Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Douglas Wilson Digs In

Prominent pastor stoutly defends his decision to bless marriage of pedophile

You should see my in-box and Twitter feed. I have so many impassioned e-mails from partisans on both sides of the Doug Wilson situation, demanding that I either abandon any criticism of him, or demanding that I ramp up criticism. I even blocked one anti-Wilsonite who was haranguing me with multiple tweets calling me to account for failing to blast Wilson even harder. Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t want to get dragged into an extremely bitter fight that has way, way more layers than I am capable of understanding from this far away. Some people I know and admire know and admire Wilson; others I know and admire do not. As a general rule, I will only comment on what information is publicly available and that I judge reliable, or what Pastor Wilson himself says. Because he mentioned me in a couple of recent comments, I’ll respond to what he has written.

In this post, Wilson is puzzled that I have read his defense of having presided over the marriage of the convicted pedophile Steven Sitler and a young woman from the church community, and continue to believe that Wilson ought not to have married the couple. Sitler, in case you don’t know, Sitler was convicted of a sex crime against a minor, but according to Wilson, confessed to many more pedophilic instances, for which he was not tried. He was sentenced to life in prison, but paroled on the condition that he never be around minors without a chaperon present. He was a member of Wilson’s church, and other members of the church set him up with a young woman from within the community. A website that is harshly critical of Wilson in the Sitler case published screen grabs of a website that Sitler and his bride, Katie Travis, set up to celebrate their engagement (after two dates) and wedding. You can read there the story of their courtship, told in their own words.

The judge with jurisdiction over Sitler’s parole approved his wedding to Travis. From the audio recording of the hearing:

So here we have a young man who has committed heinous crimes and wants to engage in what I think everyone in the room would consider to be a prosocial relationship. So I’m going to let the wedding proceed. If and when Mr. Sitler and Miss Travis have children we will cross that bridge when we get to it — or, if we need to address it sooner than that, I am happy to address it sooner than that. But I . . . I think it’s a reasonable restriction that he not reside with his wife and child, in the future, if in fact they have children.

So the judge gave permission for a convicted pedophile out on probation to marry, under the condition that if he and his wife have kids, he have to live away from his wife and children. The prudence of this is certainly questionable, and in fact it strikes me as an irresponsible ruling, given that the state parole department told the judge, in a letter asking him not to approve the marriage, that Sitler said he intends to father children. So the judge signed off on a marriage that he had reason to believe would result in a situation in which the family would have to be physically disunited, to reduce the risk that the children would be molested by their father.

I said, in “Doug Wilson’s ‘Reluctant Response'”, that I still cannot understand why Pastor Wilson agreed to marry this couple under these conditions. In his latest post, Wilson writes, in part:

What precisely would Rod have wanted me to do? Would he want me to refuse to conduct the wedding, or would he want me to simply prohibit the wedding flat out? If I just refused to officiate, and Steven got married by a justice of the peace, what then? Would I have to excommunicate him for marrying? There is no biblical case for that. If his wife is fully apprised of all the facts, and she was, and she wanted to marry him, should I excommunicate them both for marrying? Don’t I need a verse or something?

Many of the questions of this sort boil down to this: why didn’t you cover your butt better than that? And the only answer I know how to give is that covering your butt is not gospel ministry.

This is extraordinary. Yes, he should have refused to perform the wedding. I don’t even see that this is a close call. About excommunication, who knows? I don’t know how his church handles such matters, and anyway, it’s a secondary issue. It is clear to me that a morally responsible pastor cannot give the church’s blessing to such a union. He knew that the Sitlers were going to try to have children, and knew that the courts would likely force them to live apart if the couple succeeded in that goal. How would this disordered marital union be one that any church can bless? No, you don’t need “a verse or something;” you just need common sense.

The really extraordinary part is that Wilson still seems to think that it’s all about him. He’s praising himself for being a courageous Christian leader for not covering his butt — as if the personal liability of Doug Wilson if the Sitler situation blew up was more of an issue than the safety and well being of any children that came out of a pedophile’s marital union, and the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of Katie Travis and, yes, of Steven Sitler. The self-pity here is mighty weird.

There was a subsequent Doug Wilson post worth commenting on. He’s still feeling sorry for himself for all the garbage people are piling on him about the Sitler mess. He begins by affirming that just because the world criticizes a Christian for what he does, that does not make one’s actions righteous. OK, fair enough. But sometimes the world really does criticize one because it hates “salty Christians” for standing up for Jesus. I criticized Wilson the other day for writing the following sneering comment aimed at those who find fault with his handling of the Sitler situation:

This kind of controversy gives fuller meaning to the communion of opprobrium that faithful ministers of every age share. Jesus says that we are to rejoice when people revile us, in part because of the company it puts us in.

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)).

And Jesus doesn’t say we are to be a little bit glad. He says exceeding glad. He says that we are to go around the corner, get out of their sight, and do a little jig. In this case, Nancy — a Puritan jewel — celebrated by buying me a nice bottle of Laphroaig.

I said it is unseemly that Wilson would react this way in the face of people criticizing him for his role in helping create this horrible situation with the Sitler family and that baby. Laughing at his critics? Dancing a jig? Drinking Scotch? Does he not see how outrageous that kind of reaction is in the face of the gravity of the situation? No, he doesn’t. Tonight he writes:

We have to be able to tell the difference because Jesus is teaching us to tell the difference. Unbelievers treat insipid Christians with contempt and they treat salty Christians with active hostility and hatred. When some manifestation of this arises, every Christian involved has to make a judgment call as to which it is, and has to be careful not to affirm the consequent. He has to read the situation correctly. And if he decides rightly and raises a glass of Scotch in a faithful toast, it matters not if men like Rod Dreher find it convenient to sneer at the obedience.

