Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Drive Children and Parents Out of a House of Worship

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. If the foot says, "I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand," that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, "I am not part of the body because I am not an eye," would that make it any less a part of the body?

A few months back, I wrote about some especially significant problems with which my Quaker Meeting was struggling. They centered around the presence of a registered sex offender who wished to worship with us. Some Friends strongly desired to incorporate him into Meeting, with the inevitable caveats in place to guarantee child safety. Many parents, however, were much more leery of his presence among their children.

Meetings, churches, and houses of worship, I have learned, can have tragic flaws. Ours comes down to a matter of communication. We don't do it especially well. Often times, the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. Different committees, task forces, and groups simply do not speak to each other. The emotional intensity of the debate blew the lid off of multiple pressures that had been building for years.

The consequences of this entire debacle have been highly unfortunate. Within the past two or three months, parents and their children have left en masse. At last count, 14 adults and 18 children have picked up and gone elsewhere. 32 total Friends have departed for good, or at least for a while. Because of this, we may not have a First Day School (Sunday School) program starting in September. We may very well be a childless meeting from now going forward.

As I've surveyed the names of the recently departed, I find that I know few of them. Our Meeting consigns each group to its own universe, its own orbit. I report, with great regret, that I was never formally introduced to anyone, parent or child, who was involved in First Day School. Old hurts were significant and increased the desire to go elsewhere. Parents felt that they weren't supported by the Meeting and that they had to do everything themselves. I don't doubt that this was true with some.

I find it difficult to know how to be impartial in this matter. Part of me wants to be critical of Friends who are not especially welcoming, nor seem to have that inclination. Another facet of my views entertains the fact that the sex offender, who agreed without complaint to significant restrictions, was never given a chance to plead his case. Many parents believed that they were shamed and guilted into being radically inclusive. On one level, they cannot be faulted for being instantly and immediately afraid of someone who they saw as a threat to the safety of their children.

What did not help matters was when it was discovered that three other registered sex offenders were regular attenders of Meeting. Their identity had been known by some for a long time, but they were not publicly acknowledged until very recently. One of them offered to supervise and take the children out on an activity. When his past behavior was discovered, already squeamish parents began to panic. Panic turned to paranoia. Paranoia and a perceived deficiency in how concerns were respectfully addressed led people out of the Meeting.

This entire ignoble chapter of our Meeting's history reveals many lessons and hard truths. If we truly practiced open communication instead of our usual stuffy, distant attitudes, things may not have reached boiling point. As a member of Ministry and Worship, I have to say that I do not understand the roles and functions of many other committees and task forces. Unprogrammed Friends do not have a called minister, instead consigning tasks a minister would perform to the laity. When I have called for greater transparency within the leadership structure, it has usually been provided in a half-hearted, reluctant manner.

That this happened does not surprise me, I'm sorry to say. It was a long time coming. Chasing after people who are inclined to leave has been, in my experience, wasted energy. I am one person and I cannot reverse years of Meeting culture by myself. However, I do acknowledge that any Meeting without children has cast its fate and will eventually die a slow death. It pains me to observe how few members and regular attenders appear to have no such reservations. 

Every time I speak to someone, I learn new information and particulars, information that should have been public knowledge. I get a little bit more of a complicated context. As a Meeting, we simply haven't been talking to each other. No dialogue exists or has existed over time. The Young Adult Friend group of which I have been an active participant was initially formed because we felt ignored by the rest of the Meeting. I can understand how parents would feel the same way.

This post is, in part, my plea for change and for successful conversation. I may not be able to part the Red Sea by myself, but let this story serve as an example and a warning. For people of faith, your house of worship likely contains at least one sex offender, if we're playing the odds. If he or she is not an active member or regular attender, there is still a strong likelihood that one has worshiped with you as a visitor. How you choose to handle the situation is up to you, but I recommend you not take the same course of action. 


RantWoman said...

I am SO sorry to read about all this. I read about it on QuakerQuaker. When I tried to comment I lost patience about something with the QQ interface melting around my screen reader.

I am definitely holding everyone involved in the Light.

One thing the person I refer to on my blog as The Safest Sex Offender on the planet did when he first started talking with us was to INSIST that we always have two adults with children / youths.

