The particular group I’m sitting with is part of the Sonrise Church in Hillsboro, Oregon, and the banter that rattles back and forth between them is what you might expect. Praise and critique for Pastor Rocky Wing’s sermon are interwoven with prayers, favorable reviews of the house cheeseburger, friendly gossip about common friends, and strategy pitches for the endless mission of saving souls.
The group of 12 that crowds around this table made for eight even looks like the platonic ideal of an American church group. There’s the handsome and charismatic pastor, and the impossibly beautiful young married couple sitting next to the betrothed couple hoping to tie the knot later this spring. (All of whom met at church, because of course they did.) There’s the roll-up-your-sleeves blue-collar dad and the cantankerous guy who looks like everyone’s grandfather. There are a couple of white-haired ladies whose lives revolve around the behind-the-curtain inner workings of their house of worship, even as their grown children wonder aloud why they bother.
Paint a picture of us, right here, right now, and the scattered iPhones and Androids that litter the table are the only clue that we are not some Norman Rockwell painting miraculously sprung to life.
Indeed, these people are about as ordinary a slice of traditional Americana as one can hope to stumble across in 2015: a small, All-American community of All-American neighbors getting together to share All-American food, sing the praises of Jesus, and share the weight of the various challenges that face today’s modern American registered sex offender.
OK, so maybe they’re not so ordinary.
It is six o’clock on a Sunday evening, and like so many other Americans I’m sitting in a restaurant breaking bread with the local church group.
For over a decade, Sonrise Church’s Light My Way program has been ministering to society’s most downtrodden people. Ex-cons, prostitutes, meth addicts, the impoverished, and the homeless are all welcome at the church’s modern nine-acre campus. The scope of the campus facilities is impressive, and includes a food bank, a community garden, a 90-day shelter for the homeless during winter months, and a food truck designed to bring hot meals to those in need.
What really makes Light My Way’s ministry unusual, though, is its controversial decision to embrace registered sex offenders into its fold. This takes no small amount of open-mindedness (many say foolhardiness) as well as a rather significant amount of logistical wrangling. Indeed, Light My Way’s very existence seems at first blush to fly in the face of the laws that govern those whose names are listed in the national sex offender registry.
Registries for sex offenders have been around in the United States since the late 1940s, when California created the first and many other states followed suit. For decades, though, registries were used as a confidential tool for law enforcement officials and social workers. That changed in 1996 when “Megan’s Law” required states to make the information in sex offender registries public. In 2007, George W. Bush signed into law the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which created a national registry and set federal standards for the tracking and punishment of, and limitations for, sex offenders.
Megan’s Law and the Adam Walsh Act created complex systems based on three common perceptions of sex offenders: that most sex offenders are predators, that these predators spend their time stalking strangers, and that their compulsions are so great that they are impervious to rehabilitation. Collectively, these concerns are commonly referred to as Stranger Danger.
To meet Stranger Danger concerns, the laws state that registered offenders listed must report regularly to law enforcement. They are also required to tell potential landlords and employers that they are registered sex offenders, and in many states they must post their registry status on social media. Their movement in public is also greatly curtailed. In most cases registrants cannot be within 2,000 feet of schools, day-care centers, bus stops—or churches.
Sonrise makes it work by having Light My Way services on Sunday afternoons when there is no school and after the children who have attended morning services have left the building. They also have extensive procedures to ensure that no one attending Light My Way’s services comes near a child. These, which they developed in partnership with county law enforcement, include guards, barriers, a battery of monitored security cameras throughout the church, and sweeps by guards before Light My Way services begin to ensure all the children from morning services have left. Church pastors say this is for the offenders’ protection as well as the children’s. Any accidental proximity to any child requires a sex offender to report the chance meeting to authorities. At best it creates a mountain of paperwork; at worst it jeopardizes their ability to continue coming to church services.
As the ministry has evolved, Light My Way’s leadership team—about half of whom are registered sex offenders—have created good working relationships with the school district, the police, and the Justice Department. In fact, their results have been so positive that many of the sex offenders who now attend do so because their parole officers recommended the Light My Way program. Sonrise leaders say those sex offenders who attend regularly don’t go back to jail. And while Washington County Corrections doesn’t officially track such things, they did tell me they have not heard any complaints about Light My Way attendees’ behavior in or out of the program.
