Monday, June 30, 2008

A disturbing phone call...

to the church voice mail over the weekend prompted me to make a phone call or two of my own. The call was from a man who wanted to visit the congregation but had a problematic past he needed to discuss. So I called him, determined that he is a Level II sex offender, and listened to what he had to say about his crime and his progress in changing his behavior.

I took the name and phone number of his parole officer, told him I would be calling the parole officer to discuss his situation, and also that I would be talking with the leadership of our congregation about him. I warned him that one step we would definitely take, if he were to be able to visit, was that the entire congregation would have to know about him, that we would set up conditions for his time with us and enforce those conditions, that the safety of our children and our adult survivors was paramount. He understood all this, I believe.

So this morning, I called his parole officer and had an informative conversation with her, learning that the conditions of his parole state that he must not go to locations where children and youth tend to congregate. That means he is not allowed to visit a church. Even his calling to inquire was a near-violation, though I'm glad he called, rather than drop in.

So the situation has changed somewhat, but I plan to attend the upcoming July board meeting (even though I'm on vacation in July) because I want them to start a process to put measures in place that will protect the congregation from known and unknown predators. We already do a background check on all those who work with the kids but that's not necessarily enough.

I've had enough experience with sexual predators, both personally and professionally, to know that it's an insidious, identity-damaging crime. I agree with the Supremes that it doesn't warrant the death penalty, but it does so much damage to a person's identity that it should be considered a huge offense against humanity. I believe a victim can be healed, with enough time and treatment; I'm not sure about a predator for whom the behavior has become addictive.

But the question of how to provide a spiritual home for both an offender (of many types, not just sexual) and a potential victim is one that faces many faith traditions. Our desire to be compassionate must be balanced by our ability to be protective of potential victims and of adult survivors of sexual assault.

We've seen this handled very badly over the years. It has happened in every faith tradition and we UUs are no exception. We are slowly developing an understanding of how to protect our congregations and how to make offenders accountable for their actions.

I'm grateful to my colleague the Rev. Debra Haffner at her Sexuality and Religion blog. She has offered me and our colleagues a good deal of assistance in dealing with sexuality issues in our congregations.

I've written a note to my lectionary group colleagues suggesting that we offer, in the fall, a seminar to all the clergy and their layleaders on the island, led by the parole officer I talked with today, and have received very favorable responses. I hope that we will be able to bring this non-doctrinal yet moral issue to the table and provide some real-time answers.

The officer I talked with was frank and very helpful to me; she has worked with churches in the past to help them understand the nature of sexual predation and to help them develop processes to address it. We'll see what happens.


LinguistFriend said...

No doubt it was disturbing, and I would not criticize anything that you describe of what you did in handling the problem. But of course what is disturbing varies somewhat with different religious groups. I am sure that what was alarming in this case would be alarming to almost all American religious groups, and to most non-religious Americans as well. But how different is the sexual addict who apparently joins a congregation to feed his habit? The minister who dates his parishioners? What about the person going through a divorce and celebrating independence? One can make a long and varied list. On the other hand, puritanism can also be destructive. Somehow those of us who stem religiously from the Genesis stories absorb problematic attitudes towards sexuality, and they are bound into the foundations of Western religion. Once I took Pagels very good "Adam and Eve etc." book as the basis for a small group discussion of this topic, for a couple of months. It was successful with all members except one person going through a catastrophic divorce, who I think really did not want any analytic insight into her own behavior (no, individuals were not discussed)any more than most people in surgery care about the nature of their anesthesia. Enough; you have done what was needed to protect your congregation, and make others aware of the proximity of the problem.

ms. kitty said...

Good questions all, LF. I think that the criminality of the act is the important thing here.

Steve Caldwell said...

Ms. Kitty,

I'm sure you're already in contact with Rev. Debra Haffner about this.

I would point out two resources on this topic available on the web site:

Balancing Acts
Keeping Children Safe in Congregations

Online Course Based on "Balancing Acts"

The print "Balancing Acts" resource and the online course will be very helpful to your board, DRE, and staff when it comes to creating safety policies that protect children and youth while also respecting the worth and dignity of all persons (including the registered sex offender).

Good luck.

Mile High Pixie said...

Wow, no kidding that was disturbing! I wonder, are you allowed to minister to this fellow personally in his home, like how some ministers bring Sacrament to shut-ins or prisons? On the one hand, I don't want child sex offenders near children, because even if s/he wants to stop, they probably can't. At the same time, how are these people supposed to "live" if they're not able to go to work, have a residence, and even speak to God in peace? Why release them into the world at all if no one's going to give somewhere safe to go? It's a tough call either way. I'm glad to hear that you're going to stay in the loop on this and follow through to ensure your congregation's safety and peace of mind.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for the resources, Steve.

And Pixie, I wonder the same things.

Steve Caldwell said...

Ms. Kitty,

I saw this on the 2008 GA event coverage:

Welcoming All: When Ex-Prisoners Join Our Congregations
General Assembly 2008 Event 3034

Again, good luck.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Steve, this will be helpful. I have an update and will post it later today.

Earthbound Spirit said...

If I recall correctly (all my GA materials are at home & I'm on vacation), the Welcoming All workshop was cancelled for some reason. Another resource, too: The Safe Congregations Handbook, which is on the new MFC reading list.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, EBS. I remember Debra's blog mentioning that she'd been unable to attend.

Debra W. Haffner said...

Dear Ms. Kitty,

Please feel free to call me before your board meeting or during the process. I'd be happy to share how other congregations have handled these situations. But, if a parole officer or treatment providers tells you someone is too dangerous to be around children at all, that is definitely a reason to say no. But, it's always important to remember that the offender you know about is far less dangerous than the person who is only known to themselves. Let me know if I can be of help.

Debra W. Haffner

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Debra, I will plan to call on you if I have further questions. At this point, it's pretty much in the parole officer's court.