How Sex Offenders Return to the Pulpit

I grew up in a large evangelical megachurch. I only ever heard of one sex scandal, and that involved a junior pastor having an affair with a secretary. The junior pastor left both his family and the church, the secretary stayed with her husband (I am not sure whether she kept her job at the church), and that was the end of that. So for a long time, I have been unable to understand stories like this one, reported as follows by blogger Incongruous Circumspection:

Many of my readers may be familiar with the series about Dr. Ken Copley sexually molesting his adopted daughter, Ruth Copley Burger. If not, it is a nine part series, written from the pen of Ruth herself, telling the gruesome details. The first part is titled, Adoption Into A Family.

Just before publishing this series, we discovered that Dr. Ken Copley was employed at Brownsburg Baptist Church in Brownsburg, Indiana as the Counseling Pastor. In a whirlwind of confusing events where many phone calls were placed to the church and a letter was even sent to the governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, Incongruous Circumspection was informed that Dr. Ken Copley was no longer employed at the church and the website was scrubbed of all his information.

The trail went cold – until now.

Dr. Ken Copley is now employed at The Cross in Fort Wayne, Indiana. You can view his name on the right of the home page. And yes, he is the Associate Pastor.

Why am I telling you this? Simple. Dr. Ken Copley has never once admitted to his crimes. He hasn’t even addressed the allegations in a public forum. He has also never provided information to rebut the allegations. More importantly, having never confessed to his crimes, Dr. Ken Copley has never admitted to himself that he has a problem and needs to be rehabilitated for his sexual deviance.

In short, Dr. Ken Copley is in a position of authority, in a religious institution, which brings through its doors, many trusting individuals – especially women and young girls – never being given the opportunity to completely vet their associate pastor for his alleged sexual crimes. They have the right to know. The parents who attend that church has the right to know the danger that exists right under their noses.

In short, Ken Copley sexually molested his daughter, and has not even sought help for his problem, and yet he is nevertheless serving as a pastor. Many in his congregation likely do not even know about his past. (By the way, you should take some time and look around the blog Incongruous Circumspection, it covers these sorts of issues regularly). Perhaps some of Copley’s parishioners know about the accusations against him and simply don’t believe them.

And then I am only more surprised when I read stories like this from WWJTD:

I saw this image this morning and rolled by eyes. There’s plenty wrong with the behavior of hardcore believers that we don’t need to be stretching with obvious bullshit like this.

[Text: A church in Jacksonville, Florida is coming under fire for its controversial decision to ban children from its church services. Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church has banned children from attending Sunday services because their new pastor, Darrell Gilyard, is a registered sex offender and cannot have contact with children.]

Then I decided to fact-check it so I could stop the flow of misinformation.

Holy shit, it’s true.

A convicted sex offender can keep on preaching, but children are barred from attending his sermons.

The Florida Times Union reports that lawyers for Darrell Gilyard withdrew a motion to allow minors at sermons conducted by the former Jacksonville, Fla., megachurch pastor.

Though children are not allowed, attendance at the Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church has spiked since Gilyard began preaching in January, less than two months after he was released from prison, according to the Times Union.

Molest teens? You can still preach away. Love someone of the same sex? It’s a one way ticket to hell for that lot. If this is what the moral high ground is like, I’ll pass.

In this case, the parishioners know that their pastor is a convicted child molester. And yet they’re still flocking to hser services. My mind is boggled. But then, as I think about it, I start to understand. No Longer Quivering has frequently posted about pastors sexually abusing children, and Chicago Magazine recently posted a long article on the subject, which included this excerpt:

“If a man did stumble – having an affair, say, or visiting prostitutes or abusing children – the question wasn’t how he could have but rather what the woman or child, did to drive him to such sin,’ some former church members say. ‘They have a system where abusers and pedophiles can flourish, because, you can’t challenge men,’ opines one. ‘You have to submit 100 percent of the time and whenever anything goes wrong in a marriage, it’s because the women didn’t do enough.”

And here we return to familiar ground.

As I think about it, I see three reasons this goes on: first, the idea that men are helpless to control their sexual urges; second, the idea that sexual abuse is just one more sin from which a pastor can easily repent and be forgiven; and third, the authority and respect that goes along with the position of minister in a congregation where obedience is emphasized as a virtue.

