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Last November we learned that a popular coach at Pennsylvania State University was alleged to have had sexual relationships with underage, even pre-teen boys for many years. Exactly who in authority knew what Jerry Sandusky was doing, who was told, and what they did or should have done when they found out, the legal system is still trying to establish.
After several years of investigation the trustees of Penn State acted: they fired those who should have reported Sandusky. The University’s president, Graham Spanier, was forced to resign for merely expressing confidence in a couple of his associates who’d allegedly been told about Sandusky’s actions! The response showed that, though belatedly and under pressure, Penn State took sexual predation seriously. They held those in charge responsible even though it meant firing (and permanently tarnishing the reputation of) Joe Paterno, one of the most popular and effective coaches in the history of college football.
In the past year I’ve heard a half-dozen stories about illicit sexual relationships in the Seventh-day Adventist church that involved a denominational employee and a minor, or a denominational employee in a position of authority (teacher, pastor) having a sexual relationship with someone under his charge.
The details haven’t been made public (and most probably shouldn’t be). No one talks about it officially. The stories are told sotto voce, like gossip, although there’s plenty of evidence to show they aren’t just rumors. Where there was smoke, there was fire—smothered as quickly as possible by a church-retained Smokey the Bear with a shovelful of legal dirt. In at least a couple of these cases the church was penalized significant sums of money. You will never know how much. And you will never know who in authority knew or should have known and could have prevented it. Cases are always settled out of court, never in trial, so all information can be buried beneath confidentiality agreements. No one in a supervisory position is held accountable.
In one case a conference placed a man who’d had a history of sexually abusing underage girls in his own congregation to work at the conference camp. There he continued the abuse, now with smorgasbord of young girls in a hard-to-supervise environment.
Recently, in a suit against the church, one of his summer camp victims received a substantial settlement. (Other cases are still pending.) The case hinged on evidence that some years earlier the perpetrator had confessed publicly before his congregation to having sex with a minor girl. Members of that congregation were on the conference committee. When this man was placed at a camp with hundreds of children, the earlier victim’s father was concerned enough to warn someone in the conference office about the man’s past.
But that’s about all we know. From the time it became a legal case, most of it went underground. Victims, perpetrator, and conference employees all get the same warning from their lawyers: don’t say anything. When the victim settled, the conference insurer paid the bill, confidentiality agreements signed all around. It’s not clear that many church members even knew what had happened: within weeks of the settlement, all conference officers were reelected at constituency meeting, no questions asked. (The president who had been in office when the conference had been warned, and when the abuse took place, had accepted a promotion not long before.) Even the conference committee would read in their minutes only “The case was settled for an undisclosed sum.”
You may ask, “What on earth were they thinking?” Isn’t this what Risk Management warns us about over and over again? Isn’t this why they send out newsletters telling us never to be alone with a young person, to have windows in the Sabbath School room doors, and to do a criminal background check on every person working with children?
I can surmise. I’m imagining a meeting at the conference office soon after the warning from the earlier victim’s father. “But this happened years ago,” the offender says tearfully. “Isn’t this what the church is about, to offer forgiveness, to trust that God can change a person?” Those in the room see his point. The church is, after all, in the redemption business. A man who was driven by sinful habits turning into a trustworthy Christian—that’s what we believe in. Didn’t Jesus say to an immoral woman, “Go, and sin no more”?
One can convict them of naivete, perhaps, or carelessness, or unrealistic faith. But these conference leaders didn’t intend for little girls to be abused. I, too, want to believe in redemption, though I know (as I thought everyone did by now) that child sexual abusers have a high recidivism rate.
In another case, a man of great influence in the church took advantage of a young single adult to whom he was a pastor. Again, the story has been submerged. The victim says nothing because of a fear that this man, who still has considerable denominational stature among Adventists, will call her a liar and a seductress. The pastor is no longer a conference employee (though he was promptly reemployed by a conservative parachurch organization) which means there’s been no need to clarify what really happened, or what his employer knew, suspected, or had been told. So once again there’s minimal accountability. (I have been told, however, that the testimony of the victim, were it known, would shred the pastor’s claim that his adultery was a momentary lapse, for according to the victim he methodically planned the liaison, later repeated it, and verbally justified it to her.)
We do know that he continued to minister to young people even after he was no longer employed, and he is still selling his books. Some of his supporters have insisted that we must restore him quickly to ordained pastoral ministry, because Satan, by attacking him with a girl of evil purpose, has proven just how effective this man has been at preaching our end-time truths!
The victim gets blamed more often than you’d expect. A friend whose daughter’s abuse led to a church worker’s firing told me of his surprise when he heard in the local church community that his daughter was a wicked girl who’d destroyed the life of a good man. (The abuse began when she was four years old.) He opines that while we’re inclined to forgive a perpetrator because we hope to demonstrate God’s saving power, victims make us feel bad, like our faith hasn’t worked, like we’re no better than anyone else. The church can’t even apologize, for that would be admitting fault. So even when we don’t blame the victims, we’d just as soon not acknowledge them.
Please understand, the administrators who hushed up these evil deeds abhor them as much as the rest of us. They’re just trying to protect the church. Their response, as supervised by legal counsel, is designed to control and bury information in order to minimize liability. If that weren’t done, there might be a lot more member-donated money going to legal costs instead of into the work—and who wants that? The church would be exposed to ridicule. The victim’s privacy might be violated. Conference leaders’ authority would be diminished. Perhaps the accused’s right to a fair trial would be jeopardized. That’s why we have to make it fade away as quickly as possible and get on with the Lord’s work.
And that’s why it will happen again. And again, and again, and again.
None of us supposes that the church is composed only of perfect people. All human beings have evil desires. And then there are those few with compulsions so strong that they’re utterly careless of the consequences of their actions to the lives of others. Because human beings are deeply damaged by sin, things like this will happen. But with all we know, with all we’ve experienced, why aren’t we better at protecting the vulnerable? Might it be because these violations are damage-controlled so well, settled so discreetly with so few long-term consequences (except to the victim, who we’ll let drop out of sight), that they’re easy to forget?
The only hope is that those in authority will advocate for accountability, because the victims can’t. Penn State did that, eventually. The Roman Catholic church did it when forced to. We haven’t yet reached that point. I hope we do. There can’t be any change as long as we just pay the bill and bury the bodies.