Action & acceptance

Broadway Christian Church welcomes convicted sex offenders while establishing policies and practices to keep children safe
Saturday, March 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:08 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Kim Ryan, associate minister for Broadway Christian Church, helped create a policy used by the church that provides ministry to convicted sex offenders as well as protects young congregants.

When Broadway Christian Church became aware that a member of its congregation was a convicted sex offender in 2000, it made a decision to implement a policy that would allow the church to welcome convicted sex offenders without endangering children and youth.

As part of the policy, Broadway Christian Church checks the names of its congregants and visitors against the Boone County Sex Offender Registration list.

Pastor convicted for sex crimes attended Safe Sanc

On Feb. 26, Roberto Lopez, pastor of Horeb United Methodist Church in Columbia, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for one count of statutory sodomy in the second degree and one count of statutory rape in the second degree. The victim was a 15-year-old congregant, according to Karen Gordy-Panhorst, director of communications for the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. Lopez went through the United Methodist Church’s Safe Sanctuary program when he started Horeb United in 2004. The Missouri Conference of United Methodist Church instituted the program in 1999 for all churches that participate in conference-sponsored events. The program requires all participants at conference events to disclose whether they had been convicted of a crime, submit to a criminal background check and go through child-safety training. They also must present two letters of reference, including one from their pastor. Members of the clergy are additionally required to take a course in child safety. “Our sole interest is protecting our children and youth from those who would do them harm,” said Steven Cox, Missouri Conference of the Unitied Methodist Church director of connectional ministries. “In past years, the church was an easy target for predators because the church was trusting, and trusted people too much, so we’re taking every precaution we can so that those who would do harm to children won’t find their way into our ministries.” In 2008, all Methodist churches in Missouri will be under the same insurance provider, United Methodist Property and Casualty Trust, which requires each church to have a Safe Sanctuary program regardless of their participation in conference-sponsored events. In a March 1 interview at Boone County Jail, where he was being held following his sentencing, Lopez said that his relationship with the 15 year-old girl was consensual. “I’m not denying my responsibility,” Lopez said. “I know that I sin against God. I know I have to pay for what I did.” Cox said that Lopez gave no indication during his Safe Sanctuary training that he was a threat to young congregants. He said the conference sees no need to revamp its child protection program as a result of the incident. “We are continuously evaluating to be sure we are doing everything we can,” Cox said. “Unfortunately, we are dealing with human beings who occasionally make decisions that are wrong in spite of our best efforts.”

Currently, two convicted sex offenders are members of the church. The church has provided information about the men to its members and visitors, along with photographs and a copy of the church’s youth-protection policy. None of the men’s crimes involved members of Broadway Christian Church, said associate minister Kim Ryan.

A growing number of churches are implementing policies designed to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy and adult congregants. Since the Catholic priest sex scandals, some insurance companies that underwrite coverage for churches are requiring such policies.

Broadway Christian sought guidance from a number of sources, including FaithTrust Institute, an organization founded in 1977 in Seattle to train religious leaders on how to handle sexual and domestic violence in their congregations.

“I’m a pastor, and I was concerned that our church wasn’t addressing those issues 30 years ago,” said the institute’s founder, Marie Fortune. “It can happen in any of our congregations. What we need is clergy and laypersons who are active on these issues.”

Broadway Christian Church also sought help from parole and probation officers, who helped church leaders understand the behavior of sex offenders and how it could be monitored in a way that would keep children safe.

“In terms of developing a policy that would be safe for our children and inclusive of convicted sex offenders,” Ryan said, “the parole and probation officers were invaluable to us.”

Broadway Christian’s policy restricts convicted sex offenders to certain areas of the church so that their contact with youth is minimal. In addition, all staff and volunteers of the church go through background checks. The policy also outlines other risk prevention steps, such as minimizing one-on-one contact between children and adults. When the children of congregants reach the seventh grade, they attend an overnight seminar called “God’s Gift of Sexuality.”

“One of the sessions covers if someone is sexually inappropriate or abusive with you, how should you deal with that and who should you tell,” Ryan said.

First Presbyterian Church is in the process of implementing a similar policy, said associate minister Anne Bouchard. The church’s insurance provider, GuideOne, recommended it, Bouchard said, but did not require it. GuideOne insures approximately 40,000 churches throughout the nation, 16 in Columbia.

Eric Spacek, GuideOne’s senior church risk manager, said the company is encouraging all of its church clients to consider youth-protection policies. “It’s a basic safeguard for churches,” Spacek said. “It’s a matter of stewardship and shepherding the congregation.”

First Presbyterian employs a multi-tiered screening process. Congregants volunteering for events where two or more adults will be present must complete a application form, be interviewed by a child protection policy committee and complete child safety training.

Volunteers participating in an overnight event, in one-on-one activities with a child or any activity that requires taking a minor off the church campus, also have to provide two personal references, submit to a criminal records check and present a valid Missouri driver’s license and Motor Vehicle Report. The church requires all of its employees to take child abuse prevention training.

Unlike Broadway Christian, First Presbyterian Church has not decided whether it will welcome sex offenders into the congregation. The church does not compare its list of members to the county’s sex offender list.

“I guess right now we can’t be 100 percent sure (if there are sex offenders in our congregation),” Bouchard said. “That’s something that will need to be addressed in the next couple of months. We thought our primary need was to get a basic policy in place for educating and screening people who were presently working with our kids, and we know there are things we need to work on.”

Bouchard said that in the 24 years she has been a member of First Presbyterian she is not aware of any reported cases of child abuse within the church.

“We want to be proactive in this, we hope we never have an incident in our church,” Bouchard said. “We don’t want to be reactive, we want to make sure we’re taking the right steps to make sure that nothing ever does happen.”

In June 2002, as the result of “a crisis without precedent in our times,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It requires that every Catholic church in the country has a child-protection policy implemented through the local diocese.

The Diocese of Jefferson City requires training in preventing child abuse for all clergy and volunteers, said Ron Vessell, interim chancellor of the diocese. An educational program, “Virtus Teaching Touching Safety,”is aimed at children and youth, and adult parishioners are encouraged to participate in a program called “Protecting God’s Children.”

Vessell said 457 adults in Columbia have completed the program. The Catholic Church has audited the Diocese of Jefferson City three times since 2002, he said, and has always found it in compliance with the charter.

“Right now, I don’t think there’s anything better in the whole country,” said the Rev. Steve Kuhlmann, O.P., of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. “That’s why so many dioceses are using it. Is it perfect? Probably not. Is anything perfect? No.”

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