Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2012, an author who is active in the Christian church and chose to withhold their name presents a call for the church to build bridges by humanizing, forgiving, and holding accountable those in our midst who are guilty of sex crimes.
I came across an article a few years back and it gave me pause:
Sex Offenders Live Under Florida Bridge
by MATT SEDENSKY, AP Posted: 2008-02-06 08:14:22
MIAMI (Feb. 6)
The state is trying to dissolve a community of sex offenders living under a bridge that includes a gym, kitchen, living room and two dogs.
The men have lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway for a year. They say limited money and strict local ordinances make it nearly impossible for them to live anywhere else. But state officials are telling them to leave.
“We’re urging them to find a residence. We want them to be able to reintegrate into society,” said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Corrections Department. “We are hopeful that if we push them, they will be able to find a residence that’s better.”
…All told, corrections officials count fewer than 50 homeless sex offenders statewide. About nine lived under the Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale until authorities abruptly evicted them last month, an incident Plessinger said prompted the wider demand for relocation….
The situation is garnering the attention of state lawmakers. Democratic State Rep. Jack Seiler said that while restrictions to keep sex offenders away from children are good, communities are trying to “one-up” each other with tougher and tougher restrictions.
…The offenders’ community is like no other….On pillars supporting the bridge, and on the slope, residents have spray-painted their thoughts: “We ‘R’ Not Monsters.” “They Treat Animals Better!!!” “Why?”…Juan Carlos Martin, a 29-year-old on the sex offender list for lewd or lascivious exhibition to a victim under the age of 16—a crime he says he didn’t commit—said it’s been impossible for him to leave the bridge. He has been rejected from 15 jobs because of his record and can’t find a place he can afford that’s in compliance with the law….“What the law’s doing to us is totally wrong,” said Martin, who has lived here about six months. “Society will see that we aren’t animals.”
Associated Press writer David Fischer in Tallahassee contributed to this report.
Where is the church? Actually, I won’t even begin to drag in the church’s recent history on sexual abuse. Yet, if the statistics on sex crimes are close to accurate—that as many as one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood and that 93% of victims know their abusers—then these few folks are just the tip of an iceberg that represents what I see as the real problem here. If we make reporting and prosecuting sex crimes tantamount to ending a person’s life, leaving them trapped in a no-man’s land in our society—if we condemn them to live out their days under an underpass with no possibility of redemption or forward motion of any kind—then what are the odds that family and friends of offenders will be very hesitant to bring these situations to light? In the church, we bury our heads in the sand about the truth that there are sex offenders in the pews, but no one is going to talk about that. We aren’t comfortable enough with these truths to try to create places for confession and healing because our culture has determined it is easier to designate someone an “animal” or a “predator” than face the fact that these crimes don’t appear out of nowhere. They are at roost in the most respectable homes, our businesses, schools, pulpits and pews. The church and the scriptures teach us that we are all sinners and that keeping sin in the dark is the easiest way for it to fester into true evil.
There needs to be a movement to bring these sins into the light. We need to stop dehumanizing those who have been caught and realize that most people who commit sexual crimes against children are not caught because they are family or friends. These people will continue to commit crimes because we are too busy seeing the problem “out there” and too afraid to look around here.
In case you might be thinking that this is written from the loving perspective of a family member or spouse of a sexual offender, think again. I am the survivor of childhood sexual abuse and there is even more I could tell you from what I have seen and experienced about the devastating and lifelong scars caused by it to assure you this is not academic. I am telling you the pressure on each of the victims in the moment is to stay silent. “Don’t tell, honey. If you do, you’ll just hurt the family. Do you want them to take Daddy away? This is your fault…” If it’s taboo to talk about it in church, if we can’t as adults be honest about the scope of the problem and who’s really involved, imagine being five or six years old, or 18 for that matter—what are you going to do?
It is time for us to stop seeing this as a problem of “animals” or “predators.” This is a family affair, in our homes and in our churches. We need to be able to hear the truth and deal with it. We need to realize that offenders were often victims first, victims who had to hide the terrible truths to survive and now perpetuate the cycle. There should be consequences for sexually abusing children, there should be lifelong monitoring and accountability AND there should be the possibility of healing and hope that never discounts the temptations that we all face as frail people who easily stumble. Abuse will stop or at least be slowed down, not by education so much as by the redemptive action of truth, forgiveness, light, and love. This should not be a taboo in the church. We should be pioneering a new way to be, so that no one is left under a bridge, without accountability or acceptance as a child of God, offender or victim.