Recently, there have been several scandals involving high-profile pastors who have welcomed convicted pedophiles into their churches. These pastors have argued that all people, no matter how broken or how egregious their sin, should receive God’s grace. The problem is, these pastors are being deceived by men who aren’t really repentant and, therefore, pose a grave danger to others in the church. Today, I want to address the pedophile’s deception and show what true repentance and ministry to them should look like.
A Pretense to Repentance
One thing pastors should know is that true repentance is extremely rare for pedophiles. It takes a profound sense of entitlement and a profound lack of empathy to sexually violate a child. Many have spent years charming and manipulating people to gain access to victims. These are people whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron (1 Timothy 4:2). They purposely prey on the weak and vulnerable. It takes a serious shock to the system for these offenders to own the pain they have caused.
When it appears that the law may be closing in, the pedophile begins seeking allies who will shelter and defend him. Because the Church offers grace for those who repent, that is often the first place a pedophile will go. He will strategically choose a church that is in another city, county or state–someplace where his crimes and victims are not yet known. Often, he will join the church as a newcomer and begin ingratiating himself among the unsuspecting members. He may announce to the church that he was once “a wretched sinner,” but has recently given his life to Christ. He may hint that his sins were “really bad,” but he is now “living a new life.”
Only when it appears that his crimes won’t remain hidden does the pedophile then privately approach the pastor and confess. To the pastor, who is not yet aware of any legal action, it may seem that the pedophile is confessing out of genuine remorse. That is almost never the case. The pedophile is aware of the charges being filed against him and is seeking to usurp the narrative. He will say such things as,
- “It was a misunderstanding.”
- “I made a mistake.”
- “I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
- “Things got out of hand.”
- “I let the devil control me.”
- “I really cared about the child.”
- “It was terrible for me.”
The pedophile will only reveal as much as he needs to sell his story. A little truth makes the lie go down smooth. He may even sob and appear emotionally distraught. He will often claim that he got on this path because he, too, was victimized as a child.
A gullible pastor will be moved by this performance. He will buy the pedophile’s claim that he wants to turn from wickedness and live a new life. There is just one problem: his victims are seeking to put him away for life. How will he pursue his new God-given purpose if he’s forever sitting in prison?
As the scandal unfolds, the spin continues. As new details of the crimes are revealed, the pedophile will insist that he’s very, very repentant and can’t understand why his victims continue to be so hurt. He just wants to live his new life. To “prove” it, he will agree to ongoing counseling with the pastor. After a while, he will suggest, ever so subtly, that his victims are making the crimes out to be worse than they actually were. He may tell the pastor that, at the time of the molestation, his victims didn’t complain and even appeared to want it. The pedophile is now the one being “victimized.” The ongoing legal battle is simply a “vengeful attack” on his “good character.”
At this point, the gullible pastor is fully invested in the pedophile’s narrative. Because the pastor may not know the victims or have ever spoken to them, he does not know how serious the violations actually were. Because the pedophile seemed so contrite at his first confession, he has no reason to doubt that the pedophile was anything but totally forthright. When he accompanies the pedophile to court and sees a composed, humiliated man on one side and hurt, angry victims on the other, it only solidifies the image of the pedophile as the one under attack.
Seeing Through the False Narrative
The easiest way to see through the pedophile’s spin is to notice how he speaks about himself. An unrepentant pedophile keeps the narrative focused on himself. It’s all about how terrible the experience was for him. It’s about how sorry he is. It’s about how hurt he feels by the legal process. It’s about how much he wants to move on. He will say things like, “I know I did wrong. I feel so bad.”
What he doesn’t say is how bad his victims feel. When talking about his crimes, he avoids describing them in detail. When he is forced by circumstance to name his actions, he minimizes them or speaks as if they were beyond his control. “I touched her. It was a mistake.” “I suddenly found myself in her room.” “She was just so sweet, I couldn’t help it.”
In all of his “confessing,” the pedophile never takes responsibility for his actions or talks about the damage he has caused.
How to Minister to a Pedophile
Pastors who wish to minister to pedophiles must demand genuine repentance. Here is what a repentant pedophile would do:
- Confess his crimes before the congregation. He would let everyone in the church know exactly what he did and how serious it was.
- He would focus his narrative on his victims–their pain, their suffering, and their need for justice–while protecting their identities.
- He would renounce his right to be around children. He would ask the congregation to be vigilant in keeping children away from him.
- He would refuse positions of ministry and trust in the church. (He’s not biblically qualified for them anyway.)
- He would willingly submit himself to the care of a licensed mental health professional and the oversight of a law officer.
- He would fully cooperate with all authorities, confess his crimes to the court, and willingly serve any recommended prison sentence.
- He would offer restitution to his victims.
- He would give his victims proper space to heal, offering to leave the church or move away if necessary.
- He would let others in the community know that he is a registered sex offender.
A pedophile who refuses to do these things is not repentant and should be put out of the church immediately.
The pastor must also make it clear that any ministry the pedophile receives shall not come at the expense of his victims. Just as salvation comes first to the Jew, then to the gentile (Romans 1:16), the victims receive their ministry first. A pastor should never sit on the pedophile’s side of the courtroom while there are victims from his community on the other side. A repentant pedophile would understand this position and encourage the pastor to hold it.
I believe that churches and pastors who agree to minister to sex offenders are undertaking an incredibly difficult, commendable, grace-filled challenge. However, such churches need to be educated on what genuine repentance looks like. Getting it wrong only endangers the church’s most vulnerable members.