Registered sex offenders may ask for permission to attend your church or they may simply show up and hope you don't notice. So if you are not already doing so, it is important that you start reviewing the National Sex Offender Registry for your local area, on a regular basis (http://www.nsopw.gov/). Share the results with your staff. This will empower you and your team to recognize the names and faces of those on the registry that are close enough to attend your church.
Protecting the Children in Your Care
If your church has programs that serve children or youth, it is your responsibility to protect the children in your care and it is extraordinarily dangerous to allow sex offenders access to children. The best way to mitigate the risk is to ensure registered sex offenders do not have access to the children you serve by keeping them off of your premises.
Though the protection of the children in your care is a top priority, we are all God's children and sex offenders are in desperate need of God's grace, his strength, his guidance, and his redemption. They are also in need of a strong community whose members will hold them up and hold them accountable. So how do you balance the spiritual needs of sex offenders with your responsibility to protect the children in our care and in your congregation? Here are a few options for you to consider:
Refer to Local Churches
One way to ensure that sex offenders have the opportunity for the discipleship they need, is to connect with other churches in your community that do not have children or youth programs and refer offenders to those churches for regular services, bible studies, and fellowship. It is important not to just tell the offender to go to the other church but instead to do a personal introduction so the receiving church is aware of the offenders background, their discipleship needs, their restrictions relating to children, and any terms of parole that need to be upheld.
Collaborate with Other Churches
Another approach is to collaborate with other churches to offer centralized programs (weekly services, bible studies, etc.) for sex offenders that are available to a broader geographic community, perhaps a single location within the county. The services would be held at a location that does not have children or youth programs or at a time when there are no children on campus. The collaborating churches could rotate responsibility for program delivery.
Be aware that this could pose a problem for some registered sex offenders as they may have terms of parole or probation that restrict them from communing with other registered sex offenders. If you are interested in pursuing this option, I recommend you reach out to your local corrections department to discuss your plans and gain their input and support for the discipleship program.
Provide On-Line Resources
You may elect to offer on-line services on your website and refer offenders there for weekly messages and training. You may also consider offering messages that are specific to the struggles they face if you are so led by God. While access to these messages and studies is valuable, it certainly does not provide offenders with the invaluable opportunity to be involved in the faith community. Offenders who are isolated from family, friends, and community are more likely to re-offend or struggle with other issues such as substance abuse or depression.
Insist on an Approved Escort
The last option I will offer is to allow sex offenders to be on your campus, if they are accompanied by an approved escort at all times. This provides them the opportunity to partake in a variety of services and be an active part of the faith community. However, there is a significant risk involved - if members of the congregation are used to seeing a particular person on campus, they would assume they are safe. If the offender arrives on your campus and does not make previous arrangements to be with an approved escort, the congregation members would not be aware of the potential danger which would be a significant risk to the children in your care.
One alternative to overcome this risk would be to notify the adults within your congregation of who the offender is and engage them in holding that offender accountable for being with an approved escort. However, some congregation members may not be comfortable with the sex offender’s presence on campus near children and choose to attend a different church as a result.
Allowing sex offenders to be on your premises is by far the riskiest option I have offered you for consideration. I do not personally support this option because the risk far outweighs the benefit. However, I do know churches that have adopted this approach and I would be remiss not to address it. If you are considering this option, you must go into this type of scenario with your eyes wide open and leave your religious trust behind. You must involve a broad enough group of people to ensure accountability for constant supervision of sex offenders. Sex offenders may also have restrictions that do not allow them to be within a specified distance of areas where children congregate, making their presence on your campus during services a violation of their terms of parole or probation.
Last but not least, you should be acutely aware of the increased liability you have if a sex offender, that you allowed on your premises, abuses a child in your care. This is especially true if you do not notify parents in advance. Check with your insurance company to determine if this option would be in compliance with your terms of coverage.
Which ever option you select for offender discipleship, it is important that they receive both spiritual guidance and earthly boundaries. They will be well served by a small group of brothers (or sisters) in Christ who can impart sound theology and structure for spiritual disciplines. The offender will also need a team of professionals (law enforcement and mental health) to develop a safety plan that sets appropriate boundaries that minimize the risk of a repeat offense. A good starting point for boundaries is Best Practice #3 in my book, 8 Ways to Create their Fate. The safety plan should also be specific to the offender's personal triggers (access to preferred age range/gender, pornography, substance abuse, depression, anger, stress, homelessness, etc.). The small group can play a crucial role in holding the offender accountable for following their safety plan as well as providing on-going intercessory prayer against the enemy and for God's blessing of wisdom and self-control to prevail.
Diane Cranley’s book - 8 Ways to Create their Fate is an invaluable contribution to the field of sexual abuse prevention and recovery. As a treatment provider to sex offenders as well as victims, I recommend this primer as a staple for every teacher, counselor, clergyperson, coach, and parent’s library. The information and practices posited herein can be helpful not only in the prevention of child sexual abuse, but also for the recovery of offenders in managing their behavioral choices; an unavoidable, albeit unpopular, component in child protection. —Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, Los Angeles