By Danni Moss
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I hear these words again and again and again. I wish there were a way to make you hear them too — particularly the fact that these words are said in every case of clergy sex abuse.
By the nature of the office, a pastor is someone you trust. The man would not have been hired as a pastor if he came across as a slimy pedophile. He wouldn’t keep his career over time if he didn’t maintain an absolutely believable personna. His position is to bring the word of God to a group of Christians and to engage in their lives as a positive influence. He would not keep his job if he were not able to accomplish that.
So, every church leader who is convicted of sex abuse has perfected a completely believable image. It is impossible to see through the perfected image of someone who is good at what they do. The role of pastor is one of public image. That image is supposed to be a true and factual reflection of the inner man. But if a man is a pastor – whether the image is real or false – he has a fully believable image as a sincere and faithful man of God. It is unusual for pedophilia to be visible to anyone so it is always a complete, unbelievable shock.
However, in nearly every case, people persist in believing the pastor they know is innocent. A pedophile in the pulpit only happens to all those other churches. And this belief continues unabated in the face of a guilty plea. Often the pastor or his closest family/friends insist that the guilty plea was just to spare the family more pain, or to get a lighter sentence since “the court will always find in favor of the alleged victims.” (In fact, this is not true. The court is a good bit smarter than that and is reluctant to convict without overwhelming proof.)
I’ve been addressing this issue recently in several different cases of pastor sexual abuse charges almost simultaneously. On this I am inflexible — if a man pleads guilty in court, he is guilty. Here is why.
If the pastor were actually innocent, but chose to plead guilty, there are several serious issues which are raised. First of all, to do so would require lying on the stand. How can a Christian justify that? The act of lying on the stand would make that man unqualified for being a pastor. Second, it would be a violation of the Word by calling evil good — agreeing with evil and saying it is true. Third, it reflects poorly on God’s reputation. Do we have the right to do that, even if it will get us home to our family faster? Fourth, I doubt anyone is naive about conditions in prison. “They say” that child molesters are treated worst in prison by other inmates (with the possible exception of former law enforcement officers). Whether the sentence is the minimum or the maximum – it is not good. And last, one of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith is trusting God. Why would a pastor lie instead of trusting God?
If a pastor is innocent and pleads guilty he has mistreated and abused the church. Pleading guilty shatters people’s faith and trust. Many people have walked away from the church and God because of clergy abuse. A pastor’s guilty plea hurts MANY people and causes many to question their faith and their own ability to judge people or choose trustworthy companions and leaders. I know this because I talk to them day after day.
A pastor who pleads guilty in court has testified with his own mouth that he has abused the trust of his friends and congregation. Whether or not he actually committed the crime, the result is the same. This is not an option for a man of God. With every action and word of his life he is representing God to people. That is why the Bible says that church leaders are to be blameless. That means without blame. A pastor who is innocent has no right to plead guilty for any reason. If he pleads guilty he is to be treated as if he is guilty. His word is to be believed, especially since he swore to tell the truth in court. There is no other option. Period.
On the other hand, denial is practically universal in issues of clergy sex abuse. I completely understand why people deny the pastor/friend/family member they know and love could possibly be guilty. The thing that is hard for me, is that I see this all the time and everyone says the same thing. They are sure this time their pastor/friend is innocent.
The problem with that is it keeps people from healing and it piles blame on victims who should be able to find healing in the church. Instead the church is hostile to the victims and embraces the pastor who has pled guilty. To me this is so obviously wrong, and yet it is happening consistently, persistently. I know people personally – lots of people – who persist in believing a clergy member innocent in spite of gross, persistent and long-term abuse. People will believe whatever they are determined to believe, even if it is to their harm and the harm of others.
If a pastor pleads guilty, he is guilty. If for some reason he pled guilty when he wasn’t guilty, he is guilty of lying, of causing people under his influence to question themselves, their judgment, in some cases even the validity of Christianity. Worst of all, he is guilty of besmirching the reputation of God — something no pastor has any right to do.
One other thing, with almost universal consistency, clergy who are accused of, and proven guilty of, sexual abuse persist in claiming they are innocent. When a pastor spins their circumstance as a guilty plea for some other reason while saying he is actually innocent, it is CLASSIC. All this denial of guilt accomplishes is to underscore the fact that pedophiles are nearly impossible to rehabilitate. Denial negates absolution. There is no forgiveness (by God) and no reconciliation (with man) with denial, even if that denial is implied. If the accused pastor were actually innocent, he would be reinforcing and affirming the idea that he is no different than all the other pastor pedophiles by lying in court with a guilty plea followed by private assertions of innocence.
We need to accept the pastor’s guilt when he pleads guilty. There is no other choice. We cannot persist in believing he is innocent. By pleading guilty he has made himself guilty, regardless. We must accept the plea as stated and then honestly face the aftermath of this reality.