How can churches serve sex offenders?

Some congregations struggle to accommodate all while still protecting children.

Published August 7, 2007 6:47PM (EDT)

What do you do if a convicted sex offender wants to worship at your church? Or, for that matter, if a member of your congregation is accused of a sex crime? For many church directors, it's a question that can divide the community. According to the Associated Press, several Unitarian Universalists have joined with the New England Adolescent Research Institute to create an online course to help churches set guidelines for what to do if this happens -- the hope being that if a set of guidelines is already in place, it'll be easier for churches to deal with situations as they arise.

The course is called "Balancing Acts" and is available free online. (Though it was created by Unitarian Universalists, its guidelines are applicable to other denominations.) It suggests that churches first determine how much of a risk the person could pose to children if he or she were allowed to participate in religious activities. After that has been discussed, there are several options churches can take to limit the person's access to kids while still allowing him or her the chance to worship. Using what's called a "limited access agreement," the church and the suspect or convict can make arrangements so that the person is always escorted while in church, or is allowed to attend only adult services or make one-on-one appointments with a minister. As for the kids, the course suggests that the church make sure that they're accompanied by at least two adults, and that they are in open spaces whenever possible.

Balancing Acts' methods are far from perfect -- there's no guarantee that just having a policy in place is going to prevent a congregation from splitting when a suspected or convicted sex offender tries to worship. But as senior pastor Carl Wilfrid told the AP, "it's certainly a good idea for congregations to start thinking and talking about these issues."

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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