There’s a Pedophile In My Church: What Now?

This is a question that is not uncommon for me to get. Minister friends of mine desperately ask what they should do when a known pedophile is in their congregation. One friend told me, “We have two known pedophiles in our small church and we have a very real threat of several families leaving as a result. What do we do?” To compound the problem, I ask the question: “What should we do about the unknown pedophiles in our churches?” The real threat is not whether those families will leave the church. No, the real threat is that the church, if no policy to protect children is in place, is at great risk of having children sexually assaulted. The statistics are alarming, no matter which study you look at. People who molest only have about a 3% chance of ever getting caught (Dr. Gene Abel). They are hiding (quite well) and offending in our churches. And there are lots of them. But wouldn’t a victim tell if he was being abused by a trusted church member? Most likely not. A 2005 study (London et al.) which surveyed 10 other studies shows that only 12%-18% of sexual abuse is ever reported to authorities. Of those 12%-18% cases that are reported, most will never be investigated.

At any rate, what of the pedophiles, rare as it may be, who repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness? Isn’t that enough? Doesn’t the Bible simply tell us to forgive and move on? Why dwell on the sins of the past? When leaders are faced with this issue, should the pedophile stay or should he go? Too many well-intentioned church leaders have been conned into believing that pedophilia is as benign as dropping the occasional “f-bomb.” Or they have a significant deficit of knowledge and experience in understanding how serious pedophilia is. They simplistically view it as a “wrong vs. right” issue, as if they were dealing with someone who cut another off in traffic. And when the offender asks for (or sometimes demands) forgiveness, it’s suddenly treated as an issue that’s as simple as asking the offender to not commit that sin anymore. This is most notable with known offending priests who are put into sex rehab then transferred to the next diocese and given more unguarded access to children. It’s strange to me when strong sympathies lie with the offender instead of the victim. I once had a therapist tell me how pedophiles get a bad wrap, and to a large degree this is true but they also have worked very hard to get themselves there. He went on to tell me that they are mistreated by having to register as sex offenders, marking them for life. “Pedophiles,” he lamented to me, “are not welcome in churches either.”

But what about the victims, I thought? In my entire conversation with him, ironically he never mentioned how bad of a wrap victims of abuse have it. He never mentioned that they are marked for life, and that many victims of child sex abuse often become victims of teen and adult rape, prostitution, drug abuse, depression, PTSD, guilt, sexual displeasure or dissociation during sex, shame, failed marriages, or worse. He never mentioned that many victims are plagued with affective flashbacks–where a trigger such as a certain smell, noise, or touch on the shoulder can inadvertently cause them to remember their young bodies being violated as if they were actually experiencing it in that moment. Affective flashbacks can happen at any time–at the dentist’s office (a dentist opening the mouth often triggers affective flashbacks for victims who were repeatedly forced to perform oral sex), in the shower, at church–and most often the survivor doesn’t even know why she is having vivid and grotesque images of her childhood abuse. There is no controlling it. There is no “snapping out of it.” There is no “just getting over it.” It just happens. And it haunts the mind. Victims and survivors of abuse are the forgotten souls. To be sure, since my father’s arrest and subsequent sentence of 30-60 years, I’ve had many concerned people ask me, “How’s your dad doing?” Oddly, I’ve been asked once, “How are your dad’s victims doing?”

Worse, still, are the stories I hear of churches quoting Matthew 5:39 to victims of abuse: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” The minister goes on: “Young lady, God says that to the measure you forgive you will be forgiven.” One pedophile bragged online of his biological daughter, “She loved it (the stimulation of her genitals) so much that her face turned blood red! She looked like she was about to pop!” His daughter was 2 years old. How, church leaders, do we expect survivors of abuse to sing “God Is So Good” while we tower over them and demand that God will judge them if they don’t “forgive and forget” their abuser?

So what do we do when a known pedophile is in our congregation? It depends. I’m talking here of pedophiles who make it known, or it becomes known by some other source, that they have already been investigated or convicted. Should an accusation come up about a suspected pedophile in the church, always report it to authorities for them to investigate the allegation. It’s the law. Never do an internal investigation. But in dealing with already-convicted pedophiles who find their way to your church, this is a deep theological question that cannot be reduced to a few bullet points. I’m still wrestling with finding proper tension between the abuser and the abused. Each congregation is different, but the one constant that should remain the same is this: Do what is in the best interest of victims and/or adult survivors of sexual abuse in your congregation. If they are able to speak, listen to their voices. Learn from them. Try to understand what they have been through and that many of them may have been severely traumatized. This was not a slap on the cheek. It was abuse. Gross abuse of the worst kind. And it probably didn’t happen just once. Victims in our congregations need to hear from the pulpit that we preachers don’t stand for abuse and that they are safe in our congregations.

