WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – While the priest sex abuse scandal has dominated headlines lately, churches of all denominations are dealing with another dangerous dilemma, whether to allow sex offenders seeking forgiveness to attend services where kids are present.
A church in Derby had to decide whether redemption is worth the risk of welcoming a convicted pedophile into the congregation.
“The prevalence (of child sex abuse) is unbelievable, how much is going on,” said Dr. Gary Hackney, a clinical psychologist.
While it’s impossible to know for sure how many kids are molested, estimates range from one in 10 to one in three.
Experts like Hackney, who work with pedophiles to try to keep them from re-offending, say the temptation is always there.
“That’s what people have to understand, it doesn’t go away,” said Hackney.
That’s why St. Mary Catholic Church in Derby took action, when convicted sex offender, Al Rocheleau, started going to Mass there.
He had served more than two years in prison for aggravated indecent solicitation of a 4-year-old girl and was released on parole in 2015.
The priest assigned a chaperone to supervise Rocheleau whenever he was on church grounds; yet, many parishioners did not know his criminal history, even though Rocheleau’s picture has to be posted on the public sex offender registry for life.
RELATED LINK | KBI Public Offender Registry
At least one parishioner found out Rocheleau’s criminal history and was outraged the sex offender was allowed to do readings in the church. He also says he saw Rocheleau in the church parking lot one time last summer without his chaperone.
That parishioner wrote the priest and bishop, saying in part, “Rocheleau can receive the sacraments at home or go to the Spiritual Life Center to Mass with retired priests. But to be roaming around the parish, doing the readings, taking communion to people’s homes, is beyond the pale of responsible leadership.”
KSN’s Stephanie Bergmann talked to Al Rocheleau at length over the phone, but he didn’t want to talk on camera.
KSN also reached out to Father Joe Eckberg at St. Mary, who said he couldn’t comment.
In response to the parishioner’s complaint, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita tightened restrictions on Rocheleau even more, keeping him out of most church activities.
But the diocese refused to ban Rocheleau from Mass at St. Mary and did not share his criminal history with the congregation.
“Who would come to church, and you have to sit in the penalty box?” said Stan Van Den Berg, Senior Pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian.
He defends the decision by the Derby church because his congregation also has a convicted sex offender.
“He’s welcomed into the church. This is where change begins in people’s lives, but we’re going to be vigilant about our children,” said the pastor.
Van Den Berg says security officers at the church and staff in the children’s wing all know who the sex offender is.
Kids in Sunday school are never allowed in the hallways alone, and they can only leave with the person who checked them in through a computerized system that prints out two stickers.
He’s welcomed into the church. This is where change begins in people’s lives, but we’re going to be vigilant about our children” – Stan Van Den Berg, Senior Pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian
“Sticker number one goes on the kid’s back with the name and any allergies. Sticker number two goes to the parent or guardian who dropped them off, and they need to present that at pickup,” said Scott Montgomery, Kids’ Director.
Eastminster Presbyterian has other policies to keep kids safe from abuse, but the pastor does not make the sex offender’s identity common knowledge.
“People come into church with all kinds of things in their lives and in their past, and they have the right to sit there and not be judged or ostracized for it,” said Van Den Berg.
“It pales in comparison to what the child has gone through,” counters Janet Patterson, who is an advocate for abuse victims.
She has little sympathy for sex offenders. Her son, Eric, was molested by a priest in Conway Springs and later took his own life.
Patterson says churches have operated in secrecy too long, and parishioners have a right to know who they are sitting next to in the pew.
“Oh yes, and if I found out they were hiding anybody, they’d be sorry because I would definitely broadcast it,” said Patterson.
KSN called other churches to ask how they deal with known sex offenders, but many wouldn’t return our calls. The few that did wouldn’t talk on camera.
The statistics show that whether churches know it or not, sex offenders are in their congregation.
“There is no safe place, we’re realizing,” said Hackney. “These predators are everywhere.”
He warns that even if churches did announce the names of sex offenders, and parents looked at pictures on the KBI registry, those are only the ones who’ve been caught.
Many abuse cases are never reported and involve someone the child already knows.
RELATED LINK | Child Sexual Abuse Statistics
“They groom these kids,” said Hackney. “They are the nicest, kindest, warmest, friendliest people you ever want to see.”
So while parents can’t let their guard down, churches are trying to keep the faith for sex offenders who genuinely want to turn their lives around.
“We are in the redemption business,” said Pastor Van Den Berg.
All the while, he says, churches must remember that forgiving means never forgetting the danger.
RELATED LINK | Signs that a child may have been sexually abused
If you suspect sexual abuse you can talk to someone who is trained to help. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.