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Monday, August 06, 2007

Course helps churches handle offenders

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[August 06, 2007]  HOLYOKE, Mass.( AP) -- It was a shocking moment for members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, N.H.: One of their congregants was accused of sexually abusing an underage relative.

Church leaders gave the man one chance to remain. He had to sign an agreement to stay away from any church setting where there were children, limiting himself to events like adult education classes and one-on-one meetings with the pastor.

He refused and decided to leave, but the ultimatum let the church stick to its mission of trying to minister to all while keeping its children safe.

"We had a policy in place," said Sandra Greenfield, who was the church's director of education at the time and now holds a similar job at the South Church in Portsmouth, N.H. "There was no confusion about how we were going to handle the situation."

Eight years later, Greenfield and other Unitarian Universalists have created an online course with the Holyoke-based New England Adolescent Research Institute to help churches set guidelines for dealing with a member accused of a sex crime or a convicted sex offender who wants to join their congregation.

"Every place of worship needs a safe-congregation policy," Rev. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.

"If not, you have an offender who shows up, the congregation is alarmed and nobody knows what to do," she said. "Then there's a split in the congregation where you have people saying `Jesus called us to welcome everyone,' and others saying `if a pedophile comes in, I'm quitting.'"

Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Westport, Conn., who helped design the course called "Balancing Acts," said she works with at least two congregations a month grappling with whether to accept a sex offender.

One of the most publicized cases she was involved in was in Carlsbad, Calif., where members of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ voted in May to set guidelines for dealing with registered sex offenders after a convicted child molester wanted to join the congregation.

Pilgrim's pastor, Rev. Madison Shockley, declined to discuss the policy or say whether the man is attending services.

Balancing Acts is designed for Unitarian Universalists, but its ideas can be adapted to other denominations, and its creators hope preachers from all faiths find it useful.

They also hope the free course's availability online might make people more likely to use it.

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"Not everyone is likely to pick up the phone and ask someone about how to deal with these issues," said Joan Tabachnick, director of educational initiatives at the New England Adolescent Research Institute. "The key was to create something that was available and accessible to everyone."

The course suggests following guidelines that have long been in place at the Manchester Unitarian Universalist church.

They include determining the possible risk to children if a convict or suspect wants to take part in religious activities.

From there, church leaders can create a list of restrictions, called a "limited access agreement." Such arrangements might include making sure an offender is escorted while in church. He might only be allowed to attend adult worship services or one-to-one meetings with a minister.

Balancing Acts suggests that two adults always be with a child and that children are in open spaces when possible.

Some signs of a congregational split have surfaced at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, Nev., where a convicted sex offender wanted to worship in December.

The church had no policy for dealing with the situation, and the congregation has since been debating what to do.

"I wouldn't be surprised if some people leave if we do decide to include him," Senior Pastor Carl Wilfrid said. "But others have said they'd leave if we don't include him. There have been people terribly afraid for their children, and I don't fault them at all for that. But I also recognize the struggle to serve this man."

It's a struggle that's so far taken seven months, and Wilfrid says his congregation has grown spiritually from the experience.

He isn't sure that having a policy before the sex offender showed up to pray would have made things easier, "but it's certainly a good idea for congregations to start thinking and talking about these issues," he said.

[Associated Press; by Adam Gorlick]

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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