November, 2018: Introspection
So I’ve been doing quite a bit of introspection and research on the topic of abuse, and the ripple effect on the pool into which the stone of abuse has been cast. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve been doing research into this topic all of my life, since my earliest experiences with abuse.
One year ago, on November 26, 2017, I had a pretty good setup. I was a respected worship leader at a small Baptist church in Pennsylvania. I had served six years as a deacon at this church, which made me a member of the board of directors for the day school this church ran out of its building. My lovely wife was the nursery director at the church. We had good friends who were as close as family. We believed we had a good church, with Godly leaders.
We were so wrong
On that Sunday in November, I stood in front of the congregation I had faithfully served for about twelve years, and led the congregation in worship. I knew this was the end – I was planning on turning in my resignation as worship leader a few days later, and taking a sabbatical from any form of leadership. The musical portion of the service ended with a version of They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love, and the arrangement I did matched the internal turmoil I had been living with for months. It was deeply influenced by the music and tone of Johnny Cash – like his cover of the song Hurt, it was slow and deliberately introspective. Dare I say sad? And how could it not be? This was the last song I’d ever lead here – my heart was in turmoil. After the song finished, we closed our eyes, bowed our heads, and I led us in a quick prayer. My main acoustic guitar, a beautiful artist series Seagull with rosewood and spruce, went into the guitar case where it still sits today. I have not played my guitar since then, the same baby powder still coats the neck and strings from a year ago. In much the same way, a year ago I locked up part of my heart and soul inside a case.
As I walked off the stage, on walked the preacher. His sermon outline, posted below, identified a black-and-white world of deceived people who think they love God, but really don’t… that the congregation needs to measure their love for God by their love for him (the pastor), and each other. He then pointed to issues such as conflict, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness and being easily offended as signs that the congregation did not love God. Broken down into their individual scriptural components, there is nothing outright unbiblical here. But when these individual components are all put together as a weapon against the congregation, we have spiritual abuse. Today’s message, paired with its partners over the past few weeks provided a crystal clear (and all too common) message to the congregation: If you want to be faithful, you’ll be quiet.
The sermon’s title on the outline, “There’s a Whole Lot of Lying Going On”, was especially ironic as the pastor had been lying to the congregation for twelve years. The pastor was a convicted child molester who, according to the police report, had on several occasions sexually abused a minor. He was arrested in 1999, pleaded guilty to one count of indecent assault, and one count of corruption of minors. He was sentenced to 2 years at the county prison, and was released after 9 months on good behavior. According to his parole officer, he paid his fines, and attended the mandatory counseling sessions. Prior to being arrested, he was a teacher. As a result of his charges, his teaching certificate was revoked. In the Docket I found on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania website, he was called “a danger to the health, safety and welfare of the students of this Commonwealth.”
On this fine Sunday morning in November 2017, I had no idea I was sharing the stage with a convicted child molester. Some in the congregation, including most of the other pastors, did know and had either lied, or withheld the truth from the congregation. Most of the congregation were like me – we saw the rather obvious signs of conflict and strife taking place behind the curtain, but were deliberately kept in the dark by leadership. The well-loved Senior Pastor very recently had resigned and left the church, causing deep ripples in the pool. What on earth was going on behind the curtain? As it turns out, it all started with a tiny little fib that grew into a monster.
Larry Boy to the Rescue
In the Veggie Tales episode entitled Larry Boy and Fib from Outer Space, Junior Asparagus breaks his father’s limited edition Art Bigotti collector plate while playing with a friend. Instead of telling the truth, he listens to the advice of a small space creature called Fib who tells him that “A little fib couldn’t hurt anybody.” Junior then makes up a false story to his father on how the plate got broken – Laura Carrot broke the plate. Come on, admit it – you hear the song in your head, right now. His father looks skeptical, but takes Junior at his word. Junior is ecstatic that he got out of trouble, and moves on with life.
As time goes on, Junior is forced to tell more and more fibs to support the first one. And as he tells more and more lies, little Fib the space creature grows and grows. In classic comedic fashion, a dramatic showdown takes place between a gigantic monster Fib and the superhero Larry Boy. Larry Boy is promptly (and comically) defeated by Fib. At the dramatic climax, Junior finally breaks down and admits that he lied and tells the full truth, as Fib shrinks down into nothingness. Peace returns to the fictional town of Bumbleyville, and all is well.
The moral of the story, as explained by Bob and Larry at the end of the show, is that a little fib rapidly grows into a big out-of-control fib, and causes big trouble – but that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32b).
