Publishing a youth pastor-turned-sexual-predator's account of his crime may be one way to attract readers. But, as Christianity Today's Leadership Journal learned this week, controversial posts can cause more harm than good.
After posting a first-person account of statutory rape, Leadership Journal addressed the overwhelmingly negative response by first editing and then removing the initial post.
The piece, titled "From Youth Minister to Felon," was posted by Leadership Journal on June 9. Although it has been replaced by an apology, the original story is available in the online archive (subscription required).
Harold Smith, the president and CEO of Christianity Today International, and Marshall Shelley, the editor of Leadership Journal, penned the apology, explaining they regretted the post's focus on consent and mutuality and the youth pastor's failure to acknowledge the harm he caused his teenage student.
"The post, intended to dissuade future perpetrators, dwelt at length on the losses this criminal sin caused the author, while displaying little or no empathetic engagement with the far greater losses caused to the victim of the crime and the wider community around the author," Smith and Shelley wrote.
The initial piece brought a flurry of responses, some that were published on Christianity Today branded sites. Bloggers expressed concern that the youth pastor was given a more visible platform than his victim.
"The church must become a safe place for victims to heal, to tell their stories, to understand the true nature of what happened to them," Halee Gray Scott wrote for Her.meneutics, a blog for Christian women hosted by Christianity Today.
Ed Stetzer, a prominent Southern Baptist leader and Christianity Today blogger, addressed the Leadership Journal piece in a post titled, "It's abuse, not an affair, and it appears we need to be reminded again."
"Children, including teenagers, don't commit adultery with adults. There is no 'consent.' Our courts have rightly defined that teens are incapable of consenting to sex with an adult," wrote Stetzer. "The convicted felon doesn't get it — perhaps that should not surprise us. The fact that WE don't get it should concern us."
Stetzer and Scott both emphasized that the post was well-intentioned, but pointed to the danger of allowing the language of mutual attraction and temptation to overshadow the crime of statutory rape.
Karen Swallow Prior, in an article for Christ and Pop Culture, shared similar concerns. "The editors' well-intentioned decision to publish the piece as a cautionary tale betrays in them and their target audience an underlying naiveté in regarding the abuser's rationalizations as insightful and revealing enough to give him a platform for voicing them," Prior wrote.
Prior led a movement on Twitter in response to the youth pastor's story, encouraging people to tweet #HowOldWereYou along with their experiences of being taken advantage of by an adult in authority. She hoped to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in religious communities.
"I viewed the Leadership Journal post itself as less problematic than the blindness to the scope of the problem of abuse that its perceived novelty implied," Prior explained.
Christianity Today has pledged all advertising revenue earned through the initial post to Christian organizations that serve sexual abuse victims. "We will be working to regain our readers' trust and to give greater voice to victims of abuse," concluded the apology.
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