Sex offenders in the church
Editorialby Anna Groff
Many of us accept that we cannot ignore sexual abuse; victims and offenders worship in our congregations.
We must not continue to silence victims of sexual abuse as we have for years, nor can we demonize and alienate individuals who have committed sexual offenses. Yet God calls us to a third way.
What are ways for the church to address this challenge?
First, consider where and how we learn about sex offenses and disorders. Popular culture, especially in crime television shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI," often portrays sex offenders as inhuman and villains.
Mainstream media offer few examples that capture the complex nature of sexual disorders and sexual offenses.
In The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing (HarperCollins, 2009) journalist Daniel Bergner includes the story of "Roy"—a child molester who violated his preteen stepdaughter.
Bergner effectively weaves in clinical and scientific research on sexual abuse and disorders. He in no way excuses the man’s actions, but offers Roy a degree of humanity and the opportunity to describe his struggles.
In the book, Roy’s therapist said of the offenders: "We want them to be the few, the perverted, the far away. We want there to be the clear line … It just doesn't exist."
In the film Little Children, a town responds to a new neighbor—a registered sex offender charged with indecent exposure. The main character, Brad, grapples with his neighbors' adamant feelings and actions against this man in their town. The film ends tragically.
Our society, including churches, finds comfort in labeling individuals who have committed deviant actions. We want to know who is in and out, forgiven and unforgiven.
However, how we label individuals and how the the criminal system labels individuals becomes complex and troubling.
For example, this year three girls ages 14 or 15 in Pennsylvania were charged with "disseminating child pornography" for texting nude photos of themselves to their boyfriends using their cell phones.
How can churches avoid these patterns of unhelpful labeling and isolating offenders, yet not ignore victims' needs or those among us who are vulnerable to offenders?
As the church leaders suggest, the task means incredible pain, but we must attempt to discuss it and work at it.
In fact, as clinical social worker Paul Unruh says, sexual abuse will damage more lives if we reject offenders.
Abuse is a devastating downward spiral. According to resources from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a majority of sex offenders experience physical and/or sexual abuse as children, most often by someone they knew.
"The offender's adult crimes may be in part a repetition and an acting out of a sexual offense he was subjected to as a child, a maladaptive effort to solve an unresolved early sexual trauma," writes A. Nicholas Groth in the MCC resource.
Unruh offers the house church model for congregations equipped to work at breaking the abuse cycle and who feel called to offer support to offenders.
Other ideas include church partnerships to educate members about sex abuse and start support groups for victims.
Perhaps churches that have fewer families and children are the most appropriate places to offer a community of love and accountability to offenders whom society alienates.
If we hope to end this cycle of sexual abuse, we must find ways to support both victims and offenders. A few pastors and congregations that have had the courage to find this third way can help lead us.
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