A Wisconsin church is reaching out to sex offenders by providing services that are for adults only.
The First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison started offering the services in late February after a parole officer contacted the Rev. Jerry Hancock about offenders wanting a place to worship that would not violate their parole.
The senior minister at the church, Curt Anderson, said the program was a natural progression for the church, which also has a prison ministry.
"This congregation has a history to reaching out to all people," Anderson said. "Folks who are in prison are people too."
The bi-weekly meetings have attracted approximately 10-12 participants for each service, he said.
Experts in rehabilitation say faith-based groups can provide an important support system for offenders.
"Churches often have a capacity to help reintegrate offenders into the community because of wide network and an interest in helping people," said Maia Christopher, the executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Christopher said that in addition to adults-only services, churches occasionally offer specialized services or counseling so that sex offenders or other violators can participate.
"Creating spaces that are safe for people to worship [can] be very helpful towards leading to the prevention of sexual abuse [by] providing community support," said Christopher, adding that by offering services and counseling specifically for offenders, the church leaders and members become invested in their rehabilitation.
At the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Anderson said the membership of 500 had been mostly supportive of the program.
The church's website features photographs of members holding signs that read, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." It's a statement that both the church leadership and parishioners say they're committed too.
"I wasn't exactly surprised, but I was once again reaffirmed and heartened by the church's response to the idea," Anderson said.
While some members were concerned about safety, Anderson said they were appeased after the church explained that they would ensure no children would be on the premises during the meetings.
"We truly want to be a church where everyone is welcome," Susan Heneman, a parishioner, told the Wisconsin State Journal. "We have to live this out, not just say it on paper."