I want to spend a few minutes discussing one of the larger lessons to be taken from the Sitler child molestation case. This is not being done to drag this thing out, or tangle it up further, but rather just the reverse. The way that this thing has been cynically used by the enemies of our church (as a way of furthering their agenda) has been quite grotesque, and I do not want anyone to forget that aspect of what happened in all this. But I don’t want to perpetuate the problem of their callousness by answering them. At the same time, I don’t want to give them traction to talk about it in whatever way they want by not answering them. And I know that which ever way I go, there will be plenty of opportunities for second-guessers to say it should have been the other way.
The reason I have decided to continue addressing these things is that I know (and not by guessing) that this whole thing was a cold, calculated strategic move. This was not a spontaneous eruption of outraged feeling over a sudden, accidental revelation. This was a deliberate move to hurt Christ Church, and if some families of the victims got mangled in the process, then hey. As Stalin might have put it in their defense, you have a break a few eggs to make an omelet. And to this I reply, as one visitor to the old Soviet Union did, “I see the broken eggs. Where’s the omelet?”
For those who cannot see the gross impropriety of creating this kind public discussion, they are beyond the help of further discussion. Some of them have been made hateful by bitterness, and others have been made foolish by their bitterness. The former don’t care what they do anymore, and the latter don’t understand how they are being manipulated. At the same time, other decent people, including some among the liberals, have been as appalled by this scene as I was.
But part of the point of this was to create a controversy, and after a few days, some of the “talking points” work their way out to reasonable people (and create questions). These are people who don’t want to drag the victims’ families through the whole thing all over again, and who don’t want to create a hostile climate for victims thinking about reporting such a crime in the future. We don’t want future crimes to go unreported because of how all the missional Christians treated the victims last time around.
For those reasonable people with questions, one of the things that needs to be discussed for a moment is my letter to the judge in this case. It has been alleged that my letter to the judge was a plea for leniency, and it has been further claimed that the reason Steven Sitler got the particular sentence he did was because of my letter. The former is not true, and I have no reason to believe that the latter to be true. At the same time, questions about this can be reasonable (which is not the same thing as granting that the people who posted my letter on the net are being reasonable).
A serial pedophile in our church was caught and his crime reported to the authorities within a matter of hours. While he was awaiting trial, I had a number of counseling sessions with him and, as a result of this, he confessed to a number of other instances of the same kind of criminal behavior. At his trial, he was sentenced to life in prison, with the judge involved retaining his jurisdiction. This means that Sitler is spending his time in the county jail instead of the state penitentiary. His case will be reviewed a year from now, and the judge will determine what happens to him then. During the course of this year, he will be receiving counseling/treatment twice a week from two secular therapists, by order of the court, and I visit him in jail every two weeks, not by order of the court.
In my letter to the judge (before the life sentence with retained jurisdiction), I asked the judge to apply justice in a measured and limited way. In order to know what I was talking about, outside critics would have to know what the options on the table actually were at that time, and what the various competing interests were. But their lack of this knowledge does not appear to be slowing them down any.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I need to make a distinction between what kind of outcome we should seek in a situation like this, and what kind of outcome should happen in my ideal Christian republic five hundred years from now (the kind of Christian republic these people are afraid I am going to spring on them tomorrow morning by nine). Currently, under our present laws, something must be done with people like Steven Sitler. Those Christians who are involved in the process (family, attorney, pastor, friends, victims, and so on), need to have a basis for what they urge. This is why we are all trying to play a game of chess on a backgammon board.
In that ideal Christian republic, I would not have any problem with the death penalty being one of the options on the table for serial pedophiles. But this brings me to one mistake, in my view, that Christian conservatives tend to make in this kind of thing (although I admit this is a debate over whether a chess knight goes on this side of the pointy triangle backgammon thingy or on that side). Life in prison, or thirty years in prison is not actually an “approximation” of the biblical penalty. Rather than an approximation, I think it is more like a blasphemous counterfeit. It is certainly severe, as is the biblical penalty, but there is more to it than this. The penalties are severe in very different ways. Life sentences remove the criminal from society (which is good), meaning that the criminal is not around for the time being to kill, and rape, and maim (which is also good).
But a life sentence in the penitentiary system is a form of “death” from which the state has the authority and power to resurrect. Given the overweening conceit of today’s salvific state, it is not surprising that they want to exercise this power more and more, trying to make their system of salvation work. Creating opportunities for this kind of pseudo-resurrection is a very powerful lie.
The penitentiary system is a humanistic idol, an attempt by the state to become a savior. If we send people to the penitentiary, this gives them an opportunity to become penitent. The same deal with reformatories. And then we raise them from the dead! But, not surprisingly, like all humanistic idols, the results are consistently bad. Penitentiaries are graduates schools of vice, not known for the abounding penitence. Far from being a churchyard at the last trump, they are a statist sheol.
In my letter to the judge, I did not urge any specific penalty, but rather wanted a just sentence that was thoughtfully applied (given the constraints of the system). When I visited Steven in jail before this last round of sentencing, one of the things we covered (and agreed upon) was this principle. “If you go to prison for life, God is not doing any injustice to you. You are here because of what you did.” In this context, the family of one of the victims also wrote a letter to the judge (one of the most gracious and hard letters I have ever encountered), a letter which I encouraged them in sending. We all said what we had to day, and committed the results to God. We were content with what God in His sovereignty would do. He knows how to make the chess pieces go on the backgammon board.