When an Abuser Comes to Church

What do we do when a convicted child abuser comes to church? If we know someone has harmed children in the past, how can we safely minister to them? Should we allow a repentant sexual predator to attend corporate worship? Are there dangers here we are missing because we don’t think like predators?

The following is an excerpt from Not Forsaken: A Shepherd’s Guide. This 29-lesson study is designed to help seminary students, pastors, and church leaders, identify, understand, and safely respond to abusive situations. By familiarizing ourselves with the tactics abusers use, common red flags, and concepts God himself has outlined in Scripture, we can better equip ourselves to protect children and minister to abuse victims and survivors.

This section is taken from Chapter 15, and helps us consider what to do when an abuser comes to church; how to safely and effectively minister to them without putting our kids at risk.

What should we do when an abuser comes to church?

One of the most common questions I hear from pastors is, “But Jennifer, how do we minister to recovered child predators? What if they’re repentant? Shouldn’t they be allowed to come to church again? Aren’t all believers entitled to attend corporate worship?”

First, let’s clarify that there’s no such thing as a recovered child predator. You’re not a recovered sinner. I’m not a recovered abuse survivor. That’s because recovery is a lifelong process. Until we reach Heaven, our sanctification is incomplete. We are recovering, but we are still sinful, finite, and fallible. While our identity as Christians is bound up in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), we are still prone to the same patterns of temptation which once defined us. For the sake of others and ourselves we must arrange our lives accordingly. We must humbly accept the earthly consequences of sins eternally forgiven (Psalm 51, 2 Samuel 12).

As to the question at the top of this section, the short answer is no. The long answer is as follows.

Say you have a godly elder in your congregation. We’ll call him, Elder John. Elder John is a great guy; strong Christian, eloquent teacher, father of six, and married for 37 years. He’s the salt of the earth. Everyone looks up to him and wants to learn from him.

Elder John has offered to serve as chaperone for a recovering child predator. This guy served two years in prison for sexually abusing his daughter, but according to prison officials he was a gold star convict. He ate all his vegetables, made his bed every morning, read all the right books, and didn’t shank anyone. In fact, he got out early for good behavior.

His parole officer also sings his praises. He’s never been caught loitering in creepy manner outside schools or near playgrounds. He’s never been late to register as a sex offender. He pays his child support on time. He honors his wife’s restraining order. He hasn’t been caught buying a gun. He doesn’t even have any traffic tickets. As far as sex offenders go, he’s Prince Charming.

Elder John has been meeting this guy for coffee every week for almost three years. He’s certain his repentance is genuine. This guy has read all the books of the Bible, even Leviticus. He can quote Geerhardus Vos. He tithes. He even knows a little Greek. His favorite superhero is Batman, he prefers Coke to Pepsi, he votes Republican, and his favorite sport is baseball. What could be more wholesome and safe?

So, Elder John offers to be responsible for this guy if the session[1] will let him attend church services. The session wants to be careful though. They decide that, despite this man’s repentance, he won’t be allowed near the nursery or Sunday School rooms. He won’t be invited to Sunday school fellowship over coffee and doughnuts. He’ll arrive right as the service starts and leave immediately after. If he needs to use the restroom, Elder John will go with him and make sure no kids are in there. He’ll even walk the guy to his car so he’s not unsupervised in the parking lot.

“We’ve done it!” they think. “We’ve created the ultimate predator-proof safety plan! Our children will be safe, and this prodigal son can return to church.”

But now let’s look at this through the eyes of a child.

Little Abby is eight years old, which is the same age this man’s daughter was when he assaulted her. Abby looks up to Elder John. He and her daddy are good friends. Sometimes, their family goes to Elder John’s house for BBQs, and her parents enjoy Elder John’s Wednesday night Bible study. Abby is certain that all Elder John’s friends are just as godly as he is.

One Sunday, Abby notices Elder John sitting next to a man she’s never seen before. The following Sunday, they’re sitting together again. The Sunday after that, Elder John accompanies the man to the bathroom.

“They must be really good friends,” she thinks. After all, Abby and her friends often visit the bathroom together. That’s what little girls do, so this is perceived as the closest comradery.

