Within days of attending a Sunday service at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, a Johnson County man received an unexpected e-mail.
Security officials at the Leawood megachurch wanted to see him immediately. They told him this summer that some rules needed to be set if he wished to come back to worship.
He must go straight to the sanctuary before service and leave immediately after it ended — no dawdling. There would be no direct contact with church staff.
Only a single-stool restroom on the church campus could be used.
And under no circumstances could he enter the children’s wing of the church.
The man is a registered sex offender, convicted seven years ago of possessing child pornography. He’s also one of a special class of worshippers whom most churches across the country want to welcome — but very carefully.
“While we’re a very inclusive church family, at the same time, we feel we have a responsibility to have a safe environment for our members and visitors,” said Peter Metz, communications director for the Church of the Resurrection. “It’s a practical solution, much better than denying them access to the church.”
Sex offenders across the country face laws and regulations that keep them from living near schools, parks, bus stops and pools. Some neighborhoods created association rules banning offenders from residing there.
Now churches are in the mix, trying to welcome parishioners while draping a protective cloak over the children and others in the next pew.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church added wording to its manual last month that sex offenders can restore their memberships but never hold a post involving unsupervised contact with children.
Earlier this summer, a Georgia law took effect allowing sex offenders to volunteer in church only if they’re not around children.
In New Hampshire, a man has sued for the right to attend a Jehovah’s Witnesses church with a chaperone. Jonathan Perfetto, who served about eight years in prison for 61 counts of child pornography, has been welcomed by the congregation. A church elder volunteered to chaperone.
But being around anyone under the age of 18 is a violation of his probation, and a judge denied his request. Attorney Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union argued his case last month before the state Supreme Court.
“On the one hand, every citizen has the freedom to exercise their religion,” Keshen said. “On the other hand, churches want to make sure no member of their congregation is in danger.”
Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said: “I think churches are struggling to find that middle ground.”
By nature, and God’s word, churches welcome all people. Hate the sin, love the sinner, the belief goes.
But many churches say open arms have to come with open eyes. In the past several years, churches have done everything from requiring limited access agreements to prohibiting some from coming inside the church at all.
“We believe they have spiritual needs that could help them on their path to recovery. We want to be part of their rehabilitation,” said Jim Bradford at the Assemblies of God national headquarters in Springfield, Mo. “But we have to be proactive. The stakes are too high.”
His church leadership recommends that its 12,000 churches adopt some restrictions but doesn’t mandate them. In the past, Bradford was lead pastor at Central Assembly of God in Springfield, where several sex offenders had attended.
First, Bradford said, he and other leaders would find out what the circumstances of the offense were. Then they would tailor the restrictions.
Sometimes, offenders would get offended, but the church stood firm. In one case, a man was told not to come back because leaders felt he wouldn’t obey the restrictions.
“By ministering to them, it’s not necessarily saying, ‘We trust you,’ ” Bradford said. “It does say that ‘within Christ, we have hope for you.’
“We don’t want to close the door. … Jesus wouldn’t.”
Janet Taylor, a minister at Kansas City’s Unity Temple on the Plaza, agrees. Her church makes sure children and other members are safe by monitoring security cameras set up throughout the church.
Anyone working with children goes through a background check. But the front door is open for offenders wanting to turn their lives around.
“From my perspective, it’s important to have someone attend church if they were in that situation,” Taylor said. “Even though they acted inappropriately in the past, we would still strive to see the Christ-like essence within them.”
Churches are most cautious with volunteers. Some routinely check sex offender registries.
At Lenexa Christian, church leaders make sure volunteers working with young people have no convictions of a sexual nature. If they do, that doesn’t preclude them from being involved in other areas of the church.
“We’re trying to reach out to them in love, also,” said pastor Kirk Ruchotzke, who oversees Christian education at the church. “Just because there’s something in their background doesn’t mean God can’t use them in some type of ministry.”
For the last several years, the Johnson County man attended a weekly group for adults sponsored by the Church of the Resurrection.
Some members knew his status. He wasn’t hiding.
That’s why he expressed surprise at the e-mail and the requirement to sign the agreement to be allowed to return. He felt his rights were violated, but he has declined to discuss the episode further.
Metz, a church spokesman, said the man remained under the radar until recently.
“Our safety and security folks were not aware of him,” Metz said. “Every offender we become aware of, we ask them to sign our agreement.”
Restrictions are a good security tool for churches — as long as they’re accompanied by support, said Steve Vann, who helps run Keeping Kids Safe Ministries, based in Tennessee.
The group helps churches make proactive decisions regarding sex offenders in their congregations. What worries Vann are the churches that don’t address the issue at all.
“When you ignore it, abandon or shut off these people, it makes it more likely for them to reoffend,” Vann said.
As a prison minister in central Kansas for 20 years, Lynn McBride has offered his services to criminals and offenders for years. To him, the importance of religion in rehabilitation is clear. He offered the example of one sex offender who remade his life once out of prison. He is now remarried, has a good job and is active in his church.
“He turned to God in prison,” McBride said. “He’s just a wonderful young man. He’s doing great.”
Through another offender, McBride knows what can happen when the support and counseling isn’t there.
The prison minister didn’t meet one inmate until he was imprisoned after a second offense. Between prison terms, the child molester went to a church, volunteered in the nursery and abused a child there. The man is no longer behind bars and, through ministry and support, appears to be obeying the law.
“There are good stories. There are tragedies,” McBride said. “It’s important for them to be able to call someone, to have a church, a pastor who understands.
“That’s the bottom line. They need counseling. They need people there for them.”
Category: Church Security