Doug Wilson’s ‘Reluctant Response’
Yesterday I posted a long item critical of the way people in the Moscow, Idaho, church community around Pastor Doug Wilson handled two cases involving young men who sexually abused minors. I offered Doug Wilson the opportunity to respond in this space. Below, his unedited response, which I’ve split into multiple paragraphs, in part, for easier reading:
A Reluctant Response
By Douglas Wilson
While I would have preferred that a response would have been unnecessary in the first place, I am grateful to The American Conservative and to Rod Dreher for the opportunity to respond in this place. At the same time, not wanting to overstay my welcome, I want to address three basic areas and be done.
Was All This Necessary?
The first thing I would like to do is provide a link to what I said on my blog about the hasty and precipitous nature of this attack. While Rod mentioned in his response that he linked to a number of sources, he did not have access to the information below, and didn’t check with us to find out if such information even existed or was available. It did exist, and it is available.
A Sitler Timeline
The second thing is to fit a Sitler timeline into one extended paragraph. This is not scintillating prose, but the actual record matters. Every point in this paragraph is taken from a transcript of every reference to Steven Sitler in our elder minutes from 2005 to the present.
Steven was caught in March of 2005. I counseled the father of the victim to turn Steven into the authorities immediately. That happened the following day, and Steven was arrested. He was immediately expelled from New St. Andrews College.
The following week I informed the elders that Steven’s home church in Colville, Washington (OPC) had suspended Steven from the Supper and did not allow him to attend church services there (he was now back home in Colville).
On July 7, I reported to the elders that Steven had pleaded guilty. In October the elders were informed that Steven was sentenced to a 6-month treatment program, with the possibility of additional prison, and was registered as a sex offender.
In December, our elders met with one of the victim families to arrange for a no-contact order by consent, anticipating the time when Steven would be back in Moscow.
On June 15, we received Steven into membership at Christ Church via transfer from the OPC church in Colville. Steven was still under suspension from the Supper, a suspension which Christ Church continued to honor and maintain. We brought him into membership with the proviso that he have no contact with children in the church. The following September, with the concurrence and blessing of his former pastor in the OPC, we lifted his suspension from the Supper. He had been suspended for about six months.
In May of 2007, I reported to the elders that Steven had been released from prison. He was a member who was not yet allowed to attend our regular services, so we arranged for some of our Greyfriar students to hold services with him Monday evenings, and to serve him communion.
In November of 2008, one of our elders reported to us that Steven’s probation officer was considering letting him attend our church services Sunday morning. The state decided by January of 2009 to allow him to attend, provided he was constantly attended by a state-trained chaperon. The church also applied a second layer of the same standard, and in addition required that he not attend any service where any of his victims were present. We presented this arrangement to our congregational heads of households meeting, and there were no objections. This meant that Steven began to attend services about three and a half years after he was caught.
Two years later, in April of 2011, I reported to the elders on Steven’s upcoming wedding, and the minutes noted that I was also going to mention it at our heads of households meeting. In May of 2011, I reported to the elders on the wedding, where I had officiated.
Not mentioned in our minutes were the following facts, which can be corroborated by other means. After his arrest and before his trial, I spent a number of sessions counseling Steven (he would come down from Colville, about 132 miles away, to meet with me). During that time, other offenses were uncovered, going back to his early teens (he was around 19 at the time of his arrest). Under my direction Steven confessed those to the authorities as well. I wrote a letter to the judge prior to Steven’s sentencing, wherein I told the judge I was grateful that Steven was experiencing “hard consequences,” and I urged the judge to have those hard consequences be “measured and limited.” I did not ask for leniency. Steven was given a life sentence, which means that since he is out of prison now, he is on probation for life. Also, a judge authorized Steven’s wedding before it occurred. The Sitler pregnancy, which occurred years later, was not a violation of his terms of probation. And to this day, Steven attends church to worship with us. He is attended by a chaperon every time, comes in and sits quietly before the service, and leaves shortly after the service.
