It seems to me that the only crime for which there is no forgiveness in our society is child molestation. It is certainly horrible to assault a helpless child, and I’m glad that the practice is shunned. The desire to protect children from any and all harm is understandable and hard to disagree with (though this op-ed in Newsweek shows how the desire to protect children from harm can be overdone).
But when I consider the shunning from the perspective of the child molester, I wonder how they’re able to even try to get better. Their picture, name and address are publicly available for all people to investigate. They have limitations on where they can live. They live in a society that tends to think improvement in this area is impossible, or only possible through castration and complete abstention from all contact with children.
So I’ve been fascinated by a recent spate of stories about how churches should receive or treat child molesters in their midst. Presumably child molesters have always been members of congregations — but members may not have realized it.
The most prominent story — and the one with the best coverage — has been in a San Diego United Church of Christ congregation. Many of the stories I’ve read have covered the internal strife caused by the revelation that a sex offender wants to join a congregation. But few have really analyzed the religious perspectives of the various sides in the conflict.
Here’s how Sandi Dolbee of The San Diego Union-Tribune began her March 14 story:
On a Sunday morning in late January, the Rev. Madison Shockley reminded his congregation at Pilgrim United Church of Christ of the New Testament story in which Jesus stops a crowd from stoning an adulterer.
Whoever is without sin should throw the next stone, Jesus tells the people, and the crowd disperses.
Then Shockley introduced Mark Pliska, who had been attending the Carlsbad church for a few weeks. Pliska told the crowd his story, that he was a convicted child molester.
Dolbee goes on to explain that the revelation produced a debate about safety and inclusiveness. Many of the members had, sadly, been abused as children. Pliska was disinvited from the congregation until they could figure out how to handle the issue over the long term. A non-member associated with the church’s preschool launched a vigorous campaign against Pliska’s participation in the congregation.
Dolbee provides great insight, speaking with a few experts on the topic of sex offenders and congregational life. Both provide very helpful information on what a congregation must know when dealing with known sex offenders. I only wish that the theological views of people who disagree with the pastor had been included. I’m very curious to know what their theological reasoning is, and none of the stories I’ve read have really fleshed that out. I’m not confused by their instinctual reaction or desire to protect their children — I just want to know more about how their Christianity factors into their decision to oppose membership for a sex offender.
Dolbee followed up the story with another big piece on March 25. She speaks with two members who were abused as children and finds they have very different attitudes about how to treat the sex offender. A 44-year-old mother of a young child doesn’t even want Pliska looking at pictures of families that are posted in the hallway. But a member who was abused by a priest is on a team of people working with the sex offender while the congregation spends months deciding whether he may attend.
In this and the previous story, the reporter speaks with other congregations’ leaders about how they would handle the situation. She also interviews local clergy to get their take. I found their thoughts illuminating:
Bishop George McKinney of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ in San Diego’s Valencia Park neighborhood, said he has had sex offenders in his congregation in the past, though he doesn’t know whether he has any now.
“We simply believe that the church is a hospital,” McKinney said.
Others are hesitant.
“You would hope that everything would all just work out fine and dandy,” said the Rev. Art Lyons, a longtime leader in jail ministry and a pastor at Canyon Community Church in Chula Vista. “But I think, realistically, it’s really a hard thing for people to get their emotions around, to have a convicted child molester or pedophile in a congregation where their children are around.”
It also would be a troubling request for Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue near Balboa Park.
“It is one of those crimes where the numbers and the issues around rehabilitation are really abysmal and disturbing,” Meltzer said.
“With a heavy heart, I don’t think I would be comfortable with a registered sex offender being able to participate actively within our congregation.”
She actually speaks with a bunch of Christian pastors, though I didn’t excerpt all of them. The Christians cover a certain range of views on the matter, but it’s interesting that she speaks with a rabbi, too. It makes the lack of theological explanation even more problematic since Jews and Christians presumably would have different theological approaches to the matter.
Dolbee also shares a story about a pastor who was told about a sex offender in the congregation. He gave the offender rules about contact with children — rules the molester repeatedly flouted. The pastor says he bets there are molesters in every congregation.
I guess that’s why I find this story so interesting. I assume that my fellow congregants are like me: we all have a lot of very dark and secret sins that we’re glad are not out in the open. I assume that each person has their own struggle but that the struggle is serious and profound. Maybe that’s why I wish some of these stories — though the ones I highlighted were far and away the best — had a bit more perspective on the general theological approach to sin.
Another note about the stories — all the reporters keep pointing out that Pilgrim United Church of Christ is a liberal and progressive congregation that is surprised to be dealing with an exclusionary debate. I follow this church body quite a bit because my mother was baptized and confirmed at UCC churches. Nearly her entire family has since left in the last four decades, but I still think fondly on what the church meant to my family and keep track of the various goings on therein.
But isn’t the point of the United Church of Christ’s stance on various issues that its theological progressivism means it doesn’t consider certain things sin? Remember its “pew ejector” ad campaigns that criticized other churches for condemning certain behaviors as sinful? It implied that other churches were racist and networks refused to run it on the grounds it engaged in advocacy — as opposed to other advertisements?
Anyway, when the UCC proclaims that it welcomes homosexuals, that’s not because it considers homosexuality sinful but want homosexuals to feel welcome in UCC congregations. On the contrary, the UCC doesn’t consider homosexuality sinful at all.
So this story about sex molesters is different. The sex molesters are not only considered sinful by some congregants — but perpetually and possibly irretrievably so. That’s a completely different enchilada. So I’m not sure if reporters are properly juxtaposing this against the UCC’s progressivism. Rather it might be interesting to highlight, again, the UCC’s stance on what qualifies as sinful behavior and how congregations should treat such sinfulness.