As the church does a better job in understanding the epidemic of sexual victimization (1:3 women, 1:5 men report unwanted sexual contact by age 18), the church also faces the challenge of understanding how to care for sex offenders in the community. Gone (hopefully!) should be the days where a congregation just ignores offenders and acts as if their sins are in the past needing no further follow-up. And we don’t want to swing to the other extreme of making it impossible for sex offenders to be part of the church community. Rather, the church will best represent Christ to victims AND offenders when it exemplifies the grace of limits to offenders.
The local pastoral counselor (whether in the church or in a para-church organization) will be called upon to participate in the care and counsel of a sex offender. In preparation for this eventuality, every pastoral counselor should embark on their own continuing education. Read books (start with the difficult book Predators by Anna Salter), meet your local ADA who prosecutes sex crimes and find out what is required of offenders after they leave prison, find local clinicians who specialize in treating the various kinds of offenders (e.g., adolescents, adults, Internet based, those who have been incarcerated, etc.)
Dos and Don’ts
After improving your understanding of the nature of sexual offending and the available resources, consider these three dos and don’ts in order to avoid some serious pitfalls
- Do treat them as fully bearing the image of God, just as you would a victim of a sex crime. Your relationship with the offender should not be a barrier to their ongoing growth and sanctification. Do you share the same mercy and grace as you would to someone you may feel more compassion? Do you see them as less human? Your compassion should lead you away from an adversarial or judgmental approach to them (this does not mean you won’t be firm or even skeptical!). Accusations, no matter how accurate, rarely lead to transformation in another. Instead validate their feelings and experiences. They will have lost much: friends, family, finances, standing. While it came at their own hand, you surely want to validate this experience.
- Don’t treat all sex offenders the same. Recognize differences between adolescent and adult offenders, Internet only offenders and direct contact offenders. You do not want to have a one-size-fits-all approach for supposed fairness reasons. If you don’t have training in understanding these differences, do not assume you already know how to counsel these individuals. Get training, supervision, and consider referrals.
- Do assess on a continual basis. As with all clients, a competent counselor never stops assessing for treatment readiness, commitment to change and growth, commitment to the grace of restriction, insight and more. Does your client show a growing evidence of empathy towards victims and the community? Does your client evidence a thirst for community supports and accountability (vs. passive acceptance)? Does your client give evidence of being solely focused on personal experience; give evidence of resistance and bitterness that others do not offer blanket trust?
- Don’t use words, time, or other factors in determining growth and repentance. Far too frequently, churches use the right words, a few tears, and the passage of time to indicate when they reduce oversight over an offender. These are not good indicators of change! In addition, do not confuse repentance with a requirement for reconciliation. Do not neglect the matter of restitution but do not hold requirements of victims to return to a former level of intimacy with the offender. Not all that is broken in this life can be fixed in this life. Do not fall prey to the fantasy that all things are restored and reconnected in this life. Yes, our God can work miracles, but he also gives grace to us to continue with our thorns in the flesh.
- Do set specific goals. Whenever we provide counseling for chronic issues, it helps to set goals that can be evaluated even as there may be a long road still to go. A competent counselor agrees upon goals with a client. Some of these goals might include (a) growing in empathy for others, being able to sit with the experience of others without bringing up one’s own, (b) deepening Gospel understanding about sin and impact of evil without either despair or superficial repentance, and (c) accepting limits and little trust as a way of life.
- Don’t be caught off guard by common concerns of the offender. In my experience, offenders often have these questions that repeat on a fairly regular basis: Where can I worship? When can I come to church? Why can’t I worship with my family? When will I be done and be treated like anyone else? Doesn’t [victim] bear some blame? Why does [victim] get to make decisions about my worship? Why am I treated as a leper? These questions are important and being prepared for them means the counselor can more likely respond with compassion and clarity. This can only better serve the offender and reduce the bitterness that comes from unanswered questions.
Additional links to check out:
3. Search “sex offender” in search box in the upper left for more blogs on this topic