California Church Debates Accepting Sex Offender

The Pilgrim United Church of Christ of Carlsbad, Calif., has a dilemma. A convicted child molester wants to join its congregation and the community has mixed reactions about whether it should open its arms to this black sheep.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The United Church of Christ values its diversity, but one of its churches in Southern California is grappling with what it means to welcome people from many backgrounds. A convicted sex offender has asked to join them. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports on the disagreement within the congregation as to whether or not to let him in.

ANDREA HSU: Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California prides itself on being an open and affirming congregation. Still, nothing prepared members for what they heard one Sunday morning in January. Pilgrim's minister, Madison Shockley, introduced two-time convicted sex offender Mark Pliska. He said he'd been attending services there for several weeks. Shockley recalls what Pliska said to the congregation that day.

Reverend MADISON SHOCKLEY (Pilgrim United Church of Christ): He introduced himself, told what he had done, made his apologies for what he had done, and asked to be a part of a congregation that would help him to lead a better life.

HSU: What Pliska had done was molest two boys in 1983 and expose himself to children in 1998. He spent a total of 13 months in prison for those crimes and four years in state hospitals. Today he's designated as a sexually violent predator. He must check in with authorities every three months.

After Pliska's introduction, he was escorted from the church. Shockley asked him not to come to services until the congregation decides what to do about him. The church has held many discussions since.

Rev. SHOCKLEY: Conversation ranged from our welcome requires us to accept this person to my background and my history presents a tremendous challenge for me to be in the same room with this person.

HSU: That latter sentiment has been expressed by church members who say they themselves were sexually abused as children. Shockley says he knew of some cases, but was surprised at just how many victims of abuse came forward in his congregation of 300, April Bird(ph) among them. The mother of four says she was molested when she was eight. When Shockley asked her if she'd help escort Pliska that day in church, she surprised even herself by saying yes.

Ms. APRIL BIRD (Member, Pilgrim United Church of Christ): To have not accepted the responsibility to do this would've been like saying that my abuser still had power in my life, and it was an opportunity to live out the theology that I say I believe in, and I really do believe in God's extravagant welcome.

HSU: And so does church member Susanna Heckman(ph), but unlike Bird, she doesn't think that welcome should include Pliska.

Ms. SUSANNA HECKMAN (Member, Pilgrim United Church of Christ): There's no reason to take risks with your children that you don't need to take.

HSU: Heckman has a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy. She worries in particular about her son, who she adopted from Ethiopia last fall.

Ms. HECKMAN: He's very gregarious with strangers and will go up to anybody and talk with them and try to get them to play soccer with him or whatever, and he - he thinks that bad guys wear little masks and run around and hide during the day, you know. He's vulnerable.

HSU: Heckman knows of nine families who have left the congregation since January. She's not sure herself whether she'll stay should the church decide to allow Pliska to return.

Ms. HECKMAN: I want to say yes because I understand, and I'm as committed as anyone to radical inclusion, but it's visceral. I wouldn't feel like I was protecting my children.

HSU: For his part, Mark Pliska says if Pilgrim Church doesn't accept him, he'll look elsewhere.

Mr. MARK PLISKA (Convicted Sex Offender): I want to go to church because I need to belong to part of the society. For someone like me to be isolated in the community somewhere is not a healthy place for me to be, and it's real important to me to belong to part of a community - to know I feel welcome there, safe there, and if I need help I have a group of people that I can rely on.

HSU: He adds that he'll inform any church he approaches of what he did, even though he's under no legal obligation to do so. He says he doesn't want to spend time and energy trying to hide his past. In the coming weeks, Madison Shockley will be working with the congregation on finalizing a safe church policy.

It will require all staff and volunteers to undergo background checks; it'll require that children be supervised by two unrelated adults at all times; and it will define how Pilgrim Church deals with sex offenders in general and Pliska specifically. Shockley says any church without such a policy should start working on one right away.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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