A group of registered sex offenders in Aurora, Ill. — about 40 miles outside of Chicago — could face felony charges if they don’t move out of their home. The city says they live too close to a playground, which has sparked a legal fight over housing, redemption and the definition of a playground.
In downtown Aurora, McCarty Park takes up a full square block. There are walking paths, a fountain-like splashpad in the center of the park and two small rocking horses further back. Wayside Cross Ministries is a couple of blocks away. The Christian-based group has been around for decades and provides shelter and faith-based rehab services for people who are struggling with all sorts of problems, including transitioning from prison.
Ninety men live at one of the organization’s buildings and 18 of them are registered child sex offenders. Whether or not they live too close to the park has been a recent source of conflict between the mission and the city.
Marcus Sabo, 48, is a staffer at Wayside Cross and has lived there since his release from prison five years ago. Sabo was convicted of possessing child pornography and served a two-year sentence.
As he leads the way into the building, Sabo points out the library, a chapel and some classrooms. He says the structured program for men with its daily Bible classes, religious services and work assignments transformed him.
“Therapy didn’t help. Medication didn’t help. Even being locked up in so-called corrections didn’t help anything,” Sabo says. “It wasn’t until I came here and started reading what the Bible said and seeing what Christ has done for me that my mind started to wake up. It completely changed my life since I’ve been here.”
But now Sabo may have to move. Last month, Aurora’s police chief sent letters to Sabo and most of the others telling them they are in violation of the state’s residency law. In Illinois it’s illegal for convicted child sex offenders to reside within 500 feet of a school, a daycare center or a playground, and the city says that includes McCarty Park. The letter came with a deadline: if the men weren’t gone by Jan. 15, they could face felony charges. They won a short reprieve during a court hearing this week when a judge issued a temporary restraining order and set a Jan. 21 hearing date on the matter.
Sabo says he was shocked by the city’s notice because he’s never had any problem registering before, and he and the other men fear they will be homeless.
In recent months, the mayor of Aurora and some residents criticized Wayside Cross when it provided housing for an infamous convicted murderer who completed his prison term. The city says that protest has nothing to do with this latest scrutiny. Instead it blames faulty measurements. Police Chief Kristen Ziman says the city realized its old mapping system measured some boundaries incorrectly. So last Spring they made corrections and took another look at Wayside Cross.
“That is when we determined that the people living there were actually near a playground, ” Ziman says.
Attorney Adele Nicholas who filed a lawsuit on the men’s behalf says the city is misrepresenting Illinois’ residency law.
“I don’t think having two little rocking horses that are used for kids converts an entire broad park with benches and lawns and picnic tables into a playground that’s solely for children’s recreation,” Nicholas says.
The city says the distance from the men’s housing to McCarty Park’s property line is 500 feet. Nicholas says any measurement at the park should start where the fountain and rocking horses are located and the distance would then be 550 feet. It’s a mathematical squabble with profound implications, but Nicholas says another Illinois law protecting religious freedom is also at play since the men are part of a community where daily religious services and Bible studies are paramount.
“Forcing forcing them to move out of that would disrupt those programs, disrupt the progress they are making through their faith,” Nicholas says.
That’s the argument that Nicholas will present during the Jan. 21 court hearing. If the men don’t get a permanent injunction which would allow them to continue to live at Wayside Cross, Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon could charge them with a felony. But he seems reluctant.
“People need somewhere to live. They need a safe place to live,” McMahon says. “The work that they’ve done there at the Mission has been remarkable for decades. We’ve got to find a way to resolve this so where the people who use that park on a daily, weekly basis can use it and feel safe and comply with state law as well.”
That could all become clear when the court decides how distance should be measured and where convicted sex offenders in Aurora can reside.