One of the most needful panels I had the privilege of attending at Paganicon this year was “Pagan Clergy Addressing How to Welcome Sex-Offenders and Ex-Felons into Our Communities: A Forum”. Incarcerated members of our community is the focus of my ministry, and I’m so glad this subject is being talked about. The Minnesota Sex Offenders Program had 2 members in attendance to discuss their work with rehabilitating and reintegrating pagans who have completed their program, and pagan clergy doing work spanning 4 states were also there to inform the discussion.
In my experience, most ex-felons want to be honest with you up front. They will tell the group, or at least the leader, their background. This earnestness should be taken at face value – they want you to know who they are and what they’re about, because it is important to them to form lasting community. The key to preventing recidivism (committing the same crime again) is creating and maintaining strong community ties. So, when they seek out your group or your public ritual, they’re doing exactly what their counselor/parole officer/other appointed resource encouraged them to do. Pro tip: no one wants to go back to prison if they can help it.
If you are of the opinion that this person already screwed-up and ‘too bad so sad for them’ – why? Everyone makes mistakes. Some of those mistakes weren’t worth jail time, or some of them you just didn’t get caught for. This individual is an EX-felon, meaning former. They are no longer committing this crime, and have, indeed, served their penance for it under the law. In order to keep them from committing those crimes again, ongoing support is vital. “An offender’s peer group is the number one leading factor as to whether or not the individual will re-offend” (Hooley, D. CorrectionsOne. “6 evidence-based practices proven to lower recidivism.” 3/19/2017 – https://www.correctionsone.com/re-entry-and-recidivism/articles/2030030-6-evidence-based-practices-proven-to-lower-recidivism/)
Communities are reluctant to accept ex-felons into their Circles, some outright denying them if they were incarcerated for any violent offense or if they appear on the sex offender registry. Most people seem to fear repeat violence or sex offense the most – an accountant who went to prison for cheating on taxes isn’t the boogeyman we think of when an ex-felon approaches a group looking for community. It IS important to protect the vulnerable populations, but ex-felons are not the only predators, or even the most numerous predators, out there. They’re just the ones that got caught. The biggest piece of this reluctance, as I see it, is fear propelled by ignorance. So, let’s face some of that fear! In this discussion, I’m going to unpack some of that and offer the opportunity to reframe.
Violent offenders, “Depending on the jurisdiction, … may vary from homicide to harassment” (Wikipedia. Violent crime. 3/19/17 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violent_crime), and harassment has many definitions and examples even within that. An ex-felon with a ‘violent’ record is most likely not the serial killer you imagine them to be, but if you’re worried you should ask! It is not unreasonable to ask, when getting to know this person, and many times, the context of the situation is the key. Did he cat-call the wrong person on the street? Annoying and an affront to feminists everywhere, but not physically dangerous.
Sex offenders were the biggest topic of conversation in the panel at Paganicon, under the fog of several community assumptions. First, and foremost, sex offender DOES NOT equal pedophile. I simply cannot stress this enough. Even if they are a predator, the fact is that most of them don’t prey on children. The list of offenses covered under “sex crimes” is exhaustive, and there are many minor offenses that will make you scratch your head. For example, did you know that sexting is a crime that results in mandatory sex offender registration? Yup. Better tell your lover(s) to tone it back. Public urination may also require registration. Embarrassing? Yes. Violent or even scary? Nope. What about sex on a beach (or any other public place)? So much for the exhibitionists out there!
Second, every state manages their sex offender registry differently. They will classify the crimes differently and report to community differently. The idea of tier 2 out of a 3 tier system seems scary, right? Depends on how your state defines them – some states classify tier 1 and 2 as non-violent, non-minor related offenses. In that case, only a tier 3 offense would be the stuff of your nightmares. Some states treat them all equally, so if you get a post-card that your new neighbor is registered, it would be worth it to take a step back and get to know them before condemning them. Perhaps he just got drunk on St. Paddy’s day one year and got arrested for pissing in an alley!
Remember how I mentioned that no one wants to go back to prison if they can help it? I’m not kidding. If a former inmate is reaching out and trying to make community ties, they’re probably willing to do the Work. They aren’t going to put themselves in a situation where they’ll hurt their own recovery and reintegration. A pedophile who is serious about his/her rehabilitation, will avoid children and schools and family friendly rituals because they WANT to do the right thing – just like a recovering alcoholic will avoid ‘wet’ events to assist their own recovery journey.
Paganism is a small religion and with so many individual groups the populations get smaller & smaller as you drill down. Paganism’s fastest growing segment is converted inmates. Having dedicated themselves to their practice and/or god/dess while behind bars, some with years or decades of dedication, the only thing missing is that which all humans crave – community. Many ex-felons have little choice when searching out spiritual community in a geographical area. In most programs/states they cannot use their chaplains from prison/jail as a resource and ministers are often not allowed to have contact with them for several years post release. This means, they need YOU.
The community has the opportunity to accept and welcome them as we would anyone else, and make a huge difference in their life. Perhaps it will be the first time they’ve ever felt accepted, or a sense of family. Keep in mind, if you are in a rural area, your group may be the only one around. They often cannot travel, certainly not out of state right away. Many times it will be the only community standing between them and the black hole of repeat offense. Please realize these people are already struggling against the dominant society when trying to find somewhere to live or get a job – they don’t need to fight against their spiritual community too! Ultimately, if it isn’t right for you and your group then it isn’t and that is your decision to make. What I am urging you to do is buck some of your assumptions, get a little ‘woke’, and suspend your judgement right at first. Get to know them, and then make a final, informed decision.