For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
-Romans 3:22b-23

Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
-Acts 10:34-35

It amazes me how tender we become to the things that are suddenly made personal by difficult circumstances. I once walked in a haze of prejudice and misapplied altruism when it came to sexual offenders/offense (SO). But my heart now bursts with hurting and understanding towards SOs in ways that would suffocate me if I didn’t have a firm grip on the nature and presence of God. It still threatens to overwhelm me. Sadly, it admittedly steals my joy at times.

Like yesterday when I found myself engaged in this conversation…

Nathan: Is everyone going to laugh at us when Asher comes home?

Me: I don’t know, but maybe.

Maybe. That was the word I had to use because I couldn’t answer his question with absolute assurance. And sadly, my answer is based on my own historical reactions and not just external experiences. Ironically, it was an external experience that God used to draw my attention to my own past prejudices.

I was sitting in a group of people during a meeting for a community event just last week. The discussion turned from our agenda to a new building being erected in the area and its proposed use. Our small town is renovating the sheriff’s office, and the new building will house a portion of the offices in the old building until the remodel is complete. The new building will then be turned over to the city for use in our Parks and Recreation department. However, until the renovations are complete, the new building will house, among other things, the office for juvenile probation and the Community Youth Development program, which runs our Boys and Girls Club of America.

These two offices will be located directly across the hall from one another.

The conversation quickly degenerated into expressions of disappointment in the oversight for the placement of these two offices – one so clearly making an effort to guide our young people towards community contribution, and the other so clearly working to keep the unsavory from our midst. Or at least that was the mindset. Then a generous voice chimed in.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world to have the two offices close to one another. Maybe kids will learn a thing or two from seeing the consequences of poor choices. Or maybe some of those probation kids will get a glimpse at the other side and want to make better choices in their future. Hey, it might be a good thing!”

There was hearty applause around the circle, and several people “amen”ed the gentleman’s well-spoken opinion. I took a deep breath. This was a little close to home, and it made me uncomfortable realizing I had to weigh out anything I said lest my emotions get the better of me. However, for the immediate moment, I felt safe. But then another comment was thrown into the mix.

“You’re probably right. And really, I don’t care if they see one another occasionally or not. Well, except for sex offenders. As far as I’m concerned, they can take all the sex offenders and just lock them up forever.”

There wasn’t even a pause before chuckles and assent were given from every corner. The understood reality being that juvenile SOs are fundamentally worse than other juvenile delinquents. Period. There are no extenuating circumstances. There is no rehabilitation. There is no gray. There is only the keen knowledge that all juvenile SOs are perverted beyond help. Or perhaps they can be reached but only to serve as guides for other SOs. Like the biblical leper, the sexual offender is cast from society and never allowed to return.

After this meeting, I found myself in two different conversations where acquaintances, unaware of my backstory, were sharing their woes within the justice system and sexual crimes. A man’s wife bemoaned that her husband must register for the next 10 years as an SO because he made an inappropriate pass at a nearly 18-year old who went to the police. The man pleaded guilty out of conviction for his behavior. It was the start of a healing in his marriage, but it destroyed his business and reputation because, even though he never even touched the girl, she was underage, so it was treated as sexual assault with an automatic SO registry requirement. Then, a man asked for prayer for his 20-year old brother who was serving time as a sexual offender because the parents of his then 17-year old girlfriend pressed assault charges against him when they learned that she was (consensually) sleeping with her then 19-year old boyfriend.

Now, I am actually a huge advocate for strict, publicly accessible policies for dangerous sexual offenders. A grown man sexually exploiting a child, a female teacher bullying her male students into performing sexual favors, and even juveniles who show a penchant for or history of manipulative and aggressive acts of sexual perversion ought to be handled in a way that allows others in society to recognize them if the law does not have the authority to hold them in prison. But it is time we stopped assuming that the blanket conviction of sexual offense is synonymous with murderous rapist or child pornographer.

And regarding my specific case, we must learn the facts of juvenile sex offense.

  • Juvenile SOs and adult CSAs (child sex abuse/abuser) are not the same thing even though the age of their victims often is. Juveniles usually perpetrate against younger siblings or younger children because of the nature and use of power within the crime, which requires their victims to be children. This is different from pedophilia, which is the sexual attraction of an adult to prepubescent children.
  • Juvenile SOs do not automatically grow up to become adult CSAs. While a large percent of adult CSAs were a juvenile SO, the same does not hold true in reverse. In fact, recent models show a significant commonality between juvenile sex offense and other juvenile delinquent behaviors. This means the juvenile who acts out by breaking the windows of his neighbor’s house is often motivated by the same factors as the juvenile that perpetrates sexually inappropriate behavior against another juvenile.
  • Rehabilitation is extraordinarily effective in treating juvenile SOs, and their recidivism rates are substantially lower than the adult CSA or SO population. Recent figures show some programs are as low as 7%.
  • Successful reintegration of a juvenile SO with their family where victims are present is not only possible, but with effective treatment (for both perpetrator and victim), it is probable.
  • One of the primary factors in determining how successful rehabilitation and reintegration will be is the response to the disclosure of abuse in the first place. For the benefit of both the victim and perpetrator, it is essential that parents believe the victim, report the perpetrator, seek professional help for both parties, and find support for themselves.

Together, let us grow in the knowledge and understanding that God, who is no respecter of persons, asks us to behave in the same manner. We can no longer make large, generalizing assumptions about sexual offense and those who commit it. We must discern appropriate measures so that perpetrators are penalized – but wherever possible, also rehabilitated. I pray I use my own experience to remind me that I never truly know the hurts in another person’s soul. My callous, often judgmental comments and tone can tear others down when I am called to do the exact opposite.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
-Ephesians 4:29 (NIV)

Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
-Ephesians 4:29 (The Message)