Thursday, May 24, 2012

Radical Acceptance: When an Attender is a Sex Offender

At the end of last year, a man began arriving every First Day at our Meeting. I noticed him because he kept plain dress. As is true with many houses of worship these days, the preferred style of clothing for most of us is casual. The tall, bearded man I saw downstairs prior to First Hour was clad in white shirt, black pants, and suspenders. He appeared deeply uncomfortable, shuffling back and forth uneasily.

Because my introversion usually keeps me anxious around people, I made an extra effort to be friendly. He stared at me as though unsure of what to do with the gesture. I thought nothing of it and made my way upstairs to Meeting for Worship, like usual. Perhaps he was a visitor from another Meeting. We have so many, after all. Washington, DC, is a haven for tourists and a few of them are traveling Quakers.

The mysterious man turned out to be a registered sex offender. He had reached out to our Meeting some weeks before via an old-fashioned letter in the mail. Sad to say, we’d displaced his correspondence for a few weeks, the first of many mistakes later to follow. In the letter, he explained his situation and circumstances. He was to be released in a few days from prison after a lengthy sentence for molesting a child.

He found Quakers because of a Conservative Friends Meeting in his place of incarceration. Their prison ministry had reached out to him. With the zeal of the new convert, he had become a Friend, idealizing his new found faith as many do in the beginning. Eager to start a new life, he followed the letter of the law to a T, desirous to follow the many requirements and restrictions placed upon all registered sex offenders.

His correspondence did not hide the nature of his crime. A native of the area, finally returning home, he wished to Worship with us. Due to his conviction, correspondence from his parole officer was a mandatory part of the process. Since nothing quite like this had ever been taken on by the Meeting, no one was sure how it ought to proceed.

Two Meeting committees were assigned an exceeding delicate task. Quaker process is slow as molasses in the best of circumstances, but this matter was sensitive and potentially toxic, especially if it got out of hand. The man met frequently with our Personal Aid committee for several weeks. Later, Healing & Reconciliation was incorporated into the process. Deliberation followed deliberation. Two months passed.

Those on committees contributed lots of extra time, establishing a support committee alongside other efforts. Each of these was conscious of a need to control the news and present it in a responsible, sober fashion. This man’s past was a liability, and not just for strictly legal reasons. A very different letter through the mail shared the news with the Meeting, urging discretion. Members and regular attenders were requested to keep the words of the letter to themselves. However, as Robert Burns wrote, the best laid plans oft go awry. And awry was a generous word to use under the circumstances.

The parents went into full out panic mode. Why had they not been told of this man’s presence in the Meeting until he had been actively attending for two months? What if he stalked their children? Skittish, frightened parents expressed anxiety after anxiety. What was thought to have been handled sufficiently by two committees spilled out beyond its intended borders. Once the cat was out of the bag, hurt, fear, and pain were on full display.

Meetings can be fast asleep in matters such as these. Business placed before us must season, we say, and so we adopt a deliberative approach. In emotionally intense situations, we have no choice but to act swiftly and firmly. In this setting, insistence upon strict secrecy meant that multiple, conflicting versions of the truth leaked out, much like a giant version of the game Telephone.

It was discovered that two regular attenders had also been convicted of child sexual abuse. One of them had once even served as a clerk of a committee. A child safety task force was hastily formed. Alongside it, a punitive system of strict supervision and boundaries not to be crossed was eventually adopted to apply to sex offenders. In part, it was drafted to comfort worried parents. In reality, it did not begin to address the multiplicity of issues that this crisis situation had brought forth.

The input and involvement of the most vulnerable was overshadowed by worst case scenario. Parents will sometimes lose all sense of perspective when their own offspring is concerned. The stridency of discourse omitted essential considerations.

Basic protection aside, children need to be taught to speak up on the own behalf. They must be told to assert their own rights as individuals. Should they be left alone in a room with an adult who is not a RE teacher, for example, they should vocalize their discomfort and tell other adults. No amount of punishing the offender in a preemptive fashion will stop the possibility. Legalistic language and adopted protocol is purely a panacea. Absolute security simply does not exist.

I’m adamant about this debate for a very specific reason. For the past several months, I’ve written in great detail about a part of my own early life. Or, to put it another way, I was molested because I had been taught to do exactly what other adults told me to do. My parents instructed me that, out of respect, I ought to have obedience and respect for my elders. When an older man directed me to do exactly as he said, I obeyed. Though what I was asked to do felt uncomfortable and somehow wrong, I believed that, as someone my parent’s age, he knew best. Then only a child, this was all that I knew.