This goes on for several weeks, and Abby gets curious. When she asks her parents who he is, they get a strange look on their faces, and tell her to stay away from him. This makes Abby even more curious. A few times, she wanders close to the man, clutching her little pink Bible, hoping to hear snippets of his conversation. They’ve never spoken, but he’s smiled at her. Abby thinks he looks sad, and she wonders why. Everyone should be happy at church.

One day, Abby is out playing in her front yard with some neighbor kids, and she sees Elder John’s friend walking a dog down her street. What are the odds? She goes to say hi. She pets his dog. She introduces herself. He says his real name isn’t important, but his friends call him Ziggy. She thinks that’s funny. It turns out, he loves playing ball and reading Narnia, just like her.

At this moment, Elder John is 20 miles away trimming his rose bushes. He has no idea what’s happening. Abby’s mom is inside with the baby, and her dad is still at work. Abby is alone and unsupervised with a sexual predator who she trusts, because she knows him from your church.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “But Jennifer! We’ll tell the parents who this guy is and what he’s done. We’ll even warn the kids not to talk to him! We’ll tell them he’s dangerous!”

Really? Let’s think this through. Are you prepared to explain to a class of kindergarteners that a man attending their church might hurt them? Or kidnap them? Or want to touch their privates? When new families visit your church, you’re going to ask them to sit toward the front, because the child molesters sit in the back? This seems like a good solution to you?

It is not practical to tell children not to talk to someone, and assume they’ll obey. It is not rational to tell kids an adult is dangerous, and expect them to understand what you mean. No child who trusts you would believe you’re putting them in the same room with a sexual predator. They assume you’ll protect them. They assume you won’t put them at risk. They assume everyone at church loves Jesus as much as they do.

Best case scenario, if you warn your children, they’ll be frightened to attend church. Why would you put kids in that position? Did not Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these?” Matthew 19:14. Don’t you think frightening kids is a hinderance to them?

You must decide: Will your church be a safe haven for the child, or the child abuser?

The goal of protecting children is to provide them with happy, healthy, innocent childhoods. They should view the house of God as a sanctuary, not a hunting ground where they’re the prey. They shouldn’t have to sit in pews fearing the adults around them. They shouldn’t have to wonder if a predator is watching their backside as they sing hymns and pray. They shouldn’t have to check twice to make sure someone isn’t watching them use the restroom, because you decided ministering to a sexual predator was more important than ministering to them. I have felt that fear. Trust me, if you want to destroy a child’s faith, this is how.

Yes, educate children in an age-appropriate manner, but you’re going to find yourself hard pressed to explain sexual deviancy and pedophilia to toddlers and elementary schoolers. It’s simply not appropriate, and even if it was, they wouldn’t understand you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve warned my kids – even screamed at them to stop – because they were running up to a neighbor’s dog who was barking at them through an iron gate. They don’t know that dog. The dog is obviously guarding his territory. But they love animals, and they assume all dogs are friendly, and safe, and would never bite them. Because they’re children.

While educating children is wise, and a practical step every parent should take, it’s not the solution here. The solution here is for adults to take responsibility for their evil and accept the consequences of their actions. For some, the consequences are to avoid any chance, any risk, any remote possibility of awakening that devastating temptation again. The cost is simply too high.

A genuinely recovering sexual predator should understand the gravity of his sin. He should fear and recoil at even the smallest opportunity to be tempted, let alone regress. He won’t want to frighten the parents or children in your church. He won’t want his presence to inhibit their ability to worship. He won’t ask you to go out on a limb for him to defend his “right to worship.” 

If an abuser seems to feel entitled to attending corporate worship, or expects those around him to trust and accept him, he’s smacking you upside the head with red flags. He’s either lying to himself, or lying to you, or both. Whatever the case, do not trust him. Anyone who feels the need to convince you to trust them – or expects you to insist that others trust him – cannot be trusted.

How can we safely minister to sexual predators?

