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Local Church Still Divided on Welcoming a Registered Sex Offender

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It's been two months since members of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad first learned that a registered sex offender wanted to join the church. This weekend, the congregation will continue discussions over what to do about Mark Pliska, who was convicted in 1983 of molesting two boys, then again in 1998 for indecent exposure. As KPBS Radio's Andrea Hsu reports, Pliska's request has church members deeply divided.

April Bird is a hospice chaplain, and a mother of four. She serves on a covenant team for Pliska that's been ministering to him off-site.

She agreed to be part of the team back in January - even though she herself had been molested as a child. She says her decision was driven by a sense of her own empowerment.

Bird : To have not accepted the responsibility to do this would have been like saying my abuser still had power over my life. And it was an opportunity to live out the theology that I say I believe in. And I really do believe in God's extravagant welcome.

And so she hopes he will be accepted by the congregation. At the same time, she knows that other victims of child sex abuse don't feel the same way.

Bird : You know everybody is where they're at. And I've had some very good therapy. And even for me, there have been times when even just staying focused for as long as we have sometimes on mark and on issues of sexual violence that I've had to step back, and it's been a very difficult thing.

The last couple months have also been difficult for church member Susanna Heckman. She's the mother of a 9-year-old girl, and a 5-year-old boy she adopted from Ethiopia last fall.

Heckman : There's no need to take risks with your children that you don't need to take.

She says she knows of nine families who have left the congregation already. And she may follow -- if Pliska is accepted as a member. She says you have to understand that at Pilgrim on Sundays, children are everywhere.

Heckman : They're in the sanctuary for part of the service, they go up to the front for a little time with the minister, people give prayers for them, their pictures are in the directory, their pictures are on the walls, they're all around.

She says she too is committed to God's extravagant welcome. But that nothing in the Bible says sexually violent predators should be welcomed in church. She feels that people's sense of security has been sacrificed so that the church can make a point.

Heckman : That everyone is welcome, see, we're so welcoming, even this guy is welcomed.  No. It's definitely gone beyond Mark Pliska, it's not even really about him anymore. It's about who's expendable. Whose needs are front and center here.

In the coming weeks, the congregation will vote on a safe church policy that will include a provision on how to deal with sex offenders in general, and Mark Pliska specifically.

Pilgrim's Minister Madison Shockley says regardless of what the congregation decides, the words "All Are Welcome" will remain on the sign outside the church.

Shockley : That's our starting point. And we work as hard as we can in every way to make that a reality. We're very proud of our history of being a welcoming church. Clearly this presents a challenge that we've not wrestled with before. And right now we are wrestling with it in a way that I think is absolutely faithful to our sense of Christian mission.

April Bird says the recent months have brought to mind the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Bird : Jacob and the angel wrestled all night, and Jacob in the end got his blessing, but he walked with a limp forevermore. And I think that's where the church is at. That wrestling with the angel is not an easy task. Trying to decide how to go forward in the midst of all of this is not an easy task. And it has and will change who we are forevermore.

For his part, Mark Pliska says if he's not accepted as a member of Pilgrim Church, he will look elsewhere. He says it's important to him to be part of a community he can rely on.

For KPBS, I'm Andrea Hsu.

(Photo: A recent placard outside The Pilgrim Church)

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