In the meantime, the man whose intended presence among us had sparked the firestorm withdrew his intention to join us. The vituperative nature of criticism led him to believe that he was unwanted. Among some, but not all, I believe that he was. Many Friends felt as though their effort to accommodate him in fellowship had failed. The process had been emotionally draining for almost everyone.

The Meeting continues to deal with the fallout. Three listening sessions have been scheduled. A majority of voices have resolved to allow a sex offender to Worship with us, albeit with severe strings attached. Yet, questions remain. How will we handle something like this in the future? How can we confront a topic that is severely verboten for many, especially for survivors? To me, the truth lies in our willingness to wake from our slumber.


wendyfishersmusic said...

I once watched my congregation go through the painful process of determining whether or not a specific person should be asked to leave. There was no protocol to follow and it was an unhappy situation all around. Having seen that, I think it'd worth it to have a procedure to follow once the question gets raised--a procedure that's as compassionate as possible for everyone.

On another note, I've seen people with crazy pasts recover and become mentors for others. Also, damaged people need support from a caring religious community very much.

It's also true that children should be taught self-advocacy and, as Rev. Haffner puts it, "no go tell".

Radical inclusivity can be spiritually enlivening for everyone, but balancing that with safety is a real concern.

michaeldavidjay said...

There are no easy answers here. It seems that every decision is wrong, and, unfortunately I don't believe Faith and Practice gives us good information.

The best resource you can find, not surprisingly, is insurance companies. Many non-profits buy liability insurance, and in order to protect themselves, insurance companies then train the non-profit how to comply with law, and do things in a safe way.

I just went through a class where we were talking about building a plan... 2 months seems slow -- but, the average time required to build a system to protect against abuse and to employ it is more like 2 years. May God help you and bless you during this challenging, and necessary work.

Comrade Kevin said...

I believe that the liability insurance part of this is already in force, or at least taking shape.

To know that it may take a couple years to establish a proper system gives me needed context. I've done a few things here and there with this situation, but the real credit falls upon a few Friends who have devoted serious time.

michaeldavidjay said...

You'll know the insurance thing is in force when the company sends you sample policies, volunteer application forms, information on how to do background checks, Rules such as always have two non-related adults when working with children, training videos for volunteers and people who work with Children -- et c.

Even if you have EVERYTHING in your hands to do the work, it still takes time to switch over to the new system -- but, again, insurance companies are very helpful. You want your children to be safe.... They don't want you got get sued -- these interests line up very well.

(do everything you can -- your volunteers need protected against false accusations, your children need protected against abuse, and a lawsuit would surely close the meeting.)

Comrade Kevin said...

I have faith in the new Child Safety task force. Much of what you've mentioned has already been implemented, including the background checks and volunteer application forms.

We probably should have done this a long time ago, which is why we're scrambling to do it all now.

michaeldavidjay said...

Very good :) Volunteer forms and background checks are a good start.

There are also crowd control techniques, putting windows in the doors which can help...

Another thing that helps is clear 'job descriptions' for volunteers. More people have bad experiences because nobody really knows what is going on, than because someone intended harm. Yet another thing you can do is identify first responders and encourage first aid training. :) there is a reason a comprehensive policy takes two years... The more you look into safety, the more that there is to do!

Please, for all our sakes... document your process. When you have your process in place and working, other meetings will need help to form theirs.

RantWoman said...

Hi Kevin,

I completely echo people's comments here as far as both standard safety practices and empowering children. And I am emphatically holding your Meeting in the Light.

If you want to read more, two tags on my blog, SAFEST and REMARKABLE track recent events in two stories. There is more I could say but I would most like to listen further for what will speak to your Meeting's situation.

About ten years ago, at coffee hour, I noticed a guy looking kind of nervous. He had been worshipping wiht us for a few months but I had not really talked to him before. He asked by name for someone who had recently passed away. He shuffled awkwardly when told of the recent death and to this day I have no idea what gave me Light to ask him something further.

Turned out, he had been arrested for molesting a child. He was due to plead guilty and involved in a treatment program that required that he participate in a religious congregation.

Our Meeting, both corporately and in clear leadings from specific Friends has been walking with this individual for about 10 years and he will be released from his Department of Corrections supervision in May 2013. There is lots that could be said about this history. Your Meeting is doing important work and I am happy to hold you in the Light.

