Churches all over the country are dealing with the issue of Sexual Offenders: How should church leadership respond?
First, keep in mind the sobering statistics.
The US Dept of Justice reports over 550,000 REGISTERED sexual offenders living in the United States today.
Conservative studies indicate that preferential offenders, offenders who prefer a child as a sexual partner, molest prolifically, in great numbers before criminal prosecution, assuming criminal prosecution occurs at all.
A recent study of criminal populations indicated that male sexual abusers who preferred girls as sexual partners had molested an average of 52 victims prior to prosecution.
Male abusers who preferred boys as sexual partners had molested an average of 150 victims prior to prosecution.
These figures are AVERAGES; some had molested many more.
Department of Justice estimates indicate that less than 10% of sexual offenses will be prosecuted, EVER. Why? Studies of abuse survivors find repeatedly that nearly 2/3rds of abused children don’t tell about the abuse until adulthood, if ever. Those that do tell often find too much time has passed for criminal prosecution of the offender, or they simply are not believed.
What does this mean for church leadership?
The known RSO (registered sex offender) is the tip of the iceburg. Congregations of all sizes have sexual offenders in the pews, they just don’t know it.
From our perspective, litigating sexual abuse cases for 16 years, the solution starts with a broad, church-wide safety system encompassing all ministry to children, students and teens. Finding the few KNOWN sexual offenders and aiming all protective efforts at containing the known risk is naïve at best, and fraught with liability for the church.
After some controversy, First Church Cityview (fictional name) discusses, drafts, adopts and implements an RSO policy aimed at known offenders (RSOs). In the meantime, a staff member is hired into children’s ministry with few screening or training requirements, and begins employ at First Church. A superficial criminal background check is undertaken three months after the employee’s start date in children’s ministry, which reveals a ‘public exposure’ conviction some years prior. The employee explains away the prior conviction as a ‘prank’ undertaken with college buddies. Everyone LOVES the new employee, so his explanation is taken at face value.
Six years later, a 13 year old child in First Church’s children’s ministry is revealed to be in her second trimester of PREGNANCY. Her halting explanation is shocking; the father of the child in utero is the children’s ministry employee, who has sexually assaulted her both before and after entering puberty. Criminal investigation confirms paternity of the church employee, and other victims at the same church come forward to participate in the criminal prosecution. The employee’s prior conviction related to a prior victim in a secular children’s program in another state. Because the prior conviction was a ‘first offense’, the employee was able to ‘plea down’ to a non-registry offense, which he was able to explain away to subsequent employers.
All the facts in this scenario are true, occurring in a large U.S. congregation.
This church had an RSO policy, but no effective policy concerning UNKNOWN offender risks.
So what should church leadership do to address this risk, known and unknown?
We’ll discuss an effective church safety system, NEXT.