August 22, 2007

No predators in the pulpit

Church should have kept sex offenders away from kids

Convicted child sex offenders certainly should be able to seek redemption at a church. But when they're elevated to the pulpit and given access to impressionable youth -- as was the case at a Romeoville church -- the state needs stricter laws that keep these "religious" child molesters from having contact with children.

Currently, state law restricts convicted pedophiles from working or volunteering in schools and places that cater exclusively to children, but not churches.

This week, the Sun-Times reported that Romeoville's First Baptist Church placed one sex offender in a key leadership position -- and invited another. Such disregard for congregants' safety shows how lackadaisical some houses of worship can be, compromising common sense and safety.

Had convicted sex offender Jeff Hannah, one of the church's preachers, been lurking near playgrounds and schools, he could have been nabbed by authorities. More difficult to monitor were his sporadic interactions with minors at the southwest suburban church.

The church's leaders knew Hannah was a convicted sex offender when they hired him, despite warnings by officials at a church in Lake County, where Hannah was convicted in 1996 of sexually molesting four teens. Church members might have been concerned for Hannah's salvation, but they didn't have to exalt the molester to the pulpit, giving him a revered position within the church and authority over children.

Hannah, in turn, boldly recruited his pal Bryan Buckley, another church sex offender, whom he'd met in prison, to lead an upcoming music celebration. Buckley was convicted in 1997 of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl while serving as a youth pastor in St. Charles.

Child molesters may be forgiven in the eyes of God, but the state of Illinois isn't so forgiving. State law requires that convicted pedophiles keep at least 500 feet from children for the rest of their lives -- if they were sentenced after 1999. Sadly, the law may not apply to Hannah or Buckley. Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office admitted Tuesday that the law isn't so clear when child molesters are employed at places where there are adults and children -- like churches. Still Madigan's office says it routinely re-examines the law for loopholes. We hope Madigan looks at this one.

Neither Hannah nor Buckley has been arrested for sex offenses since their convictions. That doesn't mean children at First Baptist were never in danger. Stacks of studies -- including behavioral analyses at the FBI -- show that sexual predators are never unshackled by their urges.

Incidentally, many of First Baptist's congregation left the church earlier this year, angry that their minister, the Rev. Charles Hamby, a divorced man, decided to remarry -- an act considered adultery by some conservative Christians. There are only 20 active adult members remaining, but the church advertises youth programs.

If church members were that disturbed by a minister's second marriage -- something allowed by law -- how much more disturbed should they have been to know their church had hired a man convicted of committing unlawful acts with minors?

Both Hamby and preacher Hannah stepped down after they were questioned by the Sun-Times last week. The flock will decide the church's fate within the next few days.

Forgiveness and understanding are essential church tenets. But those values should not outweigh the safety of children.,CST-EDT-edits22a.article#