1. Those Horrible Seductive Women and Children

First comes the idea that women and children are seducers and men are helpless dupes who can’t control their sexual urges. This idea is alluded to in the above quote from Chicago Magazine: this idea that some woman or child must have driven a sexually transgressing pastor to sin. I discussed these same ideas in my post on modesty and rape culture a few days ago:

If you’re already decrying women for “causing” men to lust after them by dressing immodestly, how much of a stretch is it to assign some responsibility to women who are raped? Is it really so hugely different when someone says that a woman shouldn’t have made out with a guy if she didn’t want to have vaginal intercourse because how could she expect him to be able to stop, or that a rape victim’s behavior or clothing proved too “tempting” for her rapist to resist? Is it really that different when someone argues that a woman who attends a party with alcohol is “asking for it,” since how could she really wear a miniskirt and expect the men there to control themselves?

I’ve heard this idea used to defend Catholic priests as well:

The Rev. Benedict Groeschel, 79, who hosts a weekly show on the Catholic television network EWTN, originally made the comments in an interview with the National Catholic Register. He also referred to convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky as a “poor guy.”

“People have this picture in their minds of a person planning to — a psychopath. But that’s not the case. Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer,” Groeschel was quoted as saying in the interview, which is no longer available on the paper’s website.

These ideas allow sexual abuse to blamed on the victim, rather than the perpetrator. In fact, they pain the perpetrator as the victim, even in the case of the sexual molestation of minors.

2. A Sin Is a Sin, Judge Not, and All That

My second point – that pastors can easily repent and be forgiven of even something as serious as sexually abusing children – is made clear in the response to a post I wrote last year about Voice of the Martyrs’ president, Tom White, who committed suicide amidst an investigation regarding the sexual abuse of a ten year old girl. I used some combination of key words that magically made my post one of the top hits when searching “Tom White” or “Voice of the Martyrs,” and my post was inundated with defenses. I wrote an entire follow-up discussing this.

There are many ways conservative Christians both trivialize and excuse things like sexual molestation of children. The first is inherent in the way they set up their sexual ethics, as one reader pointed out:

I actually think that Christian sexual ethics – which are based on purity rather than consent, are really to blame. When I read lists of ‘sexual sin’ that include say, ‘masturbation, homosexuality and rape’ I get really bothered since most sensible people would know that it’s really inaccurate and insensitive to put those together on a list as if they were equivalent – I mean, the first two being moral issues is a joke, the third is one of the most terrible things you can do. Most people are horrified at sexual abuse and rape and power and oppression – the whole ‘purity thing’ doesn’t seem to single out sexual abuse and assault as special categories worthy of special disdain. The whole ‘sexual sin is sexual sin’ trivializes real wrong sexual behaviors.

I actually wrote a post on Christian sexual ethics called “A Tale of Two Boxes” after reading this readers thoughts and thinking further about the problems of Christian sexual ethics. Conservative Christians emphasize over and over again that a sin is a sin is a sin. A favorite verse stated that “he who has committed one sin is guilty of them all.” This sort of rhetoric trivializes the most egregious sins, because it literally suggests that raping a child is the same level of sinfulness as having premarital sex, hitting someone in anger, or stealing gum.

There are others excuses made too, including statements like “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” “judge not lest you be judged,” “we are all capable of doing what he did,” “we must pray for our fallen brother,” “Satan loves to try to discredit God’s ministers,” and “God has gorgiven him his past indiscretions.” Here are a few of the comments on that post I wrote about Tom White:

I am trully saddened in my heart to read about the death of Tom White, especially the way it happened. But those of you who have no sin, throw the first stone! How sick that people so quickly jump to conclusions, WHO SAYS THAT THIS IS TRUE??????? It might just as well be a big lie and Tom might have had already so much on his shoulders that he couldn’t face this false accusation. For those of you who have written negative things about him, how would you have felt “beign innocent”, if you were accused falsely of something like this. Be careful those who judge, as the same measure you judge, you will be judged.

