A 2010 Christian Today International survey of more than 3,000 church members found that 20% of leaders knew of at least one convicted sex offender attending their church. Eighty-percent of survey respondents said that sex offenders who have legally paid for their crime should be welcomed into churches.
While it is true pastors and church leaders have the responsibility of extending grace to those who need it most, they also have a responsibility to shepherd flocks with wisdom, to protect the congregation, and to restrain evil. Church leaders can take advantage of statewide resources, such as Megan’s List, to help their congregations identify and address moral questions before they become legal concerns.
In this article, we’ll clear up some of the confusion around Megan’s Law, discuss how a Megan’s List offender can be a possible liability for the church, and offer solutions for developing a policy that is fair to the reformed while protective of the congregation.
What is Megan’s List?
Sex offender registries are nothing new for California. In fact, we were the first state to implement them in 1947. However, these registries were used as confidential tools for law enforcement and social workers. Megan’s Law (named after rape victim Megan Kanka) was passed in 1996 and required states to make sex offender registries easily accessible to the public.
- Tier 1 – Those convicted of misdemeanor sexual battery, child pornography, and indecent exposure. Requirement to register at this tier expires after 10 years and currently includes approximately 65,000 people.
- Tier 2 – Those convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor, oral copulation with a minor under 14, most out-of-state offenses, and non-forced sodomy with a minor. Requirement to register at this tier expires after 20 years and currently includes about 24,000 people.
- Tier 3 – Those convicted of rape, sex crimes against children 10 and under, repeat offenders, and sex traffickers. Anyone on this list is required to register for life and currently includes about 8,200 people.
Knowingly Hiring Someone on Megan’s List is a Liability for California Churches
A church has never been held liable for unknowingly allowing a registered sex offender to attend services, but with all the public information available, a legal case can be made for what church officials should have reasonably known. Therefore, Megan’s List presents a sort of liability for churches in California.
While the church is not legally obligated to perform background checks on every church member who attends services, there is a legal duty to examine the record of someone who works in an official capacity. Church board members, volunteers, Bible study teachers, ministers, youth leaders, spiritual camp counselors, transportation providers, groundskeepers, or anyone with keys to the church should be evaluated before hiring.
Some offenders may have additional conditions that would exclude them from attending services or seeking employment within the church. For instance, registered sex offenders on parole or probation may be required to stay away from children for a certain period of time, stay away from the victim or victim’s family, or have no unsupervised contact with minors under 18. It is common for church officials to assign chaperones or to “re-home” sex offenders. Full disclosure to all parties involved is the key to a fair resolution.
What To Do If Your Church Hired Someone Off Megan’s List
When it becomes known that a registered sex offender is working for the church action needs to be taken immediately, otherwise liability may include punitive damages for gross negligence. There are several responses leaders can take:
- Terminate employment. A wise step before rendering any decision is to obtain a record of the sex offender’s prior criminal convictions by conducting a national criminal records check. If the offender is on probation or parole, you can check with the designated officer to find out what conditions have been imposed. Get this information in writing, if possible. In some cases, you may have legal grounds to fire a person on the sex offender registry in order to protect “a person/people at risk.”
- Ban from the congregation. It may seem like a harsh sentence to ban prior sex offenders from services as well, but plenty of churches employ a policy of total exclusion—particularly for Tier 3 offenders or repeat offenders. This especially applies to pedophiles who, statistically, have an extremely high recidivism rate, even if their last crimes were committed decades ago.
- Place conditions. Upon the discovery, you may ask the employee to sign a legal agreement (drafted by an attorney) to maintain employment with the church. In a conditional attendance agreement, you may stipulate the offender is only able to attend certain services, they may not work with or transport minors, attend children or teen functions, a chaperone (like an usher, board member, or legal guardian) can be designated to observe the person at all times on church property. Churches generally abide by a Zero Tolerance Policy for violations of said agreement.
- Reach out. Many pastors choose to meet regularly in one-on-one meetings with the offender to provide spiritual counseling, above and beyond weekly services. Some churches also put in place adult-only services to minister to sex offenders who aren’t allowed in the presence of children.
Sex Offender Policies Are a Good Proactive Step
Though it may seem controversial at first, developing a sex offender policy is a sensible proactive step that many church leaders in the modern age take to shield their institutions from danger and accusation. This policy should clearly outline the church’s stance on allowing past-offenders to join the congregation or staff and what precautions will be taken. It should be looked over yearly and updated if necessary.
Reverend Madison Shockley, pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California often counsels churches grappling with the decision to accept a convicted sex offender or not. He offers the following advice: “The key lesson for churches is this: The policy, however it winds up, must be a consensus of the congregation. I talked to so many pastors who decided they’re going to make the decision because they know what’s theologically and spiritually right—and that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.” His church has commissioned a minister to address child sex abuse prevention and distributes a 20-page policy on protecting children and ministering to sex offenders.
As a further security measure, many churches keep internal imaged-based registries of sex offenders who attend church or live in the area. Security personnel is trained to keep a watchful eye around the children’s ministry, at the welcome desk, and around the restrooms.
Working With Law Enforcement and Lawyers
Seeking legal counsel from an experienced sexual abuse attorney will ensure that the proper safeguards are put in place, without infringing on the legal rights of the convicted.
In some cases, it may be advisable to notify all members of the congregation that a registered sex offender is in their midst, whereas other times simply the parents of minors should be notified or no notification is necessary at all. It is up to you to decide how much liability you wish to assume and how open you wish to be with your congregation.
If someone is behaving suspiciously or seeking private access to children, there is no harm in a background check. It also never hurts for churches to form a close partnership with their local law enforcement and a legal team. The last thing you want is for your church to be part of “the culture of secrecy” putting a child at risk or making headlines as part of a scandal.
While your church may decide that developing safe ways of ministering to sex offenders is an important part of their outreach, it should never come at the cost of your congregation. If you fear that leaders were aware of the dangers of hirings someone on Megan’s List and did not take proper precautions, please contact us at Lewis & Llewellyn or call +1 (415) 800-0590 to set up a consultation with an attorney.
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