by Larry Downing  |  December 24, 2017  |  

The Vietnam War, Woodstock and the Hippie Free Love movement. Each contributed to what defined the ‘50s and ‘60s. The divisiveness of Vietnam continues to our day. “Joint” and “grass” became part of our vocabulary. The hippies provided new meaning to free love. The free love advocates brought sex to America’s attention in a jarring in-your-face manner. Their mottos: “If it feels good, do it.” “If you feel like it, do it, at any time, at any place, with whomever.”

In the past few months we have witnessed a new sexual revolution, a sexual upheaval as profound and unsettling as in the days when the Free Love movement left its indelible mark on contemporary society. We are no longer shocked when we learn that another man of power and wealth has been brought low. Once-sterling reputations have been besmirched. Men once perceived to be models of propriety and integrity are called monsters and worse by those they abused.

The dark shadow of sexual abuse and harassment that has captivated the news media is a wakeup call to all organizations. Sexual offenses are not limited to the high and mighty in the business, entertainment and political worlds. This same dark shadow is known to have passed over religious organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist church. When a trusted and respected church employee or parish leader violates a person, the effect upon that individual, of whatever age, leaves an indelible mark. The harm is not limited to only the one violated. The predator’s evil behavior impacts family, parish members and the community.

I have twice in my pastoral career witnessed the lingering negative effects upon a congregation when a pastor, years before my arrival, had become sexually involved with women in the parish. Trust was shattered and trust, when broken, takes time and patience to restore. The memory lurks dark in the recesses of the minds of those who lived through the destructive incidents.

In the not too long ago, when a pastor or teacher experienced a “moral fall” it was not uncommon for the transgression to be swept under the rug. The perpetrator might well have been transferred to another location or position, there, in some instances, to carry on the predation. Seldom were charges brought against the man (and it was invariably a male) whose inappropriate behavior harmed those he was responsible to protect and care for. The ones violated were frequently ignored. They were not provided emotional, spiritual, or financial support, and worse, they, on occasion, were blamed for inciting the pastor or teacher to engage in immoral behavior. (For the record, the person in the power position who sexually abuses or harasses a subordinate is the one at fault. This is doubly so when a minor is the one violated.)

Today it is a different world. Rich and famous alike, who sexually violate or harass another, stand on a public scaffold of shame. When a woman states that she was sexually violated, her report is given credibility, and, as we have seen in numerous high-profile cases, the accused is fired or forced to resign. This is in marked contrast to what was evident in the Senate Judiciary’s response to Anita Hill’s testimony when she described the alleged harassment by her boss, Clarence Thomas,

To this point, in the most recent media frenzy, no religious personality stands among the accused. We can expect this situation to change.

To this point, in the most recent media frenzy, no religious personality stands among the accused. We can expect this situation to change. Religious professionals, including those in the Adventist church, are not immune to the “desires of the flesh.” One can find examples of nefarious action on the part of pastors, evangelists, church administrators and teachers that parallels the raunchy behavior of those whose antics are reported in the media.

In attempts to quiet or cover-up claims of harassment or sexual abuse against church employees, church administrators have often not reported those who harassed or sexually abused others. Motives for the reluctance to take legal or civil action may arise from good intention: leaders want to protect the church from ridicule and liability. In the familial environment of the church, where people have close ties to each other, the predator may be a long-time friend or relative or be deemed a valuable asset to the church. I once asked a conference president, who had hired a man who left his wife for the wife of another pastor, why he had hired the guy. His immediate response: “He’s a soul winner.” And that fixes everything?

It is no stretch to state that sexual abuse by clergy and others in ministry is a violation of a sacred trust and the laws of the land. Such acts have resulted in significant emotional, spiritual and financial loss. The amount of money Adventist Risk Management has paid out to people sexually abused or harassed by church employees is not published information. It is, however, more than pocket change!

Those who prey upon children are at the bottom of the moral heap. The individual who abuses a child, as has been perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests, causes life-long injury. In many states, including California, it is the law that when a pastor or other professional is made aware that a child has been molested, civil authorities must be notified. Confidentiality does not control in such situations! Clergy and others who abuse children or who sexually abuse children are not to be shielded, protected, or transferred to another area or job. They are to be reported to the police. (The same process is valid for those who abuse their spouse. It was my practice, as part of a sermon, to state that if a person’s spouse is abusive, call the police. I said to “tell your spouse the pastor said to do it.”)

Conferences and churches, in response to those who target children, have become more intentional in their selection of those who work with children and youth. It is common to have the adult fingerprinted and cleared by the police. It is important for church leaders be on alert for males who show special interest in working with kids. A child predator is a shifty, clever and creative individual who will use his wiles to ingratiate himself (and it is usually a male) to the church leaders and the kids. A child predator may have the “God talk” down pat, but his words are poison.

Might one question whether the General Conference mandate against the ordination of women violates this court decision? My answer: It does! It is not only a civil law that condemns the official denominational stance on the treatment of women in the workplace; there is the matter of moral integrity at stake.

It is important to remind church leaders and administrators, whether paid or volunteer, that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines on the identification and elimination of sexual harassment as an illegal form of sex discrimination in workplaces. (Might one question whether the General Conference mandate against the ordination of women violates this court decision? My answer: It does! It is not only a civil law that condemns the official denominational stance on the treatment of women in the workplace; there is the matter of moral integrity at stake. How can an organization that violates moral values expect to be taken seriously when it calls others to practice a high moral standard?)

 The U.S. Supreme Court (1986) in Meritor v. Vinson clarified and strengthened the concept of “unwanted conduct,” and named sexual harassment as a form of illegal sex discrimination. The Court found that companies and organizations may be held liable for the misbehavior of an employee against another.

The Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Executive Committee has voted a policy that serves as a viable model to guard against sexual abuse and harassment. It might serve as a model for other conferences, including the General Conference. It reads, in part:

Each person is to uphold the laws of the land and God’s moral laws. The Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists affirms the sacredness of all persons and accepts the responsibility to provide a place where people can worship, be nurtured and cared for and be safe. Domestic violence and sexual abuse is sin and the Church pledges to work for their eradication. The Church commits itself to listen to the stories of battered spouses, rape victims, abused children, adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and all others who are violated and victimized. The Church further commits itself to provide leadership in responding with justice and compassion to the presence of domestic violence and sexual abuse among its employees, membership and within the community at large. It will not condone or support those  who violate this trust.

Laws and board actions and policies will not end abusive actions or harassment. Neither will well-intentioned statements guarantee that sexual predators will stop their predation. Official response to misbehavior does put people on notice that certain behaviors are not acceptable and that action will be taken when a policy is violated. The challenge is to implement what is voted and to initiate meaningful and timely action against those who abuse or who harass others.


Lawrence Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. 

To comment, click here.