oh. .BUT WHO ARE WE TO JUDGE????!!! JUDGE NOT, SO YE BE JUDGE. ONE CAN REASON WITH MEN’S SINFUL HEART. BUT IS IS GOD THE ULTIMATE JUDGE. ONE MUST PRAY SO NOT TO FALL INTO THE SAME SIN AND GO TO HELL TO BE WITH THE DEVIL AND HIS DEMONS.. LET THE ALMIGHTY HAVE MERCY ON EVERY JUDGING PERSON OUT THERE AND NOT BE CAST OUT INTO HELL. WE ALL NEED GRACE TO LIVE THIS LIFE NO MATTER WHO WE ARE.. TITLE OR NO TITLE!! JESUS IS THE ONLY WHO KNOWS THE HEARTS, AND WEAKNESSES. HE IS THE ULTIMATE JUDGE, NOT MERE HUMANS LIKE US.. WHO ARE ALSO WEAK WITHOUT HIM.

Judge not or you will be judged was not written for no reason. Maybe it could read, “Don’t judge or you will be given something to be judged for.”

I am shocked. Both by Tom’s death and by this terribly uninformed post. If your post is true, then we can also assume that everything Jesus was ACCUSED of was true, and make conclusions based on the accusations and act upon them. All those accusations were a staged circus! Are you part of that crowd?

“Whoever has not sinned, cast the first stone.” Why do we always rip on people who fall into sin and call it hypocrisy? Do we not live in a broken world. I think post like this are full of arrogance. Calling someone a hypocrite is not right and you need to look in the mirror. If you cannot admit that we are all capable of ANYTHING, then something is wrong with you and I would be extremely careful in your life. Because some day you might be humbled. We can’t always think, well that would never happen to me or I would never do that. I am sure that Tom White thought that too. I am a minister and watch ministers fall all the time but it gets publicized so much because these are ministers. I see sin and darkness like this everyday, from people in the church and out. We are BROKEN. Instead of calling people hypocritess, why don’t you go out and love on broken people.

Who am I to judge, there but for the grace of God, go I. … I’m not suggesting in the least that this gets anyone off the hook. What I mean to say is that apart from God’s restraining grace, ANY human being is capable of ANY evil. The only reason you or I are not pedophiles or murderers has NOTHING to do with our sense of morality, but with God’s grace. Now you may not see it that way, but that does not in any way make it untrue. Case in point … Apart from God’s restraining grace, humankind executed the greatest evil to EVER have been done – the crucifixion of the Son of God. So much for man’s inherrant moral goodness.

3. Pastors as Authority Figures

The third point I want to make shouldn’t be hard to see: pastors are authority figures. They are revered as especially close to God and especially spiritual. And in fundamentalist churches especially, the congregations are taught to believe and do what the pastor says. In fact, many fundamentalist and evangelical churches don’t even have denominational oversight. They often end up being a sort of personality cult that coalesces around a particularly charismatic pastor. It’s not an atmosphere that allows for much questioning or criticism.

Given the pastor’s role as trusted authority figure, should we be surprised when a congregation is more likely to listen to the pastor’s version of events, and to trust his interpretation, than to admit that their pastor has a problem and needs to be barred from ministry? And the same thing happens with Catholic priests. More than this, the pastor’s role as an authority figure impedes impedes their exposure as sexual abusers. The abused individual knows that he or she may well not be believed, largely because of the amount of respect and trust the congregation has for their pastor or priest, and is thus more likely to remain silent.

Conclusion

In the end, I don’t actually find the stories I started with, stories about churches that either knowingly or unknowingly hire child abusers as their pastors, all that hard to believe. A collusion of ideas about sex and purity, theological ideas about judging, sin, and forgiveness, and the place of authority a pastor occupies come together in to create a situation ripe for this sort of thing to happen. Am I saying that this happens everywhere, or even that every fundamentalist church is guilty of this? No, of course not. I am, however, saying that while we should be horrified and outraged when this happens, we shouldn’t be all that surprised.

How Christian Culture Excuses Sex Offenders
When the Perpetrators Matter More than the Victims
Josh Duggar's Lies, Damn Lies, and Half Truths
It Took This for People to Listen?
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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