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Sex Offenders, Pastoral Care and the Local Church: Caring for the Accused, the Abused and the Wider Community – Paul Rosier

June 5, 2015

SOWhen I went on a safeguarding training course, it all felt very legalistic. That this author is a Baptist minister and also a magistrate means that this book has theological unperpinnings and pastoral wisdom.

Not for nothing do ministers and pastoral carers need to be ‘as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves’ (Matt 10.16). This booklet is primarily aimed at helping those administering pastoral care to sex offenders rather than their victims, but the seriousness of such offences must not be overlooked. Sex offenders share many characteristics with other offenders: deceit leading to the offence itself, ignorance of the effect on others and society at large, and the need to escape detection.

Many sex offenders seem to sense that the church is often nowhere near as rigorous in its handling of safeguarding as it should be.

Within the church context, harm can be profound, since the offending may in­volve children and families, and the very ‘family’ nature of church is violated. The church that is lax about the safeguarding of its children and members, making vague promises about what it has done or will do to address the is­sues, will lose the community’s trust.

Against those who say that ‘it couldn’t happen in our church’, the author points out that with over 37,000 sex offenders on the Sex Offenders Register, more than 37,000 churches in England and with 30,000 sex offenders admitting attending church on some basis, there is a high likelihood of a sex offender in most churches.’ We do not need to go looking for offenders, but offenders do ‘ come looking for churches to offer them care, acceptance and welcome.

Against another myth, most offenders commit offences against family members, friends or acquaintances-55% of girls and 66% of boys reporting abuse named the perpetrator as a family member. Offences committed by strangers are statistically rare.

Many sex offenders decline culpability by blaming their actions on others—their own family, social services, the police and even the victim themselves. Our society needs to examine its promotion of women as objects of sexual gratification, the idea that men are somehow helpless in the face of this sexual onslaught, and that children are mini-adults just waiting to discover their sexuality. All this can suggest to (male) offenders that women are inferior and waiting to be conquered. The church often does not help by relegating women to a lesser role and status.

They use various excuses to justify themselves: making their misconduct socially and ethically explicable—’it’s because I was abused as a child’; misconstruing the consequences of their behaviour—’it was only a bit of fun’; passing the blame to the victim—’she egged me on.’

Some sex offenders commit one offence and never reoffend.

Many have been caught because they gave their credit card details to a website. It is often argued that the images already exist, so accessing them is not adding to the abuse that has already taken place. This argument is also false, since every subscription proves to the abusers the market does exist, and therefore ensures further recorded abuse to satisfy the market needs. Every subscriber promotes the abuse. What makes something on the web only ‘virtual’ and therefore innocent? The downloader is still participating in the abuse. Aiding and abetting an offence (being an accessory to a crime) frequently carries the same punishment as the index offence, and the law regards offenders as having equal culpability.

To those who say that the Church is in the business of forgiveness – well, yes but. The sex offender needs to repent of his offending actions and find forgiveness from God, but he also needs to resolve to avoid falling into the same way of life and behaviour as before. – the reaction and behaviour of a church that does not help them address their obsession, but only seeks to welcome them, often causes greater confusion.

Sin has consequences, and those consequences relate not just to God, but also other people. When God declares of his people, ‘I will remember their sins no more’ (Jer 31.31-34) he is not exhibiting divine amnesia. God does not ‘blot out’ sins as if they never happened.

‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ and is the principle of restorative justice, although this is often mistaken for retributive justice (the concept of punishment of the offender rather than restitution to the victim). However, the biblical principle is about the individual rather than the item. It is possible sometimes to replace something taken from another person, but what of in­nocence or wellbeing?

There must always be hope—conversion is an ongoing experience. An essential part of realizing forgiveness is to ensure that the offender is never placed in situations where the old temptations recur.

The assertion as to the reality of conversion sometimes belies a lack of under­standing of the nature of conversion. Conversion as the complete change of heart and mind, the result of belief in and turning to Christ, can be wonderfully real, but is not often immediate and absolute. Only about 20 per cent of com­mitted Christians come to faith through a single conversion experience—for the remaining 80 per cent, the road to faith is an ongoing journey.

Just as Jews have pointed out to Christians who tell them to forgive, that it is for the victims to do that and they are no longer alive so unable to do so, neither can nor should the church put the abused under any pressure to forgive the abuser. The effects of the offender’s actions may live with the abused for the remainder of their lives, and they may never be able to forgive.