In the Light.

Shana Rowan said...

I am the fiancee of a registered sex offender and I advocate on behalf of other families who have a loved one on the registry. Among the many things I have learned on my journey, one of them is that many registrants have not victimized children, and that many are not and have never been violent or dangerous. Certainly, there are people who ARE, and who will continue to be. However, blanket policies are not just detrimental to registrants and their loved ones, but the ones we wish to protect as well.

Despite the prevalence of emotion-driven sex offender legislation, all objective research indicates that re-offense rates are low - but more importantly, that the overwhelming majority of abuse is perpetrated by a family member or trusted acquaintance who has never been convicted of a sex crime, not a stranger. By all means, be aware, and be vigilant - but of the entire truth, not just one piece.

RantWoman said...

I completely agree with the point about 80% of offenders being low level people who are most likely to offend against friends or family. Dealig with that reality is really different from focusing a lot of attention on one visible offender.

One of the first things the man seeking our support for his alternative sentencing program did was to INSIST that we immediately make sure there are always two adults with each age group of children.

We over time have done information sessions with staffpeople from the King County sexual Assault Resource Center and also with a trained sexuality educator. The latter does sessions both aimed at children and aimed at adults. This woman says she never does a session without meeting at least one person who has experienced some kind of sexual assault.

The sexuality educator spoke earlier this spring and I personally because of my own life experience was very glad to hear that other people besides me were interested in making sure adults are able to hear if a kid needs to tell something.

another point that makes this topic hard: statistically 1 in 4 women and at least 1 in 10 men has direct personal experience with some kind of sexual assault. Never mind friends and loved ones of people with direct experience.

Just holding the needed conversations to do minimum safety measures can be stressful and restimulating for some people. At least in our Meeting people who have work-related experience dealing with people's survivor issues do not necessarily volunteer for pastoral care committees. "We are all ministers of God" does not necessarily guarantee nuanced interpersonal skills or skills walking a line between spiritual guidance and counseling needs. On the other hand, "we are all ministers of God" makes for a powerful network of support and awareness when well tended.

When we first began openly talking about the offender, some good literature about trauma recovery was just handed out in the course of one of the early business meetings. But now, 10 years on there are lots of new people who have come and stayed in spite or maybe because of a fairly large announcement in our bulletin. But not everyone remembers or has assimilated the material from previous rounds of discussions.

Anyway, I am happy to hold you in the Light.

Comrade Kevin said...

I appreciate any and all offers of holding us in the Light.

Fortunately, the policy recently passed does require a registered sex offender to be chaperoned. In the beginning, the man I wrote about agreed to be chaperoned, especially if that would put others at ease.

But what happened is that some in my Meeting lost all sense of proportion. They were reacting emotionally, out of fear and misunderstanding, not logically.

We don't talk about child sexual abuse, rape, trauma, or incest enough. This means that the shroud of shame prevents us from finding and adhering to successful strategies.

I have made progress in my own coping with past abuse, but some people have only begun. And, not only that, some would rather not understand, so that they can cling to comforting fantasies.

RantWoman said...

One of the things I have to keep reminding myself to do is be tender even with people who as you put it "lose all sense of perspective." We lost a few individuals and families when we first started all our open discussions. I think this was both freakout over the topic and general emotional overload in different measures for different people.

At the time there was a worship group on its way to preparatory meeting status nearby. They kind of served as a safety valve for a little while

A couple times at different events at my Meeting I have been struck actually by the bravery of people who have no known experience with any of these topics. I think it takes a certain amount of guts to wade in however awkwardly to topics that anyone finds difficult. I wish I could say I feel this centered about everyone in my meeting shredding my personal nerves right now, but that is a Hold it in the Light topic for now.

I have thought different things at different times about the issue of chaperones. The offender who did a short jail term and treatment in the community is kind of obsessive about his rules. He is glad to have chaperones or at least he was at first. I personally have found it a little annoying in recent years to have incredibly minute discussions about where and when the offender can use the restroom. Now he also is more than ready to be done with DoC supervision so conversations are a little different.

The other known offender in our Meeting was an inmate facilitator for Alternatives to Violence. He was released after a very long prison term owing no one anything as far as parole though he still has to register.

