Editor's note: Recently, three members of the same family wished to join a Christian-based church in Reading. All three had prior convictions for child molestation.Current church members not only felt uncomfortable, but many were outraged. One of their concerns was that the congregation's food and fellowship time in between Sunday school and church services would give these child predators the opportunity to be in direct contact with potential victims.
In an effort to squash fears, the church's pastor offered a strict contract that detailed requirements, such as no contact with minors. However, this did not help many members feel safe, and some ultimately chose to switch churches.
Examining what it means to forgive someone and how that is translated into everyday life in accordance with mainstream religions is the purpose of this article.
The act of forgiveness is often hard to actualize when one is personally wronged in everyday life. To overcome the urge to hold a grudge or even seek revenge, many people look toward organized religion for spiritual guidance.
From Christianity to Islam, many religions have similar views on cleansing the soul, and offer slightly different ways of doing so. For most a sincere heart full of regret paired with an active awareness to avoid the act or thought is a basic requirement. But there are some acts that many view as unforgivable, despite their personal religious beliefs.
Acts that are deemed harmful to children are generally considered taboo in American society, however many organized religions offer a path to redemption for even the most ostracized of social pariahs.
Saying, "I'm sorry," however, doesn't always cut it.
Pastor Dave Lewis of New Hanover United Methodist Church, 2211 Swamp Pike in Gilbertsville, said, "We would look at the situation (of a convicted child molester wanting to join the church) on a case by case basis. Membership is one thing but teaching a youth group or Sunday school is different. Anyone can come to church as long as they acknowledge that they are a sinner working on redemption and want to follow Christ, whatever their background."
Lewis went on to say that God can forgive someone right away if he or she is truly sorry.
"We can't kick them out if they failed. (The) only thing that
would disqualify them is arrogance. If somebody commits crime they need to pay the consequences."
Membership in Lewis' church begins with an 8-week foundation class that teaches prospective members the basic beliefs of the church.
"We begin (the class) by saying, 'I'm not worthy,' because we are all sinners," Lewis explained.
Pastor Tim Moyer of Vincent Mennonite Church, 387 Stars Road in Spring City, said that "requiring background checks for church members who wish to work with children is one of the safeguards we will provide. We would not put anyone in question in a leadership position at the church. But many of our members are lifelong members of the congregation."
Moyer explained that there is an extensive children's ministry at Vincent Mennonite Church.
When asked about the above mentioned scenario that occurred in Reading, Moyer said that his church "would be inclined to accept the new member if there was a sincere conversion, but restrictions with children would be made."
"In order to be a bona fide church member, one must accept Jesus as his/her savior. There are classes that teach the beliefs and then one is ready for baptism. We offer baptism as an adult, recognizing their decision is an interpersonal commitment," Moyer added.
"Membership transfer is possible with a letter of recommendation," he also noted. Shariyf D. Abdul Qabid, a high school Islamic Studies teacher at Al Aqsa Islamic Academy, 1501 Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia, said that "with regards to forgiveness, we try to forgive everything possible, for we want Allah to forgive our sins and shortcomings. For example, some people may be uncomfortable to attend community prayers or functions with drug addicts, prostitutes, pedophiles, spousal abusers, and/or their like."
Qabid explained that even Jesus kept company with those who sinned to that degree.
"The prophet Isa (Jesus) kept such company. As Muslims, we follow all the prophets of Islam, from Adam to Muhammad, including Jesus. My teachers have taught me to be compassionate as well as protective. If we disregard these people, they are likely to commit these same heinous crimes again," Qabid said.
Emphasizing encouragement towards obedience and how religion can help them fight against "evil and shameful deeds," Qabid added, "this is how we help the oppressor and the oppressed. We put our faith and trust in Allah, but we don't put the innocent and vulnerable in a position of compromise. It is a delicate balance that must be maintained and as servants of Allah, it is our pleasure to enjoin the good and forbid the wrong."
In the Muslim religion, men, women and children don't all worship together. So the concerns of the congregation in Reading may not necessarily be applicable in the same way that they are in a Christian or other congregation.
Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and teacher of Jewish mysticism, explained her view on forgiveness, with regard to the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, in an online interview.
"I think of Yom Kippur as a joyous time, because looking at our mistakes and mending our ways is something we need to do," Frankel said.
"One of the things we're thinking about this time of year is remembering who we really are-that we are sparks of the divine. We get in touch with our highest potential and we ask ourselves, 'Who is the bodhisattva (realized being) that lives inside of us?' And with the strength of that knowledge of who we can be, we say, 'Well, where did I not live up to that highest vision of myself?' Understanding of the gift of Yom Kippur, of what it means to have a day when we let go of grudges, when we start time over again, when we really forgive ourselves and others and say, 'You know, I begin again.'"
"The overwhelming theme of giving someone another chance can be hard for everyday people who let their emotions and fears stand in the way of acceptance," Frankel added. "So does forgiving and forgetting really apply when some sins can be looked at as perversions that are lifelong struggles? Is someone a sinner for simply having the bad thought or are they only considered sinners, in this case, if they act on their sexual perversion?"
Antoinette Colon is editor of The Community Connection, a weekly Berks-Mont newspaper serving parts of Berks County. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org In 1997 the National Institute of Justice published a report titled, "Child Sexual Molestation: Research Issues," detailing some of the difficulties associated with judicial and social ramifications of child molestation.
"Practitioners, researchers, and legislators should be guided by moderation, clear vision, and empirical evidence. Over the years, many laws governing sex offenders have been enacted and later repealed. Two timely examples of presumably well-intentioned but problematic legislation are the much-discussed community notification laws and the new California law requiring repeat sex offenders to choose between 'chemical castration' (i.e., treatment with an androgenic medication) or surgical castration," the report states.
"The California statute poses difficulties on several counts. From an ethical standpoint, mandating either an intrusive, irreversible surgical procedure or treatment with a drug that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have not approved for use with sex offenders is highly questionable. Society resists treating sexual offenders, however, because to do so is perceived as a humane response to intolerable behavior. The criminal justice community faces difficult, but not insuperable, challenges as it moves to balance the right of the community to be protected with the rights of offenders," the report concluded. For more information about the report, visit www.ncjrs.org.