On September 13, 2009 a small church in Louisville ordained a registered sex offender as a minister of the Gospel. The man was a “changed man,” they demanded. I personally think this was a foolish decision, for a host of reasons. But questions abound on the internet from churches asking what to do with registered sex offenders who wind up on their steps and in their pews. It’s a fair question. I live in a small town with two (yes, two!) state prisons and believe me, we do get released prisoners to show up, desperate for any help they can get. If you have followed my blog at all, you’ll know that pedophiles are just like you and me on the outside–they are educated, religious, productive, sophisticated, warm, and trustworthy. But what lies beneath the skin is a genuine sexual attraction to children. Because we cannot see this attraction, we tend to listen to the kind, charismatic words and see the gentleness they exude. We view these people for what we see at face value–as the kind old man who is warm and nice to our kids at church. We don’t want to fathom that someone could ever think of a child in that way, let alone act out on it. But they do. Ask my friend Les Ferguson. He describes his son’s molester as a kind family friend. A kind man who did unimaginable things behind closed doors and then murdered Les’ wife and son.
I’m currently reading Jaycee Dugard’s memoir A Stolen Life. If you have not read it, get it today and read it. I mean it. Get. The. Book. Enter into the bedroom of a victim before rushing to embrace the “repentant” pedophile. The psychological abuse always accompanies the sexual abuse. God bless Jaycee. She holds nothing back. What I read last night made it difficult for me to fall asleep. Unimaginable. I am still haunted by the things this “nice man,” as she describes him in the book,” named Philip Garrido did to her–for 18 hellish years. I’m haunted by the things my dad, whom I always trusted and respected, did to young children. I still can’t wrap my mind around it all.
I admire churches who trust that people have truly repented, I really do. But pedophilia is a very complex issue and even the greatest professional people in the field of psychology have been repeatedly fooled. One area that churches need to become familiar with is recidivism (relapse) rates among pedophiles, because you can rest assured that they will use the statistical data to help their case. There are a number of common actuarial instruments currently used that gage risk in incarcerated sex offenders. The Stable and Static99 are 2 common instruments that are used. Without getting too technical, these instruments are touted as being wonderful guides to tell us whether “reformed” pedophiles will reoffend. Despite what you will hear from people who administer the tests, they are definitely not reliable for predicting whether a sex offender will reoffend. In fact, Dr. Anna Salter says this: “They do not measure the risk of reoffending; they measure the likelihood of getting caught. No instruments are able to measure the risk of reoffending, because there is no access to offenders who continue to offend but who do not get caught” (annasalter.com, “What Does Static99 Really Measure?).
The recidivism rate among registered sex offenders is lower than most other crimes, at less than 10%. So most people get a false sense that, because the recidivism rates are low, sex offenders really have an epiphany of sorts and have “learned their lesson” from spending hard time in prison. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I spoke with Dr. Salter directly and asked her what her thoughts were on why recidivism rates were so low among sex offenders (she is highly respected in the field of treating pedophiles, is a Harvard PhD, and has been in the field for over 30 years). She told me that several studies show that sex offenders have about a 3% chance of ever getting caught for any one offense against a child. She told me, “In my experience, that number (3%) is probably high. They just don’t get caught.” Reassuring, isn’t it?
Before churches swing open their doors and criticize people for standing in the way of repentant sinners, remember that there is no other sin in this category of such deep secrecy. It is the most successfully hidden secret and should be treated as such. Simply because someone says they don’t offend kids anymore doesn’t mean they aren’t actually doing it. One site asked the question (I can’t remember the source), “If a pilot told you that the plane previously had mechanical problems but they’re pretty sure there’s now only a 40% chance that there will be an immediate mechanical failure, would you feel comfortable flying?” Let’s factor in what we know about Gene Abel’s study and Anna Salter’s experience–that pedophiles only have a 3% chance of getting caught for any one offense. Here’s what that would look like:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We just spotted some thugs dressed in black masks with a mechanic’s bag running from underneath the plane. According to our instruments, there’s a 97% chance that they secretly sabotaged this plane and badly damaged major components in the hydraulics and main computer. We should be cleared for takeoff in about 3 minutes, so make sure your seatbelts are fastened and enjoy the ride.” Any normal person would be jumping out the window to get off that plane.
So, when we know what we know about recidivism rates, when we know what we know about pedophiles avoiding getting caught at all costs, when we know that there is no cure for pedophilia, and when we know that it is extremely difficult to control pedophiles even after years of therapy, that should change our perspective on repentance. We should now be the passengers on the plane saying, “Something doesn’t feel right; it’s not safe to fly.” Paul preached all over that people should “perform deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20 ESV).
Repentance needs to be proved. A repentant pedophile will perform deeds by demanding that he not be near children again. A repentant pedophile doesn’t ask for pictures (no matter how innocent they seem) of any children. A repentant pedophile will renounce any internet use for the rest of his life, since pornography and fantasy drive them to their core. A repentant pedophile will not happily accept a role as minister where people now look to him as a spiritual leader of old and, yes even very young, people. A repentant pedophile will make sure that his presence is not traumatizing to survivors of child sex abuse in the congregation. And if it is, he will gladly find another church and not put up a fight. A repentant pedophile will not ask church members if he can babysit their kids. Please beware of these things and let’s work together to make our churches safe.