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Sex Offenders in Church in Georgia

Jul 25, 2008 — Categories:

The state of Georgia is trying to protect its children from sex offenders. To that end it passed legislation in 2006 (updated in 2008) that is viewed as the toughest in the U.S. There is only one problem: the law criminalizes all volunteer activities by registered sex offenders in religious organizations.

The state of Georgia is trying to protect its children from sex offenders. To that end it passed legislation in 2006 (updated in 2008) that is viewed as the toughest in the U.S. There is only one problem: the law criminalizes all volunteer activities by registered sex offenders in religious organizations.

It seems that the intent is to insure that registered sex offenders do not have unsupervised contact with children and youth. But once again unintended consequences emerge. The result is that registered sex offenders may only attend services but may not sing in the choir, mow the lawn, or sweep the fellowship hall. If they do so, they can end up serving 10-30 years in prison.

My biggest problem with this law is the separation of church and state. The state has no business directing or limiting the activities of the church or its members. Having said that, I think it is definitely the church’s business and responsibility to direct and limit the activities of its members who are registered sex offenders.

Every place of worship should have its own policy that welcomes repentant sex offenders and limits their activities. They should have no unsupervised contact with children or youth and no role of leadership in any aspect of the congregation. But they should be able to participate within the life of the congregation with limits.

I have no idealized expectations about repentance or transformation for sex offenders. There are many who will never be able to change their destructive behavior towards others. But there are others who may be able to change their behavior and live safely in a community.

It is the state’s responsibility to identify, register and track convicted sex offenders and the church’s responsibility to do background checks on anyone who works with kids. There are many ways that any person can participate in the life of a faith community, and for some sex offenders, that participation can support his/her rehabilitation and repentance.

But the faith community must not be naïve about “repentance.” For sex offenders, it is a life-long process. Being welcomed into a faith community is only the first step. The church is responsible for the wellbeing of its members: certainly its children and youth but also the adult survivors of sexual abuse as children. The presence of a registered sex offender may be a real challenge--but also an opportunity for healing.

In this case, the State of Georgia has stepped beyond its limits in seeking to regulate faith-based activities. On the other hand, faith communities must prepare themselves ahead of time to receive repentant sex offenders. This may be the one place they can find their way safely back into the community.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org

For more information on this case, see Southern Center for Human Rights.

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