Course Helps Churches Handle Offenders

The Associated Press
Monday, August 6, 2007; 7:04 AM

HOLYOKE, Mass. -- 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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