A proportional response towards abusers

Avery DullesThere is something missing — not quite right about this Associated Press story from Medford, Oregon. If true as written, the facts set forth in “Church protests insurance rules for sex offenders” presents an extraordinary development of insurance guidelines dictating church doctrine and discipline. The concept of proportionality in punishment and forgiveness of the sinner appear to have been overwhelmed by fear.

Here is the lede:

Medford, USA – An Oregon church is challenging a requirement by its insurance company that it disclose the identity of sex offenders to other congregants, allow offenders to attend only one predetermined service and assign them an escort.

Pastor Chad McComas of Set Free Christian Fellowship in Medford said his church disclosed that known sex offenders were among the 100 members. Church Mutual insurance company on May 1 responded with a letter outlining requirements to continue an insurance policy.

Besides announcing disclosing the names of sex offenders, limiting them to one service and providing escorts, the church is required to keep sex offenders out of child or youth programs.

The structure of the article follows the usual pattern. It begins with a statement of the issues, followed by comments from a protagonist and then an antagonist. After the lede we have the source for the AP story:

McComas told the Mail Tribune that the rules will have a chilling effect on disclosure.

Followed by:

Church Mutual insures more than 100,000 religious organizations and has covered nearly 5,000 sex-related claims since 1984, said Patrick Moreland, vice president of marketing for Church Mutual.

The rules were developed by attorneys and are designed to protect the organization from the “legal hot water” of sexual misconduct and molestation claims, he said. They also protect potential victims, Moreland said.

“Our No. 1 goal is to protect our churches and our children,” Moreland said.

McComas gives his response to the insurance rules and this is followed by comments from a pastor from a second church. And the article closes with comments from a member of the congregation who is a registered sex offender.

Convicted sex offender Dave Schmidt, 66, said he attends Set Free services to worship, not to seek out additional victims. If he’s driven out of Set Free by insurance company policies, he said, he will simply go to new churches, one week at time if necessary.

Structurally, this is well written and contains all of the necessary elements for a good story. My problem is the lede and the claims made that Church Mutual is requiring the church to “disclose the identity of sex offenders to other congregants, allow offenders to attend only one predetermined service and assign them an escort.”

To be frank, I don’t believe it. The response given by the insurance company does not address the extraordinary additional steps that Set Free is required to take — public identification of abusers, limiting them to one service and assigning them an escort. The response offered by the insurance company is one that applies to a generic child abuse safety and prevention program — e.g., not allowing abusers to work with children and so forth.

What is really going on at this church? Do they have a history or a pattern of behavior that would require these extra preventative measures? Do they have a notorious pedophile just out of prison on probation amongst their members? What explains these extraordinary measures?

And how is it the AP does not appear to be aware that these measures are extraordinary? It lumps normal good practices (not allowing abusers to work with children) with something I have never heard of (assigning escorts to abusers attending church.)

The bottom line is that this is half a story. We have an extraordinary claim made by a pastor of a small congregation, but no evidence of the claim is presented that would corroborate it. And the story is written from a perspective of ignorance about how child safety rules work in congregations.

There is also a moral question that is left unaddressed. Are the steps taken to protect children from abuse, as presented in this story, abusive in turn to those who have committed bad acts in the past? By stigmatizing the one-time abuser with an escort in church, disclosure of his sins to the congregation and restricting him to a special service — is the church violating its mandate to reach out to the lost?

Writing in America Magazine in 2004 Cardinal Avery Dulles criticized a similar situation in the Catholic Church.

Since World War II, the Catholic Church has become a leading champion of the inviolable rights of individual human persons. Applying this principle, the bishops of the United States in November 2000 published Responsibility and Rehabilitation, a critique of the American criminal justice system, in which they upheld the dignity of the accused and rejected slogans such as “three strikes and you’re out.” Among other things, the bishops stated: “One-size-fits-all solutions are often inadequate…. We must renew our efforts to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Therefore, we do not support mandatory sentencing that replaces judges’ assessments with rigid formulations.”

“Finally,” they said, “we must welcome ex-offenders back into society as full participating members, to the extent feasible.”

Cardinal Dulles stated the church’s response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal failed to live up to these standards. Its “zero tolerance” program and its treatment of suspected and proven abusers was inadequate:

The church must protect the community from harm, but it must also protect the human rights of each individual who may face an accusation. The supposed good of the totality must not override the rights of individual persons. Some of the measures adopted went far beyond the protection of children from abuse. The bishops adopted the very principles that they themselves had condemned in their critique of the secular judicial system.

If the claims in the AP story are true, then Church Mutual has created a policy that in pursuit of the good of the totality, the rights of individual persons have been denied. What say you GetReligion readers? Does this story hold together? Does it pass the smell test — and if so, should the article have pushed Church Mutual to defend its actions?

