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Scandal in Moscow

Sex abuse and denial in pastor Doug Wilson's church communities

The last thing I read about the controversial Reformed pastor Doug Wilson, he was making a case for why Christian women are prettier than non-believing females. Excerpt from that:

Unbelieving women either compete for the attention of men through outlandish messages that communicate some variation of “easy lay,” or in the grip of resentment they give up the endeavor entirely, which is how we get lumberjack dykes. The former is an avid reader of Cosmopolitan and thinks she knows 15K ways to please a man in bed. The latter is just plain surly about the fact that there even are any men.

So there’s that. It’s apparently a rhetorical tic among the Moscow, Idaho, bunch; longtime readers will recall a younger pastor associated with Wilson’s church claiming that Protestants who convert to Catholicism or Orthodoxy are the spiritual equivalent of perverts who masturbate to pornography. He calls himself “one of those grenade launching Protestants.” Um, yeah.

This morning, though, a reader brings to my attention a situation in the Moscow circle that is far worse than any culture-war sniping and snarking.

Earlier this month, a convicted sex offender named Stephen Sitler was prohibited by a judge from having contact with his infant son without a chaperone other than his wife present — this, after he was discovered being sexually stimulated by such contact. Sitler was convicted in 2005 of child molestation; he molested several children in a family

Sitler eventually pled guilty to only one count of lewd conduct with a child under 16. Despite allegations that Sitler had molested other children, none of the other families would cooperate with investigators.

Doug Wilson wrote to the judge asking for leniency, and expressing his hope that Sitler could one day be rehabilitated and become a productive member of society. Sitler was sentenced to life in prison, but released on probabation in 2007 after 20 months behind bars. Six weeks later, he was caught in an act of voyeurism, and confessed to masturbating while peering into a neighbor’s window. In 2010, an elder at Doug Wilson’s church and his family set up a meeting between Katie Travis, a young woman at New St. Andrews college in Moscow, and Sitler; Sitler describes it all on the website announcing his and Katie’s 2011 wedding.

Doug Wilson married them in his church in 2011 — this, knowing that Sitler was a pedophile.

The Sitlers had a baby boy, and as of this month, Steven Sitler is not allowed to be with his son because a court has reason to believe that he is sexually stimulated by the presence of the baby. You can well imagine the ruckus this has caused in and around the Christ Church (Doug Wilson’s church) community. Wilson defends his actions forcefully in this September 5 “open letter” on his blog. Excerpt:

Seventh, in the latest round of accusations, much has been made of the fact that Christ Church approved of Steven’s wedding to Katie through the fact that I officiated at the wedding. First, it should be noted that in our community, weddings are not arranged or determined by the church. Katie and her family had all the facts when she agreed to marry Steven, which was important, but the decision to marry was the couple’s decision, not ours. That said, I officiated at the wedding and was glad to do so. While we do not believe that marriage is an automatic “fix” for the temptations to molest children, we agree with Judge Stegner who approved the wedding and said that ‘an age-appropriate relationship with a member of the opposite sex from Mr. Sitler is one of the best things that can happen to him and to society” (emphasis added). Moreover, if everything is on the table, we do not believe the church has the authority to prohibit or “not allow” a lawful marriage.

Really? The church has no authority to prohibit a lawful marriage? I suppose same-sex couples in Idaho can show up at Christ Church and expect Pastor Wilson to marry them, then. This, and the claim that the church can’t withhold marriage from anybody, as long as both parties know what they’re getting into, is a pretty shameless example of passing the buck for a disaster. Wilson subsequently praised himself for the way he’s conducted himself in this matter, saying that persecution is a sign of his righteousness, and sneering that his wife celebrated the criticism coming their way by buying him a bottle of single-malt Scotch. He also said those complaining about him are “bitter” and are the kind of nasty people who would turn sinners away from church. But that’s misdirection. It doesn’t seem to me that the objection is that Wilson welcomes a child molester into his congregation (as long as he tells the congregation what’s going on), but that he blessed the courtship and marriage of a convicted pedophile to a young woman in his church, knowing that they intended to have children.

The state is investigating whether or not the baby boy born to the pedophile and the woman that Wilson married has been molested by his father … and Doug Wilson thinks this is a matter to be laughed at, while raising a glass of Scotch to spite the critics? That is insane.

This is not the first time this has happened in the Wilson circle. Homeschoolers Anonymous has an account of the case of Jamin Wight, a convicted child molester who began a sexual affair with a 13-year-old girl when he was 23. Libby Anne at Patheos has more. At the time of the abuse, the Greenfield family (Natalie Rose Greenfield was the victim; she has come out as Wight’s victim) were members of Wilson’s church, and Wight was a parishioner at affiliated Trinity Reformed, pastored by Peter Leithart. In 2005, after it all came to light, Wilson wrote to Gary Greenfield, the father of the abused girl, saying his irresponsible conduct in the situation (the Greenfields allowed Wight to live in their house, even after he said he was interested in courting their underage daughter) left the Christ Church elders “just as distressed” as they were by Wight’s abuse of the girl. You can read the entire letter here, in the original. Leithart and Wilson appeared in court alongside Wight at his sentencing; the victim of Wight’s crime was unaccompanied by either pastor.


