"As dismaying as Wilson’s actions have been, perhaps even more upsetting has been the silence from the Reformed corner of the evangelical church."
The Doug Wilson / Steven Sitler debacle continues to garner attention around the blogosphere, and rightly so. Earlier today I read an excellent analysis over at Vintage73.com. Mike Sloan and Beth Hart have written the post we are featuring today. For those not familiar with Vintage 73, it is a . . .
collaborative blog focusing on the culture and values of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The site was born out of a desire for honest and charitable discussion within and about the PCA. Read about the genesis of our blog and learn more about our contributors below.
We are grateful that Mike Sloan and Beth Hart are addressing this very serious matter.
Doug Wilson's Failure to Safeguard Children (link)
by Mike Sloan and Beth Hart
[Authors’ Note: Even before we wrote this article, ink has been spilled over the language “sexual stimulation” with regard to Sitler’s interaction with his baby. These words could be taken to imply molestation or rape, but not necessarily, and not in our opinion given the current evidence. It seems what was intended is that Sitler was himself sexually stimulated by thinking about his baby. And yet we stand by our labeling this “alleged sexual abuse”. It stands to reason that this was more than simply a fleeting temptation given the state’s response. It seems most likely they were an intentional indulgence by Sitler. So while this is not a criminal act in the state of Idaho, by a Christian moral standard this is horrific child sexual abuse, as Sitler was allegedly using thoughts of his own baby to gratify himself sexually. Using a baby as an object in this way is a disturbing act of abuse. Whatever the case this has no bearing on the truth that Sitler should be no where near any child, even his own.]
Doug Wilson’s leadership decisions directly led to the endangerment and alleged sexual abuse of a baby. In August, 2015, the baby’s father, a convicted sex offender and clinically diagnosed pedophile, Steven Sitler, failed a polygraph that revealed “heinous” violations of his probation with regard to his own infant child such that the Idaho Department of Correction ordered him to have no contact with the baby.
Wilson has come under criticism as he provided pastoral care for Sitler who is a member of Wilson’s church. Why should Wilson suffer criticism when Sitler is the offender? The criticism has merit because abuse happens through the actions of abusers as well as through the negligent actions of adults who do not properly safeguard children.
In three critical arenas, Doug Wilson acted irresponsibly, and his actions allowed a serial pedophile access to a vulnerable baby. This access led to preventable endangerment wherein Sitler used his baby for “sexual stimulation.” In the first arena, Wilson advocated for limited legal accountability for Sitler’s crimes when he was originally tried and convicted in 2005. In the second arena, Wilson officiated Sitler’s ill-advised wedding in 2011. In the third arena, Wilson’s public responses to Sitler’s most recent legal trouble reveal his teachings about pedophilia, accountability, child protection, and grace that create a culture where children are exposed instead of protected.
Despite Wilson’s dereliction of pastoral duty, the evangelical and Reformed church community remains silent on this issue of child sexual abuse. Silence in the face of child sexual abuse only helps to maintain the status quo, a status quo that led to a pedophile’s easy access to a vulnerable baby.
Arena #1: Wilson Advocates for “Measured and Limited” Legal Accountability
Two measures of genuine repentance for pedophiles is their awareness of the damage their actions cause and their ability to own full accountability for that destruction. Offenders typically only confess when they get caught, like Sitler. When pedophiles are caught (as opposed to them proactively seeking help before they have offended), they display an extreme lack of awareness about how their attitudes and actions bring incredible harm, and their repentance must be judged with great care and wisdom. Offenders are masters of deception and manipulation, often saying what people want to hear so that they attract attention and compassion toward themselves and away from their victims.
Moreover, regardless of anyone’s judgment about their repentance, people who have abused a child show they are capable of harming children and must never be allowed access to children again. Never. Full stop. Not once. No exceptions. Children are too vulnerable, and pedophilia is too serious a crime for exceptions. There are no measures too drastic in order to keep a child from the evil of sexual abuse. Repentant offenders will realize their danger and will insist on strict accountability, including no access to children. Sitler originally received a fair and just life sentence for his crimes.