He is married to someone in our Meeting and initially offered to have chaperones if that would make anyone more comfortable. Personally I am really glad Meeting did not take him up on his offer, but his story is remarkable in so many ways it's hard necessarily to generalize.

I agree, the more people talk openly about all this the better, but I think we also get to be tender with the reasons that not eeryone even feels like this.

Comrade Kevin said...

This is true. But when a freak out comes across as entirely unreasonable, it's difficult to be tender. If I felt that a few parents would ever get beyond their own issues, I'd be less dismissive.

My Meeting has an unfortunate reputation as being home to some very intractable people. I can work with people who are in the process of greater comprehension, but unreasonable Friends greatly try my patience.

RantWoman said...

Intractable? Among Friends? Impossible!

Your "freakout" is my trauma trigger or some emotional landmine I might be fighting like
crazy not to go anywhere near. Or at least that is my experience both directions around a couple people in my Meeting.

In other words, it might not be a matter of someone just not being able to get past their own stuff. It might be their own stuff is something one cannot just get past and instead has to live into with whatever spiritual and psychological tools most matter.

The sexuality educator who comes and talks periodically makes a point of saying "you have a right not to remember anything you don't want to remember." When she said that recently I thought, "oh very funny lady, like I can exactly forget."

We have this thing called the peace testimony but that does not guarantee we necessarily know how to talk about our conflicts, even ordinary ones, never mind sex offenders.

Organizationally, I think there gets to be a point where it's fine to say "look, we're doing the best we can and the world does not seem to be blowing up." That is where making standard safety practices and protocols routine comes in and then work on the conflict management for points where one person's sense of the world blowing up is more stark and urgent than others'.

At least I keep telling myself things like this. On balance, I definitely think our Meeting's walk with the offdnders we know of has been a very spiritually deepening process, but definitely not every second has been fun.

Comrade Kevin said...

I agree with you. My reservations mainly are in the way certain Friends were treated for their hard work. They put extra time in to meet with the sex offender to best integrate him into the Meeting. What they received from some was not always respectful.

No good deed goes unpunished, to put it another way. A few parents and others may be unable at this point to conquer their fears and phobias. Or, this may be the best they know how. Either way, that makes me very sad.

Those with reservations don't need to make them someone else's problem. I am confident that the system we've adopted in the past few weeks will work. The initial manner in which this matter was handled threw the Meeting into damage control mode for a time.

I have no idea of what is to follow, but I think we've finally responded with success. In the beginning, we handled this situation too gingerly, which only created more problems.

RantWoman said...

Are you willing to say more in a blog comment about what else you felt was handled too gingerly at the beginning besides not reading Snail Mail?

To be honest, Quakers do A LOT of prison ministry in different places. I do not think it's reasonable to request a letter of introduction from one's AVP program but if there is more ministry than that, for instance from a Meeting or Church, it could be helpful for offenders who want to worship with Quakers to think about a letter of introduction as they are leaving prison.

My two cents on the work not received well point:

Whatever the results, I think it's really important to share your Meeting's experience with others in your Yearly Meeting and perhaps more broadly. I have the impression but would need to check history that the guy connected with our Meeting was also one catalyst for some measures like the insurance processes mentioned above in our Quarterly and Yearly Meetings.

our Meeting's experience drew heavily on a couple people with very strong leadings to minister to the offender. At the time the clerk of the committee that handled a lot of the legwork was a practicing psychologist and her gifts, insight, and personal investment made a BIG difference in how many things were handled.

When this offender first came to us, I had some other very scary difficult things going on in my life and I just handed the problem off to others. But awhile ago I had occasion to call up one of the people I handed matterrs off to and ask some pointed questions.

There has been other experience in our Yearly Meeting where a sex offender's request to worship with Friends proved VERY divisive. I am not familiar with all the details, but the people handling our offender were very determined to do as much as possible to avoid divisiveness.

One of the big things that happened was that EVERYTHING was transparent and public fairly quickly in Quaker time, within a month or two public conversation in Business Meeting.

Our offender was also very early in his treatment process and there was an interval where people from my Meeting held worship with him away from campus while several different points with him and with the Meeting were getting worked through.

I think this is a long-winded way of saying:

--Be patient and tender with yourselves

--Things will probably look different in a few months no matter what

--I am a great believer in Friends sharing our experiences.

In the Light

Comrade Kevin said...

I feel that parents should have been immediately told that a sex offender was present at Meeting for Worship. The matter was handled internally instead, leading some parents to believe later that they had been completely left out of the process.

