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Thoughts on Donny Pauling (and a message for us all)

It’s late… way too late for this morning person to be up writing, but sometimes, your heart just won’t let you sleep.

You could call this a post I never wanted to write.  In fact, when I wrote my last post about victims, I fully intended (and still do) on writing a followup about the suspects.  Because, sometimes, unfortunately, those suspects are wrongly accused, and that can be completely devastating for them.

It was a new thought pattern for me.  I’m a victim advocate.  If a woman (or man) is brave enough to step forward and claim assault, then we need to be compassionate enough to believe them.  That’s how I feel.

But when you believe the victim it automatically renders the accused guilty, which can be a problem, especially if you know the accused, and especially if the accuser is wrong.

Just a year ago October, I sat in my pastor’s office, crying hot tears of anger.  Our church had recently “survived” a lawsuit involving alleged sexual abuse at the hands of some of our members.  During the member’s meeting summarizing the case, the lawyer had done a remarkable job of stating that accusations were unsubstantiated and improbable.  I could respect that.

Then our senior pastor got up and called the accusation lies, and all respect went out the window.  I sat in my chair trembling in frustration.  Improbable and unsubstantiated are understandable terms.  The accusations were nearly, if not over, 20 years old, so yes, that was completely understandable.  Calling someone a liar was absolutely unacceptable.

And then, two months later, my whole worldview got flipped on its head.  Someone else had been accused of having sex with a minor, and this time I knew him.

Donny Pauling and I were connected way back in the early days of this blog.  We never worked together but we had mutual ministry contacts.  This is a small niche.  We all know of each other and have worked with people who have worked with people.

Donny is a former porn producer, and I have reflected many times on the irony that, if I had chosen a different path, our paths could have crossed under completely different circumstances.  He was involved in the industry at the same time I was thinking of joining it. So, who knows.

I always thought it was so much like grace, and so much like God to use a former producer and whole bunch of ‘formers’ for His honor and His glory.  It still is very much like grace and still very much like God.

In fact, just a couple days ago, I stumbled across this great article summarizing all of the sexually screwed up people God used.  Sure, we all know about Rahab the Harlot but in “David was a Rapist, Abraham was a Sex Trafficker,” author David Lamb delves into the nitty gritty of stories that we often gloss over.

We remember David as the giant-slayer, a poet, and a man after God’s own heart.  You won’t find his power rape of Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband in your children’s Sunday School coloring lesson.  In fact, before you keep reading this, it might be worth taking a break (because this is fixing to be long) and reading that.

Back to Donny.

Donny and I got a chance to meet in person in May of 2014.  He was a speaker at a National Coalition Summit held just outside of DC in Virginia.  I live just north of DC in Maryland, so I decided to travel to the conference site to say hi.  It was a chance to meet Donny and others.  In other words, it was a great networking opportunity, so I took it.

I sat in the hotel restaurant and had dinner with Donny and two women from a local parish.  Donny had never been to downtown DC before, so we excused ourselves and drove into DC to take a quick tour.  It was dark out and the monuments are absolutely beautiful at night. Donny and I walked around the Mall sharing our stories and talking about the struggles of ministries like ours until, I believe, one in the morning.

Donny

We talked about a lot about porn and sex, which is very standard “business talk” in our world.  We were very open about the struggles that we each face, and Donny was very open about his weaknesses.  He was glad I was dating someone at the time because otherwise, this would not be “safe.”

I understand weakness.  I get it, and can respect that.  When you see weakness in another person, you have a choice.  You can prey on it or you can protect it.  When it comes to issues of sexuality with brothers in Christ, I obviously feel a duty to protect it, even and especially when it can be a mutual weakness.  We were two adults with sexual pasts and he had already made it very clear that he was attracted to me.

I was keenly aware that, of the two of us, in that moment, I was stronger and if my defenses fell, it would not end well.  Could there have been opportunity for things to go very wrong?  Absolutely.  Did they?  No.

After our walking tour of DC, we got back in the car. I backed it into the car behind us (oops!).  I checked for damage- but there was none (phew!).  I drove him back to his hotel and I went home.  The end.

So, when December 2014 rolled around and I heard of the accusations against Donny, my immediate thought was “no way.  Not Donny.”  And I was torn, because I didn’t know how to pick sides. I didn’t want to pick sides.  So I didn’t.

I watched as other ministries in our circle distanced themselves.  I talked with even more ministries who had worked with him in the past and had statements ready just in case they were asked.  I thought and prayed and struggled with it, for a long time.