In 2005, as Sitler was being sentenced, Wilson wrote the judge asking for leniency in the realm of civil penalties, arguing that he believed Sitler was genuinely repentant. Among Wilson’s evidence for this assertion was Sitler’s willingness to sit through a handful of sessions with Wilson, including the completion of assignments (which included reading books). Wilson also assessed that Sitler was “completely open and honest” with him and that Sitler was growing in his awareness of his problem. In other words, Sitler confessed to certain wrongs, and Wilson believed that this confession was the whole story, demonstrating Sitler’s change of heart.
Wilson, in the letter, does not explicitly factor into his assessment how Sitler was caught in his crimes. Sitler, nonetheless, has been deceiving people since he was a young man, serially abusing children (a court document filed by his defense references Sitler’s “volume of offenses over the years”). With training, Wilson would know that offenders typically only admit to as little of their crimes as possible. Offenders also know the language that pastors expect to hear. No doubt Wilson would agree that repentance is more than words, and yet, in this case, he seems to have accepted these few talks with Sitler as establishing enough repentance to advocate for “measured and limited” punishment. The Bible is clear that, at best, words are only the beginning of repentance, and that repentance is a heart change that must bear fruit over time in actions (Luke 3:8-14). In fact, a repentant pedophile would not argue for a limited punishment, but instead, accept the full legal consequences of the crimes.
Doug Wilson has no professional licensing or accreditation in treatment for sexual offenders. Wilson founded a church, denomination, college, and minister training school, but evaluating a pedophile’s repentance is beyond his expertise. The professional evaluation of Sitler is that he is a “high risk” offender. A few sessions of pastoral counseling with a high risk offender should not be used to judge the genuineness of repentance. Sitler’s subsequent violations of his probation and failed polygraphs demonstrate how Wilson prematurely judged Sitler.
With more training in the dynamics of abuse as well as a dose of humility, Sitler could still be in jail instead of free to harm children. With training in the dynamics of child sexual abuse or consultations with an expert, Wilson could have recognized that Sitler was not demonstrating actual repentance, a costly failure on Wilson’s part. Pastors have a responsibility to protect the sheep in their flocks from dangerous wolves (Ez 34; Acts 20). The current publicity surrounding abuse and abuse dynamics makes it impossible for pastors to claim the excuse of ignorance. This is not just a mistake or oversight, but a grave dereliction of pastoral responsibility.
In 2005, excellent resources were available to understand from experts how predators deceive and how we can see through their deception and manipulation. Anna Salter, in her book, Predators, shows that 93% of convicted offenders identify as religious. Sexual offenders are common in the Christian environment because in churches they typically find easy targets. Offenders groom not only their victims, but their churches to see them as caring people, masking their true agenda. Christians tend to just trust that the people around them are wonderful people (because most of the time they are!). At the same time, this environment is also a recipe for abuse if Christians are not trained and following best practices in child protection.
Without informed training, pastors will not recognize pedophiles’ false repentance. The fruit of Sitler’s repentance is absent. Within months, the bad fruit in his heart resurfaced, including violating his probation and, most disturbingly, demonstrating the classic offender attitude of hubris and entitlement: “Mr. Sitler continues to do things his way, and continues to make disclosures and still fails the polygraphs, to which leaves one to think of how much he is not disclosing (emphasis added).” Despite these latest reports of Sitler’s deception and “heinous” violations, Wilson still holds on to the notion that Sitler is repentant as of Saturday, September 5, defending himself and Sitler, saying, “since Steven’s conviction and conditional release from prison and jail, Steven, as a penitent Christian, has been welcome at Christ Church, and has worshiped regularly with us since that time.”
Wilson should never have advocated for leniency because there is no solid foundation to claim Sitler is repenting. Advocating for a “measured and limited” civil penalty does not protect children in the community or help pedophiles walk in repentance.
