Pressure Points (February)

With Dr. Bruce Hartung

Last month’s “Pressure Points” addressed a pastor’s questions concerning the presence of a repentant registered sex offender in his congregation.  He asked how to handle the anxiety connected with this situation, and how to help still the anxiety by creating boundaries of safety in the congregation.  That column with the pastor’s inquiry and my response is available online at www.lcms.org/?14610.

Readers have provided some very helpful responses to that column.  In this February “Pressure Points,” I focus on several major points of those responses, since they add so much to the discussion.hartung.gif

One reader recommended an additional Web site, for the Center for Sex Offender Management, at www.csom.org.  This site’s goal is “to enhance public safety by preventing further victimization through improving the management of adult and juvenile sex offenders who are in the community.”

I reviewed this Web site, and found it to be excellent.  In addition to great content, its listing of related sites and informational papers offers a full course of important material that should be required reading for congregation leaders as they engage this issue.

Emphasizing that the parish should not go it alone in this, the same reader advocates a “collaborative approach” with the church as part of the team.  “At a minimum,” this reader writes, “someone from the church needs to speak with the sex offender’s parole officer to determine what the treatment plan and conditions of release are, so that the church can enhance the sex offender’s re-entry into the community and not set the person up to violate the conditions of his release.”

Another reader applauds the pastor who posed the questions in last month’s column, but believes that I missed the mark in three areas — and I agree. I quote that reader, as follows:

“First, … registered sex offenders come to congregations with stringent probation requirements. These are the most important requirements for congregational leaders to consider.  These requirements are probably far more stringent than safety policies of any church.

“Second, you did not address the safety of the sex offender himself.  He is extremely vulnerable to any accusations and could immediately be arrested at the slightest suspicion without an alibi.  The requirements to keep children and other vulnerable people safe must necessarily include him.

“Third, you do not address the tremendous benefit … in dealing with this often avoided subject openly and straightforwardly.  Many people in our congregation have grown in their own spiritual walk as a result of needing to address issues of abuse, confession, forgiveness, and dealing with old wounds and fears.”

Another reader reminded me that other people in the parish — who themselves have been victims of sexual abuse, either as children or as adults — also need attention.

“Think about what it is like for a person who is a victim of sexual abuse to be in the same building with a known abuser, and even come to the altar rail for Communion during the same service,” that reader writes.  “Pastoral care needs to take special care here.”

Finally, one reader referenced an April 10, 2007, article in The New York Times that recounts the experience of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., when a convicted child molester sought to worship there.  This “has plunged the close-knit congregation into a painful discussion about applying faith in a difficult real-world situation,” the article notes.

Practically everyone who wrote applauded raising this issue.  But many also lamented that the issue is too complex to be covered in a brief column or, as one said, in an “abbreviated way.” 

I hope that these additional observations and recommended resources will be helpful to leaders of our congregations.  If readers know of other good resources, please let me know about them.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu.

Posted January 31, 2009

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