Clergy, temptation, sex abuse and the law

Surely one of our world’s most endangered species — right up there with the Mountain Gorilla or the Sumatran Tiger — is the church “ministerius youthii.”

That was the conviction of the late Louis McBurney, a Mayo Clinic-trained psychiatrist who spent decades at his Colorado retreat center helping ministers crushed by the demands and temptations of their jobs. Youth ministers, for example, face stunning parental expectations, low pay, the loss of privacy and a nagging sense of powerlessness.

Plus, it’s hard to work with adolescents in a sex-soaked culture. Many older teens think they are more mature than they really are, noted McBurney, in his 1986 volume “Counseling Christian Workers.” Consider the case of “Joe,” a newly married seminary graduate who was energetic, talented and driven. Then, there was this one girl.

“She was a beautiful 17-year-old who was more mature than her peers,” wrote the psychiatrist. “They began to play tennis together, and she was frequently the last to leave group activities. Joe couldn’t remember who made the first move to sexual intimacy, but once that happened it snowballed.”

Many were hurt in the train wreck that followed, an all-to-common scenario that in the past often played out behind closed doors with parents and church leaders hiding the damage. Times have changed, to some degree, after years of public debate about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, teachers, coaches and other trusted adults.

The respected evangelical publication Leadership Journal recently unleashed a firestorm of criticism by publishing an anonymous piece — since taken offline — entitled “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon.” One passage was particularly galling to Twitter critics who used #TakeDownThatPost and #HowOldWereYou as hashtags.

“A few years into my marriage and ministry I began to believe a lie,” wrote the author. “The realities of parenthood and marriage were sinking in, and I felt unappreciated at home. From my perspective, I was excelling at work and at home — and this perceived lack of appreciation led me to believe I deserved more.

“Meanwhile, there was someone else in my life that appreciated me very much. Seeking approval and appreciation, I gravitated toward that person. … Before long, we were texting each other and interacting through social media. Nothing scandalous or questionable. …. But I knew what appeared innocent was, in reality, wrong and very dangerous. Red flags kept popping up.”

The bottom line about this secret “friendship,” he said, was that he “failed to address the sin in my life.”

The problem was that this sin — when it led to sex — was also a crime. The youth minister was guilty of sexual abuse, as well as the sin of adultery.

Thus, the Leadership editors apologized because they waited until the end of the piece to divulge this “crucial piece of information: that the sexual misconduct being described involved a minor under the youth pastor’s care.” The piece also “used language that implied consent and mutuality when in fact there can be no question that in situations of such disproportionate power there is no such thing as consent or mutuality.”

The most powerful critical responses poured onto the World Wide Web through the #HowOldWereYou hashtag, after Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior asked this blunt question: “How old were you when you were pursued sexually by an adult authority figure?”

The Leadership post was “less problematic than the blindness to the scope of the problem of abuse that its perceived novelty implied,” argued Prior, in a commentary at the Christ & Pop Culture site. The all-to-common problem, according to national statistics about sexual abuse, was that this anonymous church worker’s attitudes are terrifyingly ordinary, she noted.

“The truth is that the impulses that led to this former youth pastor’s sexual abuse of a child under his care and authority — pride, lust, covetousness, selfishness, and the elaborate mental apparatus to rationalize it all — are, ultimately, rather banal,” she said. “The editors’ well-intentioned decision to publish the piece as a cautionary tale betrays in them and their target audience an underlying naiveté in regarding the abuser’s rationalizations as insightful and revealing enough to give him a platform for voicing them.

“Let us ever be horrified at every form of abuse — but let us stop being shocked.”

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