Now I can understand how another session of elders might have made different judgment calls along the line. This was a thorny issue in many ways. But a review of the documented facts hardly shows us treating this issue in a cavalier or casual way. We coddled no one, and we have shown extraordinary concern for the safety of the children in our congregation. When I look at this from the vantage point of years, I certainly do not see perfection. Reasonable men could have chosen different options than we did. But what I can do is look at all of this with a clean conscience.
The Wight Situation
The other main object of attention in Rod’s post was the situation with Jamin Wight and Natalie Greenfield. We are in the process of reconstructing a detailed and documented time line for that situation as well. But in brief, Jamin was one of our Greyfriar ministerial students who was exposed in 2005 as having been engaging in criminal sexual behavior with Natalie Greenfield a few years before. His behavior was criminal, hers was not.
Because most of the information in the Sitler case was public, I have been able to talk about that more freely. But for a long time now I have refused to talk about everything I knew in the situation with Jamin. This is because there was no way to talk about the details without spreading the hurt to others. I knew the things I did because of my work as a pastor in the situation, and I wanted to keep my standing commitment to be discreet with any such information, and to do so as long as possible. But since others have been spreading the hurt for me, and the letter that I wrote to the officer investigating the crime has now been posted online, it has now gotten to point where if I speak, I might be able to help minimize the hurt that is careening around the Internet.
As my letter makes plain, Jamin was guilty of sexual behavior with a girl who was below the age of consent. She was underage. Our letter acknowledged fully that Jamin was guilty of criminal behavior, and we wanted him to pay the penalty for that criminal behavior, which was a species of statutory rape. In a letter to the victim’s father, dated September 15, 2005, I wrote, on behalf of the elders, that “Jamin is in no way justified . . . and we have no problem with his prosecution” (emphasis added).
But the question before the court was what kind of criminal behavior it was, not whether it was criminal. We had instructed Jamin, who was professing repentance, that he needed to demonstrate it by taking full responsibility for what he had done. But what he had done was very different from what was potentially at stake in his trial. Our elders had no problem with him being charged for the crime of sexual behavior with a girl who was not capable of giving legal consent (she was 14 and he was 23). At issue was whether he was going to be charged as pedophile, and placed in the same category as one who was molesting little children. But we believed his crime was not in the same category as Steven Sitler’s crimes at all. Steven’s behavior was with young children and was simply predatory. Jamin’s crime was that of engaging in sexual behavior with an underage girl.
The reason we did not want it treated as pedophilia is that her parents had bizarrely brought Jamin into the house as a boarder so that he could conduct a secret courtship with Natalie. So Jamin was in a romantic relationship with a young girl, her parents knew of the relationship and encouraged it, her parents permitted a certain measure of physical affection to exist between them (e.g. hand-holding), Natalie was a beautiful and striking young woman, and at the time was about eight inches taller than Jamin was. Her parents believed that she was mature enough to be in that relationship, and the standards they set for the relationship would have been reasonable if she had in fact been of age and if the two had not been living under the same roof.
But please note well: Things like her height, apparent maturity, and parental knowledge of the fact of a relationship are simply irrelevant to the morality of Jamin’s behavior. They are irrelevant to the criminality of his behavior. They are irrelevant to whether Jamin was selfishly manipulating a young girl, preying on her for his own selfish ends. They are irrelevant to whether it was statutory rape or not. But such things were not irrelevant to whether it was pedophilia.
What we wanted the court to know was simply this: it is simply not possible to have it both ways. If you are pressing charges of child abuse, you are saying that Jamin failed to respect the fact that Natalie was a child. But this was the same failure that he shared with her parents, who thought she was a remarkably mature young woman. That fact simply needs to be recognized on all sides. I do not argue this to intimate or hint that her parents were in any way aware of the crimes Jamin was committing. What they were unaware of, Jamin did need to go to prison for.
Nevertheless Jamin was brought into the house in order to make Natalie the object of his romantic intentions, and to do so more conveniently, out of the eyes of community accountability. The arrangement became public years later, and with much harm done. Jamin was trusted by Natalie and her father. He certainly abused that trust sinfully and grotesquely—and took terrible advantage of it. He abused it in criminal ways, and the time he spent in prison for it was no miscarriage of justice. However, the time he has spent on the Internet, characterized as a pedophile, by people who were entirely ignorant of the facts of the case, and whose only interest in it was finding a rock to throw at me, is the very definition of injustice.
