“I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,” Robert J. Carlson, the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Louis, said in a deposition released earlier this week. Carlson was talking about the sexual abuse of a child by a priest who served under him when he was an auxiliary bishop in Minnesota.
But that, alas, is not the most appalling, foolish and inadvertently revealing statement this week about sanctimonious sexual predators who target children. That dishonor goes, instead, to Leadership Journal, the magazine for white evangelical clergy published by Christianity Today. Carlson can’t compete with CT’s horrifying decision to publish this: “My Easy Trip From Youth Minister to Felon.”
(Reader’s discretion advised: Those links and the remainder of this post discuss some really disturbing stuff.)
The anonymous former youth minister, writing from prison, is every bit as narcissistic and self-justifying as Humbert Humbert, if not as repulsively charming as the unreliable narrator of Nabokov’s novel. And his agenda throughout the piece is the same as Humbert’s, only with a sanctimonious sheen of religiosity and pious Bible-talk (including, of course, the obligatory self-comparison to poor King David, who in the writer’s telling was simply not spiritual strong enough to resist raping the tawdry temptress Bathsheba).
The writer’s methodical selection, isolation and grooming of his victim began when she was still in middle school — something readers will find only from reading between the lines of his apologia. But he (and the editors of Leadership Journal) presents the story as though it were a slowly developing romantic affair, a mutual sin entered into by two equals who were equally culpable.
The guy goes on to discuss the impact this “spiritual lapse” has had on him — but only on him. He mentions its effect on his wife and children only in passing, bemoaning that he’s unfairly not seen his children since she packed them up and left. (He does discuss his wife a great deal earlier in the piece — blaming her for his “affair” by piously pretending he’s not doing that.)
The writer also doesn’t discuss the impact of his actions on the larger church community and congregation. Or on the dozens of young people in the youth group he led.
And above all he never discusses the impact on the victim herself. After portraying this girl, throughout, as his equal partner in mutual sin, he never tells us what became of her. He seems not to think about that. Or about what will become of her, and what her recovery from this will entail.
If he thinks of his victim at all, it seems he does so only to resent her. He never says so explicitly, but it seems quite clear that he finds it deeply unfair that he is in prison while she is not. Despite a hollow postscript in which he recites that he takes “100 percent” of the responsibility for his actions, it’s clear this guy still does not understand why his victim does not belong in prison, or why he does.
This solipsistic disregard for those he has harmed isn’t surprising. Most rapists and predators do not care about the future fate of their victims.
What is surprising — and deeply disturbing — was that the editors at Christianity Today and Leadership Journal don’t seem to have given any thought to the child this man harmed either.
That is what makes this article particularly horrifying. The piece itself, as a document, may be of use to law enforcement, criminal profilers and criminal psychologists. The man is an articulate narcissist, and his lengthy apologetic offers a window into the sanctimonious rationalizations that clergy predators employ as they go about the business of grooming their young victims. This essay is exactly the sort of creepy psychological evaluation you’d expect to hear Spencer Reed quoting from in an episode of Criminal Minds.
But that’s not how Leadership Journal presented it. The article was offered, instead, as a cautionary tale — a warning to clergy that the statutory rape of children in their spiritual care is probably a bad idea mainly because you might get caught.
Leadership Journal’s presentation of this article, and its preferential option for the predator is, in a way, even more disturbing than the ugly false pieties and delusional Humbertism of the writer himself. This is the leading magazine for white evangelical clergy. Christianity Today bills it as a forum which “Discusses the critical issues in ministry through practical articles and interviews featuring pastors and Christian leaders sharing their experiences in dealing with ministry challenges and related issues.” Yet Leadership Journal presents its readers with this article as though it were saying, “Hey there, fellow pastors, you know how sometimes we all think about raping middle-schoolers in our congregations? It’s so tempting … amirite fellas? But don’t go there, guys, because you could end up in jail.”
And LJ’s attempts to correct things only get skeevier. An editorial note appended to the piece today says:
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.
Yes, but in LJ’s view the tragedy of “this tragic problem” is that hundreds of poor youth leaders are winding up in jail, their once-promising careers destroyed, their families broken. That is the full extent of the tragedy as far as this article is concerned, and ministering to these fallen ministers takes priority for LJ over every other response.
Fortunately, the response to this story has been overwhelming and forceful, with LJ slowly being made to realize it is unable to defend its indefensible decision to publish this diary of a predator.
This response took shape online around the Twitter hashtag #TakeDownThatPost, which has become a rallying point for a host of powerful, true responses from dozens of writers. A magazine calling itself “Leadership Journal” should take note: This is what real leadership really looks like.
And the leaders demonstrating this real leadership to the self-proclaimed “leaders” of Leadership Journal? They’re mostly women. Which is to say that they’re the very type of people that Leadership Journal often denies should be able or permitted to lead at all.
Here are a handful of the many excellent responses from #TakeDownThatPost.
• Samantha Field, “Leadership Journal, Christianity Today, and #TakeDownThatPost”
• Tamara Rice, “Because It’s Time to Take Down That Post”
• Dianna E. Anderson, “On How the Church Discusses Abuse: Denying the Endorsement”
• Suzannah Paul, “Because purity culture harbors rape & abuse”
• Libby Anne, “Christianity Today Publishes a Rapist’s Story”
• Anonymous, “My Innocence Was Stolen From Me”
• Mary DeMuth, “Dear Man in Prison”