On September 15, Peter Leithart, who was the pastor of Jamin Wright at the time, publicly apologized to the abuse victim and her family for his pastoral failures during that crisis. He said, 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.

That was the Christian thing to do. But I guess that means no celebratory Scotch for Leithart.

Nine days ago, Natalie Rose Greenfield posted an image of a letter on Christ Church stationery that Doug Wilson wrote to the case officer in 2005, saying that yes, Jamin Wight sinned, but the Greenfields were foolish parents. Natalie Rose Greenfield comments:

I feel the need to rehash this particular line that Doug typed: “I do not believe that this in any way paints Jamin as a sexual predator.” Not a sexual predator? Forgive me if I’m beating a dead horse or being too loud about an uncomfortable topic, but Jamin is most certainly a sexual predator. Let me describe a scene to you, one scene of many, many more just like it. [Emphasis in the original — RD]

All of this gets to me in part because of my well-known history of dealing with the sexual abuse of children and minors within the Roman Catholic Church. Very little makes me angrier than seeing church authorities (and congregations) mistreat victims and then try to blame others for their failures. This one is particularly troubling to me, personally, because despite Doug Wilson’s (and Toby Sumpter’s) reputation for “grenade-throwing,” their Moscow, Idaho, community was on my short list of places I was considering profiling as a Reformed example of the Benedict Option. The way that community handled the sexual abuse of minors within it, and the way Doug Wilson, who knowingly married a young woman to a convicted pedophile, is proudly trashing his critics, and refusing to admit error in any respect, is deeply discouraging, to put it in the mildest possible terms.

I don’t think Ben Op communities are any more susceptible to harboring child molesters than any community, secular or otherwise. We know all too well that communities of all kinds have a tendency to scapegoat those that threaten its beliefs about itself — and sexual predators take advantage of that trust. You find it in Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, Protestant churches, public schools, Scout troops, all over. Still, this Moscow mess is a very good reminder that the problem of authority and accountability is one that has to be forthrightly addressed and attended to by any Benedict Option community, whether its an intentional community, a school, a church, or what have you.

How did anybody in Christ Church think it was a good idea to encourage and enable a young woman in their community to marry a convicted pedophile? I cannot comprehend it. And I cannot comprehend the apparent unwillingness of the congregation to hold themselves and their pastor accountable for this catastrophe that has befallen the Sitler wife and child. Maybe someone from within that community can explain it in the comments section of this blog. From the outside, it does not testify to the integrity and spiritual health of that community. I could be wrong.

UPDATE: Doug Wilson responds this morning to this blog entry. He writes:

I also wrote Rod to see if he were interested in any private communication. I haven’t heard back there either. For someone in his position, I believe that he should be heartily ashamed of himself. This was really bad.

I have received no e-mail from Doug Wilson, neither at my TAC address, nor at my private address. Just so you know.

Second, who is Doug Wilson, of all people, to get mad at others on the Internet for not doing “due diligence” and fact-checking before writing about something? I filled my post with links to primary documents from the court record (including letters signed by Wilson), media reports, and statements on the matter from Wilson himself. For the sake of brevity in an already long post, I linked to a summary of the Jamin Wight case by a group called Homeschoolers Anonymous. I trust my readers to examine all of these links and judge for themselves.

Wilson’s strategy, and those of some of his vocal supporters, is very familiar in the story of how religious figures and institutions handle sexual abuse: blame those who draw critical attention to him and his actions, get legalistic with Bible quotes in an attempt to get critics to be silent, question their motives, suggest implausible conspiracies, or flat-out say that the critics hate God.

Doug Wilson believes he has adequately answered the criticism of him in the Sitler case; I disagree, and I’m not the only one. He apparently thinks that nobody should object to him being a smart-ass, e.g., this remark in his long, bird-flipping to those who criticize his actions in the Sitler case:

6. 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. 5:11–12).

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.

We are talking about an instance in which he presided over the wedding of a convicted pedophile to a young woman, in full knowledge of this man’s crimes. And now the state of Idaho has opened an investigation into the Sitler family, and a judge has decreed that it is too dangerous for Sitler to be alone in a room with his own baby son.

Given all we know about pedophilia and pedophiles, and given that this wedding didn’t take place in the distant past, but in 2011, Wilson has a lot more to answer for than he thinks. Being cute on the Internet is not going to make the questions go away.

UPDATE.2: I’ve been traveling most of today and been unable to address this mounting controversy. Turns out Doug Wilson did write me this morning, but he used an old email address that’s inoperative. I’ve offered to post anything he sends me in response to this post as a stand-alone blog entry.

Lots of email from people in and around Moscow, Idaho, alleging that the anonymous websites I link to above as sources for these documents are run by bad people, and that I shouldn’t link to them. I have no idea who runs these sites, and nobody put me up to anything. A reader who is in no way connected to Moscow or that community flagged me, saying there’s a controversy I should pay attention to. That’s why I started poking around. The information should be judged on its quality, not its source. I tried to link only to court documents, news reports, and things like that. More on this later…



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