The first letter that Natalie posted on line from me was addressed to her father, and it admonished him for failing to protect his daughter. There was outrage that I had dared to admonish the “father of the victim.” But the father of the victim had approved an extraordinarily foolish arrangement that left his daughter vulnerable. Two weeks later I wrote her father another letter on behalf of the elders, and this letter has not yet been published online. In this second letter I said, “We simply want to make sure that Natalie is protected by you in the coming months . . . What we are doing is exhorting you to make protection of Natalie your highest priority in the months to come, because we are convinced that she will need it” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, that did not happen.
We found out about the abuse of Natalie years after the fact. In the areas where we could act, we did act right away. Jamin was disciplined for it immediately (e.g. expelled from Greyfriar Hall). We supported his prosecution. We exhorted Natalie’s father repeatedly to protect his daughter. This is yet another situation where reasonable men could easily have made different choices. But it is also a snarl where it is possible to look back with a clean conscience.
Up until recently, Natalie’s account has been dangerously incomplete and misleading. We were letting it go for the sake of others. As things have spilled out, it is much closer to the full story now. The whole thing was tragic and grievous. The damage it has done should be clear to any observer, from sea to cyber sea. In the midst of all of this, it is our heartfelt prayer that Natalie will return to Christ—the only place where the kind of wounds she received can ever really be healed.
I don’t want to make any rash promises, and so I won’t. No telling what the Intermob might start yelling for later on, and another set of answers might become necessary. The mob is ever hungry for new victims, and doesn’t really care about the old ones. But as much as they demand answers, they frequently show a singular lack of curiosity when actual answers are offered. My hope is that the readers here will not fall in that category.
And Rod, if I may turn to you directly here at the end I would appreciate the opportunity. We invite you to visit us here in Moscow. We will pay the plane fare, and have you speak in some public forum on a subject of your choosing with a suitable honorarium. We will treat you kindly and show you around. I would hope that it might help place some of the things you have read in a better and far more accurate context.
[END OF DOUG WILSON RESPONSE]
I thank Doug Wilson for his detailed response, which does make the record more complete. I particularly appreciate his making clear to readers who did not look at the correspondence published on critical websites that he (Wilson) acknowledged clearly the wrongdoing of the two young men in question. As to whether or not he asked for “leniency” (my word) for Steven Sitler, you read Wilson’s full letter, and you be the judge. Here is the particular paragraph:
I am grateful Steven was caught, and am grateful he has been brought to account for these actions so early in his life. I am grateful that he will be sentenced for his behavior, and that there will be hard consequences for him in real time. At the same time, I would urge that the civil penalties applied would be measured and limited. I have a good hope that Steven has genuinely repented, and that he will continue to deal with this to become a productive and contributing member of society.
I also appreciate that Pastor Wilson encouraged Sitler to confess other sexual offenses against children to the authorities when they came to light in spiritual direction (“During that time, other offenses were uncovered, going back to his early teens (he was around 19 at the time of his arrest). Under my direction Steven confessed those to the authorities as well.”).
That seems to be true, based on this 2006 Defense Review Hearing Memo, which notes that Sitler “withheld nothing” from investigators, and told them about “much more [acts of pedophilia] on multiple occasions to multiple people.”
So everybody knew that Sitler had, in the words of one evaluator, “a significant problem with pedophilia.”
On May 27, 2011, a parole officer for the Idaho Department of Correction wrote to the Latah County Prosecuting Attorney saying the department could not support Sitler’s intention to marry. Here is that letter. In it, the officer says that given Sitler’s stated intention to start having children within a year of his marriage, the department would face the problem of having to separate the Sitler family “because we cannot allow him to be unsupervised with children.”
And yet, Pastor Wilson married them, knowing that Steven Sitler, by the confession he made to the police at Wilson’s urging, was a serial pedophile.