Arena #2: Wilson Officiates Sitler’s Wedding
Before Sitler’s wedding in 2011, the Idaho Department of Correction did not support this marriage, and Sitler’s probation officer testified in court that if Sitler’s marriage produced children, he should be forced to live separately from his children. Although the judge allowed the marriage to go forward, this was against the advice of the Idaho Department of Correction. The Department of Correction knew that having Sitler in the home with his own child would pose a danger to the child. The representative from the Department of Correction correctly pointed out that if Sitler lived in the same home as his future child, there would be times when Sitler was unchaperoned around the child because his wife would have to sleep. Wilson had the opportunity to intervene on behalf of any future little children’s safety. Instead, he officiated the wedding.
As a pastor, Doug Wilson had a moral obligation to go above and beyond the protection that the state can provide. Despite the judge’s ruling, Wilson must answer to Jesus through whom God will judge the world, and who speaks strongly against anyone who harms a child, saying, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). In these words, Jesus acknowledges the inherent danger of anyone who has abused a child and the urgent need to guard children against these abusers through physical and permanent separation between the abuser and any child. Jesus never minimizes the danger an abuser is to children or risks exposing children to harm.
Jesus shows the church what grace looks like when responding to child abuse: children take priority. Grace rescues the vulnerable and oppressed (Ps 82:1-4). The church must immediately and permanently remove access to children for anyone who has abused a child.The church must diligently guard potential victims by ensuring that people who harm children never have access to children again. Such actions display God’s grace and kindness. The gospel of grace leads Christians to defend sheep from wolves.
If an admitted and diagnosed serial pedophile like Sitler is walking in repentance, he would demonstrate that repentance by renouncing the possibility of having children and thus marriage. Instead, Sitler proposed on the second date to his future wife and, according to the Department of Corrections, Sitler said having children was very important to his religion. Wilson, as a spiritual authority in Sitler’s life, should have intervened to hold Sitler accountable to his repentance. The most loving and gracious action toward Sitler himself would have been to seek to stop the marriage so Sitler would not be put in the potential position of harming another child. Wilson had a moral obligation to intervene for future victims and Sitler, but he did not.
Arena #3: Wilson Responds Publicly
Wilson’s public responses have displayed no awareness of the damage his leadership has caused victims. In “An Open Letter from Christ Church on Steven Sitler,” Wilson places 100 percent of the blame for the situation upon Sitler’s shoulders. No doubt Sitler bears full responsibility for his actions, but Wilson played a key role in exposing children to a dangerous man. In the statement, Wilson denies the risk Sitler poses to his own child, and the part he has played in orchestrating the risk, saying, “Our ministry to Steven, in other words, has not been conducted at the expense of any children in our church community, or in a way that puts any of them at risk.” However, the church and Wilson have put Sitler’s baby at risk, so much so that Sitler has been ordered not to have any contact with his son until reliable chaperones can be secured. Then, moving forward, this child can only have contact with his father under a chaperone’s direct line of sight. This scenario is the very definition of high-risk as children cannot protect themselves from predators. Instead, they rely upon the adults in their lives to advocate for their safety. Wilson has been in a position to advocate for this baby’s safety but has not. It is also been noted that Wilson failed to inform his congregation in a timely fashion that Sitler was a danger to their children. Without raising any suspicion, Sitler could have easily gained access to their children because of Wilson’s failure to notify them. Wilson’s actions have put children at risk.
Wilson continues to defend himself by saying it is the church’s job to minister to sinners. Wilson writes, “the task of ministering to broken people is one of the central glories of the Christian church. For us, there are two causes of rejoicing in this. The first is that Christ came into the world for the sake of the screwed-up people.” However, not all sins have equal repercussions in this present world. A pedophile in the church is best described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. People who sexually abuse children prey upon vulnerable lambs as wolves do. If the church treats pedophiles like any other Christian who struggles with any other sin, then it will sacrifice all its precious little lambs to the wolf. The church must not minister to wolves at the expense of the sheep. Children pay the cost when leaders do not respond appropriately to pedophiles. Pastors commonly mistake child sexual abuse as just another sin. Doing so removes the urgency from proactive child protection and demands a high cost in children’s lives.