Second, have a clear safety policy in place. Should the known pedophile stay, absolute conditions need to be placed upon him unapologetically. Pedophilia does not go away simply because one has publicly repented. There is no cure for it. Pedophilia can be controlled. It can never be cured. There need to be crystal clear boundaries. The pedophile should never have any access to any children whatsoever–this includes outside church activities as well. And this is for the remainder of his life. One friend told me that at their church they have designated men who escort a known pedophile anywhere he goes in the church building. He is not allowed to sit in a pew with children or have any physical contact with children. This is a good policy, and one that first takes the protection of children into consideration. Other people may judge this as overkill, but other people have not had their children brutally violated either. Churches are very high risk places for sexual abuse because most people are trusting and would never dream of someone abusing a child in broad daylight, especially at church.

Third, assemble a group or committee to research abuse. Know the signs to look for in an abuser. Know the signs to look for in a victim. Education is a great beginning because we cannot be vigilant if we don’t know what we are watching for. I’ve read about 30 books and countless articles on the subject so far and have listed some of the most helpful books in my resources page. This would be a great starting place.

Finally, never mistake forgiveness with trust. Forgiveness should never be demanded of victims of abuse. They have been to hell and back and it may take years and years until they are ready to begin forgiving. If others in the church can forgive an offender, they should never equate forgiveness with trust. They are two different things altogether. And the one who can forgive (especially a non-victim) should never expect a victim to forgive just because he was able to. To do so will only lead to revictimization.

21 Replies to “There’s a Pedophile In My Church: What Now?”

  1. As the father of a handicapped child who was repeatedly raped by an older (70 yrs old) man from church… As the husband and father to a wife and son who were murdered by the same man… Try being the preacher on top of it all… there are no easy answers except protect the children at all costs.

    1. Les,
      Thank you for visiting and for sharing your pain. I’ve been to your site and Patrick Mead is doing a great job of getting word out about your story of struggling to find faith again. My heart hurts for you, as you’ve had insult added to unspeakable injury. Thank you, brother, for sharing your story with so many others. May God be with us all as we work together to protect the innocent.

      1. Thanks Jimmy. Patrick Mead is a great friend. I would love to talk to you sometime–and maybe see how we could work together. I am writing as hard and fast as I can–determined to write a book and speak where ever I can.

        1. Patrick is a good man. I don’t know him well, but I still consider him a friend. He was spoke at our congregation last year and was wonderful. I’d love to talk to you, too and put our heads together. I’m working on a book as well and would love to bounce ideas off you. God bless you for all you do. You are an inspiration.

  2. So glad you do not equate forgiveness with trust. Though they may never attain a state of full forgiveness, victims will be healthier if they are working toward forgiving. But forgiveness is dangerous if it includes unwarranted trust. Forgiveness should never be equated with interaction with the offender.

    You made some very good points, but it is good to remember that most pedophiles are victims who were abused in their childhood. It is often not mentioned because we don’t want new victims to be tainted by the expectation that they may someday abuse, but it involves a deeper layer to understanding. And with counseling, today’s victims may not ever abuse others.

    It is especially good that you included the fact that there are many different levels of thoughts and behavior being included in this huge basket with one label. Beyond the example you mentioned, if a person even admits to having a wrong thought while near a child, it can be held against them, and an attorney may tell them they are guilty and need lifelong counseling. And while Jesus did say one can commit adultery or murder in one’s heart, we don’t usually punish people for their thoughts.

    I would add that a church that handles this well, without hiding the truth, yet offering forgiveness and safety, becomes a place where very damaged people can seek God’s love and healing. Without acceptance, a person with no sense of belonging becomes a greater risk to himself and society.

    We must also consider the relatives of the offender and handle things in such a way that they will find welcome and acceptance in the church and not be overcome by shame.

    If a man will not place membership, submitting to the authority of the elders, and if his victims wish to continue or resume attending their family’s church, he should not be permitted to just pop in when he pleases and hide in the balcony or corner to watch his victims, or accost them, or get up and make ‘confessions’ (which may be lies) that involve them. Whether a man is a stalker, a peeping tom, or outright abuser, if a woman or child tells her minister or elders what is happening, they should not allow that man to enter their building. They may think the legal system will handle it, but usually, the legal system will be of little help. The police may just say to buy a gun, because they can’t catch him.

    Thank you for caring. God bless you as you write.

