A longtime friend and supporter of my ministry sent the following, about sex offenders and those on the registry in church:
“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.
“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”
He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.
I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.
The author, Hugh Hollowell, is a Mennonite pastor who calls himself “the pastor of last resort,” I title I like so much I’m going to steal it and use it someday. He does the kind of ministry I do, I would like to do — hardscrabble ministry with lost and broken people in a place no one loves or cares much about.
But the last year has brought me here, to a ministry of mercy for abused and abandoned foster kids, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse, and many have been trafficked. I deal frequently with victims, I hear such terrible stories, and I try to minister to them, to help them understand how God is present in their lives. How God is redeeming them.
So it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for the perpetrators, many of whom are very bad men — beating, raping, abducting, buying, selling. Treating these amazing young women as mere things for pleasure and profit.
Much of the time, I want vengeance. Suffering for these men for the evil they have wrought. I don’t see them as redeemable. Not really.
But Hollowell is right. The people we label as “sex offenders” come in all shapes and sizes. For a while, I counseled a young man named Aiden who was doing six months in juvenile detention because, at 16, he had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. The age of consent in Washington is 16, and it’s a hard age of consent — there are no allowances for young teens who have sex with each other. Her parents found out, and were not happy. Aiden said he was okay with his sentence — it kept him off the registry, and probably gave him a chance to rethink his life a bit.
Sadly, doing this ministry, I’ve met too many young women – 13 and 14-year-olds — with much older boyfriends — 17, 18, 19. I’ve counseled and ministered to teenage girls protecting themselves by being with men in their 20s. And some are having sex with parental permission because the parents know at least the boyfriend is kind, treats their daughter well, and keeps her safe. (Because once a girl is a rape victim in a small community, predators of all ages seem to know, and the girl is a target.) Or because there are no parents at all. This is hardly ideal, and I only grudgingly accept it, but sometimes it’s the best protection a young woman can find.
(I’ve seen what foster care can do, and what kind of charnel houses and torture chambers foster home can be. And the police aren’t much use unless a crime is actually being committed and they can stop it in the act.)
But you know, even the rapists, even the traffickers, even the murderers, are not so far in the dark that Jesus isn’t light for them, that Jesus doesn’t love them. Doesn’t redeem them. Doing what I do right now, with the victims, means I’m probably not the person to pronounce that love — I’m too close to those who have suffered. Nor does the pronouncement of that love negate any responsibility we have to punish those who hurt others and keep the vulnerable safe.
The ideal place for such a ministry is prison.
But some of these men get out. Live in our midst. And Jesus loves them too. Died for them and rose for them, pronounced to some “today you will be in paradise with me.” You wouldn’t have such people worship in a church full of victims. Not unless there was some very serious repentance, penance, and reconciliation, not unless the victims themselves want that, lead that, set the terms and have the final say.
We do need to be reminded sometimes, though, that no one is so far from the love of God that they should be excluded from the church, from the people of God, no matter who they are.
No matter what they have done.