One of the church leaders is Gary. Half a decade ago Gary was busted by a child pornography sting operation, sentenced to six months in jail, and entered into the national sex offender registry. After his release, Gary found life as a registered sex offender difficult. Not surprisingly, no one would hire him, and the few apartments he could find within his imposed geographic limitations were not too keen on allowing him to rent. He quickly found himself homeless and living out of his car. He thought he’d found himself in an unbreakable cycle when his parole officer suggested he go to Sonrise’s Light My Way service.
“It changed my life,” he says of the program. “I’m not proud of what I did that got me here, but I know now that it all happened for a reason.” Gary believes that God wants him at Light My Way, helping the other souls that no one else wants to help. “If you could wave a magic wand and clear my record today, I’d still be here helping these people tomorrow. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
The sex offenders on Sonrise’s leadership team all say that Light My Way not only helped them personally, it helped them be better and safer members of the community. And for what it’s worth, their parole officers agree.
In fact, pretty much everyone involved in the system agrees that what Sonrise has done is nothing short of remarkable, and that it can and should be replicated. Still, it is unlikely that other churches will follow their lead. Because despite its success, there is still one inescapable flaw in the Light My Way program: In order for it to exist, it needs to be in somebody’s backyard.
The week before I attended services, I walked around the residential neighborhoods that surround Sonrise, talking to a few of the church’s neighbors. Everyone I talked to is quite aware of the church and the unusual crowd to whom it ministers. To say that the neighborhood is less than thrilled with Sonrise’s existence is like saying North Carolina fans aren't overly fond of Duke. For years many of them have been trying to get the church to move into someone else’s backyard.
The dispute reached something of a zenith in 2012 when the community tried unsuccessfully to force church leaders to move the Light My Way program elsewhere. Though the church’s proximity to Quatama Elementary had not been an issue when the school was being built, many in the community had come to believe the layout was simply too dangerous. There was little they could do, however, since neither Sonrise nor its congregation was breaking any laws. The community’s inability to legally force Sonrise to move was a bitter pill that still rankles many today.
The neighbors I spoke with described the church as “dangerous,” “perverted,” “caring more about political correctness than children,” and representing “what’s wrong with America.” One woman refused to acknowledge that it was a church at all. “Churches are where Jesus wanted us to go to find goodness, not evil,” she insisted firmly. “If Jesus was alive today, he’d come and throw all of those perverts out of his House.”
Sonrise, not surprisingly, takes the opposite view. They say that not only would Jesus refuse to condemn their flock, he’d be rolling up his sleeves to help.
“Look at the people who Jesus ministered to,” says Sonrise Pastor Rocky Wing. “Jesus ministered to the bottom rungs of society, the ones everyone said were unworthy of God’s love. Sex offenders are our society’s lepers. They are the people we want to exile to wherever isn’t our own backyard.” Wing says he’s never felt God’s calling more than he does with Light My Way.
As a parent myself, I confess it’s hard not to sympathize with the anti-Sonrise parents in the community. After all, while Sonrise’s mission is obviously fueled with the best intentions, it flies directly in the face of “what we all know” about registered sex offenders. “We all know” that registered sex offenders are serial rapists and men who prey upon children in public parks. “We all know” that they are driven by compulsions that cannot be stemmed. “We all know” that our system of registering and publicly branding sex offenders prevents countless future crimes too horrible to consider. We have based our entire public policy on how to deal with sex offenders on these beliefs because “we all know” them to be true.
But what “we all know” about sex offenders is largely a myth, and the public policies we have built around these myths not only make it harder to rehabilitate offenders, they also fail to make our communities safer.
If you have never seen the sex offender statistics for where you live, the results can be staggering. My home state of Oregon, for example, has over 25,000 registered sex offenders. If you think that sounds like a pretty high number of serial rapists and men stalking kids at public parks, you’re correct. But our legal definition of who is a sex offender is surprisingly broad.
The definition of a sex offender varies slightly from state to state. In addition to rapists, child molesters, and peeping toms, it can include those caught streaking or urinating in public; an 18-year-old having consensual sex with a 17-year old; or someone who fails to report to the police something he or she believes to be child pornography. Many of these transgressions are misdemeanors, not felonies—which is not to say that there are no victims to these crimes or that we ought not take them seriously; there absolutely are, and we absolutely should. The question, rather, is how to take them seriously in a way that keeps the community safe.
