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Why Do Evangelical Pastors Defend and Support Criminals?

god of second chances

As I wade through the neck-deep filth in the Evangelical gutter gathering information for the Black Collar Crime series, one common event shows up in story after story: when these criminals are on trial or they are being sentenced for their crimes, their pastors are on hand to let everyone know that the predator pastor was a good person who did a bad thing. Often, these testifying pastors tell judges and juries that the criminal’s good works outweigh any bad that he might have done; that molesting and raping children or sexually assaulting church members is somehow atoned for by the church member’s or ex-pastor’s good works. These so-called men of God even go so far as to ask the courts to grant the convicted offender probation, promising that the child molester/rapist has turned over a new leaf and has crossed-his-heart-hope-to-die promised that he will never, ever rape, molest, look at child porn, or take sexual advantage of a woman. Why do pastors seem so willing to be character references for criminals?

First, when a church member or colleague in the ministry is accused and convicted of a sex crime, it makes the church and pastor look bad. Churches and their pastors supposedly set the moral standard for their communities. Yet, here’s a fine, upstanding congregant or pastor behaving in ways that make a mockery of Christian morality. So the testifying pastor, by putting a good word in for the criminal, hopes to remediate his church’s reputation. Unfortunately, by testifying, what he really says to the community is that he believes there should be a separate standard of punishment for Christian church members and pastors.

Second, many pastors believe “sinning” church members and pastors deserve a second chance. If Jesus forgave them, shouldn’t everyone else? Think of all the good Child Molester Bob or Rapist Jack could do in the community if they were given probation. Why, they could travel from church to church telling how God delivered them from sexual deviancy. Isn’t God wonderful? Bob says. I stand before you today as a humbled man forgiven by God. I am so grateful that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave me another opportunity to serve him! Later that night, Bob slips into his car and drives the streets looking for another child to molest. God will forgive him, he thinks. Isn’t God awesome?

Testifying pastors seem to forget that our justice system is expected to mete out punishment to those convicted of crimes. Why all the pleas for understanding and forgiveness? These same pastors will preach thundering sermons about God’s judgment of sinners and their impending doom in Hell, yet when it comes to criminal church members and pastors, it is expected that they be treated as if their crimes were insignificant or worthy of special treatment.

Forgiveness is up to the victims and not the courts. Courts are supposed to weigh facts and evidence and render appropriate judgment. Testifying pastors are callous and tone-deaf when they ask courts to grant convicted congregants and pastors probation or community service. Should not the victims be their primary concern? Yet, in case after case, pastors re-victimize victims with their unwavering love, compassion, and support for rapists, child molesters, and those who use their positions of power to take advantage of others.

Third, some testifying pastors don’t believe the crime was as bad as prosecutors made it out to be. Yes, Youth Pastor Jim was thirty and in a position of authority, but come on, the girl was sixteen, Why, she was a-l-m-o-s-t an adult. I wonder if pastors who think this way would do so if it were THEIR daughter Youth Pastor Jim had sex with in his church office? I doubt it.

Fourth, some testifying pastors simply refuse to live in the real world. Surely, there must be some other explanation for Suzie accusing Deacon Joe of molesting her. Deacon Joe is a fine family man, the pastor says. I’ve known his family for forty years. I assure you that Deacon Bob could never, ever — I mean NEVER — molest his daughter. (Deep down he believes Suzie is possessed by a demon.) Even after the judge says GUILTY! some pastors refuse to believe the truth staring them in the face; that they didn’t know this or that pastor or church member as well as they thought they did.

Child molesters and sexual abusers can hide their behavior for decades. It is often only when children become adults that they have the courage to speak about what their father, pastor, youth pastor, deacon, teacher, or Sunday school teacher did to them. Testifying pastors wonder, why didn’t they come forward sooner? It sure looks like they did so for the money.  Evidently, such pastors expect children to act like adults, refusing to see that when an authority figure has power over someone, a victim often becomes incapacitated by fear or loss of love from family and church. It’s not that they don’t want to report what has happened to them — they can’t. And often, when victims DO speak up, what happens? They aren’t believed or they are accused of being culpable for what happened to them. This is especially the case with churches on the right-wing fringe of Evangelicalism. More than one girl has been forced to stand before her church and “confess” her sins.  Imagine being raped by a church leader, only to be forced to apologize for being such an easy target for the rapist.

