LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A tiny Louisville church's newest minister is a gifted music leader and popular among its three dozen members.
Mark Hourigan is also a sex offender. Almost a decade ago, long before he joined the flock at the City of Refuge Worship Center, he was convicted of sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy in central Kentucky. Hourigan served a five-year sentence and the 41-year-old was placed on Kentucky's sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
A former leader at the church along with an abuse victims advocacy group say Hourigan is a risk to hurt another child and he should not have been placed in a position of authority.
"He's still a threat" to children, said Cal Pfeiffer, who was abused by a Catholic priest as a young student in Louisville in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Pfeiffer and experts on religion and sexual abuse believe it could be the first time a convicted sex offender has been knowingly ordained as a minister in a Christian church.
"It sets a precedent," said Pfeiffer, a member of a group that has protested Hourigan's ordination. "It elevates him to an ordained minister which almost automatically conveys a level of trust and responsibility."
The church's pastor, the Rev. Randy Meadows, ordained Hourigan during a service on Sept. 13. The self-described Pentecostal church, started by Meadows and a handful of other members six years ago, welcomes anyone "regardless of race, religion, culture (or) sexual orientation," according to its Web site. It also has a Sunday school for children.
Meadows declined several requests from The Associated Press for an interview, but said in a brief phone conversation that the church has not experienced any backlash based on the decision to ordain a convicted pedophile.
"We're just finished with the whole ordeal with everything, so we're moving on," Meadows said.
There was no phone listing for Hourigan and no one answered the door during a reporter's two visits to the apartment listed on Hourigan's sex offender registration.
Church members aren't talking about it, either. Several calls to members listed on the church's Web site were not returned; people outside the church declined to comment to reporters during two visits to the church as services were beginning or ending.
But a pastor and friend to Meadows who attended Hourigan's ordination said the church's board gave Meadows and Hourigan its full support.
"It was a really beautiful ceremony," said the Rev. Aletha Fields, a high school teacher and gay-rights activist. "The sanctuary was full because there were people from out of town."
Fields, who sometimes serves as a guest pastor, said she asked Meadows about why he decided to make Hourigan a church leader.
"I asked him flat out about it because I wanted to get behind his thinking," she said. Meadows believes firmly in the "redemptive power of Jesus Christ," and told her Hourigan had served his prison term and completed probation.
"I believe they followed Biblical principle," Fields said.
'An illness that you can't cure'
One of the church's founders, Kevin Pickerrell, said he left last year over plans to ordain Hourigan. He said Meadows assured church members that Hourigan wouldn't minister to children, but Pickerrell continued to balk at the idea of ordaining Hourigan.
Pickerrell said Meadows believed that Hourigan had been reformed.
"He tried to convince me that Mark had changed," Pickerrell said of Meadows.
Hourigan said in an interview with CNN in September that wants to minister to others like him "who have been rejected." Hourigan said he has learned not to put himself in situations where he might be tempted and to seek counsel when he's having "emotional problems ... so it doesn't turn into something that it has in the past."
Pickerrell said Hourigan "has an illness that you can't cure."
Recidivism rates are high for sex offenders, with more than half reoffending, said Keith F. Durkin, a criminologist at Ohio Northern University who has studied pedophiles. He said that rate increases when the crimes involve prepubescent children, like Hourigan's victim.
"I cannot possibly see him being reformed," Durkin said. "(Sexual desire) is the most powerful drive we have as a human and (for a child sexual abuser) it's kids."
'Anybody can be healed'
Pickerrell said Hourigan was a "wonderful" music leader at the church and was well-liked when Pickerrell attended services. But he and Pfeiffer said they worry that Hourigan can present himself as a minister to strangers who don't know his past.
Hourigan was arrested on one count each of first-degree sodomy and sexual abuse in Marion County, Ky., in 1998, according to court records. An indictment said the abuses occurred between 1993 and 1994. Hourigan pleaded guilty a year later to two counts of sexual abuse. The terms of Hourigan's parole, which he completed in June 2008, included an order that he not serve in any leadership capacity at a church with youths.
Pfeiffer's group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), sent a letter to the church but Pfeiffer said members have not responded.
Pastor Meadows, as a Pentecostal, may hold a strong belief in the healing power of the Holy Spirit, which could explain why he believes Hourigan can be reformed, experts said.
They "believe absolutely anybody can be healed of absolutely anything, no exceptions," said Paul Alexander, a professor of Theology and Ethics at Azusa Pacific University in California.
Meadows told CNN that Hourigan's faith has helped him reform, but he pledged to monitor the former sex offender closely.
"I don't take anything lightly when it comes to someone's past," Meadows said.
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