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A Brief Note on Paige Patterson’s Defenders

June 5th, 2018 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

If we practice latitudinarianism either individually or corporately in an age like our own, we have removed our credibility before the non-Christian, post-Christian relativistic, skeptical, lost world.

If you think that those who have rejected the plastic culture and are sick of hypocrisy are going to be impressed when you talk about truth and at the same time practice untruth, you are wrong. They will never listen. You have cut the ground from under yourself. We live in a generation that does not believe that such a thing as truth is possible, and if you practice untruth while talking about truth, the real thinkers will just say, ‘Garbage!’ ~ Francis Schaeffer

In the past few days both Norm Geisler and Doug Wilson have come to Paige Patterson’s defense. In one sense, all that needs to be said was said by Francis Schaeffer nearly 50 years ago when he wrote The Church at the End of the 20th Century, which is where the quote above comes from.

That said, I want to say one other thing as well which touches on the cost of these sort of defenses not only evangelistically—which Schaeffer captures—but also to victims.

The bizarre defense both men make is similar: They object to Patterson’s firing on procedural grounds, arguing that there is not sufficient proof of the accusations being made against him. Pr. Wilson in particular cites the biblical precedent for 2-3 witnesses and then claims that there are not 2-3 witnesses in this case.

There are two problems here.

First, many of the accusations against Patterson are not actually accusations. They’re… citations. No one is randomly claiming that Dr. Patterson made comments trivializing spousal abuse. We know he did because we have a recording. No one is randomly claiming that he made inappropriate remarks about an underage girl. We know he did because we have a recording. No one is randomly claiming that he once said he wanted to be alone with an alleged rape victim so he could “break her down.” We know he did because we have an email where he says that. On all these points, Patterson’s own words condemn him.

Second, it’s actually not true that we have fewer than 2-3 witnesses. We have, to the best of my knowledge, 10 witnesses. One woman, Megan Lively, has come forward and publicly made these claims about Patterson’s treatment of her during her time at Southeastern Seminary. We also know from Southeastern’s statement that some relevant documents in Lively’s case have gone missing. And we know from Southwestern’s statement that there was an additional woman at Southwestern who had the same thing done to her that was done to Lively. That gets us at least two people alleging serious offenses against Patterson, plus the eight that Lively says have contacted her. So on a factual basis, Pr. Wilson’s claims aren’t even accurate.

That said, we need to push this a bit further: There is an added difficulty in cases of sexual assault. As many different sources have explained, victims of sexual assault often do not come forward right away or at all. They often feel ashamed of what happened, wonder if it is their fault, and fear that the person they talk to will not believe them or will say that what happened to them was their fault. So, instead, they keep everything bottled up.

This is horrific for the victim, but it also has other consequences: If every victim does this, then the abuser is allowed to go on abusing indefinitely. This helps to explain how the Catholic abuse scandal could be so rampant and how men like Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar could victimize so many children. As Dr. Mohler said in his post, we create structures of silence around abuse that end up protecting the abusers.

For this reason, most programs that train people in how to respond to abuse encourage them to assure the victim that they believe them, that it is not their fault, and so on.

My church requires all volunteers in children’s ministries to take training with Darkness to Light. It is a two hour program specifically focused on child sexual abuse, but the principles apply elsewhere as well. Here is what the training says about responding when an alleged victim comes to you:

Disclosure of sexual abuse is a critical time in the life of a child. It’s the moment when a child learns whether others can be trusted to stand up for them, or whether they’ll be sacrificed for others’ comfort. Disclosure is a test of strength for families and communities.

Later they offer the following advice about how to respond:

  • Be supportive
  • Listen calmly
  • Don’t overreact
  • Say, “I believe you. What happened is not your fault.”
  • Praise the child for his or her courage and thank them for telling you
  • Encourage the child to talk, but don’t ask leading questions about the details
  • Ask only open-ended questions like, “What happened next?”
  • Tell the child we will get the support we need.

When we fail to do these things, other people suffer. The MSU case with Rachael Denhollander actually illustrates it:

Rachael Denhollander’s college-aged abuser began grooming her when she was 7. Each week, as Denhollander left Sunday school at Westwood Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., he was there to walk her to her parents’ Bible-study classroom on the other side of the building. He brought Denhollander gifts and asked her parents for her clothing size so he could buy her dresses. He was always a little too eager with a hug. The Denhollanders led one of the church’s ministries out of their home, which meant the man would visit their house regularly, often encouraging Rachael to sit on his lap, they recalled.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.

The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.

No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

One night, while sitting in the family’s living room, surrounded by people, the college student masturbated while Denhollander sat on his lap, she recalls. It wasn’t until two years later that she was able to articulate to her parents what had happened. By that point, the student had left the church. Moxon was furious that her church community hadn’t listened. But she never told anyone what had happened to Rachael. “We had already tried once and weren’t believed,” Moxon says. “What was the point?”

Today, Denhollander can see how her church, which has since shut down, failed to protect her. But as a child, all she knew from her parents was that her abuse had made their church mad and that she wasn’t able to play with some of her friends. She blamed herself — and resolved that, if anyone else ever abused her, she wouldn’t mention it.

And so when Larry Nassar used his prestige as a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program to sexually assault Denhollander, she held to her vow. She wouldn’t put her family through something like that again. Her church had made it clear: No one believes victims.

On the other hand, when we communicate support to victims, we are helping them deal with what was done to them and we are helping to protect additional victims.

We actually saw a really beautiful picture of this in the response to these allegations from the current SEBTS president, Danny Akin. He assured Lively that he believed her, that the seminary would do what it could to help her, and so on. And the interaction had a powerful affect on Lively:

“For 15 years of my life, I thought I did something wrong,” Lively said. “It wasn’t until Dr. Akin told me I didn’t that I firmly believed it. That’s how strong and impressionable Dr. Patterson was to a 23-year-old woman who believed in who he was.”

What worries me is that guys like Geisler and Wilson should know better. And yet when they write these things that implicitly communicate “we don’t believe the women,” it contributes to all the issues I’m describing above and, ultimately, contributes to Dr. Mohler’s structures of silence that functionally enable abusers.

The consequences of this failure are legion: Abusers are protected. Victims of abuse are silenced. And the claims of the Christian faith are publicly discredited by our failure to show in a very obvious way the love and compassion of Christ to the hurting and the vulnerable.

UPDATE: My friend Steven raised some reasonable questions about some of my phrasing here. He and I ultimately land in the same place, but he adds a wise qualification here:

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).