Ethical Response to Porn Charges Against Pastor

xxxchurch.jpgWe are being confronted frequently with this kind of news. The newspaper article copied below is from Charlotteville, Virginia, but it could be from anywhere. [edit in light of responder: My intent is not to focus on this specific case, but rather to examine our response].  The legal response is easy. When a person breaks the law (child pornography), he must pay the consequences which in this case will mean some jail time. But the ethical response is a little more tricky. [edit in light of responder: In this specific case, we should not presume guilt] Here are some questions that occur to me:

  • If you are a friend of the family, do you break off your friendship (feeling deceived) or do you seek to encourage him in the role of a Barnabas?
  • If you are a member of that church congregation, do you defend him or chastise him?
  • Is a Christian obligated to handle this kind of situation any differently than a non-Christian?
  • Is the organizational response to this situation different than an individual’s response? That is, Can the chairman of the board of elders response be the same as a personal friend’s response?
  • How much can we learn about how a man can be preaching a message on “A Heart for Christ” (January 14-15, 2006) while carrying on illegal acts on the side? Should we try? [edit: Am I guilty of assuming guilt here?]
  • To what extent am I capable of behaviors that are inconsistent with my public declared belief system — even if not illegal or unethical?

Here’s the Newspaper article, how do you respond to some of the questions I pose?

By Rob Seal, Daily Progress staff writer; Thursday, July 20, 2006

Albemarle County authorities discovered about 100 pornographic images of girls who appear to be underage on the computer of a former Charlottesville pastor, according to police testimony Wednesday. Gregory M. Briehl, 52, was arrested Tuesday and charged with 20 counts of possession of child pornography and two counts of videotaping people without their consent. Until March, Briehl, of 5360 Quint Field Road, was associate pastor of Peace Lutheran Church. The professional counselor also spent a year-and-a-half as the church’s acting pastor, starting in 2000. In May, Albemarle County police searched Briehl’s home, a guesthouse and his business at First Stone Counseling Center. Authorities seized computers, disks, a security camera and video footage. Authorities discovered about 400 pornographic images on the confiscated computer, including 100 images suspected to depict girls under 18, according to Albemarle County police Detective Chuck Marshall. The arrest has elicited a strong response from the church’s 400-member congregation and from Briehl’s former counseling patients. “He in no way acted inappropriately in the three years that I was a member at the church,” said Denise Raimey, who also went to Briehl for counseling. “He is not that kind of person, and I would never ever have been uncomfortable leaving my children with him.” During an at-times tearful telephone interview Wednesday, Raimey, a Keswick resident, said she doesn’t accept the allegations against her former pastor. “Unless I heard it from Greg’s mouth, I would continue to disbelieve it,” she said. News of the arrest prompted a very different reaction from Christiann DeFries, a member at Peace Lutheran. “Certainly I am a Christian, and we have all forgiven him,” DeFries said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “But a church is part of your family, and there is an incredible profound sadness when something like this happens in any family or church. I feel really betrayed.”

This story can be found at: http://www.dailyprogress.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=CDP%2FMGArticle%2FCDP_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1149189265929&path=!news

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6 Responses to Ethical Response to Porn Charges Against Pastor

  1. Name Withheld says:

    Dr. Jagers,

    I don’t have answers as much as I have additional questions:

    What is the ethically responsible way to deal with allegations made by one member of a congregation (in this case, a spouse) against another (in this case, ordained clergy)? Does one presume innocence, or guilt (and of what)? Moreover, in matters that call for privacy, how does one temper judgement and response to what is partial, and vague, information from civil and church authorities?

    For example, what is described as an adult, consensual relationship that crosses professional boundaries, may apply to inappropriate flirtation, and sexual innuendo, but is that an affair? Does it matter if a sexual act is involved, or not?

    In the Lutheran Church, the lesser is sufficient grounds to ask you to resign your call.

    If you are a friend of the family, how do you deal with the spouse, the children, and the pastor? Would your response be conditional? In our litigious society, should one expect a complete, public confesion?

    On what grounds does a Christian “defend” sinful behavior? We acknowledge it, as we also acknowledge God’s grace.

    What sins do we ourselves commit when making assumptions? For example, the discovery of “about 100 pornographic images who appear to be underage” is titillating ‘news’. What if one adds in information — the images were purchased over the internet, over a long period of time, then erased years ago out of shame (later retrieved by forensic experts) — the images did not involve sexual acts — only partial nudity is involved — the young women appear to be under ‘legal’ age, that is they ‘look’ young — should one’s response be conditional on the facts? On the vagauries of the law? We are still talking about (alleged) possesion, under Virginia statute, of child pornography. And, no doubt, we are also talking about violating God’s intent for respecting ourselves and one another. But, does 9should) our response differ?

