Sex offenders are the foremost pariahs of our current day. In opinion polls, even intravenous drug users place higher. A recent series of high profile cases involving child sexual abuse have revealed the maddening frequency of the problem. My hometown newspaper now exists in electronic format, and as I read the local news, it seems that every other week brings a report of a new crime against minors. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Most are the product of incest, unreported, hushed up within families. The offenses that occur in a public setting, among those who aren't blood relatives, most often make it to most peoples' attention.
One of the few places sex offenders are welcomed and made to feel included are in houses of worship. It shouldn’t be said that the red carpet is necessarily rolled out for them. Yesterday, during Meeting for Worship, an issue that has lain smoldering for over a year once again took center stage. A frequently tone-deaf member of the Meeting implied strongly in her vocal ministry that the sex offender who has been Worshiping with us has no right to participate. He has provided no problems whatsoever for anyone since he began attending, three or so years ago. In her mind, exhaustive policies made to ensure child safety were a waste of time, since there was no way to contain the potential threat.
The sex offender she called out by her vocal ministry took understandable offense to the treatment, leaving Worship in dramatic fashion, midway through. His son departed with him, leaving an ugly energy behind in the Meetinghouse. Healing ministry followed, though what had been a joyful gathering until then was still soured by its conclusion. The man rightfully noted, as he parted, that he had been treated the same way as the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers of Jesus’ day.
Striking a balance between button pushing and responsible journalism is increasingly difficult. Gotcha journalism exaggerates the threat he poses to children. Prior to writing this post, I read three separate accounts of this man's recent life. Each account was quick to rush to judgment towards what was billed as an inexcusable parole violation for a deplorable human being. I read them now as an exercise in yellow journalism. He spoke in front of a group of people where children were present, but had gotten permission from his parole supervisors. In short shift, the chargers were dropped, but it was further proof that he will live the rest of his life with a target on his back.
As I read each article posted online, his full name is never presented until halfway down the page. He is introduced mostly as “a sex offender” or “a convicted child molester”, depending on how inflammatory one wishes to be. Following closely behind is another retelling of the crime for which he was convicted and spent eighteen years in jail. He will wear a scarlet letter until his dying day and he knows it. If he returns to prison, he knows he will be specifically targeted and face the constant threat of being murdered by a fellow inmate.
The details of his offense are always enclosed with the salacious details. I’ll retell it one more time, to see what kind of impact it makes on you. The man sodomized a nine-year-old boy, nearly two decades ago. Since then, he has admitted he was wrong and has gone through intensive therapy in prison. In our company, he has willingly assented to be chaperoned and is shadowed everywhere he goes, save the bathroom. He has agreed to never be alone with children or even a single child.
With all the hassle, he has asked to be a part of us all the same. I fault the local media for preying on the fears of parents at the expense of a story. I don’t know all the details of his crime and would feel uncomfortable asking for them unless they were volunteered, which is unlikely. His very presence among us has been very controversial. Some have left us. The rest of us have wrestled with our own anxiety and fears, but also our desire for inclusivity.
I hope that he returns to our Meeting. It is difficult to strike a balance with issues so emotionally charged. No one ever feels halfway about child sexual abuse. Some of us are very uncomfortable with the notion of a sex offender worshiping with us. Some of us believe that a radical, difficult concept of tolerance and love are the very foundations of our Quaker faith. We choose our words carefully to not seem to favor one view or another, else we risk disturbing the fissure that has yet to fully heal.
Other groups are not nearly as magnanimous as we are. I know that in certain feminist conferences or gatherings, male allies with a confirmed history of violence towards women would be banned from attending. If this history included sexual assault, that would be further reason to keep them from taking part. This would be true even if the allegations, proven or unproven, were many years old. If he had done time in jail because of them, excluding him would be more tempting and perhaps even more certain.
Get-togethers with different standards do not adhere to the same definition of forgiveness and tolerance. I’m not being judgmental. Everyone has a right to set the ground rules and the boundaries for themselves. Yet, it might be worthwhile to examine what emotions these arrangements and negotiated compromises bring out in us.
I hasten to bring this up one more time, but I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse when I was the age of the man’s victim. The man who abused me is now deceased and has been deceased for many years. I don’t have the opportunity to confront my abuser, or to worry that he might show up at my conference of choice. This is a good thing in some ways. And yet, even with my history, I believe that the sex offender who worship and participates with humility and cooperation has a place among us.
This statement isn’t made to divide the Meeting between those who favor his attendance and those who don’t. It is rather to say that each of us has past events we’re not proud of confronting. One of the most effective arguments against capital punishment follows: Imagine if you were judged on the basis of your worst day on Earth.
I pivot to another identity and cause very important to me, that of Feminism. Sometimes I, too, want to throw down the gauntlet and draw lines in the sand. That impulse contradicts what my faith teaches. I eagerly welcome self-identified groups who clamor for protection under the moniker of what is termed safe space. People have been persecuted, injured, or psychologically damaged in some way, and giving them recognition and protection has become a patented part of the liberal diaspora. But know this. No space is ever safe enough, and I say that both to 20 year old college students and 33 year old couples who have just had their first child.
In a very abrasive kind of way, this is what the speaker at Worship meant to convey. Even two responsible parents couldn’t prevent my own abuse. Early Quakers believed in the perfectibility of the soul, wherein enough hard work and listening to the Holy Spirit might eventually lead to a perfect balance with God’s will. That's not too far away from the idealism of liberal activism.
I know too much of human nature and human frailties to ever believe in the perfectibility of the soul myself, and it’s an idea among fellow Quakers that is rarely believed today. Knowing the foibles of humanity, should we come down harshly or be more accepting? I admit I’m often not sure which is the correct approach.