I don’t usually like to write about controversies in the church, but I felt compelled to do so this week. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a minister, I resonated with many others who protested a severe lapse in judgment from a very influential Christian publication.
The article was written by a former youth pastor now serving jail time for his sexual abuse and predatory rape of one of his students. He describes the circumstances of the progress into abuse and outlines some reasons why he feels it happened.
The editors of Leadership Journal posted the article, which was more than five pages in length, on Monday and eventually replaced it with an apology on Friday evening after a flurry of protest on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, the article page itself and in letters to editors and advertisers.
The controversy arose because the author described the statutory rape for which he is currently incarcerated as an extramarital relationship and implied mutual consent and responsibility by the victim. Reading between the lines, it seems the victim was in middle school at most when the abuse began. In almost romantic terms, the convicted felon describes as a slippery slope into sin what is, in fact, textbook predatory grooming.
The tone and focus of the piece was on the consequences to the perpetrator, including his loss of ministry success due to his "infidelity." Yet, in a continuation of the unresolved narcissism threaded throughout his article, this felon is leading ministry groups in jail and writing articles for a major Christian publication in his first year of incarceration when clearly there is much lacking in his own spiritual maturity. His final lines of preaching provide insight into how he assesses the damage of his actions with little regard for the victim or the horror of the crime itself as he focuses on the negative consequences to his ministry. "Submit your ministry, marriage and life to the Lord. He is faithful. He will establish you and guard you from the evil one. Put to death in you what is earthly, so God can get back to using you for His glory."
There is no empathy mentioned for his victim or what loss she may have suffered from his abuse. He does mention his wife and children, but only to lament that she took them away immediately upon finding out about the abuse and he has had no contact in over a year, except to see her at court. I applaud her action and encourage anyone who suspects someone of sexual abuse to call the police immediately.
In his explanation of how and why he was in this "extramarital relationship" there is blame placed on his wife for making him feel "unappreciated at home" which caused him to seek "approval and appreciation elsewhere." There is blame placed on the church for the pressures of ministry. There is blame placed on the amorphous entity of sin. There is blame placed on the victim as he continually referred to his statutory rape of her in mutual language like: "We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted...We quit so many times, but the temptation of 'one more time' proved too strong."
In short, it was a sickening walk through the mind of a classic child molester with almost no redeeming value. And it was very apparent that the writer has not come to terms with his own crime in any real way. At no point in the article are the words "rape", "abuse", "child abuse", or "sexual abuse" mentioned.
Not only does the writer fail to see the reality of his crime since he frames it as an affair, the editors failed to recognize the white washing of child sexual abuse in the article. They published the piece along with the tags “accountability, adultery, character, failure, mistakes, self-examination, sex, temptation” showing a total lack of understanding and discernment in regard to sexual predation, child abuse and rape culture mentality.
The editors later defended their decision to post the article, before finally vacating it after several days of mounting protest. They stated that they felt the article offered a “cautionary story for church leaders and to prevent future abuse” yet they failed to recognize that the article is full of rape culture apologetics that feed the root of the problem itself.
Unfortunately, the editors of the publication showed that publishing the article was not just an oversight as they resisted removing the post with an apology for several days. They removed over sixty negative comments and ratings on the article page itself, leaving only positive ones. They added a brief statement from the writer at the end of the article in which he claims to understand his actions and take responsibility, yet with still no use of the word rape.
Protesters took to social media with the hashtag #takedownthatpost encouraging others to share and write letters to the editors and even to advertisers. Bloggers blogged insightful articles on why the post should not have seen the light of day (see the list at the end of this article) and the pressure grew.
The editors then posted a weak response at the beginning of the article, defending their decision to publish it as a “cautionary story” and editing much of the language about the “relationship” from “we” to “I.” This action only served to further inflame the outrage along with more criticism about their journalistic integrity in addition to their ability to speak about church leadership.
Finally, Friday evening, the article was removed with an apology that showed that the editors understood why publishing the article was wrong. The apology was good and right but, sadly, it took several days for them to arrive at the conclusion. The sincerity of their excellent apology could further be shown by doing some real journalism on rape culture in the church by experts and victims who are qualified to teach and lead in this area.
More Than a Rape Culture Issue, This Is Also A Gender Issue
Child sexual abuse happens to boys and girls, and is equally damaging to both. However, there is a sense that the editors failed to be sensitive in part because the victim was a teenage girl.
As many others also pointed out, it is very unlikely that this article would have gone to press if it detailed the abuse pathology of a Roman Catholic priest and an altar boy. It is unlikely it would have gone to press if it were about a Boy Scout Troop leader and one of his troop members. Or that it would be framed as an "extramarital affair" if it were written by a public school teacher about an middle school student. Or if it were written by a female clergy member about a male youth group member.
Bells most likely would have gone off and red flags would have been raised if any of those scenarios were the case. This is why there is still a gender issue at the root of rape culture. By publishing this article, Leadership Journal bought into the idea that teenage girls participate and share responsibility in their abuse. There is a distinctive difference between the response to abuse of girls than of boys, and it needs to be brought to the surface.
It is a problem that none of those bells went off in the editors’ minds regarding a story in which the victim is female. Rape culture in the church is a problem that is fed by purity teachings that place responsibility on girls for the thought life of boys. It is a problem fed by blaming victims for their own abuse, which was clearly the case in this article. It is a problem that is couched in language about falling into sin and temptation and avoids words like rape and child abuse.
The fact that the editors of a journal about church leadership were oblivious to all of the problems in this article - the tone of narcissistic self-focus by the rapist, the victim blaming, the “repentance” for being caught, the lack of recognition of rape by someone incarcerated for just that - shows that there is much to be done in education and awareness about rape culture in the church.
It is also significant to note that there are no female editors at this publication. Maybe one way to display leadership wisdom would be to have female input and make space for that influence. Christianity Today did share that an article will be published on Monday from the female editor of the publication's Her.meneutics column. Hopefully, they will allow for direct female input in the future at the Leadership Journal.
While it was personally disappointing and disheartening to see those who position themselves as voices of leadership in the church publish this article and subsequently defend it, I am grateful that the final apology conveyed an understanding of why it was wrong and displayed a heartfelt concern for victims. I can only hope that this particular victim felt fought for and seen in ways that so many will never experience.
My prayer is that this entire controversy will serve the purpose that the editors originally intended, as a cautionary story not only about the tragedy of child sexual abuse, but of the ongoing wounding that happens when victims are blamed in any way and the language of rape culture apologetics goes unrecognized.
Here are just some of the blogs that were written in response to the article.
Benjamin L. Corey, “Christianity Today, Church Rape, And Why We Still Don’t Get It #TakeDownThatPost"
Hännah Ettinger and Becca Rose, “Why Did a Journal for Christian Pastors Give a Platform to a Sexual Predator?”
Dianna E. Anderson, “On How the Church Discusses Abuse: Denying the Endorsement”
Samantha Field, “Leadership Journal, Christianity Today, and #TakeDownThatPost”
Tamara Rice, “Because It’s Time to Take Down That Post”
Suzannah Paul, “Because purity culture harbors rape & abuse”
Anonymous published by Micah J. Murray, “My Innocence Was Stolen From Me”