Sex offenders in the church

Sex offenders in the church: From apathy to action

Learn about risk factors and simple rules for handling sex offenders within your congregation.

Lynette Frantzen, PhD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and part-time therapist living in Nyborg, Norway.

Over the last couple of decades, there has been a tremendous focus on clergy who sexually abuse parishioners. Many church denomi­nations now require leaders and lay leaders to have background checks and attend seminars on issues of sexual abuse. While an admirable and impor­tant measure, the focus on leaders who sexually offend is too narrow. Focus should also include the creation and implementation of policies pertinent to visitors, attendees, or church members who have been accused, convicted, or adjudicated1 of a sexual offense.

According to a report by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there were 747,408 registered sex offenders in the United States by January 2012, with the number ris­ing to between 754,000 to 776,000 by January 2013.2 These figures are not fully accurate, however, because not every convicted or adjudicated sex offender is required to register, and not every individual who commits a sexual offense is convicted or adjudicated.

Social support is a crucial element in a sex offender’s reintegration into the community;3 however, many have lost the social support of family and friends. They turn to churches for the social support they need. Thus, some clergy and churches have become a social support for sex offenders, but they do so without being equipped to understand the motivational and cognitive behavioral aspects of sexual offenses or how to handle conflicts that can arise when a sex offender visits, attends, or is a member of the church.

Perhaps even more difficult are situations in which an individual has been accused of a sexual offense but was never convicted or adjudicated. The alleged offense was never reported or there was not enough evidence for an adjudication or conviction. When it comes to sex offenders in the church, issues are either often swept under the carpet or clergy attempt to moder­ate these issues internally, within the church, often to the detriment of the victim, perpetrator, and congregation. While the church can play an important social and spiritual role in helping a sex offender avoid the risk of reoffending, the role of the church in ministering to these individuals must be moderated by the needs of victims and the safety of the congregation.

Some simple but important rules for handling current allegations of sexual abuse within a congregation include the following:

1. Encourage victims to report alle­gations. Silence is a disservice to both victim and offender, denying both the opportunity for healing. Judith Herman writes, in her book Trauma and Recovery, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engage­ment, and remembering.”4

Victims should be afforded the chance to heal; they need the opportu­nity to work through the pain by talking with family, church family, friends, clergy members, professionals, or whomever they choose. While in the short term, remaining silent may help them to avoid the hurt and trauma of an investigation, it also deprives them of vital opportunities and tools for healing. Victims often experience shame and embarrassment that make it less likely they will seek help. Many, who never report abuse, wait until years later to seek help, even though their lives are falling apart because they never addressed the abuse. Silence deprives a victim of the opportunity to move from being a victim of sexual abuse to a survivor and, eventually, to someone who thrives.

At the same time, silence per­petuates the destructive cycle of perpetrators and denies them the opportunity for healing. The per­petrator needs to realize that there are consequences. Because of the shame and embarrassment, most sex offenders are unlikely to reach out for help on their own.5 The perpetrator benefits when sexual abuse is reported. Reporting a perpetrator lets him or her know that sexual abuse is not tolerated, that there are consequences for such behavior, and provides him or her with mandated and specialized help to avoid offending again.

Silence also places clergy in a dif­ficult position. Clergy who know about but do not report sexual offenses can be prosecuted.6 Additionally, an unre­ported instance of sexual abuse can haunt and split a church for years.7 A sex offender is an excellent manipulator. He or she cultivates a charming façade with one group of people while preying on an individual or another group of people whom the first group is unlikely to believe. Moreover, when sexual abuse is not reported, clergy members are placed in the difficult position of “he said, she said” if both victim and perpe­trator attend the same church. In these cases, typically, the victim becomes ostracized and isolated. Clergy should encourage victims and/or family and friends of victims to report abuse. If not, the clergy member should report the incident(s) to the police immediately.