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About geoconger
  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    How about making them wear a red “A” for “Abuser”?

    Or is this just one of those too-good-to-check stories?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The original story is far better. It appears the AP piece was either a hack job done at AP or at the SF Chronicle. You’ll see a lot more context and comments from a couple of congregation members in the original. But if the letter is authentic, Church Mutual’s feet should have been held to the fire — what are churches for except welcoming all kinds of sinners?

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    The original story in the Mail Tribune also includes comments from a local “survivors advocate”; and much more from Schmidt, implying that similar policies were in place at “a larger church”, effectively driving him to move to Set Free.

    I am also checking Church Mutual’s web site, which has materials for a sample child and youth abuse prevention program for religious organizations which emphasizes employee and volunteer screening. I am playing a video which includes the suggestion that “a mentor or buddy system” might sometimes be effective in dealing with offenders.

  • Tom Madison

    Oregon’s Sex Offender Registry (SOR) laws are one of the biggest legislative frauds ever committed against the citizens of this state. SOR laws were built on many false assumptions such as “high” re-offense rates (they are VERY low instead), and that most of the new sex crimes will be committed by somebody who is not on the SOR list anyway and will likely be a family member (or close friend).

    All SOR laws need to be repealed in that they do nothing to enhance the safety of children and do a horrible disservice to parent by redirecting their attention away from “in-the-family” sex abuse and falsely towards people on the SOR list. Organizations such as churches should allow anybody to attend that wishes to do so and lets all try to end this witch-hunt.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Sex offenders are my day job, so perhaps I’m tainted. But honestly, the restrictions (allegedly) imposed by the insurance company are not unlike some imposed on sex offenders on parole or probation, if they want to attend church. We don’t require disclosure to the congregation, but I have met with pastors (including my own) on several occasions and listened to the guys disclose their offenses. Generally, a safety plan is developed which often includes a chaperone and bathroom visits.

    As to the journalism, I’ll give the articles credit for differentiating between the “Romeo cases” (18 year old boy and somewhat younger girl) and more serious cases. In fact, sex offenders exist on a range from the Romeos to the predators, and everything in between. Sex offenders include the guy who got drunk and followed his predator friend around and did one really bad thing. A sex offender treatment provider once remarked to me that the best “therapy” for lots of offenders was getting caught. They are not likely to do it again. Sex offenders also include those with adult victims and no known child victims. I get really irritated when I read “Sex Offender” because I know that people have been trained to react hysterically, as though being a registered sex offender meant being a pedophile, predator, driven by irresistible urges. Some are, of course, most are not; the problem is that when the pendulum swings, people will tend to ignore reasonable precautions.

    One last thing: honesty and openness are essential to the growth process for sex offenders. I appreciated the extended quotes from the SO in the Mail Tribune article. It reminded me that the worst thing a sex offender can do is hide inside religion, particularly a closed, self-motivated religiousity.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I should add that I know congregations and Christian ministries that do a beautiful job with these folks. Openness and honesty are part of their communities.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Sorry, one last comment: was it really necessary to lead this post with a picture of a Catholic priest when the referenced articles were not about Catholic priests?

    • geoconger

      The photo is of the late Cardinal Avery Dulles — the priest cited in the story. As a personal aside, Cardinal Dulles (before he was a cardinal) taught me systematic theology. He would take the train up from New York to New Haven and attempt to shine the light of his learning and faith into our dull Protestant minds. He was a wonderful fellow. Warm, witty, dry and droll, brilliant and compassionate. A true man of God.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Fr. Conger,

    With respect, your experience of the man is all the more reason not to post a picture of Cardinal Dulles under a heading that references sex abuse.

    As it happens, I agree with the cardinal, and the thrust of your post. The Catholic bishops disgraced themselves in 2002 and the only mitigation since is that a fair few have retired and been replaced by a better breed. But in my diocese, to do anything beyond sitting in the pew requires lay people to attend a three hour “Keeping Kids Safe” class, although the scandals involved priests enabled by bishops. Also, my former bishop removed a priest from ministry because 20 years prior, at the age of 28, he kissed a 16 year old girl on a retreat and her parents complained. I could continue, but won’t. But think: zero tolerance.

  • John M.

    I personally find it interesting that sexual offenses involving children are one of the very last sins that are met with near-universal opprobrium in our society. The hysteria accompanying it far surpasses the hysteria surrounding, say, murder or assault. This is not to say that I don’t greet such things with opprobrium myself, just surprised to find myself in opprobrious company with individuals who are otherwise libertines. And who see no problems inundating my children with hyper-sexualized messages and clothing.

    Perhaps there’s a religion story here. Or at least an ethics story.


  • Thinkling

    John, your perception is mostly true. But there are still exceptions to even that.

    Like this.

    The one gentleman form the Board of Supervisors even goes out of his way to compliment the suspect.