[content note: rape, rape apologism]
Yesterday, Christianity Today's imprint, Leadership Journal, published a long form piece by a former youth pastor who had been convicted of child sexual abuse for molesting a student in his group. To be quite honest, I’m not surprised that the editors at Leadership Journal let this sort of story be posted, as many in the pastorate salivate over “stories of redemption” and “cautionary tales.”
This post, however, was neither of those. Instead, Leadership Journal gave space and room to allow a convicted rapist to tell his side of the story, to justify himself, and to do so under the guise of warning other pastors away.
The story this rapist tells goes like this: he and his wife joined a church whose youth ministry was failing and falling apart, and he came in and brought it up to success. The group went from a small closely knit group to forty or more kids, with activities and missions trips and church camps and fun! But this youth pastor - so he implies - was not getting his needs met at home and pridefully, sinfully sought out a relationship with someone else. He “strayed,” beginning an adulterous relationship - or at least it is framed that way.
Finally, on page five - after this former pastor and convicted rapist has rambled for four pages about all the good he was doing and how he was prideful during that time - he reveals with a flourish that the person he was having a relationship with was a student. A student he had known probably since she was a pre-teen, judging from how he talks about the youth group. A student whom he groomed, via extra attention, via texts and gifts and other typical grooming techniques, into being his victim.
His wife finally caught him and he lost everything. And these consequences - losing his wife, his children, his job, and having to register as a sex offender - seem to be what trouble him the most. That he actively harmed a teen girl who was in his care, who will now have trouble trusting authority figures and men for the rest of her life and now has this trauma to deal with, never seems to cross his mind.
He closes the article with a troubling statement:
You know your own area of selfishness. Maybe it’s dangerously close to mine. Are you flirting with a student, playing favorites or struggling with lust? Whatever it is, stop now. Repent of your sin and make it known to those who need to know: your spouse, your boss, your accountability partner. Deal with your sin before it destroys your life and brings down your family and church in the process.
Submit your ministry, marriage and life to the Lord. He is faithful. He will establish you and guard you from the evil one. Put to death in you what is earthly, so God can get back to using you for His glory.
Sooner or later, all things come into the light.
I’ve been studying rape culture, working with rape victims, and looking into the sociology and mindsets of rapists for a few years now. One thing I’ve learned is that rapists believe other men think like them. They test boundaries in mixed company, looking to see if the group will laugh off rape or write it off. They assume that other men look at women like they do - as objects, not victims. And they look for endorsement and approval from other men - not by explicitly talking about their actions, but by framing it in ways where “we all struggle with this kind of thing!”
This is what this former youth pastor and child rapist is doing at the end of his piece. He is looking for other pastors to say “yeah, I get tempted by teenage girls too.” His last warning statement, “all things come to light” is emphatically not a statement of repentance. It is not an acknowledgement that what he did was prima facie wrong. Instead, he is saying, “don’t do this sin that I know everyone struggles with because you will get caught.”
This rapist doesn’t regret what he did because it was wrong to use his position of power to rape a girl less than half his age. He still clearly sees it as an equal, adulterous relationship. He regrets, simply, that he got caught, that he lost his power and prestige over it. That is what he thinks is wrong. And by writing this piece, he is looking for absolution - he is looking for the endorsement of “yes, all men think this way and it’s only your fault in that you didn’t have a secure enough support system.”
And Leadership Journal - and by extension, Christianity Today, by allowing this to be published on their domain - handed him that endorsement. They allowed a rapist room to revictimize his victim, to find validation in the eyes of his fellow pastors, and to go through the motions of repentance without actually repenting. No editor should have let this piece through as it is.
Edited to Add:
After the furor raised, the editors of the Leadership Journal met and added an author’s note to the piece, at the bottom of the last page. It reads:
Author’s Note: In response to readers’ concerns, the author of this piece has offered the following clarification: “I recognize that what I initially considered a consensual relationship was actually preying on a minor. Youth pastors who do the same are not “in relationship” but are indeed sexual predators. I take 100 percent of the responsibility for what happened.”
The editors did not contact me or any of the other people concerned about the piece. This addendum also does not address the main question of why Leadership Journal felt this piece was appropriate nor does it speak to what they hope it would accomplish. As I said above, a major part of the problem here lies not with the author, but with the endorsement he is implicitly given by being handed this platform to justify himself. He can say he takes responsibility when pressed, but it doesn’t add up with the facts we have before us.
Leadership Journal, by essentially remaining silent, is still endorsing this man’s view of the world.