What Place do Pedophiles Have in the Church?

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After Jimmy Hinton’s previous article on “Protecting Our Children from Pedophiles” I asked him to write a follow up piece about what we can do as Christians to continue to understand how to interact with people who struggle with this as they are people just as in need of Jesus as anyone else. This article is Jimmy’s response to that question. Jimmy just presented on this at Tulsa last week and has some recommendations for churches in this article. We may not all agree on how this is handled but the conversation is as relevant and necessary as ever. Last, like Jimmy’s first article, there are some difficult things to read in this article but they are left in because this conversation is so vitally important that we are able to provide space to have an open and honest conversation on these things. – Matt

This is a subject that is deeply personal to me and I write from the perspective of someone whose dad is currently serving a life sentence for sex crimes against children.  To make it more personal, my dad is the former minister at the same exact church where I now preach.  To make it even more personal, I was the one approached by one of his victims three years ago.  Three days later I reported my own father to the police, which eventually led to his confessions and subsequent 30-60 year prison sentence.  My dad and I still communicate fairly often and have frank conversations about how he was able to abuse over 20 children and keep it hidden from us his whole life.  He once wrote from prison, “You have no idea how many pedophiles there are in the church.”  But there’s where he is wrong.

Now that I write and speak on this subject, I encounter stories of pedophiles in the church on a regular basis.  It literally is an epidemic.  We are fooling ourselves to believe otherwise.  I just returned from Tulsa, where I spoke on abuse.  Nearly ½ of attendees stayed after and told me stories of their or close family members’ abuse. . . horrible stories.  Did you catch that?  50% of my audience had either been abused themselves or had a close family member who had.  This is my experience everywhere I speak.  There have been no exceptions.

There seems to be a nagging question to a private problem in the church—“Is child molestation the unforgivable sin?”  I’ve heard a wide range of answers to this question.  Some liken it to Paul who approved of the murders of Christians but then had a “Jesus moment” and became an apostle of the Lord.  “Who are we to judge them if they’ve repented?,” the argument goes.  Others argue that, since there is no cure for pedophilia, they will never be able to change.  Therefore, we should not allow them in the church at all.

And so I offer my perspective—not to spark debate, but because I am in a unique position.  I know some of my dad’s victims personally and have heard their stories.  I am haunted by that.  I listen to similar stories everywhere I go, and they are always equally painful to hear.  I do not write as the final authority on this matter.  Each congregation must make its own wise decisions.  But I offer you my perspective as a minister of the Gospel and as one who knows the thought patterns of both pedophiles and their victims.

I will state my view upfront, then explain why this is my view.  I believe that, while pedophiles can and should repent, the church is not in a position to welcome them into the assembly where children are present.  In fact, we have written into our policy that any known sex offenders will be removed from regular worship and will be offered an alternative worship with a group of adults only.  This can be at the church building or in a home.  But for them to participate in worship with children present is an act of sheer insensitivity and irresponsibility.

Let’s begin with pedophiles (I am limiting the scope of this essay to pedophiles only).  The medical definition of a pedophile is (1) someone who is aroused by, has intense, recurring fantasies, or is involved in sexual behaviors with prepubescent children (13 or younger), (2) someone who is aroused by, has sexual fantasies, or is involved with a child for at least 6 months, (3) someone who is at least 16 years old, and (4) at least 5 years older than the child(ren) he or she is attracted to.  Pedophiles generally have cognitive distortions (self-lies) which they truly believe.  While they groom their victims to think that the victim initiated sexual contact, ironically the pedophile also tells himself that the victim came on to him.  There is a flat-out denial of responsibility here.  Put another way, pedophiles tend to view themselves as the victim of the children who “came on to” them.  One man, after assaulting his young daughter, told investigators, “I slipped on a bar of soap and my penis just went into her.”  Another man, who repeatedly assaulted his 4 year old daughter, said that his daughter liked to rub her foot up and down his penis.  He went on, “She ‘loves’ to orgasm.  I’ll get her a vibrator.  She’ll hold the handle against her peepee and giggle until she climaxes” (Salter, 18).

It sounds too extraordinary to be true, but these types of stories are the norm.  And they don’t seem to change with therapy or verbal repentance.  And they are prevalent in the church.  Listen to this excerpt:

I want to describe a child molester I know very well.  This man was raised by devout Christian parents.  As a child he rarely missed church.  Even after he became an adult, he was faithful as a church member.  He was a straight A student in high school and college.  He has been married and has a child of his own.  He coached Little League baseball.  He was a choir director at his church.  He never used any illegal drugs.  He never had a drink of alcohol.  He was considered a clean-cut, all-American boy.  Everyone seemed to like him.  He was a volunteer in numerous civic community functions.  He had a well-paying career job.  He was considered “well-to-do” in society.  But from the age of thirteen years old he sexually molested little boys.  He never victimized a stranger.  All of his victims were friends…I know this child molester very well because he is me! (Salter, 36-37).

