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Worth the Effort - Re-Integrating the Outcast

By Anonymous.

Author’s name withheld

Sex offenders have become pariah figures in our culture. As Christians, however, we believe in the redemptive power of the gospel. This is the true story of how one parish has worked to re-integrate a convicted sex offender into parish and community life. Needless to say, a few details have been changed and others omitted in order to protect the anonymity of writer and subjects.

Peter (not his real name) was a leading and well-respected member of our parish congregation when he was arrested in 1999 and charged with sex offences against two boy scouts. He at once admitted the charge, came to trial, and was sentenced to one year in prison. With remission he was released after six months, and has now been back in our congregation for a year.

Our parish, following the procedures laid down by our diocese, had a well- established child protection policy in place, which proved to be of immense value. It enabled us to cope straight away with the situation when it arose, and the Diocesan Child Protection Officer was a great sourced of help and advice. The probation service and the police in our area had not been involved with the church in this way before, and were very impressed with the way the Church of England was geared up to deal with this kind of event.

Peter’s wife and teenage daughters were warmly supported by the rest of the congregation, and by the girls’ school, especially during the difficult period before and after the trial. Although there was plenty of press publicity, there was remarkably little public reaction. There may be two reasons for this. One is perhaps the relatively low level of seriousness of the offence. All sexual offences against children are serious, and Peter was rightly jailed, but it could have been far worse.

The other factor is that the offences took place in another town and nobody in our town even knows who the victims were. I freely admit that it would have been far harder to deal with if the victims had been local children. As a result, although Peter has made no attempts to hide away since his return from prison, he has met with nothing worse than being ignored.

We were open with the congregation from the very beginning. Peter made no attempt to deny the offences, and we kept people informed at every stage, mainly through my making clear statements at the main services whenever there was anything to report. This minimised gossip and misunderstanding. When Peter’s case came to court and he was convicted, I preached a solid sermon on sin and forgiveness and the way we should respond to the events. This was printed for anyone who wanted to have copies, which also covered those who were not there on the day. This was much appreciated.

After a short spell in a local prison, Peter went to a prison which specialised in the care of sex offenders. This was excellent, and the chaplain gave first class support. I went to visit a couple of times. The chaplain said that this was unusual but was very much valued.

When the time came for his release we set up a ‘review group’ within the parish consisting of the clergy team, the churchwardens and the nominated person. We drafted a contract (with the help of our diocesan officer) setting out quite clearly what conditions were attached to his return to the church, including fairly obvious things such as where he should sit, avoiding being with children, and so on. These were not negotiable Peter was presented with and was required to sign the contract. With his agreement we also set up a discreet system of ‘minders’ so that someone was always sitting with him at a service or event. This is a double protection, not just against him doing something he shouldn’t, but against any false accusations which might be brought by others. Because his family are usually in church with him, we had to take care that we did not impose this duty on them - the temptation is to say “Oh, it’s all right, his wife/children are there”, but it would be quite unfair to expect them to police Peter’s activity while at church.

In fact the return went very smoothly. A few people have quietly avoided him, but most have been welcoming and supportive. I hope this will continue as he gradually takes a bigger part in church life again.

One element that we had not fully anticipated was the effect on people who have themselves been victims of abuse in the past. Two people in the congregation came to me in confidence to tell me how uncomfortable they felt seeing Peter in church, because of the memories and emotions it brought to the surface, but neither have wanted to see him excluded. Both are receiving specialist help (and have been for a long time) and I am optimistic about the outcome.

I have no idea how typical our situation is, but there are several factors which have made it relatively straightforward. Peter’s family have stood by him, and there was never any question of his being a risk to them, so he had a home and family to come back to. His crime was fairly low on the scale, if I can put it that way, and his probation support has been excellent. The fact that the victims were not local has been a great help. Although his conviction brought a successful military career to an end, Peter has since found a good job. He is about to start a sex offenders’ treatment programme. All these things greatly increase his chances of full rehabilitation, but we have to be constantly aware that re-offending rates in such cases are very high. Peter will remain on the police register for the next ten years, and we will have to retain a similar level of vigilance. The review group continues to meet every quarter, and Peter has the right to raise issues or attend the meetings if he wishes; and we have regular contact with the probation officer.

Allow me to conclude by saying that a properly thought out and written down child protection scheme may seem a lot of bureaucracy but it’s there for a reason and it’s worth it. You have a clear path to follow under pressure.

And don’t underestimate the amount of time this sort of case will take up if it happens in your church. I estimate that the pastoral care, administration, consultations, court appearances (as a character witness) and planning meetings have taken up to a month’s full time equivalent in the last eighteen months - quite apart from the nervous wear and tear! But it certainly means you see Christians having to put their faith into practice.

The author of this article is an experienced Anglican parish priest.

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You are reading Worth the Effort - Re-Integrating the Outcast by Anonymous, part of Issue 22 of Ministry Today, published in June 2001.

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