So, let me get this straight: according to Doug Wilson, Doug Wilson was serving Christ when he united in holy matrimony a convicted pedophile and a 23-year-old who said yes to his marriage proposal after only two dates. And anybody who says otherwise, and who contends that Wilson is wrong to treat this scandal as cause to celebrate with dram of single malt, is guilty of encouraging disobedience to God.

Think about that. And if you read the comments on Wilson’s latest, you will see that this blog’s commenter Thursday, who has criticized me for my initial blogging on Wilson’s foibles with sex offenders under his spiritual authority, indicates that Wilson ought to admit error in the Sitler case, and move on:


BTW, I agree that the howling internet mob out there is, to put it mildly, far from being just to Pastor Wilson, going far beyond merely accusing him of bad judgment in this particular instance. I also agree that Dreher was hasty and irresponsible in the way he wrote about this. But none of this means that Pastor Wilson didn’t blunder horribly in this situation.

Wilson writes in response:

Douglas Wilson

Thursday, as I understand your concern here, you are thinking that if I am good with Sitler marrying, and if down the road he molests one of his own children, that was something that I should have anticipated, and therefore bear some responsibility for. Is that correct?

Now the question should also go the other way. If I refuse to let him marry, and so he does not, and five years down the road is caught molesting a neighborhood child, do I — because of my refusal to let him marry — bear any responsibility?

The answer, of course, is that we cannot know the answer unless we know which path is more likely to reduce the risk of recidivism. In order to know that, we have to have a standard that tells us. The standard I am using is that of 1 Corinthians, which tells us that marriage is a help against immorality. What standard are you appealing to, and why?

Ay yi yi. In 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul talks about the difficulty of being celibate outside of marriage:

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. … Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

You have to make a Grand Canyon-sized leap of logic to find Biblical sanction in this passage for the idea that marriage will help a pedophile resist his urges to have sex with children. I cannot believe that in the year 2015, an intelligent man believes that marriage is therapy for pedophilia. If this isn’t pastoral malpractice, what is?

Thursday responded to Pastor Wilson on that thread:

That almost gets it, but not quite.

You also created a situation where, at the very best, a father can never be trusted to be alone with his children and where, under no circumstances, should he ever reside in the same home with them. Even assuming the marriage, on balance, helps reduce the likelihood more crimes, this comes with a terrible cost, a terrible disfigurement of fatherhood.

And, quite aside from all the consequentialist arguments, someone who has done these horrific crimes has simply disqualified himself from ever standing in the symbolic role of father. See also my also my previous paragraph: what kind of father can’t be trusted not to sexually assault his kids?

So no, this was not some judgment call which one can disagree with.

Yes, exactly right.

To put it mildly, Doug Wilson is not doing himself and his reputation any favors by continuing to talk about the Sitler case in public. But I don’t get the idea that he’s going to let this one go. If you ever doubted the verse from Proverbs 16 advising that pride goes before destruction, just keep watching this slow-motion disaster unfold online for verification.

UPDATE: Hey, this is news. From an October 3 announcement by the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, which Doug Wilson founded and leads:

The CREC began a process a couple of weeks ago aimed at addressing the legitimate questions and concerns regarding some of the past actions and practices of two cases of sexual abuse. We take these matters seriously and seek to address them fully. In keeping with the CREC Constitution and our regular church order, the session of Christ Church, Moscow, ID, has invited the presiding ministers of each presbytery to inquire into the pastoral care and counseling ministry of Christ Church, with particular regard to their handling of sexual abuse cases, not excluding the two cases that have been the subject of some recent controversy. In short, are their practices in this area operating within a biblical framework and consistent with the law? Are they operating competently and in good faith?

This invitation means that under the direction of their chair, the committee is invited to ask any questions of members of the Christ Church session and pastoral staff, and they can have complete access to their minutes, records, files, etc. Christ Church is asking this committee to issue a public report in the next few months. Moreover, they have requested that the presiding ministers satisfy themselves as to the health and soundness of their pastoral care in such circumstances, and to provide them with their counsel and advice where they see any deficiencies.

Pastor Douglas Wilson is the current Presiding Minister of the CREC Council, and he has recused himself in this matter. As the current Presiding Minister pro tempore of the CREC Council, I will assume the role of Presiding Minister of Council in these matters and will chair the committee of the seven presiding ministers of our presbyteries, which I have appointed to this review committee.

Randy Booth
Acting Presiding Minister, CREC Council

UPDATE.2: A reader points out that Randy Booth is Doug Wilson’s co-author on a book published this past May, called “A Justice Primer”.

UPDATE.3: Starting at around the 24-minute mark in this audio recording of the recent Sitler hearing, the county attorney says that the court records show that Sitler admitted to his wife (who failed to report to authorities, as she was supposed to do), and subsequently to others, that he had been sexually stimulated by physical contact with his infant. The attorney’s voice cracks with anger talking about it. I previously thought that the government moved solely on the basis of a failed polygraph, but no, there’s a personal admission by Sitler himself that his infant son turned him on.

Meanwhile, Pastor Wilson posted a long, passive-aggressive prayer today asking the Lord to bless all those people who are so broken and messed-up that they criticize his words and actions.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now