engaged thousands of people in congregations in our core Safe Church curriculum since creating it in 2011. (And NO, we are not one of “safe church” programs written by insurance companies or offered by some denominations). We are a third generation, social movement building, and culture shifting prevention program focused on preventing sexual abuse before it happens.
Our recommended practices and training on integrating “known” sexual offenders into a congregation have gotten more robust over the years, based on our experiences in the field. By “known”, I mean those who have been adjudicated by a court to have committed a sexual offense against a child under age 18. Integrating some offenders can be done safely and well, but it takes a considerable amount of time and resource. We have worked with churches that have successfully done this, but it cannot happen before the congregation, not just a few leaders, are educated about how to keep children safe from sexual harm – within and outside of the church.
The type of offender “covenant” Hinton described in his blog, and the laissez-faire prevention practices used by many churches, would in all probability not stop an offender like his father. Nor would it stop the offenders we have encountered in our Safe Church program who refuse to sign covenants we design because they are “too restrictive.” Big clue here: If a sex offender refuses to accept severe restrictions around interactions with kids, that’s a RED FLAG. Child sexual abuse at its core is about abuse of power and violation of boundaries.
For many congregations, offering hospitality to known sex offenders is based on their interpretations of biblical passages about forgiveness, restoration and grace. I cannot count the times I have heard leaders, when asked to establish very strict boundaries for participation of known sex offenders and be fully transparent with the congregation that an offender is worshipping among them, say something like “But he is a new man in Jesus! He has been washed clean of his sin, and we can’t shame him by disclosing his identity. We’ll just have the elders keep an eye on him and not let him lead in any children’s programs.”
This. Does. Not. Work.
Filled with the language of grace but very few actual restrictions and consequences for breaking the rules, these types of covenants put children and teens at risk – not only within the congregation but in the local community. Children are apt to believe this person is “safe” when they are groomed by him (or her) at church, the library, the park, or their sports team. After all, if he attends their church and no one has warned them he is NOT safe around kids, why wouldn’t a child believe the person to be “safe”?
For those not familiar with the term, ‘grooming’ is a strategic process many offenders use to gain a child’s trust and establish a non-sexual relationship in preparation for molestation. It may include grooming the target’s parents as well. Tragically, it usually works. 90% of children who are molested are not violated by strangers, but someone their family knows and trusts.
Parents who are not educated about offenders and how they operate will easily include these folks in their social circles beyond the church setting. We have healing groups for parents of kids who were sexually abused, many of them by someone the parents trusted at church. The impact on these parents is enormous and they often blame themselves.
A busy senior pastor in a large congregation with many children and teens said to me once “can’t you just give me something I can do in a few hours?”
The answer to that is no…not if you are serious about keeping kids safe. I wanted to ask him if the parents of the hundreds of kids entrusted to his programs understood that he had things more important to concern himself with than keeping their kids safe from sexual abuse. I wish I had.
Here are a few points for safety for including known child sexual offenders into a church congregation. This is not a “how to” guide or a comprehensive list.
We also have some inspiring stories to tell you about churches who have done the hard work of creating safe environments for children as well as empowering spaces for adult survivors.
We agree with you, Jimmy Hinton, and applaud the work you are doing to advocate against child sexual abuse and raise awareness about the tactics used by child molesters.