April 5, 2007 in City

Finding forgiveness

Virginia De Leon Staff writer
Holly Pickett photo

Celebrate Recovery participants kneel in prayer during an altar call at a March 23 meeting. “We are a family,” says Community Bible Chapel Pastor Danny Green, “and people here are very protective of their family.”
(Full-size photo)

He didn’t want to lie to his pastor.

So the man told him everything: The terms of his probation. The years in prison. The fact that he had molested a child.

He wanted to come to church, the sex offender told the Rev. Steve Nickodemus. He wanted to repent for his sins and seek the grace of God.

Nickodemus, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Sandpoint, didn’t quite know what to do at first. His church – home of the Little Lamb Preschool and Kindergarten – was full of vulnerable children. Some families also would certainly object to worshipping with a sex offender.

Yet, before him was this man asking for guidance, begging for a chance at redemption.

Other pastors have faced the same dilemma.

According to Keeping Kids Safe Ministries, a Tennessee-based organization that assists churches with this challenge, convicted sex offenders are attending church in increasing numbers. Greg Sporer, a therapist and one of the founders of Keeping Kids Safe, estimates that at least half of the country’s roughly 500,000 registered sex offenders are participating in worship services, often without telling the pastors. And others who have committed sex crimes but have never been caught are also showing up at church.

“They’re attending church silently and in secret, which is a risk to kids,” Sporer said. “Without accountability, you don’t know if they’re praying to God or preying on kids.”

Some pastors, as well as church members, wouldn’t think twice about turning a sex offender away. They’re too dangerous, they say, too much of a liability.

But Nickodemus sensed remorse from the man who asked permission three years ago to attend Christ Our Redeemer, so he embraced the challenge. “If we are really going to live as Christians, then we’re going to have to deal with this,” he said.

Somehow, he had to find a balance between the moral obligation of protecting the children and the church’s mission of helping those in need.

‘The safest in Spokane’

While kids learn about Jesus and the Bible in a separate room downstairs, the adult members of Spokane’s Community Bible Chapel remain in the sanctuary for worship.

About 75 percent of the roughly 300 members here are in some sort of recovery – including abnormal addictions to sex.

Convicted sex offenders are among the worshippers at the non-denominational church, but Pastor Danny Green believes his church “is probably the safest in Spokane.”

“We are a family,” said Green, “and people here are very protective of their family.”

Nonetheless, Green enforces strict rules when it comes to the kids. He won’t let anyone spend time with the youth group unless she or he undergoes an extensive background check. No one who has been convicted of a sex crime can be on the same floor with the kids, and adults are never allowed to be alone with children. During Sunday services, parishioners in charge of security always monitor the halls, restrooms and other areas.

He also communicates regularly with probation officers who keep track of some of his members – level 2 and level 3 sex offenders and others who have just been released from prison and are on probation.

Every Wednesday and Friday night, sex offenders, drug addicts, alcoholics and others suffering from “hurts, habits and hang-ups” gather at Community Bible for Celebrate Recovery. For several hours, they meet in small groups to talk openly about the crimes of their past, their current problems and temptations, their hopes for a better life.

“Everyone is welcome here,” said Green, who once struggled with alcohol and drug addictions. “We’ve all made mistakes in our past, so we don’t judge.”

Green acknowledges that sexual abuse is a heinous crime, but even sex offenders need spiritual guidance in order to prevent them from hurting others again. Plus, the mere fact that they’ve come to church and acknowledged their crimes is a step in the right direction.

“They’re not walking through the doors to abuse our kids,” Green said. “They want to change their lives. … We don’t look at them as sex offenders; we see them as humans struggling in the world.”

Before ending up at Green’s church – a place known in the prison system and the streets for its Celebrate Recovery program – many of the sex offenders try attending other congregations, often without informing the pastor of their presence.

They fear rejection, said Al West, who offers a one-man, Bible-based ministry in Spokane for convicted sex offenders, drug addicts and other convicted criminals.

“The sex offender is the new leper in our society,” he said. Nobody wants them, he said, and they have nowhere to go. So they keep their past secret, which often becomes detrimental to their efforts to refrain from crime. “A hidden life can be demonic,” he said. “It keeps you in bondage.”

West doesn’t think most pastors in the region are prepared to work with sex offenders. He also isn’t sure if the traditional church environment is conducive to a population that requires a high degree of supervision and accountability.

Before allowing the registered sex offender to attend Christ Our Redeemer, Nickodemus talked to the man about the crime he committed against his stepdaughter many years ago. They discussed his living conditions, his therapy, his support network and the probation he would have to follow for the next 13 years.