We may seek to be inclusive and welcome everybody but Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians specify that behaviour such as sexual immorality must not be contemplated. The cure is not forgiveness by turning a blind eye to errant behaviour, but discipline by expulsion from the body. So if accusations concern a victim or victims who are in the church, or whose immediate family are part of the church, the accused must withdraw from worship for a time. They may protest that this is not necessary, but this is non-negotiable and the church leadership must insist on it. Of course, such sudden withdrawal will inevitably lead to questions from inquisitive members of the church. It is better to field such questions (with great tact) than to face questions later as to why an individual was allowed to continue involvement in the very sphere in which abuse may have occurred. If acquitted, the question remains whether both defendant and aggrieved can I still be part of the same church. The best way forward may be for one party to move to another church.

However, the minister must be aware of the spiritual needs of the accused. They still need contact with other Christians, with opportunity for prayer, teaching and fellowship. Some ministers find it helpful to engage a very small support group for an individual, who, being entrusted with knowledge of the situ­ation, will mentor the accused and share prayer and fellowship with them, without being either judgmental or blindly ignorant of the facts of the situ­ation. Mentoring an offender is never to be done by the minister alone—the minister needs support.

What do do? Understand you have a trustee duty of care to all as leader of your church. This duty of care is to the abused, the accused, and the wider congregation and community, protecting and ensuring the safeguarding of the young and vulnerable whilst they are in your care. This responsibility is shared with clergy colleagues and those elected or appointed to leadership in your particular church or denomination—ministers, elders, deacons and PCC; Do not assume that an offender will not reoffend; never say ‘never.’ You must ensure, as far as you can, that you never allow the offender to be in a situation of risk again; Confidentiality is vital, but do not mistake secrecy for confidentially. Confidentiality is important primarily for the protection of the vic­tims, as well as protection of the accused. There will be those— such as fellow leaders, trustees and colleagues—who do need to know about the situation in order to support you, to protect the vulnerable and fulfil their duty of care. There are also those who do not need to know, and it is as vital to maintain their ignorance as it is to share the situation with those who bear responsibility with you; Never assume that you can deal with it ‘in house.’ Involve statu­tory agencies, even if criminal proceedings do not ensue, and tell the accused of your duty of care to all sections of the community; Remember as a minister that the safeguarding advisors are there to protect you in your ministry as well as to protect children and vulnerable adults.

The author doesn’t mention the seal of the confessional. As a Baptist, this isn’t in his line of business but he does say, regarding confidentiality, top tell them that what they have told or may be about to tell you is something that you cannot keep confidential—you must report this abuse to someone.

If it comes to court proceedings, to attend court with the accused, running the risk of being perceived to be siding with the accused as against the victim.

The accused may ask the minister for a character reference to be presented in court. Ministers should consider the wisdom of this very carefully. Remember that, as a minister, whilst you may know a good deal about someone, you do not know everything about them. Obviously your insight as to a defend­ant’s character could be helpful to a court when considering a sentence, but character references have a limited weight. You will not alter the nature of a sentence; the best that you will achieve is to mitigate the severity of a sentence. In so doing you run the risk of compromising your own credibility and that of the church.

If convicted, they will be housed in a segregation unit for their own protection, since sex offenders are regarded as being vulnerable prisoners. As part of their induction, they will be seen by the prison chaplain within 24 hours. The minister would be wise, in ascertaining where the defendant is being held, to seek early contact with the relevant prison chaplain.

In the absence of security clearance, a minister may still visit an inmate, but will have to ask the prisoner for a visiting order to do so. This may be resisted by the prisoner since the number of visiting orders is severely limited, and these are really for visits from the prisoner’s family. A chaplaincy-assisted visit is the best arrangement for a minister. Reassure them that you will come again, and indicate when this might be. Do not abuse your access to the offender by taking in any printed material.

Sex offenders in church need to be managed by way of a written contract. This is a document setting out for the offender the fact that they are welcome to share in the life and worship of a local church, but with conditions. It needs to be stated and understood that this is for the protection of the offender as well as for the congregation. A very small group of trusted people should be asked to act as mentors. One of the mentors will usually wel­come the offender at the church door, sit with them in the congregation, and accompany them throughout their time on the premises. . Obviously this needs to be done with sensitivity, but the contract should specify that the mentor will wait for the offender outside the toilet to ensure there is no opportunity for the offender to come into contact with children or young people should their offending have involved such individuals. The contract may extend to the offender attending other activities of the church which do not take place on church premises, such as home groups or small groups. The minister and mentors need to be clear that if an offender is to attend a small group then the choice of group is appropriate and safe. If the offender has abused children or young people, then it is inappropriate for the offender to be part of a small group in a home where children or young people reside.

This sounds draconian but I am also aware of contracts which state that if a child comes and sits in the same pew, an offender must immediately move. Ditto if standing at a statue lighting a candle.

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