That’s Not Good Enough, Christianity Today—Updated!

That’s Not Good Enough, Christianity Today—Updated! June 13, 2014

In the face of increasingly vocal calls to pull the rapist’s article (you can read my prior coverage here), the editors of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal have stood firm and refused to take the post down. Instead, they have added an editorial note to the beginning of the article. It’s not enough—not nearly enough—and that the editors think it is shows just how deep the problem is.

Editorial Note: Since publishing the following piece on Monday, there has been a tremendous backlash from readers. Many voiced concerns that the author mischaracterized the nature of the relationship he had with his student and failed to acknowledge the gravity of his crime. We’ve heard your criticisms and would like to add the following clarifications.

First, the intent of this article was to serve as a cautionary story for church leaders and to prevent future abuse. According to Richard Hammar, a leading expert specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy, sexual abuse is the number one reason churches end up in court. Cases involving youth leaders abusing students are particularly common and this piece was meant to draw attention to this tragic problem. We simply can’t deny the pervasiveness of this problem or the deep and lasting wounds instances of abuse leave on the lives of victims.

Second, we in no way meant to downplay the severity of the author’s crimes. He is currently serving time in prison and has taken 100 percent of the responsibility for what transpired. Some of the language in the article did appear to portray the “relationship” he had with his student as consensual. We regret any implication of that kind and strongly underscore that an adult cannot have a consensual sexual relationship with a minor. This was not an “affair.” It was statutory rape. To make sure the article does not communicate otherwise, we have changed the language to reflect the true nature of the author’s crimes.

Thank you for reading and voicing your concerns. We are listening and incorporating your feedback. We appreciate your help as we strive to build up the church and equip its leaders.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Leadership Journal

First off, if the Leadership Journal wanted to discuss clergy sexual abuse in its pages—which is a very good idea!—they could have had a professional who specializes the topic write about it, listing warning signs to watch for, accountability steps churches should take to prevent sexual abuse from occurring, the proper way to respond should suspicions arise, how to help and support victims, etc. Or they could have asked a victim to tell her story, detailing how it happened and where the church failed and how things could have been different. A victim could offer advice on how to support other victims and warning signs to watch for.

Instead, the Leadership Journal published an article by a sexual predator and written in a way that made it clear that the author had not in fact fully dealt with the gravity of what he had done. His article spoke of what happened as a consensual extra-marital affair, it placed equal of the blame on the victim, and it was written as though sexually abusing a child entrusted to your charge is something that just happens rather than an intentional process that involves a long process of manipulation and grooming and leaves a child devastated. 

Second we come to the Leadership Journal’s decision to edit the article’s language. This is not enough, and for several reasons. First, as I will discuss, the language editing doesn’t go nearly far enough. Second though, it’s irrelevant—that the anonymous author has not fully dealt with the gravity of his offense is clear from his original language. He absolutely should not have this platform. Editing some of the language rather than removing the piece is like putting a bandaid over a gushing wound. Third, that the original language made it through the editorial process suggests that the Leadership Journal’s editorial staff is not in the position to cover this issue. They need to call in an expert and listen. Until they get it—until they actually understand this issue, which currently they do not—they should not publish on the topic in their journal, which is read by pastors and youth ministers across the country.

So, what did they change? Well, some of the “we” and “our” language has been changed to “I” and “my” language. The article also now states upfront that his victim was one of his students. Except that he doesn’t actually use the term “victim.” Or “abuse.” Or “rape.” Or “grooming.” Instead he speaks of an “inappropriate relationship” and a “sexual relationship.” 

Frankly, attempting to “fix” this article is like putting a dead body on life support. It can’t be done. Actually fixing it would involve scrapping the whole thing and starting over.

Let me highlight, for example, how the anonymous author describes the grooming process:

Meanwhile, there was someone else in my life that appreciated me very much—one my students. Seeking approval and appreciation, I gravitated toward her. Before long, we were texting each other and interacting through social media. Nothing scandalous or questionable—a Facebook “like” or comment here, a friendly text there. Things friends do.

. . .

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. I was riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. I had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit’s prodding so many times, I had little willpower left.

This is passive rather than active. His student appreciated him, so he gravitated toward her. He writes that “talking and texting turned flirtatious” rather than “I began flirting with her.” Remember that he is in his 30s and his victim is at most 17, though likely younger as he notes that she started out in his core group of middle school students. Next he writes that “flirting led to a physical relationship” rather than “I initiated a physical relationship.” He goes so far as to write that “it was constantly escalating” as though he were not the one escalating it. This is not called taking responsibility.

After his “sob story” ending, this sentence is inserted:

I do not say this so you will feel sorry for me. All of this happened as a result of my own sin and selfishness.

However, there is still nothing said about how his victim was affected. Why, then, did he talk only about how his own life was wrecked and not about how he destroyed the lives of his victim and his wife? As long as the anonymous author was doing editing of his article, was there any reason he could not add how his actions have affected the lives of his victim and wife? This focus on himself and inability to see how his actions affected those around him has been, from the beginning, one of the main complaints about this article, and yet when given a chance to make changes he cannot be bothered to fix that.

This is not enough—it is not nearly enough. This piece cannot be fixed. Running it was a mistake and cannot be corrected with a few edits that do not change the article’s core. Frankly, that the editors think these edits fix the piece and allay the need for concern shows that they still do not get it. This piece needs to be pulled. Before publishing on this subject again, the editors of the Leadership Journal need to call in a professional and listen.

***Update***

Less than twelve hours after being edited to change “we” to “I,” the post has now been removed entirely. An editorial note now appears on the otherwise-empty page:

A note from the editors of Leadership Journal:

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 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.

/signed/

Marshall Shelley, editor, Leadership Journal

Harold B. Smith, president and CEO, Christianity Today International

This is a positive step and is one more piece of evidence confirming the importance of online activism, including both blogging and twitter. 🙂

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