After consulting with church elders, Nickodemus laid out some parameters for the man: He could come to church, but only with a chaperon who would accompany him from the moment he stepped out of the car. He must stay away from children. He would be constantly watched.

Three years since that initial conversation, the sex offender has continued to attend a men’s group and worship services at Christ Our Redeemer. Despite some initial concern and outrage, most members who attend the 11 a.m. service know and have accepted the fact that there’s a sex offender at church.

“I had to overcome some of my own fears,” said Nickodemus, the church’s pastor for more than a dozen years. “There are some sex offenders out there who are not conforming to what the law requires, but they won’t be the ones who’ll come to you and ask if they can come to church.”

Silence is greatest risk

When you proclaim God’s grace and leave the doors wide open, you just never know who will show up at church, acknowledged Alvin Moreno, pastor of Spokane’s Victory Outreach.

There are more than 15,000 convicted sex offenders eligible for registration in Washington state, according to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. More than 1,000 live in Spokane County.

In Idaho, there are 264 adult sex offenders registered in Kootenai County and another 81 in Bonner County, according to the Idaho State Police.

But sex offenders who make themselves known to a congregation shouldn’t be a church’s greatest fear, according to Moreno, who regularly ministers to gang members, prostitutes and other higher-risk populations.

It’s actually the offenders who have never been caught or who refuse to identify themselves who pose the greatest risk.

“When people think about sex offenders, they picture guys with wild hair and big beards ready to prey on society,” said West, who has spent nearly two decades ministering to sex offenders. “But sex offenders come from every walk of life. They include business people and clergy. … They are people with families and children.”

Offenders include those who have a high level of trust within a group or community, he said.

Consider the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. One of the most notorious offenders was Patrick O’Donnell, a man who used the power of the priesthood to endear himself to families so that he could groom and molest boys. In depositions, O’Donnell has admitted to abusing so many boys that he couldn’t remember all their names.

In response to the scandal, American bishops in 2002 enacted new policies to ensure the protection of children and others who are vulnerable. Those rules include reporting any allegations of abuse to law enforcement and a strict code of conduct for clergy and employees.

Churches of every denomination have followed suit. Most congregations do not allow adults to be left alone with a child unless the child is that person’s own son or daughter. They also require adult volunteers and employees to meet with children at the church or other public places instead of a private residence. And anyone who wishes to work with young people must first be screened and undergo a thorough background check, according to several area churches.

Enforcing these policies not only promotes safety, it also protects a church from lawsuits, Moreno said.

“The key is to provide a safe environment at all times,” said the Rev. Dave Olson, pastor of First Lutheran Church in Sandpoint.

Although he has never had to deal with the sex offender issue, the safety of his congregation is always a priority. “The problem with the registered sex offender program is that it assumes only people who are at risk are those with a prior record, but most of the abuse that takes place involves someone who has not previously been convicted,” he said.

“You may have a sex offender at your church, so you have to create an environment that protects everybody.”

Welcome not universal

For most pastors who have had a sex offender at church, figuring out a way to minister to the offender while protecting children is only half the battle. They also have to work the issue out with members of their congregation.

Five years ago, a man who had been convicted of child molestation but had been out of prison for several years approached the leaders of First Lutheran Church in Spirit Lake for permission to attend services.

The pastor, after setting some parameters, allowed the offender to come. But the man wasn’t welcomed by everyone after his presence was made known after a service one Sunday, according to John Halverson, the church’s current pastor who served as deacon at the time. Some people threatened to leave if the offender continued to attend church.

So the man stopped going to services. Still seeking spiritual guidance, he asked Halverson to meet with him at home for Bible study and prayer. They met regularly until the man’s death two years ago.

“He was repentant of his sins,” Halverson said. “As a Christian and as a pastor, I welcomed him.”

Halverson doesn’t think every sex offender should be allowed at church, but “repentant sinners” should always be welcome – as long as they are under careful watch.

Despite initial fears, most of the people at Christ the Redeemer have grown from the experience of having a sex offender in their midst, said Nickodemus.

“Is there opportunity for grace?” he asked. “I’ve talked to other pastors about this and sometimes, they just freak out. They don’t know what to do and are afraid of the whole thing.”

He acknowledged that churches remain vulnerable – to someone with a gun, to sex offenders, to anyone with an agenda of any kind. But as a Christian congregation, risk becomes part of their spiritual growth, he said.

Having a sex offender come to services has actually been “very healthy” for the congregation, he said. “It makes us wrestle with our own sins and our own prejudices,” he said.

His presence also keeps them grounded in reality.

“Being ‘real’ doesn’t mean that everything is just fine, we’re all nice here and when you’ve done something wrong, you’re out,” said Nickodemus. “Finding the balance between truth and grace – that is what ‘real’ means.”

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