GUEST COMMENTARY: What the Ted Haggard scandal is really about

(RNS1-JAN27) Christa Brown runs the Baptist division of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. For use with RNS-BROWN-COLUMN, transmitted Jan. 27, 2009. Religion News Service photo courtesy Christa Brown.

(RNS1-JAN27) Christa Brown runs the Baptist division of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. For use with RNS-BROWN-COLUMN, transmitted Jan. 27, 2009. Religion News Service photo courtesy Christa Brown.

(UNDATED) The headline was an eye-catcher: "Pastor Ted Haggard faces more gay sex accusations."

But the more I delved into the recent Associated Press story, the more I knew it wasn't really about "gay sex."

It was about pastoral abuse and exploitation. It was about a megachurch cover-up.

This story was different from the one back in 2006 that brought down Colorado Springs celebrity pastor Ted Haggard after an affair with a male escort. That story elicited little more than a yawn from me. Another religious leader caught with a prostitute? Ho-hum.

Sure, Haggard showed hypocrisy to the hilt, but in the work I do, I see such an endless stream of evangelical leaders' hypocrisy that I get inured to it. So I try to concern myself with the more egregious stuff, like clergy sex abuse and child molestation.

That's why this new story about Haggard's sexual "relationship" with a young male congregant made me flinch. Reportedly, the man was in his "early 20s" and the "relationship" had gone on for a "long period of time."

So exactly how old was this young churchgoer when his trusted pastor first started grooming him? Was he even past his teens? And how old was he when Haggard made his first overt move on him?

The man was obviously quite young, but even more importantly, he was part of Haggard's congregation. Haggard was his pastor, and that's not just an empty word. A pastor occupies a position of high trust toward the members of his congregation.

That's why what Haggard did was so abusive.

It is inherently manipulative for a minister to use a congregant-even an adult congregant-for his own sexual ends. In some states, such conduct might even be a felony, just as it would if a psychologist sexually exploited a client.

What makes Haggard's conduct all the more troubling is the fact that other church leaders were apparently willing to engage in a complicit cover-up.

Back at the time of the first Haggard scandal, the Associated Press reported that church officials found "no evidence that Haggard had sexual relations with anyone but" Mike Jones, the male escort.

Yet, we now learn that this young man came forward in 2006, and church officials concluded there was an "overwhelming pool of evidence" to support his story.

So what did the church leaders do with that "overwhelming pool of evidence"? They covered it up. The church's insurance company paid the young man some money with the condition that he not discuss the matter publicly.

And based on the Associated Press report, it appears that, even now, church officials are trying to spin their hush money payment rather than owning up to the wrong of it. They're opting for gloss rather than transparency.

The money "wasn't at all a settlement to make him be quiet," said Brady Boyd, who took over for Haggard in the pulpit of New Life Church. On Sunday, he told worshippers that "for the last two years, we carried the burden, the weight, of this information to protect you."

Yet the money Boyd claims wasn't used to make the man be quiet is money that nevertheless carried the requirement that the man keep quiet.

It's a fine display of double talk. That's what religious leaders often do when they're trying to defend the indefensible. Many people outside the church will surely see the payoff for what it really was-morally compromised hush money.

Thank God the young man decided to talk anyway. He's the one who brought the truth to the table, not the pious church officials. Without his courage, the 10,000 members of New Life Church would still be in the dark about the pastor they so greatly trusted and the complicit church officials who covered for him.

Even after all this, I expect most of the people at New Life Church will probably go right on trusting whatever their church leaders tell them. They'll choose the easy road of seeing this as a "gay sex" problem rather than opening their eyes to the betrayal of their pastor's abuse and their church leaders' cover-up.

(Christa Brown is the national Baptist outreach director for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.)

KRE/AMB END BROWN