What Would Jesus Do? State Law Would Bar Some Registered Sex Offenders from Attending Church

Gaston Gazette

December 18, 2008

The Rev. Ben Robertson believes church doors should be open to everyone - even registered sex offenders.

Congregations are grappling with a new state law that prohibits certain sex offenders from being within 300 feet of child care centers, which include church nurseries and playgrounds. If worship services are held in close proximity to church child care, the law could prevent some from attending.

"As a church that preaches Jesus Christ as our savior, we at the same time preach resurrection and that Christ welcomes all people, regardless of what they have done, regardless of what demons they are dealing with," said Robertson, the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Gastonia.

The father of a 1-year-old girl, Robertson said the church doesn't tolerate child sex abuse. All employees and volunteers undergo sexual misconduct prevention training.

"While we welcome all, we are also vigilant of all, especially regarding our children," he said. "If someone is going to try to abuse one of our children, they will be identified and they will be prevented."

Church attendance a crime?

Included in a batch of tough new laws for North Carolina's registered sex offenders that took effect Dec. 1, the boundary rule applies only to offenders whose victims were under 16. Those affected can't go "(w)ithin 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors when the place is located on premises that are not intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors."

The law provides examples, including children's museums, nurseries and playgrounds located in malls and shopping centers. Churches are not specifically mentioned.

Deputy Shane Farmer of the Gaston County Sheriff's Office said more than a dozen sex offenders asked for clarification on the law, fearing it would prevent them from attending church. The Sheriff's Office quizzed the N.C. Department of Justice.

"That's the general consensus of the way they're interpreting the law," Farmer said. "If he or she is within 300 feet of that nursery or that day care, then he or she is in violation."

Spokeswoman Noelle Talley said she couldn't comment on the law's effect on churches because the Justice Department only provides legal opinions to state government agencies.

Farmer said the Sheriff's Office can't provide sex offenders with specific legal advice, but he makes it clear that the 300-foot law contains no exception for churches.

"Not every church is going to have a nursery," he said. "It's definitely putting limitations on them, but it hasn't eliminated that avenue."

A ‘good place' for offenders

About a fifth of registered sex offenders and a sixth of offenders who haven't been caught attend United States churches, according to Smyna, Tenn.-based Keeping Kids Safe Ministries. The Christian group helps churches safeguard children by setting clear expectations for accountability among attendees who are sex offenders.

"There is no profile of a sex offender," said Greg Sporer, president and co-founder of Keeping Kids Safe. "They're just run-of-the-mill people. We think that sex offenders mirror church attendance in Americans."

Not all sex offenders are child molesters who pose a danger to young children. Sporer said research shows that 10 percent of registered offenders are pedophiles.

Churches are a positive atmosphere for rehabilitated offenders when they understand their expectations and know they'll be held accountable, Sporer said.

"A church is actually a pretty good place for a registered offender as long as you get those really strong accountability rules that they can't break," he said.

Going to church doesn't have to mean attending a Sunday morning service.

Sex offenders concerned about North Carolina's 300-foot boundary law can still worship and fellowship by going to men's and women's ministries, Bible studies and small group meetings where children won't be present.

"The creativity of the gospel of Christ will continue to overcome whatever obstacles we've placed in its way," said the Rev. Brian Cornell, senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church.

Protecting the children

At the 2,200-member First United Methodist Church in Gastonia, each of the more than 150 volunteers who supervise children has passed a criminal background check and attended child abuse prevention training.

"We talk about, ‘These are proper ways of behaving around children that are in your care,'" said the Rev. Sarah Watkins Davis, minister of children's programs.

Volunteers also submit to a search of their driving records to ensure that keys to the church bus aren't being given to someone with a history of making bad decisions behind the wheel. The scrutiny prevents those with abusive pasts from coming forward and ensures that volunteers have the right motives, Watkins Davis said.

"I think that if somebody's willing to go through al this scrutiny, then they're willing to give their all to the church and they're willing to make this a safer place for children," she said.

At 250-member All Saints Episcopal, Robertson said all volunteers take a Christian anti-abuse class called Safeguarding God's Children.

Background checks and fingerprints are required for employees at Gastonia's First Wesleyan Christian School, which has 125 children in its preschool and 152 in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Dr. Benjamin Hinton, senior pastor of the 1,200 member Tabernacle Baptist Church, said he would balance forgiveness with accountability to ensure children's safety.

"There's really no way of being 100 percent sure that that person has healed and has overcome their predatory addictions," he said.

A registered sex offender who wanted to attend Tabernacle would be required to follow all state laws and asked to remain in the company of a mentor or accountability partner for a minimum of one year while on church property, Hinton said.

"I believe they can (change), but they need some guidance," he explained. "We don't let a person say, ‘Well, I did it yesterday, but I'm straight today.' There has to be some prolonged supervision, and they have to show signs of transformation."

If someone committed a sexual offense against a child in the church, he or she would be dismissed, he said.

‘We welcome all to our altar'

Can sex offenders change? Cornell, of the 150-member Christ United Methodist Church on Union Road, believes salvation brings transformation.

"If I believe in the message of Christ and receiving Christ as my savior, then I'm absolutely testifying that he can change me and that he has changed me. Why would that salvation be different for anybody else?"

He retold the story in John 8 of Jesus stopping the execution of an accused prostitute by telling the person without sin to cast the first stone.

"Christ is the magnet for those who are broken to come to wholeness," he said. "Who are we to obstruct him or to tell people not to come to him? When we forget those who are the least, the last and the lost, we forget our identity in Christ. God is a God of justice and mercy."

Cornell said a church's primary responsibility is to protect its children, but it can't neglect its duty to minister to abusers who are repentant. While many churches operate child care and children's services within 300 feet of the main sanctuary, pastors said few would turn someone away from a worship service because their name appears on the state sex offender registry.

"We're also not going to screen people as they come in the door for worship," said Watkins Davis. "We've done all the things possible that we can do to safeguard our children. Excluding somebody from worship would not be one of those."

Robertson said Jesus offers forgiveness to those who repent - even the worst rapists, child molesters and sex offenders.

"We want to be a place where folks can be rehabilitated and folks know that God still loves them even though they have done horrendous acts," he said. "We welcome all to our altar and to our community, but at the same time, we are not turning a blind eye to the most vulnerable - our children."

You can reach Corey Friedman at 704-869-1828.


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