    There is no rule that all Christians must attend family worship at 11AM on Sunday. There are many homebound believers who – through no fault of their own – are unable to attend corporate worship, and so we minister to them separately. This is common practice and biblically faithful. If someone has a spiritual deformity or sinful disease, how much more so should we minister to them separately? This is not just about the safety of children, but about enabling the recovering abuser to avoid temptation. You can establish alternate worship times and locations for individuals who should not fellowship alongside children. This could be a Bible study during the week, small group, or private Sunday service off church grounds. Whatever the format or location, absolutely no children may be present, and it cannot take place in a home where children live. No child should see trusted adults with the offender, and the offender should not be allowed to familiarize himself or herself with the schedules of children, photos of children, or the layout of buildings or residences where children are cared for or taught. Any adults involved must be instructed to never tell the offender their children’s names, what they look like, where they go to school, or what their routine is. The offender should have no access to church directories, Facebook groups, kid’s ministry pages, or other materials which include the names, addresses, photos, or ages of children. If the offender ever does succumb to temptation and begin to lust in his or her heart, they should be incapable of acting on that lust against your children. In theory, should a child encounter the offender on their walk home from school, or while playing ball with friends, they should be total strangers. A repentant offender will understand and accept this. If they don’t respect your guidance in this, they don’t respect your guidance. Count your blessings and ask them to leave.

    Ministries and churches in your area may already have established outreaches specially designed for recovering sexual predators and abusers. Rather than reinvent the wheel or risk making a catastrophic mistake, it’s best to refer whenever you’re able.

Recovering the Sanctuary

In 1996, I watched the Disney cartoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In it, Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from an unjust execution by rushing her to the cathedral and crying out, “Sanctuary!”

It used to be that a church’s sanctuary was a literal sanctuary. The falsely accused, persecuted, and downtrodden could flee to a sanctuary and find protection from anyone seeking to harm them. This was holy ground. The “teachers of the law” of John 8 could not berate a victim there. Not so in our modern churches and worship centers. They have become a hunting ground.

But the safety of God’s children shouldn’t be gambled against a pastor’s ability to judge a person’s character. The security of God’s children shouldn’t hinge on a leadership team’s opinion of a predator’s repentance. Unless you’re Jesus Christ and can read hearts and minds, the cost if you’re wrong is simply too high.

And even if a predator is genuinely repentant, do we believe repentant people are never tempted again? Do we believe saved people never sin again? Of course not! We’re thankful for the work of the Holy Spirit, but we know we’re not in Heaven yet. We’re still fallible. We still sin. Don’t ever forget or underestimate the fallen state of professed Christians. Be wary of opening the door to temptation, for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Genesis 4:7, Matthew 26:40-41).

As a lawyer once told me, if you owned a dog who has mauled a child before, you’d never let that dog near children again. And if you did, and a child was hurt, you’d deserve to get prosecuted or sued. You’d deserve to go to jail. It doesn’t matter how cute your dog is, or how well he obeys, or how long it’s been since he mauled someone. You simply don’t take the chance. The same is true of child predators. Once a person has demonstrated such a profound lack of self-restraint, and such dangerous and destructive inclinations, the only responsible thing to do is remove them from any possibility of temptation.

You wouldn’t invite a recovering alcoholic to a bar. You wouldn’t subject them to the very temptation they’ve worked so hard to overcome. Inviting a recovering child predator to church when kids are present is not only child endangerment, but it’s unfair to the recovering abuser. You’re placing a weak sinner in the midst of temptation. You’re setting a fox in a hen house.

Pastors and church leaders, we must value the children of our congregations more than a sex offender’s ego. We must love the weakest among us enough to make sure they feel safe and truly are safe. We must love survivors of abuse enough to be willing to earn their trust, even if that means sacrifice and a little extra coordination. God’s children must be allowed to worship Jesus without fear; without dreading who is watching, without wondering what an offender is thinking, and without worrying whether they might be followed home. Anything less can erode their faith; associating the church and our holy Savior in their minds with hypocrisy, depravity, and danger. In this way, many well-intentioned churches have caused Christ’s little ones to stumble.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Matthew 18:6-9

[1] A body of elected pastors and elders governing a local church in Presbyterian polity. A church leadership board.

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