LONDON — In Britain, as in the United States, sex offenders - especially pedophiles - are among society's most reviled criminals.
Public sentiment is often driven by tabloid newspaper reports and high-profile cases, like the July 1 abduction of Sarah Payne, a young girl in West Sussex. Police suspect a pedophile may be responsible.
But the British Methodist Church is taking the discussion to a different level. It's welcoming convicted sex offenders into its 6,500 congregations, and it's established guidelines for how to help them rebuild their lives - while protecting the children in their communities.
"It's having that openness that we feel is the Christian thing to do," says the Rev. Leslie Griffiths, superintendent minister at Wesley's Chapel, the Methodist Mother Church in London. The church has to be open "if it is in discipleship with Christ. I mean, he seemed to be able to accept all kinds of people without asking to see their police record," he says.
Along with the Methodists, the Anglicans, and to some extent the Roman Catholics here have also addressed how to deal with the presence of sex offenders.
"Churches have become, as the country has become, more protective toward children," says Graham Ward, professor of theology and ethics at the University of Manchester. But he says that when it comes to sex offenders in British society, "I don't think it's even thought about how these people are redeemed."
Methodists say their approach - which includes closely monitoring offenders whose presence may or may not be made known to the congregation - is the outgrowth of measures they've taken over the past decade to ensure the safety of children without excluding anyone, a central element in the Methodist tradition.
"The balance is having that [openness] with the safe environment we want to create," says the Rev. Griffiths.
Although the British government reports that the number of sexual offenses rose by only 2 percent for England and Wales between spring of 1998 and 1999, pinning down the actual number of sexual offenders is difficult. The majority of offenders go undetected and are increasingly young people, says George Barrow, a spokesman for the association of chief officers of probation.
He calls what the Methodist church is doing a "refreshing" change from the approach many other groups take to sex offenders. "We need to see this as a group doing something fairly unique when the tide has been toward exclusion and violence toward sex offenders," he says.
In 1997, the British government created a registry for sex offenders under the Sex Offenders Act. Following release from jail, criminals convicted of certain offenses must register with local police within 14 days of their move to a new community, though not all do. The government announced last month that it will review the act in the next year to try and close loopholes and measure the registry's effectiveness.
Some evidence exists that sex offenders are more inclined to go to church, according to one of the consultants who worked with the Methodists on a report adopted at the church's conference last month. About 25 percent of the offenders at clinics polled attend church weekly, compared with 8 to 9 percent of the general public.
While the church does not grant "unconditional forgiveness," or allow sex offenders to hold church office, its guideline report says that in the spirit of being "a community of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, committed to the restoration of broken people and communities," the church it will supervise offenders. It will establish a small group to monitor them, sit with them at church activities, and support them. Offenders are required to sign a contract saying they will abide by certain rules, including never being alone with children (a pledge all church officers agree to as well).
Among issues the church will need to address are how to minister to victims of sex offenses who also attend services, and how to balance the privacy of the offender with the congregation's right to know who walks among them.
There is also the issue of the families of offenders. Barrow points out that 9 out of 10 sex offenses take place in the home. So, he says, "if you exclude a sex offender from the church, you are probably excluding a whole family."
News of the decision is still being disseminated to congregations, where many parishioners say they support the Christian idea of forgiveness, but want to make sure children are safe.
"People are always surprised that churches are full of people that commit sins - but that's the whole point of the thing," says Lesley Wilkinson, who attends Wesley's Chapel. "I really think this is exactly the right place [for offenders], actually," she says.
Fellow congregant Joan Barnett, who has 10 grandchildren and great-grand children, isn't so sure. She says even though people have to try to be forgiving, it is difficult with sex offenders. "We all make a sin some time or another, but in my opinion, sex offenders are a different category.
"I think we should know for the sake of the children," she says about being informed of the presence of an offender.
Even though it's contentious, Ward says, the church can play a vital role in moving society's thought forward on the issue. "The church has still got to proclaim that these people too can be saved."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society