Simon Bass is the CEO of CCPAS (Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service), the leading independent Christian child protection charity in the UK. CCPAS has been safeguarding children since 1977. In light of my most recent posts on churches' mishandling of pedophiles and registered child sex offenders volunteering and employed in positions of leadership and trust in churches, I have asked Simon to give his expert guidance in context of these "offender-focused" churches.
The Village Church
Fairfax Community Church
Simon Bass: The Christian Social Worker Who Protects Children From Christian Abusers
An open letter to every senior pastor whose church wants to minister to those who pose a risk of harm
As shepherds you have a duty of care towards your flock, and especially those who are vulnerable; those children and adults in your congregation. As a good steward it is vital that before contemplating ministering to anyone who has committed sexual offences such an undertaking is not done so naively – the risk of harm to children is just too great. I say this based on the recidivism rates for sexual offenders, which sadly includes those who profess a faith in Jesus Christ. If we have learned anything from the clerical abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church and other major denominations it is that professing faith does not mean we become sinless. Those who have sexually molested children will always pose a future risk to them. This is not to deny the transforming work of Jesus Christ but recognition of the addictive nature of sexual crimes.
In every fellowship there will be survivors of sexual abuse (based on national and international statistics of the number who have been victims of abuse in childhood). Many look to the church as a place of sanctuary and struggle when churches have sympathy and mobilise resources for perpetrators of abuse, whilst the pain and safety needs of victims are ignored.
How you as a pastor respond to perpetrators who have molested children must always have as a starting point the safety of children. Then you should give due consideration to the needs of survivors, and the affect ministering to perpetrators of abuse can have on them. If you appear to be one-sided you will alienate many in the church, and especially those who have been harmed. Survivors of abuse will only ever have confidence in your church if their voice is heard when you are working with those who have committed sexual violence against them.
I would urge you as pastors to use appropriate language when talking about sexual offenders, and by this I am talking about those who have molested and raped children, and filmed then shared these abusive acts. Don’t describe sexual offenders simply as offenders, nor describe them as ex-offenders, as it can be perceived that there is a denial of their offence and ignoring that they will always be a risk, and it consigns the abuse to the past. Certainly don’t describe their behavior as being about mistakes in the past, which is just too dismissive.
Ensuring your church is a safe and welcoming environment requires that you have a child protection policy in place, and that all your leaders have been trained in child safety, including safer recruitment, that you have clear working practices including what to do where abuse is disclosed or suspected. This would also include how you address the pastoral and counseling needs of those who have been affected by abuse. With this in place you will be better equipped to minister to sexual offenders, remember they will look for acceptance, and the church is often the only place where this can be found. It is understandable why sex offenders are drawn to church.
Some manipulative sex offenders will target churches, professing faith and using language and acting in ways suggestive that they are repentant, knowing they will be accepted, in order to gain contact with children in order to abuse them. Other sex offenders who truly want to turn away from the crimes they have committed will show fruit in keeping with repentance. One clear way is for the sex offender to agree to never working with children or wanting to have any position or authority within the church which would give rise to a child believing them to be trustworthy. This requires wisdom in considering what roles and titles you give to sex offenders to ensure they are not seen as a person in a position of trust.
Children are trusting, and if they believe a person is safe to be around because that is the impression you give at church, they are not going to be weary when approached outside of church. It is imperative that you engage in a covenant contract with the sex offender, outlining the boundaries they are expected to keep and how the church may be able to support in their rehabilitation to prevent the likelihood of them re-offending. Living with the consequence of the crime isn’t denying redemption. This should be written drawing on a professional risk assessment from their probation or law enforcement officer, or others involved in their aftercare. It should clearly state the crime they committed, and any sanctions or restrictions they are under, and what sex offender management plan that may be in place. Key leaders in the church need to be aware of this contract. Don’t assume that members of the church will refer to the sex offender register.
Be very clear as to what offences have been acknowledged, and dealt with by the courts, as further admissions can lead to you as pastors needing to mandatorily contact law enforcement. A situational risk assessment should also be undertaken to ascertain if you are able to provide the level of support and supervision needed to ensure the sex offender can be monitored sufficiently so as not to put children at risk. Churches don’t just operate in one building but include meeting in homes for bible studies and as a church family there will be offers of hospitality. These need to be included in the contract, which should be constantly reviewed, and remain in force indefinitely.
I have known sex offenders who have said the church should cease the contract such as at the time of the end of their probation. The risk they posed though had not changed so the contract should remain. Certainly don’t give public ministry to sex offenders or opportunity for them to share their testimony. It is grossly offensive to survivors of abuse, for some it is an opportunity to groom a congregation and other sexual offenders will get sexual gratification from re-telling their story. It is unfair to their victims, not least because it risks identifying them.
I believe that sex offenders can be part of church but because of the nature of the offence there are many aspects of ministry that they should not be involved in, starting with not having any role where they are in any position of trust. Many churches provide pastoral support and recovery programs but again this is not something a sex offender should be involved in. Due to the predisposition to sexually abuse a child, this is a matter for long term intense therapeutic intervention; this disqualifies sexual offenders from acting as facilitators within certain recovery programs, for example where providing care or counsel to anyone dealing with addiction, especially sex addictions or pornography. This is simply foolhardy. I have known sex offenders who began viewing pornography and then downloaded child abuse images. Some victims of sexual abuse have become addicted to alcohol or drugs in order to cope with that abuse. For these reasons it is therefore totally inappropriate to have a sex offender involved in these ministries.
Churches should always be a place of acceptance and refuge and welcome, so let’s first ensure that survivors of abuse believe this first. Working with sex offenders require you as pastors to recognize that this is a specialist area where you should be working collaboratively with appropriate professionals and their agencies. It’s therefore vital to work with law enforcement and get support from organizations such as G.R.A.C.E. and Stop it Now!, and survivor advocacy organizations such as SNAP.
Chief Executive, CCPAS www.ccpas.co.uk