The Return of the Fib from Outer Space
When the child molester was approached back in 2006 about possibly being hired at the church, he told the Senior Pastor that he could not pass a background check because he was falsely accused of molesting a child and that he pleaded no contest to bring peace in his family and to not cause any more embarrassment on his wife (taken almost verbatim from the letter the Senior Pastor later sent to the church board).
This statement contained some elements of the truth:
- he could not pass a background check.
- he wanted peace for his family.
- he did not want any more embarrassment for his wife.
This statement also contained a fib:
- he was not falsely accused – he did molest the child. The police report (which was read to me by a parole officer) indicates that he molested the child on several different occasions. The court record shows that he pleaded guilty to the charges. He later admitted to the board that he did it.
And over twelve years, that initial fib started to grow and grow until the church was destroyed by it. That little fib grew when he was made the superintendent of the church day school, without conducting a background check. That little fib grew when on several separate specific occasions, day school staff complained to management about his inappropriate interactions with children at the school. That little fib grew considerably larger when he (as superintendent) fired several staff members who had lodged those complaints. That little fib had a growth spurt when he was accused of inappropriately touching a female staff member at the school. By the time the Senior Pastor realized there were problems and tried to take a stand against the Fib monster, he was chewed up and spit out just like Larry Boy in the cartoon. The Senior Pastor resigned and took a job at another church, leaving the congregation at the mercy of the runaway Fib.
The story here is sadly so common, it’s almost becoming cliche. To quote from another blog called Nathan’s Voice:
“It is amazing how we see this pattern repeated over and over…
A popular church leader projects a false persona of empathy, expertise and success – while covering up a pattern of infidelity, sexual predation and exploitation, persistent detachment from any accountable local fellowship, and past ministry failures.
When facing the risk of exposure, they then appeal to unity and loyalty, personalize everything as hateful attacks against them by spiteful people, and turn on their well-rehearsed charm (and if that doesn’t work, fall back on lies, threats and intimidation) to silence those who dare ask troubling questions.
All the while, they work behind the scenes and through others to purge all dissenting voices and any contrary information – both in their churches and on public forums like the Internet.”
And so by the time we reach the start of this story in November of 2017, the gigantic Fib monster was rampaging across the church – aided and abetted by those who believed the sly whispers of the Fib monster. “A little fib couldn’t hurt anybody.” All was lost… or was it?
The Hero of the Story
I want you to think back now to the Larry Boy episode. Yeah I know, it’s been a few years, right? That came out in… what… 1997? Here is the question for you: Who was the hero of that story?
- Was it Junior Asparagus, who eventually told the truth after the Fib had caused mayhem and destruction?
- Was it Junior Asparagus’ dad, who suspected early on that Junior had told a fib, but did nothing to confront him?
- Was it Larry Boy, who did battle with the Fib monster?
No. The hero of the story is Laura Carrot.
She is the first casualty of the original fib – she was blamed for breaking the plate. When she learns of the fib, she boldly confronts Junior. Junior then spins a fantastic explanation out of thin air (while Fib grows ever larger) that it’s Lenny’s fault, he broke the plate, he’s very naughty. Laura then actively verifies the truth by talking to Lenny. Then Laura returns to Junior and once again boldly confronts him, seeking after the truth.
It is worth noting that Laura Carrot takes Junior at his word each time, but then does the hard work of verifying that his word is true. Did she hate Junior, or want to destroy his life? Was she bitter or unforgiving? There is no indication that any of these were true – she just wanted the truth to be told about what happened. Was there confrontation and conflict? Absolutely there was – but she bravely did not back down.
I believe that Laura is the true hero of this story – and her unrelenting quest for truth and justice is a role model for us today.
Ripples in the Pond
Now I want to connect the dots between the Larry Boy story, and what is here in real life. Through his actions, Junior Asparagus became an abuser of others. And for the abuser, life rolls on with all the perseverance of a Pennsylvania driver cruising over the pothole lives of his abuse victims. But for an abused person, life stops at the moment abuse takes place.
- After the fib, Junior quickly moved on with his life. He even exulted that he got out of trouble – he got what he wanted by telling a lie. It was initially easy, though over time it became more complicated as more and more lies were concocted to cover for the original lie.
At our church, the pastor seems to have gotten what he wanted by telling a lie. He got a job, a paycheck for twelve years, respect and authority, cash bonuses, paid vacations. In the end, after everything blew up up, he was even allowed to retire – he was not fired. At our church, things got more and more complicated as more and more lies were concocted to support the original lie.