If I had any reason to believe he had preyed on those girls, I would have said something, but the details of the case did not fit with the conversation he and I had.  So, I waited, all the while wishing for a chance to sit down and talk with those girls.  I wanted to hear their stories.

Turns out, I didn’t need that.  After a conversation with a friend about this exact situation, I decided to check to see how Donny is doing.  I came across his latest blog post announcing that he pled no contest.

And my heart absolutely sank.

It’s a long post, and I read every word of it.  I experienced so many different emotions from hurt to confusion to anger to sorrow and back through again.  I wanted to throw the computer as I read what, at times, seems to be a victim-shaming I’m-not-in-control-of-my-actions post.  I tried to read it in the context of the man I met, but honestly, at the end, felt like it wasn’t even the same person writing that post.

If you read it, there are so many red flags.  It starts to read like a manual on all the ways not to interact with a teenage girl, or a how to guide to flirting with sin (ie a former porn producer probably should not allow a teenage girl to parade around naked in front on him or to sleep in his bed with him).

In the end though, the only emotion I’m left with is grief.  Grief that lives have been destroyed, that ministries have been destroyed, and that people have been hurt.

Our choices matter and they affect those around us, and, in the end, we are responsible for them.

We live in a culture that loves to assign guilt and shift blame.  Well if she hadn’t worn that skirt, he wouldn’t have raped her.  Well if his parents hadn’t abandoned him, he wouldn’t be acting like this.

Do things that happen to us shape us?  Absolutely.  We’re like rocks, shaped by the waters that wash over us, and the stress that rubs against us.  We are chipped and cracked and eroded and broken by life in a very broken world, and yes, that changes us.

I turn 30 in a month and still struggle with abandonment issues.  If someone doesn’t show up to pick me up on time (ie from an airport) I have a full-on panic attack.  I hyperventilate, break into a cold sweat, and feel like I’m starting to lose my mind.  Why? Because that’s exactly how my dad left me.  Alone in a place away from home and he never came to pick me up.  He was “late” when the reality was, he was just gone.

I like to consider myself a logical person but as much as I have tried, I cannot seem to change that very visceral response.  I have tried talking myself out of it, praying myself out of it, preparing myself for it, reasoning with myself and eventually the only thing that helped was admitting, “This is something I struggle with, so if you could just do me a favor and tell me if you’re going to be late, it will help me a lot.”  (And by help me, I mean keep me from nearly dying and subsequently killing you when you finally get here).

That’s just one of many ‘weaknesses’ I have.  We all have them, and I think we spend so much time being afraid of them or trying to change them.  We want to fix them by ourselves, on our own, and sadly, sometimes, regardless of who it hurts.  Many times we don’t see it or acknowledge it until it’s too late, and at that point, it becomes an excuse.

Instead of viewing our own weakness as something that needs to be dragged into the light of God’s grace, we hold onto like some sort of life insurance.  Our weaknesses become something that happened to us as if we are powerless to control the consequences.  We victimize ourselves because it is easier for us to blame anybody else for our problems than it is to get help.

We expect others to protect weaknesses they know nothing about. When they fail to do that and we lose control, we throw the blame on them.

There are plenty of places in Donny’s post where I see evidence of weakness realized too late, but my desire really isn’t to pick that apart.  Donny has made the choices he has made and is experiencing the consequences of those choices.  Likewise, people he cared about and people supported him are also experiencing the painful consequences of those choices.

Instead, my desire is to encourage others to acknowledge weakness.  We are weak people, but just like that night walking with Donny around the Tidal Basin, the only way we can help each other protect weakness is if we know it.  Does that mean you walk around with a sign announcing it?  Of course not.

But it does mean that you stay aware of situations that could prey on that weakness.  It does mean that you get a team together to help you.  It does mean you drag that weakness out into the light before it has a chance to morph into some havoc-wreaking wraith.

I have many other weaknesses, far more intimate and personal than heart palpitations over non-punctual people.  There are people in my life who know those weaknesses because I have told them, and there is so much strength in that confession.  Now, when a situation arises that can take advantage of one of those weaknesses, I have people in my corner to support me and keep me accountable.

Obviously, the better choice would be to avoid those situations altogether, but sometimes you can’t.  In those moments, you need an ally, or else your weakness turns into nothing more than an excuse.

And Donny, if you are reading this from wherever you are, please know I am praying for you.  I join you in your prayers for Bethany and Catie, and likewise pray for your healing, restoration, and protection.  May you all find the help you need, but more importantly, may you all come to truly experience the life-giving, holy, and healing grace and love of God.  

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