The Safest Sex Offender ... still does NOT get or even want to work with children. Neither does someone I know, not connected with Meeting; the latter guy has never been convicted of anything but does loudly and flamboyantly proclaim interests in certain categories of pictures frequently enough that no one in their right mind would let him watch their children. I at one point told him that under no circumstances, for his own protection, should he ever be alone with a child.

In general, the two adults with children / youth rule is for EVERYONE's protection. Paying attention to that and doing background checks is one part of what my Meeting does as safety measures.

Another piece I keep jumping up and down about even at my Meeting: if everyone focuses only on people who have known histories, Chester the Molester who has never been caught can still be off in a corner preying on some kid or some family that is easily marginalized in the first place.

I am a HUGE believer in empowering children and families to talk about difficult things in the first place and also in making sure adults are able to listen and hear for situations where people might not automatically be willing to talk in the first place.

Comrade Kevin said...

I appreciate your remarks and sympathy, RantWoman.

I don't know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together. A lack of Meeting transparency is what blew this issue up beyond all sense of proportion. We just don't talk to each other.

If we'd had a history of open discourse, this matter would not have exploded. But how to you get people who have never acknowledged each other to begin a long-needed, inclusive dialogue?

That's the quandary we face now.

RantWoman said...

re comments on Quakerquaker:

--a very small percentage of sex offenders are completely untreatable. Both the known offenders in our Meeting is a safety plan of measures they do voluntarily to avoid circumstances that would lead to re-offend. The offender who returned to the community after a long prison term has both the usual re-entry issues and the matter of community notification but even the community notification process had remarkable aspects.

--One of the posters on QQ refers to a Level III offender. He is identified on my blog as The Friend with the Remarkable Story. The experience with our low-level short jail term community treatment offender are part of why this person's presence seems to be going much more smoothly in our Meeting than in the other Meeting.

Things that matter for our Meeting:

--My Meeting's long history with AVP and the fluke of my having been part of the prison worship group so that I was really clear about a good person to hand the future Safest Sex Offender ... off to when he spoke to me during coffee hour.

--Dealing with some pieces of the problem Right Away, including worship with the offender AWAY FROM MEETING for a number of months early in treatment.

--Speaking always of safety of our children, the needs and spiritual work of people who have survived sexual assault or abuse, as well as the needs and concerns related to the offender.

--A very well-done set of worship sharing early in our walk with the offender that made space for lots of different Truths, experiences....

--Some resources handed out early in our discernment for everyone about trauma, restimulation, triggers,...

--A Friend who is a practicing psychologist taking very strong interest in the situation over the whole time.

--Being willing for several years to do an every other week alternating regimen so that Friends bothered by the offender's presence could choose a worship hour when he was not present.

--Periodic education for parents and children separately about Stranger Danger, talking about sexuality, and other topics.

--Lots of sometimes excruciating detail in Meeting for Business. It says something for transparency even though at times I find the level of detail a bit much.

--Families who have been part of Meeting the whole time had children. Some children plus really good First Day teachers plus the two adults with children safety protocols created a positive place for families and reassured parents about structures behind the giant announcement every week in our bulletin. Some families did leave at first and there is a daughter Meeting nearby that served as a release valve. But the families who stayed and other factors above meant that as new families arrived they had confidence and stayed.

At this point:
--Some identified survivors speak out in various ways. Other people voluntarily attend different educational events even when they know they might get restimulated.

--We mention this ministry every year in our State of Society reports.

--The ministry nearly always comes up at occasions like Worship Sharing during a Salt and Light event or other gatherings.

--3 of the 4 women who attended the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology conference this year mentioned this ministry in our reflection papers.

--Many of us are used to having "so how's your sex offender?" conversations all kinds of ways among Friends.

--During a year of discernment about 3 years ago we spent A LOT of time talking as acommunity about our spiritual lives and what is important. Now we keep doing retreats once or twice a year that are both building work party and opportunity for worship sharing. This helps both draw people for the work party and keep us in touch with each other.

To be honest, there are some transitions and bumps as I write but I am not clear to write of them here.

Anyway, I agree with you: Meetings need child safety practices whether or not they have sex offenders--adjudicated or not--that they know of.

And I am holding your Meeting in the Light and hoping for renewal.