By Marian V. Liautaud
How churches are ministering to society's most despised.
The first time Craig read the Bible was two decades ago, when he was in a county jail. "I'm a voracious reader, and after I had read all the paperbacks in the unit, I finally picked up the Bible and devoured it in four days."
When the prison chaplain asked Craig if he was willing to accept Christ as his Savior, he answered with a question: "Would Christ accept me?" Craig (who asked that his real name not be used) was serving a sentence for multiple sexual assault and abuse—crimes he committed against his young daughter and another girl.
Anglican theologian N. T. Wright states in Simply Christian that every society has one unforgiveable sin. Many would argue that the unforgiveable sin today is the sexual abuse of children.
Craig accepted God's pardon for his unforgiveable sin through Christ. He has been living under grace since then, but he still struggles with the consequences of what he did. "No one ever grows up thinking they're going to become a sex offender," he says. "One of God's greatest gifts is a child's innocence. I live with the knowledge that I destroyed this in these girls' lives."
The U.S. Department of Justice's Sex Offender Registry includes the names and locations of 549,000 persons convicted of or charged with sex crimes. The odds are that if you are reading this article, you have come into contact with a sex offender or a victim, whether you know it or not. This in itself may account for the emotionally charged responses to sex offenders.
"Lust, like any addiction, is inherently selfish," Craig says. "It puts walls between you and everyone else because you learn to objectify people. It robs you of the thing that makes you human."
Prison gave Craig time to examine his sin. "In group therapy, I was able to discuss every aspect of my crimes—how I had digressed to committing them and what my cycle of offending was. No more victims—this was my mantra in prison, and it continues today."
Post-prison, Craig has found in the local church support for recovery from what he calls "addiction to lust." For several years, he served as a small group volunteer for a sex addictions ministry at a large church. Today, he and his wife are in the process of changing churches. Before doing so, Craig made an appointment to meet with his new pastor to inform him of his past.
"I never want to blindside church leaders and have them hear from someone else, 'Hey, did you know he is on the sex offender registry?'" Craig said. "I know that not everyone is able to accept me and my past as a sex offender, and I respect their feelings. Rejection is one of the consequences of my sin." Craig awaits the pastor's verdict.
Nationwide, church leaders are facing the same dilemma as Craig's pastor: how to help restore and incorporate into church life persons who have served time for heinous crimes, while keeping the church safe.
Pastor and author Dick Witherow aptly refers to the sex offender as "the modern-day leper" in his 2009 book by the same title. When Florida became one of the first states to pass laws restricting where released sex offenders can live, Witherow expanded his prison ministry to help the shunned population with the re-entry process. He first opened a ranch for sex offenders, but a change in zoning laws forced him to close the facility. Undaunted, Witherow found a set of duplexes surrounded by sugar cane fields in rural Palm Beach County. He renamed it Miracle Village.
Today, a colony of 69 sex offenders and old-time sugar company workers and their families live side by side well "outside the camp" in one of the nation's wealthiest counties. On Sundays they attend the church where Witherow is senior pastor, as well as classes three days a week on anger management, relationships, and life skills.
"Sex offenders can change just as an alcoholic or drug addict can change," contends Witherow. He quotes 2 Corinthians 5:17 to support his belief: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
He is on a mission to educate people and undo the hysteria that has built up around sex offenders. While the government's focus is on creating laws to restrict those who have been prosecuted, Witherow says, "When you look at recidivism rates for criminals, sex offenders are the least likely to reoffend." That is true if offenders are part of a thoroughgoing accountability system (more about that below).
Beyond Risk Management
A new national survey reveals that most pastors, church staff, and lay leaders endorse Witherow's goals, but not necessarily all of his methods.
In April 2010, Christianity Today International (CTI) conducted a national survey of 2,864 people, including ordained church leaders (15 percent), church staff (20 percent), lay members (43 percent), and other active Christians (22 percent). Respondents were drawn from the readers of CTI publications and websites. The purpose of the "Sex Offenders in the Church" survey was to explore attitudes and beliefs on whether to allow sex offenders to participate in faith communities. The survey explored what practices churches use to keep their congregations safe when sex offenders are welcomed.
Ian Thomsen, church administrator for Arvada Covenant Church in Arvada, Colorado, says, "If we can reach out to sex offenders, and through our efforts change their lives for the better and take a significant risk away from society, we see this as a tremendous challenge—but what a wonderful challenge. We want to take it on."
"Jesus said there's no unforgiveable sin except blasphemy of the Holy Spirit," says Mark Tusken, rector of St. Mark's Church in Geneva, Illinois. "Now that doesn't mean we want to condone sexual crimes. We're not out to hang a shingle that says Sex Offenders Not Welcome any more than we want to hang a shingle that says Come, Y'All. But my prayer has always been that St. Mark's would be a safe place—a place where people can come because they sense the refuge of Christ here."
"That means parents can come without even giving a thought about something happening to their kids, but also that somebody with a sex offense in their past ought to be able to come and fit in and not be judged." In the 16 years that Tusken has overseen his congregation, he has known of only one convicted sex offender attending.
Read the rest of the 7 page article here