At the core of “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon,” an article posted in the online version of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, is an odd and self-serving theological point: that God does not look upon sin, and that when sin continues long enough, God gives us over to it so that we might hit rock bottom and then seek redemption. God turning away is, according to the anonymous author, a convicted sex offender still in prison, the reason Jesus felt God had forsaken Him while He was on the cross—God could not look on His Son/Himself as His Son/He took on the sins of the world. It is God’s looking away, the author suggests, that allowed King David to embrace selfishness and send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, into battle to die, so that David might have sexual access to Bathsheba. In this same fashion, the author contends, God looked away so that the author might plunge deep enough into sin to be made to answer for those sins.
The author provides no theological discussion of why God also looked away from the victim of the author’s sin, implying (through the author’s shaky theological discourse, and his frequent use of “we” and “our”) that the teenage girl who had been manipulated into a sexual relationship with her youth pastor, shared in the sin, or simply had to be sacrificed so that the author could be redeemed. Without ever naming his actual crime, the author crafts a tale of a sexual predator in need of redemption, and a sexual assault victim as sacrificial lamb, all with God’s blessing/God’s inability to stomach what was happening. But if we are to look at God as incapable of looking on sin, or even the victims of another person’s sinful behavior, then it seems only right to assume God looked away throughout the process that led to the publishing of the article.
The article, taken down from Leadership Journal after much public pressure, can be read from an alternate site here.
I’m a bit torn about whether I think people should read it—not in the sense that I think it deserved to ever be published in the first place—it didn’t—but because it provides an interesting look into the kinds of self-centered justifications, and victim-blaming that sex offenders will endorse in an effort to convince people around them that they’re sorry and won’t ever do anything like that again, because, boy, they’ve learned their lesson, and (in this case) Jesus forgave them, so you should, too.
What was meant by the editors to be taken as a moving story of sin and redemption was, instead, merely a continuation of the abuse, prettied up with self-aggrandizing mock-contrition and Bible verses. And, sadly, the editors saw fit to tag it with the “related topics” of Accountability, Character, Failure, Legal Issues, Self-examination, Sex, and Temptation. Of those tags, “Failure,” and “Legal Issues” seem the only appropriate ones. “Sex” only fits in the broadest definition; whereas “Sexual Assault” or “Sex Offenses” would have been much more fitting. “Temptation” is little more than a label that normalizes the sexualizing of underage girls.
What I keep wondering in all of this is how the article came to be posted in the first place. Did the editors of Leadership Journal coordinate with prison officials to approve the project, or did they just accept it from some inmate, insisting via e-mail that he had a unique tale of a fall from grace and a re-acquaintance with God? Did they know the author prior to his incarceration? Is the author in a treatment program in prison? If so, were his treatment providers at all aware of what he was doing? Were lawyers for the author, lawyers for the victim, or the judge in the case aware of the intent to publish such a piece? And, perhaps most importantly, was the victim, or the victim’s family aware that any of this was happening? And did she/they have any say in the matter?
I ask the above questions because I cannot imagine that, prior to publication, the article was examined by anybody with any clinical knowledge of offender behavior—or, for that matter, by anyone with any sense of the damage done to victims of sexual assaults. If I give the editors the benefit of the doubt, then maybe I can view them as possibly well-meaning, but definitely confused/ignorant people looking to generate an attention-grabbing conversation about statutory rape. And while, it certainly grabbed plenty of attention, that was because it took a story of sexual assault and transformed it into a discussion about how easy it is to be seduced by a teen when one takes one’s eyes off of God, and vice versa. The sexual content is so subdued/obscured that it comes across as if it is intended to describe temptation only—definitely much more so than if it was labeled appropriately as child molestation, pedophilia, hebephilia, exploitation of a minor, statutory rape, or rape.
Any sex offender treatment provider who knows anything at all about what she/he is doing certainly would never have approved of the article as it appeared. Offenders in treatment (in or out of prison) are often given writing assignments wherein they are required to relay details of their behaviors and thought processes and demonstrate an understanding of the damage they caused, as well as the way they convinced themselves it was okay. And while I recognize that it wasn’t specifically crafted as a treatment assignment, the Leadership Today piece reads like an eloquent first draft of such an assignment, crafted with care before a treatment provider and/or members of a treatment group demanded changes due to the author taking a victim stance, failing to acknowledge the actual crime or its impact on anyone other than himself, and refusing to incorporate even the most rudimentary sense of understanding about how he built up to the offense and kept it secret for as long as he did.
Or perhaps it’s more like a second draft, after the offender removed most of the overt blaming of the victim, and switched, instead, to implied mutual blame or implied consent for the crime.
