June 24--Officials of a local church are battling their insurance company over demands that sex offenders who come to worship be treated as if they had come to prey, rather than pray.
Chad McComas, pastor at Set Free Christian Fellowship in Medford, said his church disclosed to its insurance company that there were known sex offenders within its congregation. That honesty may spell the end of Set Free, a church he started in 1997.
On May 1, the insurance company, Church Mutual, sent a letter requiring McComas to disclose to his congregation the identity of any and all sex offenders, allow those offenders to attend only one predetermined service each week where they must report in and be assigned an escort who will accompany them at all times, and bar them from participating in any child or youth programs.
"Please respond by June 15, 2012. We will review your procedures. If you have not met all the requirements, we may no longer be able to continue your coverage," the letter states.
McComas is challenging the insurance company rules, which he said will have a chilling effect on disclosure, encourage abusers to go underground, and are the same for an 18-year-old boy who is convicted of sex abuse for having sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend.
"Where does that line go? They're throwing everyone in the same boat," McComas said.
Dave Schmidt, a 66-year-old convicted sex offender who attends Set Free, said he is a devout Christian who attends services to worship God, not to prey on youths.
"Certainly there are people who have not accepted the Lord who come to church (with evil intent)," Schmidt said. "That's not why I'm here."
Patrick Moreland, vice president of marketing for Church Mutual, declined to discuss the specifics of his company's interaction with Set Free. Church Mutual insures more than 100,000 religious organizations. It has covered close to 5,000 sex-related claims since 1984.
The rules, developed by outside legal counsel, are designed not only to protect the organization from the "legal hot water" of sexual misconduct and molestation claims but also to protect potential victims, Moreland said.
"Our No. 1 goal is to protect our churches and our children," Moreland said.
Schmidt abused drugs and alcohol and had a long history of sexually abusing children prior to becoming a Christian, he said, adding he pleaded guilty to first-degree sex abuse and sodomy in 1993 after he succumbed "to temptation" one last time.
Two days after Schmidt was arrested on those charges, he was released on his own recognizance and confessed his crimes to McComas, who was then an assistant pastor at another church.
Schmidt said he tendered his guilty plea in Jackson County Circuit Court to spare the child victim from having to testify. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 10 years of probation and treatment, he said.
"I didn't put the blame on anyone but me," Schmidt said. "I didn't want the minor to have to testify."
McComas is loathe to have his church, which has about 100 members, identified as "the sex-offender church." But this issue is a matter of principle and practicality, he said.
"We deal with a lot of members who have addiction backgrounds. That's part of who we serve. But that's not all of who we serve," McComas said. "We know who our members are. We are being careful and diligent. But how often are we going to have to tell the congregation that someone is a sex offender? The congregation changes all the time."
Sex-based claims and crimes occur in cities big and small, in rural areas and in any denomination, Moreland said. Set Free received the same letter that Church Mutual would send to any church, camp or school that disclosed it had a sex offender in attendance, he said.
"What if you have a known offender who offends again? What's a jury going to say?" Moreland said.
Ashland resident Randy Ellison, board president of Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service, is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse. Ellison was 15 when a charismatic youth minister at a popular Portland church began sexually abusing him.
For more than 40 years, Ellison remained silent about the devastation wrought by the trusted leader in his community. Now he is a vocal advocate in the fight to end child sex abuse.
The church and the community at large have a responsibility to protect children, Ellison said. Disclosure to the congregation and restricting offenders from being alone with a child are realistic and necessary provisions, he said.
"If there is a sex offender in my church with my children, I want to know about it," Ellison said.
But the insurance company overreached by requiring Set Free to assign an offender a constant escort and limiting his attendance at worship, Ellison added.
"As a man of faith, I have to say, wouldn't you rather have this person in church?" Ellison said.
Offenders must take responsibility and be accountable for their acts. Church services, addiction recovery meetings and other cognitive and behavioral programs are vital to "rewiring brains," he said.
"We're better off as a society having him go to church with an agreement about what can and cannot happen," Ellison said. "We want them there safely. But we want them there as often as we can get them to go."
As heinous as their crimes are, sex offenders are a part of the community's collective family. In fact, 40 percent of perpetrators are within the victim's immediate family, he said.
"Perpetrators aren't devils in trench coats," Ellison said. "Look at any family photo. Perpetrators look like your father, uncle or grandpa. And that, in fact, is who they are."
If society isolates and excludes perpetrators once they are out of prison, it becomes impossible for them to be a part of a community in a positive way. And the odds of recidivism increase dramatically, Ellison said.
"Humans need to be in relationships," Ellison said. "But we're going to watch and make sure it's a safe and positive relationship."
Schmidt gave up the right to be alone with a child when he molested his first one, Ellison said.
"His past behavior has burned that bridge," Ellison said. "But that doesn't mean that we don't worship with him."
There is no safety in numbers when it comes to these kinds of dangers, McComas said. If offenders have ill intent, they are much more likely to go to a church with a large congregation.
"That's where they want to go, because they can hide and groom these kids," McComas said.
Ellison's minister is the Rev. Pam Shepherd of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ashland. Shepherd agrees with Ellison that churches have a responsibility to keep children and youth safe. UCC is insured and performs background checks on all Bible school teachers, youth ministers and others who are in positions to deal with minors.
But Shepherd said she has never seen a letter like the one McComas received from Church Mutual. And no one in their membership has disclosed any sex crimes, she said.
"There are no known sex offenders coming to our church," Shepherd said. "But if all sex offenders glowed orange, people might be surprised to see who they are sitting next to."
Schmidt said he has been labeled as a "predatory" child sex abuser. He served additional time in prison during his 10-year probationary period for failing two of six polygraph tests and refusing to participate in therapies he deemed counter to his religious beliefs, he said.
"I was convicted of one offense with one minor," Schmidt said. "But I was open and I disclosed my history of molestation with minors."
Schmidt doesn't believe in "self help," he said. Prayer helps him stay focused on God and not on sin. In addition to attending worship services, Schmidt works in food pantries at Set Free and at his old church, he said.
"We're here to love one another. Not lust after one another, and I was guilty of that," Schmidt said.
Schmidt must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He is used to being watched. Just last week, Oregon State Police were at his door, where he lives with three other men who have been convicted of sex crimes, after a young developmentally challenged man went missing.
"They searched the house, didn't find anything and thanked me for cooperating," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said if he gets driven out of Set Free by Church Mutual's policies, he will simply go to another church, then another. One week at a time, if necessary, he said.
Schmidt was one of seven known sex offenders at a larger church in Medford. Schmidt said policies were put in place and an elder was assigned to watch him. The man sat a few rows behind Schmidt at services. One day he didn't realize Schmidt had gone to the restroom. When the man realized Schmidt was not in his seat, "he got up and he had a look of panic on his face," Schmidt said.
Schmidt was later asked to sign a contract promising not to molest anyone. He opted to leave that church and began attending Set Free, he said.
"You know who I am. If you want to watch me, watch me. But don't ask me to participate in it," Schmidt said. "There are murderers coming into churches. You don't ask them to sign a contract not to kill anyone."
(c)2012 the Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.)
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