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Bishop Jim Dorff: Rippling circles of pain

Posted by Ron George on December 14, 2015

United Methodist Bishop James Dorff. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Bishop Dorff
UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Christian clergy who choose to have illicit sexual affairs are not thinking about the pain their behavior will cause if they’re ever found out.

Regardless of how far up the food chain they’ve risen or how long and successful their careers have been, it seems not to occur to them that there’s no excuse for their behavior and that they’re risking everything and everyone they hold dear for something that is never about love or even sex: It’s always about power and its abuse. It’s also about hubris accompanied by the belief that they will not be caught. (Sadly, most aren’t.)

(Full disclosure: I am a former clergyman guilty of sexual misconduct and someone well acquainted with the research.)

The latest case to make headlines is that of United Methodist Bishop James Dorff of the Rio Texas Annual Conference, which includes Corpus Christi. A letter announcing his resignation and surrender of his ministerial credentials was read to congregations on Sunday, Dec. 6. The ripple effect of shock, disbelief and pain that began last month with Dorff’s family hit the pews of local churches as though there had been a death in the family.

Dorff was beloved for his personality and his indefatigable commitment to the United Methodist Church, a ministry covering more than four decades. He was planning to retire next year; then, poof, the wheels came flying off his wagon. Someone went to church officials with a verifiable report of clergy sexual misconduct. In Texas, that’s a crime.

On the upside, church officials didn’t try to hide Dorff’s transgression. The matter was handled with dispatch, and the church has made clear in the news media that it does not tolerate clergy sexual misconduct.

Typical of the genre, though, Dorff’s public-confession letter, no doubt vetted by denominational officials, buries Dorff’s offense in euphemism and evasion.

“It is so difficult to share, but I must inform you that I have not upheld the sacred vows I made to God at my wedding, at my consecration as Bishop, and at my ordination as Elder,” Dorff’s letter states. “I crossed what are the clear expectations of relational boundaries.”

Source: General Board of Church and Society, The United Methodist Church

Source: General Board of Church and Society, The United Methodist Church (2014)

Dorff presumably made many promises at his wedding and ordinations, but we’re to understand that, in this instance, he’s talking about his broken promise to forsake all others in favor of his wife. Is this offense about crossing clear expectations? No, it’s about sexual misconduct reported by a specific victim to United Methodist officials. The phrase does not appear in Dorff’s confession letter. Neither is there any but passing reference to the victim of Dorff’s abuse of authority as “the person involved.”

For this transgression, I am profoundly sorry,” Dorff continues.

Well, dig a little deeper. Research indicates that perpetrators of clergy sexual misconduct tend to be sorry, most of all, that they were caught. Dorff very likely is sorry for the pain he’s caused others – but in this letter, he does not express regret at having had an illicit sexual affair or that having the affair was just plain wrong.

It’s not Dorff’s fault or even that of church officials handling his case that damage control is paramount, not only for the church but for Dorff’s innocent victims – his wife, sons and grandchildren. It is, however, symptomatic of how ill-equipped denominational systems are for candor in handling this type of misconduct despite its prevalence. (Research indicates that about 60 percent Methodist pastors have personal knowledge of either a victim or a perpetrator (or both) of clergy sexual misconduct.)

Some of the mealy-mouth language may be driven by legal concerns; after all, clergy sexual abuse is illegal in Texas; moreover, the victim may sue the church – and she or he should. The church is morally obligated to make her or him whole financially as well as psychologically and, if applicable, spiritually. It’s a big job, and denominations rarely succeed.

Nothing so far in any of the publicity or news stories about this matter expresses pastoral concern and support for the victim. What is being done for her or him? Probably something, but will it be enough to restore her or his mental health and – more important – dilute the inevitable blaming of the victim?

Who would do such a thing? Christians, of course, church members for whom Dorff’s tumble from the pedestal trundles them into the classic stages of grief.

  1. Denial: Disbelief based on one’s affection for the perpetrator, including suspicion that the pastor was seduced by a “Jezebel.”
  2. Anger: Sometimes at the pastor for being such an idiot, but more often at the victim, a continuation of the Jezebel motif.
  3. Bargaining: Shock at the punishment phase accompanied by resentment at how the institution is handling disciplinary matters. It often takes this form: OK, the pastor’s admitted wrongdoing, so why not just forgive and forget? Look at all the great work she or he has done in the past.
  4. Depression: This is the stage most feared by denominational officials, because it often results in declining membership – and revenue – as well as other forms of support for local congregations as well as denominational programs.
  5. Acceptance: Takes time and effort, consultation and true forgiveness all around, which leads to something akin to recovery from serious illness. Timeline: Three to five years.

I have dear friends who are viscerally shaken by this sad news. A pastor of Dorff’s stature ought to know how many Methodists went home and wept Dec. 6 because he was incapable of keeping his promises. It will haunt him the rest of his life – and it should.

One can only hope that the prayer expressed in Dorff’s confession letter comes true for him, his family and his wounded church: “I am profoundly grateful that my wife … our sons, and our extended family have chosen to work with me toward wholeness, healing and restoration from the brokenness I have caused them.”

Frankly, it’s more than Dorff deserves, but let’s hope that his family’s strength of character is sufficient to heal the breach.

 

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Posted in Christianity, Church, Clergy misconduct, Clergy sexual misconduct, Ethics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »