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Thursday, June 18, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sex, Lies And Overlake Christian -- Reaction Of Church Elders Keeps Truth Under Wraps

Special To The Times

Clergy sex abuse. Once again, this jarring combination of words has been put before us. Once again, a community takes sides. And, once again, church leaders scramble to minimize the damage.

It is deeply troubling to have accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct made against a minister. It is even more troubling when, in response to the allegations, a congregation appears more invested in protecting its accused leader than in responding pastorally to the alleged victims. Unfortunately, few denominations across the country would score consistently high points for the way in which these cases have been handled in past years.

Perhaps the very thought of a minister, publicly committed to the care of souls, yet harming them in secret, creates more psychic dissonance than some people can bear. Swift condemnation of the accuser can relieve some of this dissonance. Perhaps it is too much to expect people in the pews to deal with sexual misconduct cases with clear heads and open minds when the accused are the very preachers who have condemned sexual sin from the pulpit. Immediate denial removes the need to consider the awful possibility that they may have been deceived.

Many religious traditions, including Christianity, have historically tended to make proper sexual behavior the "litmus test" for moral goodness. This tendency to equate morality with obeying sexual norms can put an entire religious institution at risk when the test is failed, especially by one of its leaders. The more rigid our sexual codes, the more our religious foundations are threatened when the code is violated by those who proclaim it to us in our churches.

In circumstances like this, there is a strong temptation to focus our attention on shoring up the crumbling system, even plugging its cracks with pages from our Bibles, rather than offering a compassionate response to those who have come forward with accusations that make us uncomfortable. Loving one's enemies and doing good to one's persecutors are of little use when preserving an institution's image becomes the primary goal. Whenever the Bible is used to shield the system and avoid the pastoral care of alleged victims, religion has become distorted and authentic morality can be numbered among the casualties.

Is this what has happened at Overlake Christian Church in recent months? Have the covert actions of one charismatic pastor become the collective sin of a congregation trying to protect itself from embarrassment or financial ruin? We may never know. But there are at least two aspects of this case that are particularly disturbing:

-- The failure of the elders to communicate the findings of the special investigation.

-- The participation of the elders in demeaning and discrediting the alleged victims, either by their silent compliance or by outright references to them as "the enemy."

The report

First, there is the report. Initially, the elders announced they would release it. Then, in a move that angered and shocked many, they dismissed the sexual misconduct allegations against Rev. Bob Moorehead, and indicated they would not release the findings from the investigation. Their use of dubious interpretations of Scripture to justify their actions has only served to create doubt about their credibility, heighten suspicion toward their pastor and further divide the community of believers. While proclaiming their support of Rev. Moorehead, the elders unanimously accepted his resignation - only after the investigation was nearing completion and the initial findings were available to them.

It is right that Rev. Moorehead's colleagues and friends should offer him support and stand by him. But it is not right if they have done so at the expense of openness and truth. At the very least, withholding the findings of the investigative report leaves significant questions unanswered. Was evidence found that supports the accusations? If so, was there a coverup? Was the investigation inconclusive? Or, were the accusations simply unsubstantiated?

Failing to address these questions leaves everyone to engage in speculation without reaching closure. Rev. Moorehead has stated that he is not guilty. The elders, while praising his contributions, have avoided any mention of his possible guilt or innocence. Is it their hope that this omission will lead everyone to conclude that the accusations were false?

The accusers

How common are false reports of sexual abuse against clergy? Although such reports have occasionally been made, they appear to be relatively rare. Most have been brought forward by single individuals acting alone. Less commonly, they have been made by a small group of individuals who know each other or had some common connection. It would be quite unusual for 17 adults to come forward independently with accusations against the same individual. It would be even more unusual for their stories to contain elements that suggest a similar pattern of abusive behavior.

Why now? Why did all but one of these men come forward only after the events in Florida were reported? Like other victim/survivors of sexual abuse, clergy victims suffer a variety of immobilizing feelings at the time, making it difficult to talk about their abuse when it happens. If the abuser is a clergy person, victims may feel that they will not be believed. An especially charismatic, popular or high-profile clergy person makes coming forward even more difficult. Often, learning that another victim has done so creates a safety net allowing disclosure of abuse that has occurred years ago and has been carried alone in secret shame.

We do not know if this describes the experience of Rev. Moorehead's accusers. But we can be fairly certain that there will be no closure for them or for the religious community until some information is communicated about the findings of the investigation. If the investigation has cleared Moorehead, or even raised doubt about his guilt, it would obviously be in his best interest to release it. Remaining silent about the investigation will only serve to intensify the suspicion and pain.

The elders

The second and even more disturbing aspect of this case has been the public attempt to demean and discredit the alleged victims. This is all the more puzzling since the elders apparently found the accusations of these men credible enough to investigate when they first came forward. We can assume that they would not have hired a well-respected private investigator if it had been clear from the outset that the allegations were frivolous or easily disproven. The alleged victims cooperated with the investigation.

It is not surprising that Moorehead has not felt positively toward those who have either lied about him or exposed him, though it is disconcerting that a minister would verbally demean his accusers in public. But what is most disheartening is that the elders have joined him in these verbal assaults. What are we to make of this? Does treatment of one's accusers in cases such as this have any bearing on the accused person's guilt or innocence?

Although there is no single profile among clergy sex offenders, data suggests that, as a group, clergy offenders tend to be intelligent, well educated, rigid in their beliefs, preoccupied with themselves, and controlling. Other characteristics commonly seen in male clergy sex offenders include arrogance, grandiosity and self-righteous indignation at any suggestion of impropriety on their part. Clergy offenders who display these latter traits tend to take control of any investigative process and can be particularly vitriolic toward their accusers.

Does any of this describe Rev. Moorehead? In his sermon on May 17th, the then senior pastor of Overlake Christian Church appeared to draw a comparison between himself and the persecuted apostle, Paul. Later, in the same sermon, he suggested that some members of the congregation might feel like taking a contract out on "our detractors, the people responsible for this, including the media."

Does this sound like a minister of the gospel? Or, did Rev. Moorehead reveal more about himself than he may have intended with such a pointed statement? It is one thing to assume hurt and anger among the members of a congregation. It is quite another to suggest emotional responses that are usually associated with the criminal personality.

Even if someone in Rev. Moorehead's congregation had privately voiced thoughts of homicidal retaliation against his accusers or the media, giving voice to such a sentiment before several thousand people seems shocking and irresponsible. It should have been assumed that such a large audience might include one or more individuals who are emotionally unstable and suggestible enough to hear his comment as a personal mandate.

What conclusions can we draw from the crisis at Overlake Christian Church? Are all 13 of the elders unaware of the widely known or easily accessed data about clergy offenders and their victims? Do they not know that sex crimes rarely have witnesses? Did they assume that unconventional use of Scripture would go unchallenged by other believers, including evangelical pastors? And would any of them have heard 17 men "crying out" alone if they cannot hear them crying out now in chorus?

In the end, we are left with two possibilities: Either 17 men are telling the truth or they are lying. If even one of them is telling the truth, the elders have participated in a conspiracy of silent betrayal. The elders have "flanked Moorehead on the stage," and joined him in demeaning his accusers who, whether truthful or deceitful, are among the vulnerable people whose dignity our religious communities are obliged to protect.

Fran Ferder, a clinical psychologist and Franciscan sister, and John Heagle, a Roman Catholic priest and mental-health therapist and canon lawyer, are codirectors of Therapy & Renewal Associates, a counseling and consultation center in Seattle. They also teach in the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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