- After the fib, Laura the Carrot’s life stopped. She had to do some investigative research to determine the truth. She had to step outside her comfort zone and confront Junior. She then had to untangle the strings of deceit and keep chasing down the truth. She had to confront him several times. And several times, she was lied to. Things kept getting uglier and uglier here – and she could not just move on.
My wife is Laura the Carrot.
She was the first in my home to learn of the conviction, the first to ask the hard question of “is this good and true and right?” At the moment she encountered the lie in our church, her life stopped. When she learned of the pastor’s conviction, she had to do some investigative research to determine the truth. She had to step outside her comfort zone and confront several people with the truth. Some, like me, understood that she was right and joined her in the quest for truth to be known. Some others became (or remained) complicit in the lie, and wanted her to be silent. She then had to untangle the strings of deceit and keep chasing down the truth. She had to confront people, again and again. And more than once, she was lied to. Things kept getting uglier and uglier here – and she could not just move on. The Larry Boy cartoon stopped short of Laura the Carrot being verbally abused and slandered by Junior Asparagus – that would make for some hard family conversations, right? But in real life, my wife was verbally abused. She was slandered. She was called names. Her personal Facebook comments about the situation were read aloud to the congregation during the Sunday service. She was accused of a great many things, such as being a gossip, and of wanting to personally destroy the life and reputation of the pastor.
But she could not just move on.
- It was only when Junior broke (dare I say repented?) and told all of the truth that Fib was destroyed. Laura the Carrot and all the other people who had been harmed by the lies were then set free. The longer Junior dug in and spun complicated webs of deception, the more people were harmed. Had Junior simply told the full truth the very first time, and owned that mistake as part of who he was, the story would have been very different. Junior could have used that experience as a testimony to others who were tempted to lie – the truth that lying is never the answer would have set them free, too.
And now, 365 days later, the lies are still being circulated and the full truth still has not come out. Many people who were affected by the lies still don’t know the truth. An excerpt from the vague letter sent out by the church to parents is below.
- It states that he “experienced an issue involving a child” but does not tell parents that he was arrested, pleaded guilty, was convicted and went to prison for sexually abusing a child several times.
- It states that the issue was “resolved around 1999 prior to his coming to the church” but does not tell parents that their children were regularly in the presence of a convicted child molester for twelve years (between 2006 and 2018) while he was employed by the church as a pastor, and superintendent of the church day school. He had an office about five feet away from the girls’ bathroom. He drove the school bus on field trips. He was on occasion alone with children of the church and day school.
- It says that he “has not had any other legal issues which would impact his ability to obtain child clearances” and that “there are no pending charges against this man” but does not tell parents that there were allegedly numerous complaints made by school staff about the convicted child molester’s physical interactions with children. Nor does it say that those complaints were not immediately provided to the authorities, in accordance with Pennsylvania’s mandated reporting laws.
At the risk of being labeled Mister Sour Grapes, I applaud that the church did anything at all. But to quote Packer, “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”
Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to two different families who were impacted by this event. Both had still not been told the truth. Each time they were shown the truth, it hurt. It hurt them to learn the truth, and it hurt me to be the messenger of bad news. One father told me his head was spinning. But they appreciated finally knowing the truth – the truth set them free.
If Junior Asparagus gave a vague pseudo apology that some mistakes had been made, and then he moved to another town, the Fib would still be running wild around town. And so the full truth has to be brought into every corner of the situation, to eradicate each and every lie. And here in real life, there is a Greek Chorus shouting from the sidelines things like “snap out of it” and “just move on” and “it’s been a whole year, don’t you think it’s unhealthy to still be dwelling on that?” and “if you don’t stop talking about this, I’ll unfriend you” and “really, stop being so bitter.” But there is still work to be done here – wrongs to be made right.
Very recently, my wife made a brave declaration on Facebook:
“I don’t plan to snap out of it. I plan to become an advocate for others who have endured spiritual abuse. I plan to expose darkness to the light. I feel strongly that God has given me this purpose through my MANY encounters with spiritual abuse.”
Almost a week later, my wife was on the telephone with nationally recognized abuse-victim advocate, Ashley Easter. And now I’m so proud to say that my wife is being formally mentored by Ashley on how to be an advocate for abuse victims. Sometimes you spend your entire life wondering why bad things happened. And sometimes, in a very rare Kairos moment, the door opens in front of you and you clearly see the answer, and walk through the door to a newfound purpose. God is always good.
Be a hero, like Laura Carrot. And be a hero, like my wife – never give up, until the truth is known. For the truth shall set you free.
VeggieTales is the copyrighted property of Big Idea Entertainment, LLC.