For example, take Gary, the sex offender-turned-church leader. Addicted to Internet porn, for years Gary scoured chat rooms where people shared pornographic pictures. At first he would take the time to enjoy the actual images he downloaded, but over time his compulsion to collect more and more images overtook his desire to even look at them.
“I was spending all my time at work and home just downloading everything,” he told me. “After a while I filled up my computer’s entire hard drive with nothing but pictures, and so I just went out and got another computer and kept going.”
As it turned out, one of the chat rooms Gary visited was part of a child pornography sting operation. Undercover officers uploaded photographs of underage girls, then used the IP addresses of the chat room participants to track down those who downloaded images. Gary ended up being one of 285 men investigated as a part of the operation, and he was arrested shortly afterward.
The assumption is that because Gary has a sexually-related pathology he is therefore likely to prey upon children. According to mental health experts, however, this assumption simply isn’t true.
“People tend to think that if you’re a sex offender, by definition you’re a predator or a pedophile,” says Dr. David Brillhart, a forensic and corrections physiologist who has worked with and studied sexually violent offenders. “The majority of people we classify as sex offenders don’t have pathologies that are addressed by, say, keeping them away from a public school.”
According to a study by Penn State’s Journal of Law and International Affairs from 2013, the kind of crimes we fear most when we hear that a sex offender has moved into our neighborhood—those that involve rape, extreme violence, and murder—“[account] for less than three percent of sexual offenses perpetrated the United States.” And many of those violent offenders are unaffected by Megan’s Law and the Adam Wash Act, because they may never be released from prison.
And what of our assumption that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated because they are driven by compulsions they cannot control? This, too, turns out to be a myth. Most offenders do not commit sex offenses after they are caught, including child molesters. Rates of recidivism for sex offenders hover around 2.5 percent, compared to 41.2 percent for drug offenders, 33.9 percent for larcenists, and 23.4 percent for burglars. So sex offenders actually have the lowest rate of any group of criminals in the United States. This was true prior to the passing of Megan Law and the Adam Walsh Act.
All of this raises the question: If our current registration laws and restrictions are designed to protect us from our perceptions of what a sex offender is rather than the reality, how effective are they?
The answer is that they aren’t effective at all.
There have been many studies over the past two decades that look at the effect of Megan’s Law and the Adam Walsh Act and how they affect both offender recidivism and community safety, including the study by Penn State noted above, as well as studies by the University of Chicago Journal of Law and Economics, the Yale Law Journal, and the federal government’s National Criminal Justice Reference Service. All of these studies reached the same conclusions: Our current laws have no demonstrable effect on reducing the number of sex crimes, the number of sex crime victims, or offender recidivism. If anything, say the studies, our current laws might actually be making our communities less safe.
One of the reasons we may be less safe is that we are forcing sex offenders into a system designed to control pathologies they do not have rather than ones that they do. Take Gary as an example. It is difficult to discern his precise pathology from court records, because those records show that his crime was possessing sexual images of children. What we do know about Gary’s pathology is that he is not likely to ever become the type of predator Megan’s Law and the Adam Walsh Act were created to address.
However, his pathology of porn addiction could still be dangerous to the community in some other way over time—and therein lies the rub, because our system is not correctly addressing the ways in which Gary might be a risk to others. It’s like telling an alcoholic that because he has too many DUIs, he’s no longer able to go into jewelry stores because you’re trying to crack down on diamond smuggling. Not only doesn’t it have any effect on the smuggling, it doesn’t address the more immediate safety issue of his driving while drunk.
An additional problem is the issue of the stability of those who have mental health issues. A large number of sex offenders end up homeless and on the streets because no one will hire them or rent them living space. This lack of stability can exacerbate the mental health problems that often go hand-in-hand with sex offender pathologies. In some instances being homeless itself can be a violation of the law that requires an offender to have a physical address on file with the authorities, with penalties that can include imprisonment for life. On top of all that, offender homelessness also makes it harder for parole officers to keep an eye on their charges.
Don’t get me wrong—there is the issue of sex offender predators, the ones who really are as dangerous as we fear. They may be a small minority of registered sex offenders, but they absolutely do exist. However, there is a finite amount of resources available to deal with sex offenders, and every dollar and man-hour devoted to someone who is not a threat to become a predator is a dollar and man-hour not spent on someone who is.
