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Sex Offenders in Church in Georgia Part 2

Aug 08, 2008 — Categories:

In my last blog, I took the position that the Georgia law that criminalizes all volunteer activities in a faith community by registered sex offenders is problematic because it allows the state to determine how we do ministry. Several of you disagreed.

In my last blog, I took the position that the Georgia law that criminalizes all volunteer activities in a faith community by registered sex offenders is problematic because it allows the state to determine how we do ministry. Several of you disagreed.

First let me thank each of you for taking time to share your concerns with me. It made me realize that I was not clear enough in what I was trying to say about this issue. Our dialogue is important and I thank you for it.

For some of you, the concern is that the Roman Catholic Church appeared on occasion to try to use the separation of church and state to deflect law enforcement and hide pedophiles behind the Church’s skirts. This attempt by some in the Catholic Church represented a misinterpretation of the separation of church and state and ultimately did not work.

Fundamentally the Church, and congregations, are not above the law. This means that when a crime (like sexual abuse of a child) is committed by someone in a congregation, the first call should be to law enforcement to investigate and prosecute that crime. Likewise, in civil law, members of congregations should be able to sue their congregation if it is negligent or violates its own policies and procedures regarding clergy ethics. This is why we have priest pedophiles behind bars and dioceses paying out huge sums of money to survivors of sexual abuse. And this is as it should be.

The problem with the Georgia law that I addressed earlier is that it gives the state the right to tell a congregation how we can relate to registered sex offenders. In other words, how we can do ministry. History and the Constitution tell us that we don’t want the state to be able to do that. But this also means that the responsibility falls heavily on the congregation to clearly determine and monitor the involvement of sex offenders. It also assumes a repentant sex offender.

Audray Johnson, Director of Family Ministries for the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Southeastern California, describes the position of her church:

“. . . we allow attendance (unless a judge has indicated otherwise), but the person may have no roles or offices in the church, must be subject to chaperonage, and stay away from children’s divisions—such as Sabbath Schools, . . . Vacation Bible School programs, etc. The exceptions we have made: working in the AV booth, which is usually in a more remote room in the church and would probably be seen as a technician, as opposed to a leader by most children. Mowing a lawn, janitorial services and the like would also be acceptable as long as children are not present on the property. . ."

“My take on repentance in this kind of situation: That repentance will sound something like this: ‘What I did was a terrible thing for which I am truly sorry. I have repented before God and have done everything that I can that is safe for those whom I have so grievously hurt, to make things right (confession, repentance, paying for therapy…). Therefore, I ask my church to take this seriously. That it will honor my request that it will never ask or assign me to anything that would put me in the place of temptation and possible harm to another child. Even though I believe I have healed enough to never offend like this again, I want to be sure to keep it that way. I simply would like to be a supporting worshipper.’”

A truly repentant sex offender will have no problem with this. He/she will understand that because they have sexually abused, they have forfeited the privilege of serving in leadership in the church and they will welcome the support of supervision while they attend. Likewise a unrepentant sex offender is not welcome to attend and participate.

But we in our faith communities must put aside our ignorance and naiveté and step up to the responsibility of ministry with sex offenders AND of protecting our members from harm. We should not ask nor allow the state to manage this for us. Down the road they may decide to manage other things as well.

Criminal laws and civil remedies remain as available resources to hold individuals and the church accountable. These should be used to help rectify harm done by a religious leader or organization. This sustains the proper relationship between church and state in a democracy founded on the principle of freedom of religion. But it also places the primary burden of prevention on our congregations. We have a lot of work to do to respond adequately to this challenge.

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

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