    What if there is no evidence that the hidden cameras were ever used? What if this were a plot, that was foiled by a suspicious spouse, or a perpetrator who lost his nerve? Does it make a difference if there was intent, but no act?

    What ethical standards are violated by a counseling practitioner with a habit of covertly taping counseling sessions? Assume, for a moment, that no nudity is involved? Does that make a difference?

    What if the misdemeanor charges stem from video from a camera used outside the home, the professional office, the church? What if they were ‘peeping Tom’ type events, involving adults, no nudity? Do the particular facts make a difference?

    Should the following testimony of a detective concern members: “Footage confiscated from Briehl’s home, however, seems to depict both children and adults, and includes one film that appears to have been recorded inside Peace Lutheran Church… The video taken inside the church doesn’t depict nudity, but “the focus of the video is on private parts,” Marshall said in court.” How?

    Does it matter if the tape in question is a videotape of Youth singing and gesturing to “Waves of Mercy” in the church sanctuary, in shorts and t-shirts? Does it make a difference if a small portion of the film pans and zooms? (I recall old 8mm home movies that my grandpa made, which showed suspicious fascination with his daughters-in-law. Was the old man a lecher?)

    Does it matter if the detective is the estranged spouse of a parishioner? What if his daughter is on that tape? What if his ex-wife and daughter have a friendship with the ex-pastor? Does any of this matter?

    What if the “chairman of the board of elders” (in this case, the president of the leadership team) happens to have been a personal friend? What ethical dilemma(s) are faced by an individual who has corporate responsibility (as a church leader), and a spiritual friendship cultivated over numerous years of mission, outreach, fellowship, and discipleship? What if that leader is asked to step into an accountability role in the restoration of the ex-pastor? What would Jesus have us do?

    We know that pastors are of the world and not without sin, even as we ask them to be above reproach. Do we then ignore all that they say in witness to us? Are we all condemned without hope, incapable of having a “heart for Christ alone” in the most absolute sense? Do we discount the Psalms because a murder wrote them? Do we discount paul for his sinful nature, when he speaks the Word of God? Do we doubt that the Spirit can speak through a sinful ex-pastor’s mouth words of truth? Wither Jesus’ own witness in this regards, to prostitutes, tax collectors, theives, etc.?

    Your last question is very telling, I think, and exceptionally pertinent. Whatever illness, or self-deception, or evil drove this man to violate trust, is oft repeated… every day, I dare say, Christains go about violating their publically declared belief system. Which is why we have confession. Which is why we have God’s grace, through Christ’s death on the cross…

    Which is precisely where we leave matters like this case, that we cannot fully understand or fathom… nor need to, in my opinion.

    Oh yes, one last question: Should a church leader engage in an internet discussion that pertains to his own church? Is it ethical? Is it inappropriate to raise questions that may or may not be based on fact, versus rumor, as food for thought?

  2. leejagers says:

    To the unnamed responder, thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I have added a few edited comments to the original post as a result. I also was to continue examining the post with regard to its impact, not just my intent. My intent is to stimulate discussion on how we should respond to improper behavior among trusted church leaders. Please see my followup post called “Ethics, Organizational Trauma, and Hope” that deals with a local conference to explore this further. The harmful extremes are (1) to exercise judgment when the only One who is qualified to judge often chooses to wait or to pass over the sin for a time; and (2) to gloss over the errant behavior as though it was inconsequential, i.e. using grace as a license to ignore. Locally (Dallas), we are still reeling from the confession of a church leader who was involved in an affair. We are hearing the cries of hundreds of disillusioned people who trusted this individual and now feel deceived. You’re comment is relevant at this point, “Do we discount the Psalms because a murderer wrote them?” I do think this dialog can be helpful to the body of Christ as long as we don’t fall into the trap of gossip. When the discussion becomes gossip, it goes beyond ethical or legal problems and falls clearly into sin. I will continue to examine the impact of my post to ensure that it is edifying and not destructive. Thanks again for your response. — jlj

  3. Dr. Jagers,

    I apologize if in any way I appear to impune your site and/or its intent. We may not be coming from the same points of understanding, but I do find your site both interesting and educative, and believe that sites like it provide much needed dialogue.

