Addressing a Known Potential Threat in Church

By Trudy Good

Safe Church policies and procedures should include two important efforts: 

First, Safe Church is about preventing abuse of children and vulnerable members. 

Second, Safe Church is about protecting children and vulnerable members when there is a known potential threat. 

A potential threat occurs when someone who has a known history of inappropriate or illegal sexual behavior is participating in the congregation or wants to participate in the congregation. 

Here are a few examples: 

  • The new boyfriend of a single mother in the congregation has a history of interaction with the Department of Children and Family Services because of inappropriate touching of a niece whose family he was living with at the time. The boyfriend has begun attending church with the single mother and her children. 
  • A cousin of a congregational member is going to be released from jail after serving time for repeated indecent exposures to children. He is a registered sex offender and on probation for the next two years. He and his cousin have talked about how it would be helpful to have him be part of a faith community again, especially to help in his transition process of living in the community.

These examples demonstrate how the second effort of protecting while also welcoming can feel quite uncomfortable for a congregation. When we want to include persons with offending histories, it brings into full relief the tensions in desiring to be both open and protective congregations. In living out God’s call, it is critical that we are deliberate in how we offer not only support but also accountability from the congregation. 

Dove’s Nest has provided specific guidelines and suggestions for congregations in their protection and inclusion practices. If and when a congregation decides to include a person with an offending history, the first important step is that the church is comfortable with and consistently implementing a Safe Church policy that begins with protecting and preventing abuse.

Protecting children and vulnerable individuals is the first priority for any church. Next, at minimum, a written plan is developed that outlines how and when the person may participate in congregational church life.

In general, a policy requires the protection of all children, thus no adults (offender or not) are allowed alone with children.  But it is important to not fall into the belief that most sex offenses have child victims. Actually, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed against adults. Over half of victims are eighteen and older. Thus, accountability groups and written plans for individuals with offending in their past should focus on the vulnerability and likely victim targets of the person who has the history of sexual offenses.

Separation of Accountability and Support:
One way of applying a written plan is to develop a support group and an accountability group that is specific to each person with an offending history. Each group is comprised of two or three people.

These groups have distinct roles from each other. The groups might communicate with each other, but they are careful that they don’t begin to mix or confuse their roles. They are separate because of the difficulty for one group to hold and honor both objectives.

1. Accountability Group Role:
The role of the accountability group is to provide review and accountability for the limitations set in the written plan. The written plan outlines many of the specific behaviors and activities of an offending person in church life. When there are concerns or reports that the person has not followed the written plan, they are reported to this committee. This committee reviews with the person how they are abiding by the limitations and supervision. New questions and issues will come up as the person develops a meaningful role in the congregation. For example, can the person switch to a different Sunday school class that is located near several of the child classrooms? Can the person participate in the all-day church volunteer work day? Is it okay for the person to put their name on the church’s volunteer services list to help people move?

The accountability group reviews these new issues in light of the person’s past offenses, vulnerabilities, and the Safe Church policies and procedures. It may be that the accountability group decides that a person is able to participate in specific aspects of congregational life (e.g., adult Bible studies) and not able to participate in other aspects (e.g., congregational potlucks). If the person with the offending history is on probation or parole, the accountability group and the person need to agree on what information, if any, will be shared between probation/parole and the group. It is imperative that everyone knows and understands that suspected child abuse must be reported to the police or Child Protective Services. 

2. Support Group Role:
The role of the support group is to provide emotional support, prayer support, and referrals for resources the person might need. Persons who have been involved in a legal process or with a disciplinary process because of problematic sexual behaviors often struggle with issues of self-worth, have little social support, have mental health problems, and may have financial and economic challenges. Depending on their situations, they may be questioning their faith and their own values. Support group members focus on helping the person build and recover their health and well-being in the physical, emotional, and spiritual domains. 

The group also helps the person identify meaningful ways to participate in the life of the congregation, both to contribute to others and to receive nourishment. Persons on the support group have a clear belief that recovery, living and behaving in appropriate ways, is possible and acknowledge that the person may struggle with various hurdles to do this. Ideally, one of the group members has a working knowledge of community resources for mental health, housing, education, and employment, as these are often need areas of persons with offending histories. Group members have a working knowledge of the Safe Church policies and encourage and support the individual to follow the written plan.

Both the support group and accountability group report regularly to the pastor or designated leader. The pastor or leader ensures that the committees are helping the congregation to enact its goal of protecting and including. 

“As followers of Jesus Christ, the church is called to hold openness and protection in dynamic and creative tension that may lead us to more fully embody Christ’s grace, joy, and peace” (Dove’s Nest, Protection and Inclusion: Guide for Congregations on Safely Including Persons Who have Committed Sexual Offenses).

Dr. Trudy Good is a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively in community mental health in Illinois and Massachusetts. She has a long-standing concern for how churches can be safe havens for children and persons who are marginalized. Her clinical expertise includes working with people with a history of trauma, problematic sexual behaviors, and clinical risk management, and she has consulted and volunteered concerning organizational issues in several congregations. Dr. Good is the director of Good Havens: Safer Places. She participates in the Mennonite Congregation of Boston as well as St. Ignatius Catholic Church. She can be contacted at trudygood [at] gmail.com (trudygood [at] gmail.com).