What Does a Victim of Child Abuse Look Like? Don't ask Christianity Today
June 16, 2014 By Janet Heimlich
An embarressing apology published by Christianity Today shows that leaders in the faith community still have a lot to learn about chilc sexual abuse.
The readers of Christianity Today have taught the magazine a lesson—they know more about child sexual abuse then its editors do.
Last Monday, CT published an article on its Leadership Journal website written by an unnamed pastor who is serving time in prison on sexual abuse charges. The article, entitled “From Youth Minister to Felon: My spiral of sin destroyed my life and ministry,” was intended to prevent abuse. Instead, however, it showed that CT editors can be just as insensitive to victims of abuse as many religious leaders have been.
The youth minister writes that he was hired by his church to oversee a dwindling youth program and brags that, under his leadership, it grew significantly. As the church began making plans to expand its facilities and build a gym, the man thought, “I had no doubt that God had called me to the position and that he had even greater things in store for the ministry and for me.”
The pastor-turned-inmate goes on to explain that he began an inappropriate relationship with someone whom he later identifies as a female student in the program:
The “friendship” continued to develop. Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit’s prodding so many times, there was little-to-no willpower left. We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted. How many smokers have quit smoking only to cave in at the next opportunity for a cigarette? We quit so many times, but the temptation of “one more time” proved too strong. Like David, my selfishness led to infidelity.
The man never uses the word rape or victim or groom. Instead, he refers to their relationship as an “extra-marital affair” and describes the girl as being just as culpable as he was. In fact, he doesn’t once question his responsibility as an authority figure or the role that power played in the “affair.” Instead, he blames the devil for his actions, as well as his wife and children, as “the realities of parenthood and marriage were sinking in, and I felt unappreciated at home.”
Now that he is behind bars, the man bemoans the fact that his life is ruined. After he was found out, his wife left him and took their two children. He lost his job and had to drop out of seminary, and he will be a registered sex offender “for the rest of my life,” he wails.
None of this is surprising. A hallmark trait of child sexual abusers is to blame others for their actions, most often their victims. They typically fail to take responsibility for committing abuse. On the contrary, they see themselves as victims. What is surprising, however, is that the editors of CT, in publishing the article, seemed clueless in not recognizing these telltale signs. After all, the magazine has had to face the pain of discovering sexual predators among its own ranks in the past.
Readers, however, knew exactly what had been going on and spotted Christianity Today‘s failure to see it. A female pastor wrote:
I’m shocked and horrified to read this author’s assertion that he had an “extramarital affair” with a teen. It is not an “affair” when he is in a position of power and authority over her – it is abuse. It is sexual abuse, and it is abuse of power and authority. I see nothing in this that is brave or courageous – he hides behind the shield of anonymity and avoids direct responsibility for taking advantage of a young woman. . . . When will the church stop spilling ink on the abusers and give time and energy to hearing the stories of those they abused?
In one comment, a reader wrote, “Stop publishing pieces that use the excuse ‘the devil made me do it.’ This is a triggering piece that focuses on the losses of the abuser, not the harm perpetuated by his horrible abuse. NOT OKAY.”
“You know what’s interesting?” wrote Libby Anne, in a Patheos blog that was picked up by Time, “Tim [her pseudonym for the pastor] doesn’t even bother discussing how this ‘extra-marital affair’ affected his young victim. He talks about how his life came crashing down, but he doesn’t spare another word for his ‘friend.’ Literally—not a single word. He left his victim with a shattered life and only seems to care about the fact that he lost his ministry.”
Samantha Field, a blogger and rape survivor who notes that her rapist is now a youth pastor, described her visceral reaction to reading the Leadership Journal post: “I have tried many times over the past few days to make my way all the way through it, but I can’t. It . . . it sounds like him. My rapist. It is exactly what my rapist will say when he rapes one of the girls in his care, if he is successfully convicted as so very few rapists are.”
Critics demanded that the magazine issue an apology; many circulated the Twitter hashtags “#TakeDownThatPost” and “#TakeDownThisPost.” But rather than doing either, CT simply posted an author’s note at the end of the piece:
In response to readers’ concerns, the author of this piece has offered the following clarification: “I recognize that what I initially considered a consensual relationship was actually preying on a minor. Youth pastors who do the same are not ‘in relationship’ but are indeed sexual predators. I take 100 percent of the responsibility for what happened.”
It seemed as though the editors at CT were moved to only request that the imprisoned sex offender make a couple of corrections. Or perhaps they wrote the “clarification” themselves and then asked him if they could publish it. Either way, critics were less than impressed that the magazine had chosen to give the pastor-rapist yet more page space. “A ‘clarifying’ author’s footnote hardly cancels out five still-standing pages suggesting and flat-out asserting the polar opposite,” blogged Suzannah Paul. “Also alarmingly, the article is tagged for these ‘related topics’: accountability, adultery, character, failure, mistakes, self-examination, sex, and temptation.”
Finally, five days after the post first appeared, editor Marshall Shelley and CT president and CEO Harold B. Smith issued this apology:
We should not have published this post, and we deeply regret the decision to do so.
The post, told from the perspective of a sex offender, withheld from readers until the very end a crucial piece of information: that the sexual misconduct being described involved a minor under the youth pastor’s care. Among
other failings, this post used language that implied consent and mutuality when in fact there can be no quesiton [sic] that in situations of such disproportionate power there is no such thing as consent or mutuality.
The post, intended to dissuade future perpetrators, dwelt at length on the losses this criminal sin caused the author, while displaying little or no empathic engagement with the far greater losses caused to the victim of the crime and the wider community around the author. The post adopted a tone that was not appropriate given its failure to document complete repentance and restoration.
There is no way to remove the piece altogether from the Internet, and we do not want to make it seem that we are trying to make it disappear. That is not journalistically honest. The fact that we published it; its deficiencies; and the way its deficiencies illuminate our own lack of insight and foresight, is a matter of record at The Internet Archive (https://web.archive.org/web/20140613190102/http://christianitytoday.com/le/2014/june-online-only/my-easy-trip-from-youth-minister-to-felon.html).
Any advertising revenues derived from hits to this post will be donated to Christian organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse. We will be working to regain our readers’ trust and to give greater voice to victims of abuse.
We apologize unreservedly for the hurt we clearly have caused.
I doubt that many survivors of abuse reading this apology feel that the magazine truly “gets” it. What should editors
promise? To get educated on the issue of child sexual abuse.
Religious organizations have repeatedly failed victims by refusing to report such crimes. Faith leaders have claimed ignorance about being able to recognize abuse. One archbishop recently said he wasn’t sure if, at one point, he even knew it was a crime. As I point out in Breaking Their Will, Vatican documents that discuss clergy-perpetrated abuse refer to the act as sinning “with” a minor not “against” a minor, indicating a presumption that victims are not really victims, but accomplices.
And now we have the country’s foremost Christian publication unable to see a victim in a story they chose to publish, even as the abuse is being described in textbook fashion.
If the editors of Christianity Today truly want to “dissuade future perpetrators” of child sexual abuse, they owe it to survivors to learn how to recognize it.
I have given permission for a condensed version of this blog post to appear on Childfriendlyfaith.org.