Churches Struggle with Accepting, Rejecting Sex Offenders

When it comes to hiring former sex offenders as ministers or other church staff, the priority is often the safety of the children. But when the offender wants to join the church as a congregant, the question of acceptance is a tougher one.

Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., went into discussion earlier this year about whether to admit a convicted child molester into its congregation. The discussion, however, left the church's 300 members in a flood of emotions with some threatening to leave.

"The scariest moment was when I got the feeling in the congregation about whether Mark could attend or not, and we needed more time, yet people were saying 'If he stays, I leave,' or 'If he leaves, I leave,'" said the Rev. Madison Shockley, Pilgrim's minister, according to The New York Times.

Mark Pliska, 53, had been attending First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Santa Cruz, Calif., after his release from prison in mid-2006, the Times reported. He moved to Carlsbad later that year and sought a new congregation.

"My spiritual growth is very important to me," Pliska told the Times.

Shockley said he spoke to congregants who had been abused as children and to parents before introducing Pliska. At that time, there was no objection to admitting Pliska into the church.

At the cost of a few families leaving, Pliska is currently attending Pilgrim.

"There are people who feel that if we don't welcome Mark, we lose who we are," David Irvine, 48, told The New York Times. Irvine was sexually abused as a child.

"But what do you say to one member who was abused for 10 years, several times a week?" he added. "By welcoming one person, are we rescinding our welcome to some of the survivors among us, people in pain and healing, members of our family?"

The question applies to churches across the country also struggling with the acceptance of sex offenders.

Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Times that over the last five years, pastors had called him seeking advice about how to deal with sex offenders who want to return to church .

In Carmel, Ind., a family whose 3-year-old daughter was molested by a congregant recently left College Park Church when the 2,400-member church showed support to the sex offender. The family was joined by other church members in their departure.

Terry Van Gorp, 57, had admitted to molesting the young girl while babysitting her at his home in February 2006. Both the girl and Van Gorp were provided with financial assistance by the church.

While the father of the molested girl saw the church's support toward the sex offender as "a disgrace," College Park's counseling director, Doug Pabody, said they would be shirking their duties if they did not attempt to help both the crime victim and the victimizer, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Van Gorp faces a May 14 trial.

In the meantime, the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing in Norwalk, Conn., suggests the best way to avoid turmoil is to have a policy to deal with sex offenders before a crisis occurs, as she told the Times.