Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Penn State and the Millstone

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Luke 17:1-5

At the close of the ordination service at our United Methodist Annual Conference the Bishop invites anyone who is considering ordained ministry to come forward. We sing while they kneel in prayer. Pastors who are close to these potential candidates for ministry come forward to kneel with them. There are hugs and tears. And then the Bishop prays.

One year several young women made their way to the front of the sanctuary. There was a buzz as we realized that they were all from the same church. As their beloved pastor greeted them one by one, we were amazed that his ministry had so inspired them. The pastor was leaving that church to become a District Superintendent, and the young candidates for ordained ministry were the final signature of his effectiveness.

We were impressed.

Later that summer we received a new Bishop. And shortly after that, the new pastor who had replaced the beloved pastor went to the new Bishop with allegations of sexual misconduct by the beloved former pastor. If that same scenario played out today, I don’t think I would be surprised. But it happened thirty years ago, and I could not believe that the allegations were true. The pastor was known and loved. He was, we thought, a person of integrity and faithfulness.

To me, and to many of my colleagues, it looked like a rush to judgment. There were rumors that the new Bishop was reacting to a threatened lawsuit. We worried that he did not know this trusted pastor as well as we did. In the back channels of clergy communication, it was portrayed as a disgruntled parishioner with a grudge against his pastor. A friend and I went to see the Bishop on behalf of our colleagues. We asked about the process and we asked if this beloved pastor was being sacrificed to avoid legal complications.

Our new Bishop was open to our concerns, but firm in his resolve. He explained how the new pastor had begun asking questions when he noticed that none of the young people in the youth group wanted to be in his office. It did not take long to find someone who would tell him the story.

When he investigated the allegations brought by the new pastor, the Bishop found that they were not new. The previous Bishop had heard the complaints, but had tried to resolve them by making the beloved pastor a District Superintendent.

We spent at least an hour with the Bishop. It wasn’t about one disgruntled parent or the unsubstantiated allegations of one young woman. There were multiple victims. Without revealing confidences or compromising any of the potential legal issues, he walked us through the sequence of events. We were shocked. It was unbelievable and yet it was clearly true.

Later another colleague told me that he had suspicions decades earlier, but had no way to act on them, and he believed the beloved pastor’s explanation that it was all just a misunderstanding.

Today my office has a large glass window in the wall. Next to my office is a conference room, and it also has a large glass window. All of our classrooms have glass panels in the doors. We require every volunteer to have a criminal background check and we have strict guidelines about how adults and children can interact. And every pastor in the United Methodist Church undergoes a criminal background check every five years.

We call this program and process “Safe Sanctuaries.” It is built on the fundamental conviction that the church must be a safe place for our children. It is not enough to tell ourselves that we all know each other and we all trust each other. The kids have to come first.

As I think about the wreckage of the Penn State scandal, experience tells me how easy it is to be deceived by someone we think we know. Sadly, no one is above suspicion. I knew that before the Penn State story unfolded, but I still find it a very uncomfortable reality.

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