Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — Ten years ago, Rev. Susan McKnight faced a difficult decision when a newcomer, a man with a past sex offense, asked to join the Warren United Church of Christ.
McKnight, who began preaching at the church in 2001, said a man called her shortly after beginning to attend the church with his son. The man, who she did not identify, said that he didn’t serve any time for the sex offense but was undergoing treatment, and he asked McKnight if he could continue coming to church.
For McKnight, the answer was unclear. “This was all new territory for me,” she said in recounting the experience. While she wanted to welcome all who wanted to come to church – the man even offered to disclose his past actions to all churchgoers – McKnight also wanted to make the safe, sensitive decision for those in her congregation.
“This felt like a piece of lead in my stomach as to how we were to proceed,” McKnight said. She said she felt particularly conflicted after asking how one church member, a victim of life-threatening sexual violence, felt about the situation. The woman, 51-year-old Sue Russell, told McKnight it would trigger difficult memories if she were to see a man she knew committed a sexual offense in church, in her sanctuary.
In the end, McKnight decided to take an unprecedented route for many faith communities – acknowledge and face the issue of sexual abuse. “We decided this was our opportunity to meet it head on,” she said. “This was an opportunity to bring to our attention an issue that affected so many people and it was held in secret confines everywhere.”
McKnight wrote a letter to her congregation, allowed the man to speak to all the parishioners with counselors available, let others respond to the man with him in and not in the room, had the Warren United Church of Christ hold a set of workshops on sexual abuse, and put together church guidelines and policies surrounding the topic.
When the man did tell his story, Russell said she was the first to respond. “I thanked him because I don’t think I ever had any sex offender apologize to me, ever,” she said. “That was healing for me.”
The experience was empowering for not just Russell, but the whole church, said McKnight. “People were very excited that something was happening,” she said. “[Even] people who were uncomfortable with what we were doing knew it was cutting edge stuff.”
McKnight and Russell were the main speakers among the 15 or so attendees at the Oct. 7 “Radical Inclusion: The Reintegration of Sexual Offenders into Faith Communities” meeting at Church of the Rock in St. Albans. The meeting was the second in a series of four discussions that finished up this past Tuesday, all sponsored by the St. Albans Community Justice Center (CJC), the Department for Children and Families and the Vermont Center for Prevention and Treatment.
The subject of the second meeting was “tools for safely reintegrating a sexual offender into the faith community.” In addition to McKnight and Russell sharing their experience, Department of Corrections officer Cathy St. John, St. Albans CJC director Marc Wennberg and CJC re-entry program coordinator Bob Begley talked about the process of moving someone with a sex offense out of prison and back into the Franklin County area.
According to Wennberg, the first, most important step to safely and effectively reintegrate people with sex offenses is transparency. “Folks with sexual offenses are coming back into our community on a weekly basis,” he said. “It’s not something people are naturally comfortable talking about, [and] in some ways, that’s a risk.”
Wennberg added, “One of the facts about sexual offending is that it takes place in secrecy.”
Talking about the issue and trying to confront how to help reintegrate those who offend while being sensitive to victims and others’ safety is “an important question communities can and should wrestle with,” said Wennberg.
St. John, who has only worked with those who commit sex offenses for the past several years, said the CJC Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program is vital to accomplishing these tasks. COSA is a year-long group support system for released, qualifying people with sex offenses who are looking for a better life, including a job, housing, how to handle finances and assistance with such mundane things as grocery shopping. Those chosen for the program receive four to five individuals as community contacts as well as treatment and other opportunities.
“Before COSA we had nothing, zero, to help these people go back in the community,” said St. John. She added that, before COSA or the CJC, stigma associated with sex offenses and concern for overall safety were rampant.
Now, with community education, less fear and more resources for reintegrating people with past offenses, St. John said things have improved dramatically.
Begley gave an example of one man, who, after serving two 10-year prison terms for two separate sexual assaults, has been able to find housing, a job, and a way to be less fearful of those around him. It’s been two years since he was released from prison, Begley said, and his number one priority is to not reoffend and return there.
“He didn’t know what the cost of eggs was, he didn’t know how to get from A to B,” said Begley. “It was quite a scary time for him. [Now] he does very well in the community, but he’s still scared [of reoffending].”
He added, “But he has support out here, and I think that helps.”
In addition to working with the people who commit offenses with a victim’s safety in mind, CJC volunteers, Dept. of Corrections and parole officers also go into the community to inform neighbors about those moving in nearby who have a history of sex offenses. With COSA team members, Begley said this creates more sets of eyes to watch over those who are recently released from prison, keeping them accountable.
Community partners working together is also key. “There’s a lot of collaboration all the way around to make this work,” St. John said.
Tackling fear, silence
While groups like the Warren United Church of Christ and St. Albans community partners have found success in reintegrating those who have committed sex offenses, it is not something accepted by everybody. In fact, many organizations and communities are unaware or don’t acknowledge that people with sex offenses are even present.
One of the meeting’s attendees said she recently called around to local churches and asked about programs or discussions to handle the topic of sexual abuse and people who commit it.
The types of responses she received? One, for example, was: “We would never have people like that in our church.”
The director of the Williston Community Justice Center, Cristalee McSweeney, said she regularly gets negative phone calls from people saying things like, “What kind of sick human being are you?” regarding the CJC’s mission to reintegrate those with sex offenses into communities.
“It’s just a lack of knowledge, and it’s fear-based,” McSweeney said.
The problem with that, though, is that if those with sex offenses don’t come forward to talk about their past, due to shame or fear or to get treatment, there’s no way for communities or organizations, such as churches, to address the problem and create a safe environment.
“We’re just not use to having s-e-x in c-h-u-r-c-h,” was what one parishioner told McKnight, alluding to an overarching attitude in faith communities. McKnight and others added that a culture of silence perpetuates the issue of sexual abuse. Just at the table at the Oct. 7 meeting, at least two people had experienced sexual abuse by a church leader that went unaddressed and uncharged.
Despite the difficulty of discussing the topic, McKnight said that acknowledging and bringing sexual abuse into the open within a community, like that of her congregation, creates a much safer, more progressive environment for both perpetrators and victims.
It encourages more compassion and support for others regardless of personal history, she added, which helps people better themselves.
“We [all] offend in different ways,” said McKnight. “We’re all in the same boat.”