I have some advice I would like to give to testifying pastors. SHUT THE HELL UP! Don’t testify. Don’t be a character reference. Don’t talk up the abuser’s good works and family. Instead, support the victims and their families. Help them find professional care for their psychological scars. Let the criminal face the just consequences of his behavior. Surely you have not forgotten that the Bible says that a man reaps what he sows. There will be plenty of time for you to minister to your convicted church member or colleague in the ministry. In open court is not the time or place.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Why does it sound radical to suggest that a pastor support the victims in bearing their pain and in getting professional (not faith-based) help for their injuries?
    Well, because extremist preachers know that the devil is roaming and powerful and very possibly those victims ARE demons who have forced good men down a road of perversion! When Doug Wilson suggested that a young girl’s parents were culpable in her rapes by a young man Doug was supporting to train in ministry), I almost tossed my cookies. He cautioned them because they somehow missed the evil in their midst and did not protect their daughter adequately. In doing this he was being a great Christian pastor, which is to say, a bully to the end. The point of this kind of belief preaching is to undermine and destroy the fallen flesh and to replace it with sweet Jesus (as defined by the Good Book/Doug Wilson.) Faith like this is designed to harm a human being even while calling that harm ‘being saved’ being ‘regenerated’, being ‘tested’.
    I think Doug is doing okay in his work these days, buying up the local town and crushing his opponents (devils) for gentle Jesus. A bully is a bully is a bully. Thank-you Jesus.

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    Perhaps there is a middle ground. I think these pastors do not understand the nature of sexual addiction.

    Years ago I spent a summer in California doing an internship with mentally disordered sex offenders. I think some of these men were genuinely repentant and grieved at what occurred. Many of them were also sexually abused as children. I don’t think it inappropriate to talk about God’s grace and forgiveness.

    But, I don’t think that precludes also being held accountable, and making restitution to the victims. I think this is all actually part of the recovery process.

    I also don’t think that it is wise for any of these folks to return to a kind of work that allows unsupervised access to minor children. To me, this is akin to someone in recovery from alcohol addiction seeking employment in a bar. It just makes no sense.

    But, I think we can offer compassion and help both to victims and to abusers.

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    I think Bruce is right on target that pastors defend criminals in their midst because they don’t want their ministry to look bad. But I wonder if part of the underlying subconscious is that evangelicala believe we are tainted pieces of dung from birth incapable of good on our own. I was taught that sin is sin is sin. A 5 year old lying to mom about breaking a vase = 30 year old man molesting a child. Each perpetrator requires salvation and forgiveness from Jesus and each will receive it if the ask properly. So everyone was once a piece of dung and now everyone is washed clean in the blood of Jesus. No differentiation, especially with the once saved always saved crowd. You backside and rape a kid? Ask for forgiveness. Done. Go and sin no more….except that most do.

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      I hear what you are saying. But the official Roman Catholic view of sin, humanity, etc is somewhat different and the cover-ups there have been monumental. . .and officially sanctioned from the top! (I speak as someone who grew up in that organization; my mother is still a very loyal member. Depressingly, she is totally loyal now, totally unquestioning, in a way that she wasn’t before all the scandals started breaking.)

      They do take the view that as long as God forgives, everything is okay and there’s no need to involve the criminal justice system. But I can’t help feeling that this is just a rationalization for their not going to the police. Canon Law is higher up the priorities than civil law, thus the continued attempts to keep things “in house.” Having said that, I’ve never yet heard of a Catholic being attacked in the street by an unknown assailant, say, and insisting that the police must not be involved: the “Canon Law is sacrosanct” stuff only seems to be applied to child abuse.

      What most religions have in common is that they are authoritarian and patriarchal. Wherever you have powerful men and largely powerless women and totally powerless children, you will have abuse. Abuse involving women and children, and violence towards women and children, is consistently viewed (unconsciously, for the most part) as no big deal. Looking fairly and squarely at abuse, and confronting it, would take courage and integrity because they would involve looking at the intrinsic mindset and power dynamics of the group. I think it’s telling that (as far as I know) there have been no child abuse scandals within the Quakers or the Unitarians, both groups that place huge emphasis on the equality of believers and who do not have a hierarchy. (Everyone needs to be on their guard, though: people (largely men) who seek to have access to children will go anywhere where there ARE children.)

      Then there’s the whole problem of “our reputation” which affects all kinds of organizations, not just religious ones.

      At base, a lot of adults will favour the testimony of another adult over that of a child. And if the suspected/accused adult is in a position of any authority, this phenomenon is even more pronounced. You get it in religious groups, you get it among social workers, you get it among mental health professionals. And you get it among John and Jane Doe too.

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        Rachel said, ” (I speak as someone who grew up in that organization; my mother is still a very loyal member. Depressingly, she is totally loyal now, totally unquestioning, in a way that she wasn’t before all the scandals started breaking.)”

        This is my experience as well coming from an IFB hx. The heart intent of the tool called religion is to harden the heart and call it softening, redeeming. The patriarchal aspect will diminish as religion learns how to continue to harm people using less patriarchal structures and such things as gender-neutral language. There will always be sex offenders in religion and elsewhere so long as we continue to be blind to respecting children as we respect adults, not using them as objects to hit and train-up. Extremes do not come out of the ether from dark-magic Satan and if we had an interest in doing so, we would soon make the fact scientifically incontravertable. Abuse begets abuse. Sometimes, as in the case of the author of Parenting without Punishing, a person undertakes to change the course of a family history and does the hard psychological/emotional work to stop abuse from being passed on in his/her own actions in life, to respectfully parent in bonded love. Many religious parents try to do this as much as is possible while still allowing the foundational belief that humankind is heart-wrecked, a fallen thing, helpless without Jesus, worthless without Mohammed etc. and this undermines their bonding with a child because it is self-harm, inherently self-harm. Still, the absence of the religion-tool would not stop abuse because religion did not begin abuse. Abuse comes from abuse. It cannot be cured by allopathic means and it cannot be punished out of somebody. All talk of flavours of religion, styles that are seemingly less viral than others misses the essential point, I think. First do no harm. Second, let the child lead you. Perhaps if magic Gawd had had the time to bond with its child instead of complaining about controlling the world, it might have known that the act of ‘sacrificing’ your own son is anti-human and utterly repugnant. (But it is important, very important in following the straight and narrow road of self-harm.)