Mr. Raines, the man quoted above, was in prison for a short time then was let out on parole.  He almost immediately infiltrated a church and became the director of the children’s choir.  He was incarcerated two more times after this.  Dr. Salter, who met him in prison says, “I believe in my heart the next time Mr. Raines gets out of prison, he will successfully ingratiate himself in youth activities in a church once more.  He will do this even though he now has at least three criminal convictions for child molestation and likely more, all of which any church could have discovered.  But who will check criminal records for such an outstanding, polite, well-spoken young man?  After all, volunteers are hard to come by” (Salter, 37).

I could go on and on and give example after example of this.  Perceived repentance, tears of sorrow, promises to never do it again, stories that minimize what actually went on during the abuse—these are ploys to gain access to children.  Pedophiles successfully molest children without us adults knowing it.  This is what makes them successful.  And here’s the catch—churches are welcoming them with warm embraces in the name of Jesus.

Let’s talk about victims of abuse for a moment.  An estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys has been sexually abused as a child.  I thought this number was exaggerated until experience told me otherwise.  At every place I’ve spoken, more than ¼ of the audience revealed to me that they were molested or raped as children.  And these are just the ones who are talking about it.  I suspect there are more.  I’ve heard firsthand the horror stories.  “I tried to tell people—my mom, people at church—but nobody believed me and my dad continued to molest me until I was 16.”  Another one, with tears rolling down her face, says to me, “I was forced to forgive him and was told that if I didn’t I would be kicked out of church.”

The gospel I read gives a different picture.  Victims and the vulnerable—not the attackers—are supposed to be protected.   Jesus did it with the woman caught in adultery.  He did it with the woman at the well in Samaria.  And don’t forget his infamous fightin’ words: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6 ESV).  I know that we could go round and round with verses, some on forgiveness and mercy, others on judgment.  That is not the point here.  Believe me, I wrestle with this on a daily basis.  I wish we could see a clean-cut version of crystal-clear repentance and redemption where we don’t have to question whether someone is still abusing children.  But I also know what reality looks like with abusers, and it’s not promising.

What’s worse is that many churches are unknowingly siding with child abusers by allowing them into services with children.  Imagine, for a moment, that you are in the shoes of a survivor of abuse.  At 3 years old (my daughter’s age), you are forced to perform oral sex on your uncle when he takes you out for ice cream.  You are told, as many victims of abuse are, that this is what good little boys and girls do, and that this is what God wants you to do.  You believe that the sex is your fault, and that if you tell everyone else will think it’s your fault.  So you keep it inside, as 95% of abused children do.  Fast forward a few years.  You are (reluctantly) at church.  An elder gets up and tells the church that brother George has had attractions to children but has repented and we need to love him as Jesus does, no questions asked.  “Forgive and forget,” he says.  Warm hugs are exchanged and tears are streaming down their cheeks.  Meanwhile George, as he’s walking back to his seat, tussles your hair along the way.  In an instant, you begin reliving your childhood abuse all over again.  These are the things that re-victimize children all the time.  A survivor of abuse once told me, with her head in her hands, “How the hell can I ever trust God or the church again?”  Until we protect our children and the vulnerable, it’s not going to happen.

In conclusion, experience and education prove that pedophilia is a strong evil.  Manipulation, lies, and secrecy drive the engine of sexual abuse.  Because it is so secretive, it is impossible to gauge whether a sex offender is ever truly repentant.  Good hard statistics show that the vast majority of sex offenders re-offend when put back into a high risk setting, such as a church.  Why?  Because they are tempted by children and because we give them access to the drug of their choice.  I believe that, with good treatment and lots of prayer, pedophiles can repent.  But make no mistake—they will always be attracted to children.  And because they are attracted to children, and because they have successfully offended in the past, and because survivors of abuse fear their presence, and because we are called to protect the vulnerable, when we invite them in a gathering with children, and because there is no true test to know if they’ve repented, and because they prey on the naivety of church members, and because sexual abuse has such devastating spiritual, mental, and emotional effects, we owe it to everybody to keep children and sex offenders separate.  Period.

So what place do pedophiles have in the church?  Repentant pedophiles have no place with children any more than drug addicts have with drugs.  But they do have a place in the kingdom.  They still can volunteer in activities that exclude children.  They still can serve, pray, even teach in the alternate service.  Pedophiles need community the same as everyone else.  God designed us to desire community.  To exclude sex offenders from redemption is to play the part of God.  We cannot decide whether God’s grace has covered them or not.  We pray for the redemption of pedophiles the same as every other one of us sinners.  We serve the same God.  But to not take measures to protect the innocent is Christian malpractice.

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