    Gossip, indeed, is the most destructive, and in my experience, the most prevalant tool of the adversary.

    If there is good news in this particular situation, it is this: neither of the two extremes you mention above characterize the dominant response of our faith community touched by this ex-pastor. We abhor the behavior, but do not sit in judgement. We seek to understand the nature of our being, as the broken and fallen and undeserving — how do we sin so? We observe in horror, and disgust, how a man with such giftedness — to heal, to lead, to nurture — can have such a hidden and dark side. We imagine how painful that must be, and in many ways see the reflection of our own sinful and broken nature — do we dare try to keep our dark secrets hidden? We struggle most with the challenge of talking to Youth and especially children about the addictions of pornography, inappropriate expressions of our sexuality, and a world that seems to have few safe boundaries. Our tradition, as Lutherans, indeed emphasizes grace, but we also educate ourselves that grace does not come by us cheaply, that we are called to discipleship. And while we profess to be one part of the body of Christ, we know that the many parts need help, that all of us have a long way to go, and will never have perfect understanding. We do not choose to ignore these sins; we discuss them, and we condemn them. We process the events in small groups and in gatherings, opened in prayer and the Word. We listen, seeking the wisdom of the Old, taking comfort from the Gospel message of the New. We are in pain, but we also know that we are not alone, that God has chosen to ride through this storm with us. So we are less afraid, and eager to proclaim the good news. VBS this week has been a Godsend, not a burden — the energy is amazing. A fallen ex-pastor does not define our church… our identity continues to be derived from God’s love, and his commission to us: “Love, Grow, and Go”. We realize that we cannot control the media, nor hide from the world. We are called to let our little light shine. To our friends throughout the US, in Honduras, in Togo, in India… Peace is Alive! We pray for the Briehl family — please join us in that.

  4. Eric Schmitz says:

    “If you are a friend of the family, do you break off your friendship (feeling decieved) or do you seek to encourage him in the role of a Barnabas?”

    From a practical perspective, what is the value attained by breaking off a friendship because of deception? Separation may be desirable, especially if trust has been broken and one has been victimized; in this case, perhaps a family friend (spouse, child) has been the subject of covert videotaping, or the pastor has crossed boundaries that only after the fact are recognized as unacceptable (say, inviting youth over alone under the pretense of babysitting. What is the value of sustaining the friendship? Loyalty, forgiveness, encouragement are my initial thoughts… Does one abandon a friend in time of need? Christ calls upon us to forgive, not judge. Is part of being a ‘true’ friend, loving someone when they are ‘unloveable’? Does one lose an opportunity for accountability, repentance, reconciliation, and renewal by leaving one’s friend precisely when their need is greatest?

    So, I guess that the answer depnds on whether one is inwardly focused, on self-recovery, or outwardly focused, on mutual recognition and reconciliation. My question is, is this an ethical dilemma, or is either route perfectly OK?

  5. Lee Jagers says:

    Yes. The natural reaction to being wounded (offended, disappointed) by a close friend or family member is to distance from them. The supernatural reaction is to seek to see the bigger picture from God’s point of view and look for redemptive opportunities. Unfortunately, we tend to shoot our wounded (on the one hand) or wink our eye at sin (on the other hand). Our Lord seems to have the job of judgment well in hand (including timing), so He’s not asking for any more volunteers for that committee. He does want me to volunteer for the committe on love and encouragement, however. The point that I was trying to make in the post is that our thinking seems to take on different orientation depending on our type of bond with the offender: the wife deals with different issues than the children, than the church members, than the board member, than the non-Christian observer. Regardless of that, however, the question remains for those abiding in Christ, “How do I deal with this situation in a way that is consistent with the character of God?” Doormats and ostriches line up on one side of the field and prosecutors and executioners on the other. I think we can do better if we think these matters through and abide in Him (John 15). — jlj

  6. Eric Schmitz says:

    “If you are a member of that church congregation, do you defend him or chastise him?”

    I agree, that principally we are called to love him, as you cite from John 15. Then the question is, how do we love? As you say, something better than either of the two extremes…

    Hebrews 12 instructs us that God will chastise (discipline) his ‘sons’, so I think that base is covered without our help.

    Defending him? We are called to defend and proclaim and live the Gospel message, which is for him (and all us sinners) to accept God’s grace and love and live accordingly. As Christians we can hold one another accountable, to being faithful and obedient to God’s word… we can hate the sin, but love the sinner. We do so through prayer, by example, with encouragement.

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