2.  Mediation is not appropriate in issues of sexual abuse. Do not try to mediate allegations of sexual abuse within the church. Mediation often does not work. In a victim-perpetrator rela­tionship, there is a “power differential,” which means that the perpetrator had power over the victim due to age; life experience; physical strength; commu­nity, career, or family status; or in other ways. There is no way in which to create a level or neutral environment for mediation, especially after an alleged assault. Mediation negates the experi­ence of the victim, belying the hurt and harm. Mediators can only ask the victim to compromise and remain silent, which ultimately punishes the alleged victim for the perpetrator’s destruc­tive behavior. Mediation between the alleged victim and perpetrator should not be used.

3.  Do not try to handle the situation alone. As one clergy member stated, “I don’t trust myself fully to know the best course of action.”8 Create an attitude of prayer, ask God for guidance, but also reach out to others for advice. Work with denominational and local church leaders. Utilize resources available in the community, in print, and online.

Risk factors

So what can clergy do if there is an individual who wants to attend or is attending church, but who has been accused, convicted, or adjudicated of a sexual offense? First, the church leader­ship should examine risk factors. Risk factors do not look at guilt or innocence but provide warning flags in regards to whether an individual may be a danger to vulnerable populations in the church (vulnerable populations include but are not limited to children, the dis­abled, the elderly, and individuals who have experienced debilitating physical and/or emotional trauma). By exam­ining risk factors, clergy and church leaders can determine if it is appropri­ate for the individual to attend that specific congregation and, if so, on which boundaries and restrictions attendance should be contingent. Indicators of risk include the following.9

1. Not understanding that they are at risk. A high-risk sex offender uses state­ments such as, “It will never happen again”; whereas, a low-risk sex offender focuses on “This is what I’m doing to help keep myself from offending again.” A low-risk sex offender acknowledges that a risk always exists of reoffending; in contrast, a high-risk sex offender does not understand or is unwilling to admit that he or she is at risk.

2. Has little or no support systems. High-risk sex offenders have few or no family or friends, and their relation­ships are often unhealthy. They are unemployed or jump from job to job. They also jump from one friend or family member’s house to the next, or live in a house or apartment in a high-crime neighborhood. Sex offenders are

low risk and less likely to reoffend if involved in healthy intimate, familial, and/or social relationships, have stable employment, and safe and reliable housing.

3. Considers sex to be an entitle­ment. A high-risk sex offender regards sex as an entitlement, as something owed him or her. On the other hand, a low-risk sex offender understands that sex cannot be viewed as an entitlement. Instead, he or she acknowledges that sex is a privilege that comes as a result of a healthy, intimate relationship based on mutual love and respect.

4. Has access to potential victims. The more access sex offenders have to potential victims, the higher the risk of reoffending; the less access sex offenders have to potential victims, the lower the risk.


5. Is not compliant with supervision and/or treatment. High-risk sex offenders skip check-in times with their probation or parole officers and miss treatment appointments. This violates their probation or parole requirements; persistent violations will lead to arrest. If sex offenders are noncompliant with supervision and treatment, they are unlikely to be compliant with any boundaries or restrictions the church asks of them. Low-risk sex offenders are consistent in checking in with their supervision officers and attending treatment sessions. They are willing to abide by the boundaries and restrictions the church asks of them.

6. Is hostile and angry. A high-risk sex offender easily becomes hostile and angry. A low-risk sex offender, on the other hand, uses the tools he or she has learned in treatment to manage his or her anger, striving to remain calm in potentially explosive situations.

7. Uses drugs and alcohol. High-risk sex offenders consume alcohol and drugs. Low-risk sex offenders understand that drugs and alcohol lower their inhibitions and ability to avoid risky situations. Low-risk sex offenders avoid drugs and alcohol.

8. Persistently denies or blames others. High-risk sex offenders take no responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors, denying or blaming others instead. In contrast, low-risk sex offenders are open and honest with their clergy members about their offenses. When describing the offense, they take responsibility for the choices they have made without blaming the victim, law enforcement, or anyone else.