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    It’s inherent in the twisted mentality of Christianity that focuses on “sin” and redemption. Since sin is defined by violation of taboo rather than by whether it does any harm or not, victims are of secondary importance. The focus is always on the “sinner” and his internal mental and “spiritual” state, on whether he achieves redemption or not. Victims are mere props, part of the scenery for the drama.

    You can see this mentality at work in the Catholic hierarchy’s response to child-molesting priests as well.

    As long as Christian “morality” is based on sacred taboos instead of on whether behavior harms other people or not, this mentality will persist.

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    It never ceases to amaze me all of the abuse & terrorism of children that goes on in the IFB; and yet they blast the Catholics.

    FBCH has had enough abusers thriving there to sink a battleship

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    What is most stupid about them, is pastors never warn of malignant narcissists or sociopaths who have no consciences, and who if you forgive them will just give them the power to screw you over again. I figure if pastors warned about malignant narcissists/sociopaths, a lot of them would be outing themselves and their own techniques. If anything Christian ministries blame the victims of crimes and abuse. They tell those who were abused, they received demons or they did not have blessings or protection from God. They tell people to obey those in power unquestioningly.

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    T. Paine

    “Let the criminal face the just consequences of his behavior. ”

    I absolutely agree with you, sir. Yes, God may forgive the perpetrator if they are truly contrite when asking Him for forgiveness. That does not mean that there should not be an earthly penalty for one’s crimes. I think God is very clear about us having to face the consequences of our own actions.

    Further, I don’t care if it is a pastor, deacon, or upstanding church member that is justly convicted of a heinous crime such as rape or child molestation. Frankly, I think the courts should mete out even harsher punishments to such individuals not just for their crimes but for abusing their trusted authority over their victims. This should also be the case of harsher punishments for police officers, doctors, politicians, and others in positions of authority that so abuse their offices.

    Yes, these folks may even be forgiven by their pastor or congregation for the shame they brought to the church, or even more importantly by the victim themselves. That does not excuse them from justice’s penalty. As you said, as you sow, so shall you reap.

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      Guys, I totally agree that these people should be held completely accountable, but I also strongly feel that justice has to restorative as well as simply punitive.

      Unless we’re prepared to simply put people in prison, and throw away the key, all of these folks will eventually be released from prison. If they’re not getting the help, and treatment they need while incarcerated, they will just be released to begin the cycle over again with new victims.

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        Bruce Gerencser

        Certainly, restoration and rehabilitation are laudable, worthy, important—dare I say essential—but some criminals—particularly pedophiles and rapists—have high repeat offender rates. I support such people being incarcerated without the possibility of release. The risk is too great to let them roam free.

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          I agree. Sex offenders are simply not in the same category as other criminals.

          Most people who are sent to prison are capable of being rehabilitated i.e. of being released in due course and not re-offending. They MIGHT re-offend but they are capable of real change because they are capable of remorse and guilt or, at least, of realizing that they really, really do not want to go back to prison. Paedophiles and rapists, in general, have been shown to NOT be capable of remorse or guilt. The more devious ones manipulate psychiatrists while in prison, faking a remorse that they do not feel, in order to get released. No treatment (and plenty have been tried) has been shown to work with such people.

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    This is what you get when they peddle a “cheap grace.” The Fundamental Baptist Podcast” had on none other than the Molester in Chief Dave Hyles. The Preacher Boys Podcast, or which Bruce was a guest played only two clips of said podcast. Said clips made me want to rip out what little hair I have left. Suffice it to say that there was no repentance, no remorse, no regret, no desire to repair. Basically it was mind your own business, its a local church matter, Jesus forgave me, etc. Bruce, you don’t need your whack a mole hammer – you will need a sledge hammer to take down this guy! Sadly, this seems to be the rule, rather than the exception.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    A priest sexually abused me when I was 9-10 years old. It took me decades to talk and write about it because, as Bruce observes, it would have been my word against the priest’s—if I’d even had the language to express what I’d experienced.

    Those clergy members who plead for mercy for their offending colleagues are enablers, not only because they usurp the prerogative of victims (and their loved ones) of granting (or not granting) forgiveness, but also because they are often the ones who’ve kept the victims (especially if they’re children) from having the knowledge of their bodies and themselves and the language and context for telling someone when they’ve been violated.

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      @Missimontana, you got that right! They want to protect their tribe members from consequences of their crimes while wanting to stick it to outsiders.

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Bruce Gerencser