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Ethics and Religion Talk: Should congregations welcome sexual offenders?

How would your congregation receive sex-offenders as participants in worship and other activities?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“West Michigan Hindu Temple has not had to deal with this issue up to date so I have to speculate on this one. Before anything we must understand that the term ‘sex offender’ has multiple meanings. It stretches from a make out session gone a bit too far between teenagers who have just a couple of years of age difference between them all the way to the most heinous crimes beyond the imaginations of most people. I suspect that we would do little to safeguard ourselves against those who may have made unwise decisions but pose no threat to the community. As far as accommodating those convicted of more serious offenses I would hope that we would deliberate each case on its own merit. The most important aims of any discussion should be maintaining a safe space for all congregants and providing the person in question with the opportunity for spiritual growth. Both common sense and compassion should be used in this situation.”

R. Scot Miller, who writes from an Anabaptist and Quaker Christian perspective, responds:

“With open arms, open eyes and ears, and very firm boundaries that are just as firmly stated to the offender as they are discussed by elders and others with weighty opinions. I am not concerned about broken people if I am invested enough in relationship to tell them they are welcomed, they can be part of us, and, they will be caringly considered; and not assigned to any role that makes them, our children, or others, vulnerable to abuse. While redemption is the anticipated outcome, it cannot be assumed. The boundary must be maintained. A violation of boundaries would mean that the relationship will be continued in an adults only environment with elders accountable for that relationships.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Sex offenders are welcome in Catholic Churches! That said, one needs to place the text of these words into context.

“A worshipping community needs to be responsible, which includes not only being aware of the presence of a sex-offender but also the need to develop mentoring programs to help these individuals transform their lives. This outreach must include his/her family, because when one member of a community is guilty of a crime the whole community suffers. Likewise, when that person is treated with dignity healing may begin not only with the individual but also his/her family, and the larger community of faith.

“If you would like to read more about this topic the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a paper 15 November 2000, entitled, ‘Responsible, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Crime And Criminal Justice,’ that may be found here.”

Fred Wooden, the senior pastor of Fountain Street Church, responds:

“We would not announce it, for one. The segregation of sex offenders as an 'especially heinous' class is proving to be less certain. The premise behind the registry is questionable - that they are more likely to re offend - has been shown to be flawed.  But the registry is real and the law is quite firm. Having worked with some congregants on the sex offender registry I know the range of crimes is wide, down to public urination in some places. So long as they comply with the law, and know our policies and agree to them, we have no problem. Funny, how no one ever asks about embezzlers or con artists which really have exploited churches.”

My response:

First of all, my response is based on my own personal understanding of a Jewish attitude towards a communities obligation towards offenders (sexual or otherwise). It does not necessary reflect the policies of my congregation.

I have written previously in this column that I believe that as it is currently written, the law creating a sex offender registry is unethical. Leviticus 19:16 say, “You are not to traffic in slander among your kinspeople.” Jewish ethics cautions us not to share even verifiably true information which might damage someone's reputation unless we have a compelling reason to do so.

The Sex Offender Registry might be ethical if it only listed individuals who have been determined by a professional to constitute a high risk to society. Only a small percentage on the list (pedophiles) have a high recidivism rate. The vast majority, however, have a recidivism rate comparable to or less than that or other crimes.

The Sex Offender Registry, as currently constituted, lumps all sex offenders together as if they all pose the same risk. In this Internet era, the reputation of a person on the registry, even one who has served his time, properly repented, and poses no risk, will be forever smirched.

A congregation ought to welcome a sexual offender with supervision appropriate to the level of risk he (or she) poses.

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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