Opinion Editorial
Lutheran Sex Scandal: $37 Million Verdict Makes a Good Point

The Dallas Morning News [Texas]
April 26, 2004

Defensive Catholics who complain about the media coverage of the church's clergy sex-abuse scandal often allege that other churches suffer from the same problem, though one doesn't hear about it as often. Recent events in Marshall show what they're talking about.

On Thursday, a jury awarded nine plaintiffs a whopping $37 million in a civil suit against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over sexual abuse committed by the now-imprisoned Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr., the former pastor of Marshall's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. The total church payout in settlements to Mr. Thomas' victims is about $69 million.

This case has a depressingly familiar ring to it: Plaintiffs demonstrated that church officials knew that Mr. Thomas had a record of inappropriate behavior with boys and an interest in pornography, yet ordained him anyway.

Moreover, former Lutheran Bishop Mark Herbener of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod and top assistant Earl Eliason who testified that he has a chronic problem with exposing himself in public restrooms, for which he pleaded "no contest" three times did not tell the Marshall congregation of Mr. Thomas' past when they sent him to the church.

Under terms of the settlement, the Lutheran Church has to follow in the same well-trod path as the nation's Catholic bishops: apologize to victims and parishioners, develop abuse policies and investigate all active ministers. It is a tremendous burden for the church, to be sure, but far greater is the burden on the child victims of church leaders' negligence.

The Lutheran scandal was not remotely of the magnitude of the Catholic catastrophe, but it is one of the worst scandals to hit an American Protestant denomination. In all these cases, the same denial and dysfunction are present, and given the paramount importance of religious institutions in the lives of believers, the damage is much magnified.

If church leaders had taken seriously their responsibilities to be good shepherds, a wolf like Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr. would never have been in a position to prey on the lambs. The jury's harsh punishment fits the crime.


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