Furthermore, Wilson’s responses are a failure of empathy. In the five public statements (statement 1, statement 2, statement 3, statement 4, statement 5) Wilson has issued in the past few days, never does he mention sorrow for this vulnerable baby who has been the victim of his pedophile father’s “heinous” behavior. Instead, Wilson’s public statements argue that he is one of the victims, saying, “This is because he [Sitler] provides an easy way for enemies of our ministry to attack us.” Instead of showing empathy for the victim, Wilson claims persecution. He sees himself as a victim. Such a posture is hurtful to true victims and discourages true victims from coming forward.
It needs to be investigated whether other victims have not come forward in the Sitler case or others, because Doug Wilson has blamed victims (for example here, here, and here), and supported offenders in court (see public testimony here). Also discouraging victims from coming forward is Wilson’s minimization of Sitler’s crimes as only one count of lewd conduct: “The twittermob has been circulating numerous untruths, among them that Steven Sitler is a child rapist. He was actually convicted of one count of Lewd Conduct with a Minor under 16 years of age (Idaho Code 18-1508).” This is an inexcusable minimization of child sexual abuse. You can read the awful reality of what constitutes Lewd Conduct with a Minor in Idaho here. You can also read an account of a victim’s family in court records describing how Sitler lured their two year old into an isolated situation and forced the toddler to kiss his erect penis.
Without proactive leadership on child protection, kids in any setting are vulnerable. Leaders must speak strongly on behalf of victims. Ecclesiastes 4:1 captures the dynamic well, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.” Doug Wilson’s public statements defend himself; they fortress his power instead of humbling owning his errors, learning from experts in the field, and making changes for the future. When shepherds use their power to protect themselves, sheep are exposed.
Child sexual abuse hides in an environment of silence, shame, and fear. When leaders do not speak out and name these sins, offenders easily find victims, and most often children suffer in silence. Leadership must combat the silence, shame, and fear with vocal advocacy for safeguarding children and vocal support for victims. Wilson has failed to lead his people to this place of safety. Wilson helped create and lead this culture. He must own up to its failures and resolve to help change it.
A Plea to Leaders in the Reformed Community
As dismaying as Wilson’s actions have been, perhaps even more upsetting has been the silence from the Reformed corner of the evangelical church. There has been no outcry, no call of urgency for child protection, and no lamenting over yet another victim of preventable abuse. There are no voices taking up the cause of the voiceless (Prov 31:8-9). There are no rescuers to deliver the weak and afflicted from the hand of the wicked (Ps 82:1-4). There are no comforters for the oppressed. The oppressors have power, but victims have only their tears (Eccl 4:1). Victims in our churches are still waiting for those with power and influence in the Reformed corner of the church to come in on the side of the vulnerable and the oppressed.
Children would be spared the horrors of child sexual abuse if leaders would use their voice to call for child protection in our churches with urgency. Even though the powerful are not themselves at risk, are we willing to look beyond our own needs to the needs of others, even the little lambs that Jesus places at the center of his Kingdom (Phil 2:4; Mark 10:13-14)? Where are the voices of the leaders of Reformed churches and Reformed networks who can gain a hearing from Doug Wilson and influence thousands of other pastors in their denominations and circles of influence? Where are the voices from The Gospel Coalition? Crossway, why are you giving a voice to a man who will not use his voice for voiceless? Who is asking Wilson, “Where is your grieving heart for this baby and the other victims? What child protection training are you putting in place or experts are you consulting so this does not happen again?”
God calls all of us to use our power to protect the weak and asks us, “Is this not what it means to know me?” (Ps 82:1-4; Jer 22:9). No matter how small the church we can choose to safeguard children. There is a silent epidemic of child sexual abuse in the church and those sitting in darkness are waiting for leaders with a voice to speak for them. How long will they wait?