I have heard hundreds of variations on the same basic story told in the article, from the mouths of offenders, emphasizing the frustrations in their lives, the reasons they had contact with the victim to begin with, and the reasons they are not to blame (and, yes, a lot of them invoke religion as part of that). It is rare to come in contact with an offender who, from the beginning (not of the offense, but of contact with the justice system and the need for an evaluation for sexual deviancy) is capable of outlining how he (or occasionally, she) manipulated the victim to engage in sexual acts and to keep it a secret, how he justified the crime to himself, and what specifically happened (in clinically appropriate and criminally accurate terms), without putting a large portion of the blame on the victim for somehow enticing or seducing him.
Despite the author’s claim, added after the controversy erupted, that he takes 100% of the blame for the crime, and recognizes that what he once viewed as a consensual relationship was no such thing, the article itself tells a much different story—of a man who worked hard to build something up for the glory of God (and how he was really amazing at doing that work), and then how he accidentally broke it because he was being selfish. Without ever acknowledging the severe harm he did to the victim, harm that is likely to last a lifetime, he signals that he has returned to a life of service to God because he is involved in leading a ministry group in prison (another thing I have a really hard time with anybody allowing).
And while the author touches on one of his justifications for engaging in his behavior—that his wife was paying too much attention to their children, and not enough to him—he is only able to acknowledge the impact on his wife in the form of the fight they had when she found out about the crimes, and how she left in the middle of the night with the children. The author laments that he has not seen his children since, but doesn’t even mention the extreme embarrassment and devastation he caused his wife and children. Nor does he ever fully indicate that he recognizes how childish his justifications for his behavior were, or how those justifications were merely the starting point for a cycle of lying and manipulation committed for the sole purpose of having repeated sexual contacts with a minor.
In a truly terrible minimization of his behavior, the author compares his repeated sexual abuse of the victim (while implying she shared in an identical struggle with him) to the difficulty of smokers trying to turn away from cigarettes.
From the complete dearth of information in the article, if this really were a treatment assignment, once all the extraneous details, self-promotion, and claims to deserved forgiveness are removed it might sound a little more like this:
“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members. I manipulated her into having sex with me, and justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I had sex with the teen repeatedly. When my wife found out, she took our children and left. I was convicted of sex offenses and sent to prison. I am currently still in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life.”
And, if the author began to actually include the most obvious missing items, the skeleton of a real assignment, or perhaps a combination of real assignments, would start to look like this:
“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members, and that she looked up to me in a way that made it possible for me to manipulate her. I set about grooming her. I justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I managed to work up to the point where I convinced the girl to have sex with me. I then had sex with her repeatedly while convincing myself that she wanted to have sex with me as well, that she was mature enough to handle a sexual relationship with an adult who is an authority figure in her spiritual life, and that I was in no way manipulating her. I managed to keep her from telling anybody about our relationship through various forms of coercion, and went to great lengths to keep anyone from finding out about it. We eventually got caught. My wife, understandably, left me and took the children with her. I was arrested and convicted of sex offenses. I am currently in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life. The teenager I manipulated and raped will need a great deal of therapy and other supports in order to cope with the aftermath of my actions. My wife, my children, and numerous other people impacted by my behavior will also need support to attempt to repair the damage I caused. I recognize that I need to stay away from minors for the rest of my life, and that I can never be placed in any kind of position where I might have authority that can be abused, particularly over any people who could be considered ‘vulnerable.’ I also manipulated editors of Leadership Today into publishing an article I wrote that completely justified my behavior, and suggested that the victim was equally to blame for my sex offenses.”
The assignment would be given back with numerous, specific requests for much more “self reflection,” “accountability,” and actual identification of his specific behaviors and thoughts.
Becoming a sex offender isn’t an “easy” path as the author’s title suggests. It is one that is pieced together with care by the offender, and crafted to secure the cooperation of the victim(s). It is not, as the author portrays it, a little trouble in a marriage, a dash of arrogance, and some innocent flirtations evolving over time into mutual passion—passion that makes God look away, as if God were easily embarrassed. Such a description may be a very simplistic explanation of how an extramarital affair (the words the author uses along with “adultery” to describe his sexually exploitative behavior of a child under his care) evolves.
Unfortunately, by diving into this discussion, without any sense of just how manipulative the author was, and how harmful his words are, the editors of Leadership Journal have put themselves in a place where they must now back away from this discussion entirely. Rather than promoting a meaningful dialog about forgiveness and redemption, they allowed a sex offender to promote himself as a victim of the temptation to have sex with minors. They allowed him to promote his story of redemption—a story that rings as false as any rapist having the arrogance to compare himself to Christ on the cross, as he suggests that God’s mercy has saved him, all while implying a teenage girl entrusted to him for guidance and education was just as responsible for being raped as he was for raping her.