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Open Door Under the Steeple: Integrating Sex Offenders

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For churches and other religious institutions that intentionally practice theologically-oriented hospitality, registered sex offenders present a conundrum. How can a worshipping organization practice hospitality, generosity, and grace while protecting its members from harm and protecting itself from liability? The short answer: it depends. Religious institutions need to carefully weigh their potential liability against the resources they have available to mentor, supervise, and minister to registered sex offenders.

What’s at stake?

Welcoming registered sex offenders into a religious body may align with ministry philosophy and goals, but organizations must balance their desire to welcome with the need to protect. A church has no legal obligation to permit a registered sex offender to attend. Any permission granted should be contingent upon the church’s ability to exercise oversight and provide discipleship. In granting permission, the church exposes itself to significant risks: that the sex offender will again commit harmful behavior; punitive damages for negligence; negative media attention; and liability for board members who fail to implement sufficient safeguards. Smaller churches with limited resources for oversight may choose to exclude all registered sex offenders from the church.

Guidelines for safeguards

If a church chooses to allow registered sex offenders to participate in services and activities, it should have a proactive policy in place that emphasizes the church’s care for its entire church body. We also recommend that the church use a restrictive access agreement, signed by the registered sex offender, in order to minimize legal risk.  An individual’s church participation should be conditioned upon their willingness to submit to oversight and abide by the conditions of the agreement. Both the policy and the agreement should include the following elements.          

  • Initial checks. Upon learning that a sex offender wishes to attend, the church should conduct a background check to verify the nature of the individual’s offense, the extent of incarceration and any restrictions on the individual’s conduct. With the assistance of legal counsel, the church should also seek to understand any court-ordered restrictions on the individual (prohibitions from attending church, being near school property, etc.). The church should follow up with court-appointed counselors or parole officers and obtain written approvals if necessary.
  • Supervisory procedures. The church should designate an Elder or Director (or other church leader) to oversee the individual’s participation in church activities.  The Elder should appoint chaperones to accompany the individual while on church property and at church-sanctioned events. The church should refrain from appointing a spouse or close family member as an escort, as they are generally regarded as “conflicted parties” in legal contexts. 
  • Reporting. The supervising Elder and any escorts should make regular reports to the church’s administration regarding the individual’s participation and the status of the oversight process. The supervising Elder and escorts should be mindful to keep accurate records of the individual’s participation in church functions, and any contact with minors, whether intentional or inadvertent. 
  • Notice. The church should notify members that the individual is a sex offender on a strictly “need to know” basis. All supervisory children’s workers should be notified. Disclosure on a broader level, such as to all families with children or to all members, should be evaluated with great care and discernment. Disclosure may expose the church to potential claims by the sex offender and his or her family, such as invasion of privacy, defamation, or false statements. Any disclosure should be undertaken carefully in order minimize gossip, false information, and inappropriate communications.
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