    By the way, I think you meant ‘bad rap’, not ‘bad wrap’. 😉

    1. Nelle,
      You literally made me laugh at the end! Thanks for the heads up on the typo. I can’t stand any typos and you are right about a bad rap, not wrap! You offer great insight on this complex issue. We should add that the offender should not define the terms of forgiveness. It is not uncommon for them to write victims apology letters and tell the victim that they “need to” forgive them, since God already has. This puts more guilt on the survivor who has endured unimaginable abuse by that person.

      And the issue of victims becoming molesters themselves is a topic worth exploring in future blogs. Dr. Gene Able did a very good study beginning with over 16,000 people with paraphilias. In that study, he found that 47% of the pedophiles tested had been sexually abused themselves as children. What was more striking was that those who had been victimized more than 50 times as children had about 4 times the amount of victims as those not abused as children, and they started abusing at much younger ages. Though numbers differ, similar results can be found across several studies.

      Thanks again for the insight. It is helpful to hear different perspectives.

  3. Jimmy, Thanks so much for bringing this difficult topic out in the open. I think you’ve opened up so many different ideas that you should write a blog post on each topic in this article. It’s no easy thing for the victims to see their violator — especially in a church setting. And, while we are to forgive, this is one time where I think a deeper understanding of forgiveness needs to be explored.

    I hope that people will spread the word far and wide about the necessity of having policies in place for re-entry of pedophiles into church as well as policies to train people how to protech our children in church settings.

    If I’m being truthful, I’d share that I wish that all pedophiles would be banned from having access to children. That may sound like a harsh statement, but….to the victim who has to live with the fear, emotional pain, and daily trauma of being molested, my statement is atcually a mild one.

    Great post, as always! So much food for thought.

    1. There are a lot of topics and blogs to come. It certainly is not an easy issue, and it is compounded by the secrecy and deceit that drives it. There are no easy answers, and I am still exploring. I need to get cracking on my book!

  4. I see a pedophile as a victim of forces inside of them; that are stronger then they are; they need help. You can’t trust a pedophile. They can.t trust themselves. The only cure for a pedophile is to give up Sex; the force of sex inside of them; is stronger then they are. Forgiveness is living from life of the spirit of God; inside of you; not letting the spirit of the Devil; live from life of you.

    1. We are all victims, in some sense, of forces inside us. Indeed, the urge to act out is especially strong in pedophiles and the issue is quite difficult. If they seek help before they offend, there are good treatment options out there by sex-specific therapists who use a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The problem is, once they have offended, they have broken the law and they know it. This makes them even more likely to not seek help. But it’s difficult to offer help to people who are so secretive and polished at lying and even using cognitive distortions to fool themselves (i.e. this child wanted or asked for the sex). Not to overuse the cliché, but how do we help those who won’t (or can’t) help themselves? Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Good article. Keep writing. This is very helpful. You and your family mean a lot to me and mine. Just a minor point: Catholic priests can be transfered within the diocese but they don’t get transfered to a different diocese. That would be a very odd situation. However, your point is the same: you cannot just transfer pedophiles to another setting. Right now our church has a one-strike policy. It is against our laws for a person who has the one-strike to be placed in a position where they have access to children, young people, or vulnerable adults. When I worked with schools, I saw this happen a lot where pedophiles were basically told to get out of town. They would go to another city, another school district, and there was no paper trail. It was all hush-hush. You and your mom are shining the light on this. That is what pedophiles cannot stand. Keep it up and may the Lord richly bless you.

    1. Hi George,
      Good to hear from you and thanks for your comments and the enlightenment on transferring of priests within the diocese. It sounds like your church has a good policy, and I think we are learning from mistakes of the past. I still shudder when I witness churches, schools, or businesses quietly shuffle off an offender for them to slip into another place. That does nobody any service, including the offender. But, tragically, what people don’t realize (or care about?) is that they are undoubtedly creating more victims somewhere else by quietly dismissing a known offender. Thank you for your thoughts and encouragement. God bless.

  6. First, thank you so much for bringing this topic out in the open and trying to educate people, and especially people who are usually the most naive and vulnerable to it.

