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.