A Catholic charity in Kentucky faced an uproar over its efforts to buy a home for four registered sex offenders, continuing what supporters say is a never-ending cycle for low-income offenders trying to get their lives back on track.
Members of the Catholic Action Center said they expected to hear fears and objections from the community when they held a forum at a Baptist church in January on their carefully planned purchase. They didn't expect to hear death threats.
The residents' extreme reaction has scuttled the center's plan and left its leader wondering if there's anywhere to house the paroled pariahs.
The outrage over the plan in Lexington and a similar case in New Hampshire — where a church pastor infuriated neighbors by taking in a convicted child killer released from prison — show the struggles that Christian charities or individuals face in trying to reach some of society's untouchables.
The charity was well within the law: The property was more than 1,000 feet from a school or daycare, and police were notified days in advance. Officials even scheduled a courtesy meeting to assure neighbors that the men had to follow strict rules — drug testing, counseling and a 6 p.m. curfew. That meeting is where the plan fell apart, as neighbors voted unanimously against it.
"If we let this happen, how many more houses are going to be bought up by do-gooders and churches?" neighborhood resident Ed Clark said. "It's going to be a breeding ground for sex offenders."
Victim speaks out
The most compelling speech came from Carrie Nutter, a mother of three who erupted in tears as she told of being raped by a family member as a child. The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Nutter later agreed to be interviewed.
"It is like what I lived 18 years ago just smacked me in the face," Nutter said. "I know what I'm capable of doing if somebody did something to my children."
Others at the meeting were even more explicit, and charity co-founder Ginny Ramsey said anonymous phone calls warned of extreme violence if the house was bought.
The next day, the center scrapped the plans and quietly started looking for new arrangements for the jobless and homeless ex-convicts.
"You don't move people into a place where they say they have to kill sex offenders," Ramsey said. "They have to be willing to go forth with the process."
One of the men who would have moved into the Lexington home is Terry Gaunce, who served 10 years in prison for a rape he says he didn't commit. He constantly moved and stayed in a hotel at the charity's expense for several weeks until Ramsey helped him find a home in another neighborhood.
As new schools or child care centers pop up, his low-income housing options dwindle because of a Kentucky law that took effect in 2006 prohibiting sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of them. Even a homeless shelter where he lived was deemed off-limits when law enforcement determined it was too close to a YMCA.
Gaunce said it seems sex offenders never get to live down their offenses while other criminals can.
"What if you've got a murderer living next door you don't know, or somebody who likes to rob places?" Gaunce said. "It doesn't make it right to be picking on one certain group of people. They need to examine the cases a little more closely."
Ernie Allen, a Louisville native and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said sex offenders pose a "psychological threat" to communities because they have a higher risk of recidivism.
"Putting four offenders in one facility is akin to putting a community correctional facility in the neighborhood," Allen said. "There aren't too many people who are going to be enthusiastic about that."
Later this month, a task force featuring former judges and attorneys will meet in Lexington to discuss the next step.
Rebecca DiLoreto, an attorney on that panel, said neighbors must be part of the process even if they complain. She said similar tensions eased in Louisville and Owensboro when Department of Corrections officials organized a system for members of the community to regularly check on the sex offenders.
Lawmakers should also reconsider restrictive housing laws, DiLoreto said.
"It was an easy thing to be as harsh as possible because that wins you points in the political arena, without thinking about the consequences," DiLoreto said.
'Solution for every problem'
While Ramsey said she has an open mind, she has no interest in moving any sex offender into the neighborhood that sparked the outcry. She decided not to buy the home at all, even for a different charitable purpose.
"Anybody we put in there would still be suspect by the neighbors," Ramsey said.
Dan Bishop, pastor of the Baptist church where the community meeting in Lexington was held, said he is relieved.
While he said the issue presents a delicate balance between giving people a second chance and keeping neighborhoods safe, he ultimately agreed the men shouldn't be allowed in the neighborhood. He even proposed accelerating plans for a new school at the church to legally block them.
Still, he acknowledges they have to live somewhere.
"There is a solution for every problem," Bishop said. "We just don't know what the solution for this is yet."
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