This is I do not understand. Nor do I understand the kind of church culture in which an elder of the church sets up a young woman who is anxious to get married with a convicted pedophile. And nothing Pastor Wilson wrote here makes it any more understandable.
On the Wight matter, there can be no doubt that the abuse victim’s parents behaved foolishly in letting the 23-year-old Wight into their home to court their young teenage daughter. Wilson, in the letter to the judge, acknowledged Wight’s wrongdoing, but said he did not think Wight’s deeds made him a “sexual predator.” The blog posts of Natalie Greenfield, the victim, tell a different story (this one, for example). Seems like sexual predation to me.
Pastor Peter Leithart, who at the time headed the daughter church of Doug Wilson’s Christ Church congregation, recently apologized publicly to the Greenfield family for errors in pastoral judgment in the way he handled the Jamin Wight matter. He wrote, in part:
It is clear now that I made major errors of judgment. Fundamentally, I misjudged Jamin, badly. I thought he was a godly young man who had fallen into sin. That was wrong. In the course of trying to pastor Jamin through other crises in his life, I came to realize that he is deceptive and highly manipulative, and that I allowed him to manipulate me. A number of the things I said about Jamin to the congregation and court at the time his abuse was uncovered were spun in Jamin’s favor; I am ashamed to realize that I used Jamin’s talking points. Though I never doubted that Jamin was guilty, I trusted his account of the circumstances more readily and longer than I should have, and conversely I disbelieved the victim’s parents (to the best of my recollection, I had no direct contact with the victim, who was a member of Christ Church). I should have seen through Jamin, and didn’t.
As a result, I didn’t appreciate how much damage Jamin did and I was naive about the effect that the abuse had on the victim’s family. I recently asked her and her parents to forgive my pastoral failures, which they have done.
I suppose it’s possible that Leithart, who was Jamin Wight’s pastor, made severe errors of judgment, but Wilson, who pastored the victim and her family, did not. It would be interesting to learn what Leithart and Wilson today think of the way each other handled the matter.
Anyway, I am glad that Pastor Wilson wrote a response, even if I am not personally convinced by it. And I appreciate the invitation to Moscow, but I will pass on that.
UPDATE: Several readers have sent me notes saying that it is inaccurate to describe Doug Wilson as “Reformed,” explaining that he has his own vision of Reformation Christianity that is not considered orthodox by established Presbyterians.
A reader sends a link to the audio recording of Steven Sitler’s court hearing, in which the judge approved his marriage plans.
Another reader points out that Natalie Rose Greenfield, Jamin Wight’s victim, has responded to the above piece by Doug Wilson. Excerpt:
Doug was not in my home when my parents discussed allowing Jamin to court me. Doug was not in the room when they spoke about whether or not we should be allowed to hold hands. I imagine he may have something in writing from them, perhaps asking advice or seeking guidance on the situation and this may shed light on the foolishness and naivety of some of my parent’s choices. The fact that my parents trusted a dangerous and conniving criminal to respect the boundaries they had set is no secret and yes, it’s embarrassing. They have sought my forgiveness heartily over the years and I have unconditionally given it. But I would like to also point at that neither was Doug in the room when my father said, No. I am not comfortable with this. There will be no courtship. There will be no hand-holding. Do not touch my daughter and do not foster a relationship with her. Doug was not with my father as time dragged on and he began to become suspicious of Jamin. He was not in the hallway with my father where he sat on a chair in the middle of the night watching my bedroom door to make sure I was safe and protected. If only he had known my father’s heart, and yet he is quick to place blame on two parents who were deceived and manipulated by a calculated criminal. The fact that my parents were deceived does not change the nature of Jamin’s crime. The fact that my parents had moments of naivety does not merit letters from a pastor requesting leniency for a man who the prosecuting attorney called ‘a textbook pedophile’ and place a massive amount of blame on a father already broken by the news of his daughter’s abuse. The fact that I was beautiful and stood taller than my abuser does not lessen or change the sickening nature of what he did to me. The fact that I was infatuated with him and lived to please him does not mean that I was asking for it. Nobody asked for it.