The more we learn about the ineffectiveness of sexual offender laws, the clearer it becomes that the entire system needs fundamental change. But that isn’t likely to happen, for the same reason we have a faulty system in the first place: Our sex offender laws weren’t passed to make the country safer so much as to win political campaigns.
Take, for example, the Adam Walsh Act.
In 2006, the Bush administration was looking for a win. The White House was still reeling from the public’s outrage over its handling of Hurricane Katrina as well as dissatisfaction over the Iraq War. As the mid-term elections loomed, the Adam Walsh Act seemed a possible political tonic. Sponsored by Wisconsin congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, the bill’s real champion and public face was John Walsh, host and creator of the television show America’s Most Wanted. The bill itself was named after Walsh’s son Adam, who had been murdered by a sexual predator in 1981. As a subsequent 2009 study from Harvard notes, cable news gave Walsh a forum to declare “war” on sexual predators via the bill, as “Fox news personalities Sean Hannity, Sean Colmes, and Bill O’Reilly offered their support” on air.
Much of the data that showed the ineffectiveness and possible dangers of Megan’s Law was already published in 2006. However, Republicans saw the political opportunity to present a no-win choice for their opponents across the aisle: Democrats could either vocally support the legislative feather in the president’s cap or risk being seen as pro-sex offender come November. The Democrats chose the former. Despite the growing pile of data that suggested the Adam Walsh Act might be ineffective and potentially even dangerous legislation, no debate or opposing testimony was given in either the House or the Senate. In both chambers the bill passed on a unanimous voice vote. On July 27, President Bush signed the bill into law in a public ceremony on the White House lawn.
We now have an even greater mountain of data that shows our current sex offender laws put the public at greater risk. But the political climate where sex offenders are concerned hasn’t changed much since 2006. To question the efficacy of laws that punish sex offenders is still political suicide.
It is late in the dinner now, and our waitress is clearing the dirty dishes from the table. We are such a cheery lot that our waitress can’t help but smile as I hand her my plate, and as she smiles I cannot help but wonder: What would she say if she knew whose orders she was taking this evening—if she knew just how many of the people at her table were registered sex offenders? Would she have spat in our food back in the kitchen? Would she have refused to serve us? Or, maybe, would she just have shrugged and carried on as if we were just any other 12-top wanting more ketchup for our fries?
I am in the middle of thinking this thought when Susan leans over and tells me a story.
Susan is one of the younger church leaders at the table, and later this month she’ll be marrying Peter, a man she met at Sonrise. Susan isn’t a sex offender, but she is one of the many who first walked through the doors of Sonrise a broken and bedraggled soul many years ago. Earlier in the day she had told how she believes Light My Way literally saved her life. Today she works with a local nonprofit as an advocate for the homeless. The story she wants to tell me now, though, is a more recent one.
Susan tells me that not that long ago she arrived home at her apartment building after church and thought there might have been someone waiting in the shadows. Maybe there was; maybe there wasn’t. Either way, Susan felt unsafe. So she went back to Sonrise and asked the men she trusted most to come back with her and make sure she was all right. Each of those men was a registered sex offender.
“As a woman,” she tells me, “I found that unbelievably powerful. The people who I knew would have my back, the people who I knew would keep me safe in the dark, they were the people others worry about living in their neighborhoods. That’s the community we’ve built here. That’s the power of what we’ve created, just by believing that we’re all worthy of love and redemption. And that’s powerful.”
Susan’s right. That is powerful.
Light My Way’s model for dealing with sex offenders seems to be superior to the disproven one we now use. Its approach of treating non-predatory offenders as individuals to be healed rather than monsters to be ostracized matches the conclusions of both mental health experts and studies that examine sex crime recidivism. It’s certainly more compassionate. More important, it likely keeps our communities safer.
There’s no reason Sonrise’s success couldn’t be duplicated throughout the country. But it probably won’t be. All that the Light My Way model offers is possible redemption for sex offenders and communities that are likely safer. Our current model, with its public registries and ineffective blanket restrictions, offers us something we value even more highly: a bogeyman.
And if there’s one thing we Americans love more than a church group out for burgers on a Sunday night, it’s a really good bogeyman.