9. Asks forgiveness but does not apologize.10 A high-risk sex offender uses forgiveness to manipulate others. Nothing would make him or her happier than for a church to forgive and forget. When a sex offender asks for forgiveness, the victim may not be ready to forgive. The healing process for a victim takes an indefinite period of time, and forgiveness may be a long way away. Therefore, the victim becomes the unforgiving bad guy in the church. The church welcomes the perpetrator with open arms because he or she asked for forgiveness but ostracizes the unforgiving victim, allowing the sex offender to manipulate the church into silence. Low-risk sex offenders, however, apologize for their behaviors but do not ask for forgiveness. They understand that they have already taken from their victims, and to ask for forgiveness is to take even more. While forgiveness comprises an important part of healing for victims, it should happen on the victim’s timetable and not the perpetrator’s. 

Additional help

In addition to examining risk, clergy can utilize available resources. Denominational headquarters frequently employ lawyers who can offer advice or have useful materials about sexual abuse. Some churches retain local lawyers who are familiar with community and state laws concerning church legal responsibilities. Clergy can also contact the probation or parole officer of a convicted or adjudicated sex offender who is under supervision. A probation or parole officer is better able
to give a clear and balanced picture of the individual’s offense; this is better than relying solely on the word of the sex offender. Mental health providers with experience in the treatment of sex offenders are also excellent resources and are typically more than willing to answer general questions. Additionally, clergy can read materials available on the Internet or in books and journal articles. The Safer Society Foundation, at, is an excellent resource. This organization has accurate and insightful information, including links to other quality professional resource sites. Another resource includes the Safe Sanctuaries books by attorney Joy Thornburg Melton.11 These resources were developed by the United Methodist Church, upon which they have built their Safe Sanctuary
policies. Remember that online and printed materials need to come from respected sources that use peerreviewed research to provide the most
accurate information possible.

Ministering to sexual offenders without ostracizing victims or placing vulnerable populations in a high-risk situation in the church can be difficult. There are no perfect solutions. However, by using some general rules, examining risk factors, and utilizing available resources, denominations, churches, and clergy can create church policies and boundaries that enhance safety for vulnerable populations in the congregation and ministers to the needs of both victims and perpetrators.



Adjudicated means sentenced but not carrying a conviction on his or her criminal record.

2 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, “Number of Registered Sex Offenders in the U.S. Nears Three-Quarters of a Million,” news release, January 23, 2012,

3 W. R. Lindsay et al., “Self-Regulation of Sex Offending, Future Pathways and the Good Lives Model: Applications and Problems,” Journal of Sexual Aggression 13, no. 1 (2007): 37–50.

4 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 7, 8.

5 J. S. Levenson and L. P. Cotter, “The Effect of Megan’s Law on Sex Offender Reintegration,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21, no. 1 (2005): 49–66.

6 J. Eligon and L. Goodstein, “Kansas City Bishop Convicted of Shielding a Pedophile Priest,” New York Times, September 6, 2012, accessed July 23, 2013,

7 L. Frantzen, “A Theoretical Analysis of Protestant Clergy and Their Management of Internal and External Conflicts Regarding Congregants Who Have Sexually Offended” (PhD diss., Capella University, 2012).

8 Ibid.

9 Council on Sex Offender Treatment, The Management and Containment of Sex Offenders (Austin, TX: Texas Department of State Health Services, 2005), K. Hanson and A. Harris, “Where Should We Intervene? Dynamic Predictors of Sexual Offense Recidivism,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 27, no. 1 (February 2000): 6–35. 

10 Number 9 is not an empirically based risk factor as are numbers 1–8. It is a part of treatment with sex offenders that, in my professional and personal experience, is vital in determining the risk level of sex offenders in churches. R. E. Longo with H. L. Bays and S. Sawyer, Enhancing Empathy (Holyoke, MA: NEARI Press, 2002).

11 Joy Thornburg Melton, Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church for Children and Youth (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2008); Safe Sanctuaries for Ministers: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2009); and Safe Sanctuaries for Youth: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in Youth Ministries (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2003).

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Lynette Frantzen, PhD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and part-time therapist living in Nyborg, Norway.

September 2013

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