    Second, thank you so much for pointing out this distinction: “…they should never equate forgiveness with trust. They are two different things altogether.” I so wish I could highlight this and put it in huge, bold letters! I think this is one of the main reasons why we so frequently overlook the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” I believe that equating these two ideas is a misconception has been taught or at least passed down for years, to the detriment of so many. Even within the past several months, I have had this used against me personally, by a man who for months had repeatedly deceived and manipulated my entire family, who tried to claim that my refusal to continue to trust him with my child was somehow evidence of my unforgiving spirit. I honestly do not know if this man is a child molester or not, but I do believe that he is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I know for a fact that he is manipulative and deceitful and I’m not willing to take any chances with my child. Nor am I willing to trust him in any way. That doesn’t mean that I can’t forgive him and not wish him any harm. But forgiving him does not mean that I restore to him access to my child. God tells us to forgive, but he also tells us to be alert and on guard. I sincerely wish that we had more deliberate focus on training and instruction in recognizing those wolves in sheep’s clothing and on how to deal with those people appropriately.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Your experience on a manipulator preying on your niceness by “proving” the evidence of your unforgiving spirit is a case-in-point. I hear too many stories of victims of abuse being told that if they don’t forgive the perpetrator, that God will damn them. Many of them force victims to worship in the same room as the very person who violated them. Dr. Anna Salter says something to the effect that, we wouldn’t demand survivors of concentration camps to literally live in the shadows of Auschwitz. Why, then, do we expect survivors of abuse to live in the literal shadows of their abusers?

      Worse, still, is when we tell them that if they don’t they will have to face the Judge one day. We churches need to realign our thinking and have it fall more in line with the context of all of God’s word. God bless you for taking steps to protect your child. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad for doing so.

    2. Carla, good for you for standing up for your child, even in the face of pressure! That’s harder than people realize! Better safe than sorry.

  7. This was a good and much needed post! I’m going to forward the link to my pastor. We have not had any issues like this in our church, but it’s never too early to be prepared! Something you said reminded me of alcoholism. Alcoholism can also be controlled, but not cured. My church recognizes this and offers white grape juice alongside the wine with the Lord’s Supper. Alcoholism is not as complicated an issue as pedophilia. All the same, I am glad to see them realizing that sometimes we need to take extra measures to remove temptation from those who struggle with a particular sin (and this is a hundred times more important when innocent children are the ones who stand to be hurt!).

    1. Thank you for sharing this. There are some similarities to alcoholism, but there are also vast differences. For molestation, there is always a victim, where alcoholics can destroy themselves in the privacy of their own home. You guys do the right thing by offering grape juice for the Supper. What I haven’t addressed yet is what to do when a convicted pedophile has victims within the particular congregation he or she wants to attend. When that is the case, I believe the perpetrator should not be allowed to attend. These are tough issues, for sure.

  8. I have read this with great interest. What do you do when a paedophile wants to come back into a church where there is already someone who was sexually abused by someone in another church? When the victim has made it clear they can’t be in the same church as this convicted paedophile?

    1. My thoughts are (as well as many colleagues whom I really respect) that the victims should get the say, not the perpetrators. Oftentimes perpetrators abuse the kids in the name of God (they will say things like, “God wants me to teach you about sex”). This following detail is gruesome, but we need to know exactly what these kids go through in order to understand that their fear of pedophiles is valid–in Mike Echol’s book Brother Tony’s Boys: The Largest Case of Child Prostitution in U.S. History: The True Story, he chronicles Brother Tony Leyva performing oral sex on young boys to the point of ejaculation. Tony would then say, “The Lord wanted you to fill me with the Holy Spirit.”

      My question is, what does this do to these kids’ view of God? Echols found many of Leyva’s survivors and all of them had different struggles. Several of them are now drug addicts and/or homeless. Many of them no longer believe in God. When church leaders allow a pedophile back into worship, especially when victims of abuse make it clear that they cannot worship at the same place as the pedophile, we’re turning the Gospel of Jesus on its head. In the Gospels, Jesus protected the vulnerable, not the abusers. Of course, we can get into all kinds of discussions about grace and forgiveness. I’ll be addressing these issues in an upcoming book called A Maze of Grace.

      We shouldn’t mistake tears for repentance. At the same time, we should not deny pedophiles the ability to worship. My thoughts are that, because of the very high likelihood of offending again, pedophiles should never be allowed to worship with children. A group of men from church could offer to conduct a worship in the pedophile’s home, or have a separate service with him or her at the church building before or after regular worship time. Pedophiles are generally very manipulative and will seek many avenues to deceive and gain access to children. Conviction does not lessen a pedophile’s sexual attraction to children, either. For example, in my state there are not restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live. I recently did a search for Megan’s List offenders and found a significant population of registered sex offenders living right on top of the Jr. High school and our community playground. This is not coincidence.

      We’ve got to do all we can to protect those who have been victimized, while preventing others from becoming victims. Hope this helps!

  9. I don’t believe every Bible verse is meant for every person. The Matthew 5 reference is for men, not women. Your woman is not to be slapped. A turn the other cheek argument is inconsistent with the rest of God’s Word. God doesn’t want Christians suing one another. he does want criminal prosecution.

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