A new bill from Tennessee Representative Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain) raises the question of how ministry leaders should deal with registered sex offenders who want to attend church services. Hazlewood’s amendment would allow known sex offenders in church within certain parameters.
“As a father, you know, it’s concerning, but as a Christian as well, you know, I’m all for second chances and all for people turning their lives around,” said Jackson, Tennessee, resident William Rainer, according to WBBJ 7 Eyewitness News.
What Does the Bill Say About Sex Offenders in Church?
Hazlewood’s bill specifies that sexual and violent offenders may be allowed “at a house of worship for the purpose of attending religious services or receiving educational or social support services.” The amendment to Tennessee’s law states that the offender must give written notice to the “the leader of the house of worship” and that the leader must provide written permission for the offender to attend services. Hazlewood filed the bill through the Tennessee General Assembly on Monday, and it has not yet gone to any committees.
WBBJ reached out to several churches in Jackson, Tennessee, for their reactions to the bill, but the churches were either reluctant or unavailable to comment. A resident named Lynn Havner said she understands why people would be fearful of allowing sex offenders in church, but added, “in a controlled circumstance I think that’s where they need to be.” Said Rainer, “You can’t shun people…The church is a hospital.”
If passed, Hazlewood’s bill would become law on July 1, 2020.
Clear Cause for Concern
Ministry leaders who have concerns about allowing sex offenders in church are right to be wary. The widsepread nature of child abuse within the Catholic church is now well-known, and recent years have brought to light the Protestant church’s own failure to protect its children from abuse. For example, former children’s ministry volunteer Jacop Hazlett was recently sentenced to 75 years in prison for sexual crimes against children. Some of these were actually caught on camera by the church where he volunteered in South Carolina. The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has been dealing very publicly with what Albert Mohler has called, “its own horrifying #MeToo moment.”
Lawyer and advocate Rachael Denhollander, who was the first person to speak out against USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, has said, “The way the Evangelical church handles the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence is very much in opposition to Christ’s teaching. It’s in opposition to the Gospel.”
In addition to being a lawyer and outspoken victims advocate, Denhollander is a wife, mother, and committed follower of Jesus. She says, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim…It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”
Yet many believers recognize the importance of extending grace and the possibility of restoration to all people, no matter what their sins are. So what are church leaders to do if they want to help both victims and offenders in cases of sexual abuse?
Dealing with Sex Offenders in Church
David Middlebrook with the Church Law Group says that the question of what churches should do about registered sex offenders is “one of the toughest questions we are asked regularly.”
For churches that want to allow a sex offender in church, Middlebrook offers the following advice:
- Do a comprehensive background check on the person in question.
- It’s up to the church to decide precisely what the offender is allowed to attend.
- Obviously, an offender must not be allowed to have contact with the church’s youth or children.
- Assign a mentor or chaperone who is always present when the offender attends a church function.
- Create a “covenant of conduct” with the understanding that if offenders violate that covenant, they will not be allowed to return to the church.