"We're firm believers in the Bible, so if God's forgiven you, then we're in no position to treat you otherwise.”
These are the words of the interim pastor at New Gospel Outreach Church, shortly after learning that the senior pastor was arrested for sexually abusing a fourteen-year-old boy. What is so incredibly dreadful is that the senior pastor was a convicted sex offender when he was hired three years ago. What is so incredibly appalling is that the church knew that when they hired him! Yes, the folks at New Gospel Outreach Church knowingly hired a convicted sex offender as their pastor! This church just doesn't get it.
At first glance, many who read this news story may dismiss it as an extreme situation and being thankful that their church would never do anything so horrific. Sure, most churches are not knowingly hiring convicted sex offenders to be pastors. That is good! However, churches and faith communities are increasingly faced with decisions related to sex offenders and disclosures of sexual abuse. My hope is that we can all learn from this church that just doesn't get it. Here are just four lessons:
1. “The allegations were false”: At the time he was hired, the pastor informed the church of his past conviction and claimed the allegations were false. Despite the fact that a court of law found sufficient evidence to convict this man of a sexual offense against a child, the church preferred to believe his words. I have seldom encountered child sexual abusers who did not claim that the allegations made against them were false. I even prosecuted cases where the defendant gave a full confession to law enforcement as he maintained his innocence to friends and family. Anytime we are dealing with someone who has been prosecuted for sexually abusing a child, we don’t have the luxury to accept his or her words of denial. Here are some basic steps anyone can take to guard against being deceived:
- Review the court file. If a person has been prosecuted, the courthouse will have a file of their case that is available for review. Oftentimes, these court files contain critical information about the offender that he or she would prefer you never read.
- Speak with the investigator. Every child sexual abuse case is assigned a lead investigator who knows more about the case than anyone else. Though they may be limited in what they can share with you (though I have found that most are happy to tell you what they know), they will certainly be able to confirm or deny what the offender has told you about the allegations.
- Meet with the probation officer. If the offender is or has ever been on probation for the offense, a probation officer will have supervised them. This person will not only be very familiar with the facts of the criminal case, but they will be in the best position to give you a current assessment of the offender’s character and behavior.
It is time for our faith communities to stop placing greater value on the words of sex offenders than the bodies and souls of our children. This church just doesn’t get it.
2. “Everybody has a past”: All too often scripture is distorted in order to justify the blind embracing of those who have sexually victimized children. Though the interim pastor proudly states, “We are firm believers in the Bible”, he provides no scriptural basis for his “belief” that past offenses of a sex offender should be forgotten. He provides none because there is none. At the time this offender arrived at the church, many obviously believed his words that he was a “changed person” in Jesus. Even if that were true, Christians must understand the fundamental difference between an offender’s changed position before God and the fact he/she is still the same person who committed an abhorrent offense against a child that comes with lifetime consequences. (The 7th chapter of Romans has much to say about the fact that Christians are still in a battle with our flesh.) Don’t be fooled, offenders love a distorted theology that gives them immediate access to the little ones in the church. Whether or not the offender is a “changed” person before God, he/she is the same person who was convicted of sexually abusing a child. That is a past that should never be forgotten by those around him. This church just doesn’t get it.
3. "Don’t judge the worshippers": In one of the few public statements made about the pastor’s arrest, the interim pastor stated that he hopes people don’t “judge” the worshippers. A church hires a known sex offender who then sexually abuses a child in the church, and its primary concern is the reputation of the church? Perhaps its primary concern should how best to serve a 14-year-old boy who trusted his pastor and was repeatedly violated. Perhaps its primary concern should be cooperating with the police to identify other children who may also have been victimized by this offender. Perhaps its primary concern should be ways the church could serve other abuse survivors in their congregation who are likely being re-traumatized by this scandal. Perhaps its primary concern should be for the church to publicly acknowledge that it was complicit in the abuse of this child due to its inexcusable decision to hire a known convicted sex offender. Perhaps its primary concern should be to reach out to experts for help in becoming educated on this issue so that this horror is never repeated. There is no lack of primary concerns for this church – its reputation certainly isn’t one of them. This church doesn’t get it.
4. "We did no wrong": Tragically, instead of acknowledging the grievous consequence of hiring a convicted sex offender, this church has spent the last week defending and excusing its inexcusable actions. All too often, I encounter church leaders whose immediate response to disclosures of abuse within the church is to be defensive instead of wanting to learn where they (or the church) may have failed and what can be learned. I believe this inclination towards defensiveness is often found when leaders place greater value on themselves and “their” institutions than on the lives and souls of individuals. The Gospel tells Christians that our identity is in Christ alone, and that all that we possess belongs to Him. It also tells us about a God who laid down his very life for each of us. These countercultural truths should free each of us to be teachable when faced with the dreadful news that a child in our church has been sexually abused. This church just doesn’t get it.
Perhaps we can all learn much from the simple, but compelling words of the detective when describing this pastor, “He's a predator and he doesn't need to be on the street. I'm glad we got him.” It is time that more faith communities recognize the dark reality that there are predators in our midst and become more vigilant in making sure that they are never in positions to access and hurt little ones.
Does your church “get it”?
This posted was originally published on June 27, 2014 by RNS. It is reposted here with their permission.