by Lawrence Downing
It was sometime in the early to mid 1970s. My father, a devoted football fan, leaned over and whispered in my ear as we sat in a restaurant at a Los Angeles International Airport where my wife and I awaited our return flight to the east coast. “See that guy sitting over there next to the window? That’s Coach Joe Paterno” I looked across the restaurant, following my father’s gaze. Sure enough, there sat the legendary Penn State football coach.
It has not been pleasant to witness Coach Paterno’s stellar career careen to an abrupt and sad end. The University board of trustees fired Paterno and school president Graham Spanier. Paterno, Spanier and others in the Penn State administration had failed to take appropriate action when it was reported that defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, another football legend, had been seen in the school showers committing sexual acts with young boys. In addition to the firings, two other Penn State sports personnel have been charged with failing to report the incidents to authorities and others have been disciplined or put on administrative leave. The fall-out from these actions has caused distress among all those who admired and respected Paterno and the others in the football program.
This unfortunate scenario brings to mind that Adventist churches and schools have not been immune to similar distress when pastors and teachers have been found to have sexually violated another person. On more than one occasion I have listened to heart-rending accounts from former students and parents of students who were taken advantage of while enrolled in Adventist schools. I recall one individual who told me how his life had been devastated by the sexual advances of a respected teacher. He lost his trust in the Adventist church and came near to giving up his Christian faith. Over the years, he said, he had come to realize he should not allow the traumatic experience to control his life. “It still hurts,” he said, “but I’m dealing with it, and, as you see, I’m here.”
I have been the pastor in churches where a former pastor had been found guilty of sexual misconduct. The scars these transgressions leave do not heal overnight. The sadness and feelings of betrayal remain for years. In some ways, the hurt is deeper and more lasting than when a death occurs.
The contrast between the actions taken at Penn State and the responses when similar situations confront the Adventist church is instructive. Too often the church has transferred the sexual predators to other assignments or made agreements with the injured parties that demanded confidentiality. There have been occasions when the church, through its attorneys, has done all in its power to turn the tables on the accusers and contend the victims were the perpetuators or have made attempt to show the accusers made up the charges. And there are times when it has been found that the one accused is innocent and the charges bogus! There are other situations when the one charged is guilty.
Granted, the church is within its legal rights to defend itself and its employees, no matter how justified the charges. A strong defense may serve to protect the church’s reputation and its economic resources, but at what cost to the ones whose lives have been forever affected? How can we, as a church, take a high moral venue and at the same time refuse to acknowledge culpability when a church employee makes inappropriate and illegal sexual advances toward a young person or another who has trusted the individual? Have we yielded our moral compass to the legal system and insurance company mandates? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, we surrender our claims to a higher standard than those practiced by secular corporations.
When we refuse to accept responsibility for actions perpetuated by trusted and respected people, we become one with the organizations that seek first to maintain image and reputation. ‘The institution must survive at any cost,’ takes precedence over ‘What is right?’ It is unfortunate when an organization has as its default positions: Do not admit fault. Do not express apology. Do not show remorse. Do not seek forgiveness from those who have been violated by a trusted individual. This is the corporate way.
I do not have a satisfying solution to the question of how the corporate church, within the context of a corporate and legal framework, can best respond when an employee has engaged in sexual impropriety. Church administrators do have responsibility to protect the church assets, its name and reputation. But assets are not limited only to those of economics. People have value, too, and when a church employee violates another person, there is an implicit need to give appropriate response to do all possible to protect and restore that valuable person. What I am not comfortable with is what appears to be our present policy of denial and aggressive, win-at-any-cost defense when individuals have brought charges of sexual misconduct against church employees.
The challenge for church administrators is to create and implement a method that takes effective, swift, decisive and fair action when an employee is found to have violated a vulnerable person. At the same time, it is important to assure the charges are justified and not fabricated for personal economic gain. A difficult assignment in today’s litigious environment! Perhaps there is someone who reads this who can offer a viable alternative to what we have now. If so, please share your insights.