It took two months for the entire Meeting to be told about the presence of the sex offender among us. The internal process by two committees was not thoroughly explained. Multiple stories, many conflicting, trickled out. This confused parents even more.

In our circumstance, this lack of transparency is why emotions got heated and divisive. And had everyone been adequately informed, I really think this amount of hurt feelings and pain could have been avoided.

I appreciate the guidance you have provided and believe you are correct in what you've noted.

RantWoman said...

A couple more thoughts:

--I think we had some parents freak out at first too. I was not close enough to know every detail. I think going public early was a good idea. Now, my understanding is that use of Support and Accountability committees is a fairly widespread approach with links for Quakers and Mennonites both.

--In the case of our offender, he was specifically asking us to support his treatment and alternative sentence. It took us awhile to work through all the details of what that meant.

--I cannot remember how long it took us to articulate the use of chaperones; it took us even longer to spell out a Support and Accountability committee that was only the offender and not also expected to handle safety of children and ministry to survivors.

--Regarding the other registered sex offenders you uncovered, My advice: empower people who might be targets and you protect not only against people you know about but also against people you do not know about or who have not been caught. On my blog is a statement about sexual harassment from a Meeting in CA drawn on their experience.

--The Friend I originally handed the situation with our offender off to says he has a time or two had questions from other people who are registered sex offenders. They want to know whether they need to announce themselves and this Friend always says no, not unless you need to ask something of our Meeting. I completely concur that that is reasonable.

I will write a separate post about the newer visible sex offender in our community.

RantWoman said...

Another note specifically about children: I think parents at our Meeting freaked out at the beginning. If your Meeting is interested I can probably facilitate some contacts with parents to say more.

I think instituting the insurance industry standard procedures and the kinds of education we do from time to time as well as regular frank discussion in Business Meeting go a long way to reassure parents: They feel empowered in the general case. They feel there is awareness. They feel like our process is handling what needs to be handled. But I am not a parent and am reluctant to speak for parents.

Earlier I mentioned awareness of some points fading over time. I also have a personal twitch about needing people to acknowledge when just talking about something is difficult. My twitch is partly related to the experiences of some people close to me and partly midlife vision meltdown which is for me disorienting in LOTS of respects. And as you say, not every one wants even to visit what I refer to as my yucky topics festival.

RantWoman said...

Regarding Faith and Practice or documenting your experience for others' benefit, does your Yearly Meeting have a Ministry and Oversight Committee? That would be one place to track different meetings' history and experience.

I actually am not quite sure what happens with North Pacific Yearly Meeting M&O. Northwest Yearly Meeting EFI has more material in one of their manuals than I remember in NPYM's Faith and Practice but I agree that sharing practice and experience is important.

RantWoman said...

The last thing I want to touch on: to me part of the issue for the offender who wanted to worshp with you is a re-entry after incarceration issue. He might have benefited from thinking about a support and accountability committee right away or even before he was released.

The offender who came to worship with us after a long prison term got out of prison one Sunday, came to worship and introduced himself two Sundays in a row. I was gone the first week and I have no idea about the other person who was involved when we had a worship group at the prison. The second week, after the guy introduced himself, I stood and said I also would be glad to answer questions about the worship group. No one asked.

I have the impression that he had already started to form a support committee even before he got out of prison. The committee includes ex-offenders and people connected with Alternatives to violence. People in our Meeting have many connections to AVP and because of that our Oversight committee decided to check things out.

Our first public offender was only a Level I offender so I have no idea what happened as far as notification. The guy released from prison is a Level III offender so there was much public notification. He is also VERY forthright and spoke both at a neighborhood meeting and a few months later at a Q&A at our Meeting.

When the notification happened, there was much hue and cry in a neighborhood blog which is how other people at Meeting besides our Oversight committee found out about him. Interestingly a detective who supervises sex offenders finally wrote on the blog that he has many fewer worries about this person because he has a support network than the detective does about some Level I offenders with less social support.

As soon as people started commenting about the neighborhood blog, Oversight Committee announced things in Business Meeting. But because this guy is married to someone in our community and because thngs were handled openly, there really was NOT nearly as much hue and cry as the first time we dealt with a sex offender. These is a bit more detail on my blog, but it just illustrates the value of transparency.

Sorry to go on at such length, but I hope this is helpful.

In the Light