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Six questions - Regarding the conviction of Archbishop Seraphim Storheim

Regarding the conviction of Archbishop Seraphim Storheim
by the Rev. Canon David M. Baumann, SSC

I was not present in court, nor have I read the transcripts. Of the case, I know only what I have read online. As I looked over that material and as I corresponded with Archbishop Seraphim, six questions came to me. Admittedly, I am on the outside looking in; there is much that I do not know, cannot know, or don’t have business knowing. Nevertheless, I have some questions about his case, and I think there are reasonable grounds for them.

My grounds for asking the six questions are these: Archbishop Seraphim and I were best friends in the Anglican seminary; we met in September 1970 and remained close until he graduated in May 1972. Even in those days, he was noted for personal holiness. Although he was not naïve, he always showed innocence of life. After our graduation we had two visits over the next five years when he came to stay with me at my home in southern California.

In subsequent years others who have known him in Orthodoxy as a pastor and a bishop testify to the same quality, that he consistently showed a compelling and attractive holiness of life. My correspondence with him over the past two years furthers and deepens the impression I had of him from our earliest years. He retains a sense of humor, he is compassionate, and he places himself entirely in the hands of God with a spiritual life that is deep, wise, and humble.

In addition to my personal, long-term knowledge of Archbishop Seraphim, I have been an Anglican/Episcopal priest and pastor for over 41 years, including experience with sexually dysfunctional families and people who were sexually abused as children, as well as with the court system in the United States.

It is from my long experience of friendship with Archbishop Seraphim and from long experience as a pastor, that, as I consider the case against him and his conviction, I ask these six questions. I make no accusations—I am merely asking questions. My questions are:

1. How did the family of the accuser deal with sexual matters?

I have known a number of families in which the parents were extremely uncomfortable with sexual matters, to the point that they never talked to their children about them. The children were then left on their own to deal with their own emerging sexual feelings and changes in their bodies as they entered puberty. With no guidance or information from their parents, what they learned came from “off the street”—such as their friends and other students at school. Further, their parents’ discomfort with sexual matters communicated itself to their children by their attitude alone, so that the children’s ignorance was also colored by discomfort. Such education, or lack of it, left them vulnerable to skewed and troubling attitudes toward sex.

The news reports about Archbishop Seraphim’s trial indicate that the accusers’ mother referred to sexual matters as “dirty stuff”; there is no indication that she referred to any sexual abuse of her sons—only that any sexual matters were “dirty stuff.” Hence, my first question.

2. Was the incident truly a “sexual assault”?

No one denies, least of all Archbishop Seraphim, that there was some sort of incident or incidents that occurred in the summer of 1985. He reports that he tried to inform the boys about puberty in response to questions they asked him. He does admit that he did not handle the situation as wisely as could have been done, that it was “the greatest regret of his life,” that he wrote a letter of apology to the mother, and tried later to visit the home to effect reconciliation.

Should parents be the first to instruct their children about sexual matters? Absolutely. Should the Church partner up with parents in teaching children about these matters? I believe it to be very advisable, and have done so myself in partnership with parents, and with satisfying success.

What if parents cannot, do not, or will not accept any Church assistance in the matter? There may be good reasons for that, and without a doubt it should be their prerogative to make that decision. Should Archbishop Seraphim have done something other than what he states he did? By his own admission, Yes. Did he cross boundaries inappropriately by teaching young boys about puberty without their mother’s permission? By his own admission, Yes. As a young, inexperienced but well-intentioned priest, he could have done better. But is this the same thing as “sexual assault on a minor,” as he court has defined it? No; it is something quite different.

If the incident had indeed been a situation of sexual assault, it is hardly conceivable that he would have written a letter of apology, nor attempt a later visit to the home in the hope of achieving reconciliation. The very existence of the letter is strong logical evidence that the incident was what Archbishop said it was: an inappropriate crossing of boundaries in a teaching context—quite likely to help and comfort boys who were confused about the matters they were then facing, and who apparently had no father to consult. The fact that the boys came to Archbishop Seraphim for help speaks for him, not against him. The boys’ mother even described the then-Father Seraphim in glowing terms, stating that not in a million years would she have believed that he could be guilty of wrongdoing.

3. If Archbishop Seraphim is guilty of sexual assault on a minor, where are the other accusers?

If Archbishop Seraphim is guilty of sexual assault on a minor as the court has decided, then it is reasonable to ask, Where are the other accusers? Every pedophile must have a first victim, but nowhere in my experience or anywhere in any case I have heard of does a pedophile stop with one victim. Pedophilia is an addictive disorder. We read regularly that when one victim has the courage to stand up and accuse his or her abuser publicly, then others do as well until there are many, whose accusations show a pattern of abuse. In Archbishop Seraphim’s case, there are no other accusers; on the contrary, there are many people (including children) who bear witness to his love and holiness.

4. How was the accuser prepared for his testimony in court?

Generally in abuse cases, the accuser or accusers are prepared for their appearance in court by their attorney, court-appointed counselors, and therapists on how to make their testimony. There are many documented cases in which prosecutors are so intent on getting a conviction that they lead the accuser into defining the details of the alleged abuse by creating or shaping vague or uncertain memories into a consistent story to create pseudo-confidence designed to present a “good case” and be able to withstand cross-examination. Such preparation is often, in fact, a kind of abuse in itself as it leads the accuser into assisting prosecutors into making a strong case against a person who may be innocent. When, in later years, the accuser realizes that he or she has been manipulated into making a strong accusation from scant or uncertain evidence, the state of that person is often worse than it was in the beginning.

All cases of abuse by an adult male against a child that I am familiar with have been far more specifically sexual in nature than that described in the case against Archbishop Seraphim, involving activity that a child would not even be familiar with. In this case, the description of the nature of the alleged abuse sounds to me to be more like “child play” between preteen boys than abuse by an adult male of a preteen boy. I wonder if the accuser’s memories have been manipulated by those who prepared him to testify so that he was led to identify Archbishop Seraphim with activity with which the Archbishop actually had no part. Again, I make no accusations; I am merely wondering, since what is stated about this case is so different from every other incident of abuse I have heard of.

5. What is the tenor of the court system in Canada toward those accused of sexual abuse of a minor, especially clergymen?

Cases against clergy for a generation or more have been many, much genuine sexual abuse has been uncovered, and many guilty parties brought to account. Therefore one may suspect that at this time it is very difficult for any member of the clergy to receive a fair hearing or fair trial when accused of sexual abuse. How much does public opinion affect the ability of an accused clergyman, especially one of such high profile as Archbishop Seraphim, to receive a fair trial? Rarely is an accusation found to be spurious, yet surely not every accusation has merit. And even being accused can ruin a person’s reputation. Some online denunciations of Archbishop Seraphim have been extreme, with little energy or reason behind them other than the accusation.

In Archbishop Seraphim’s case, no one but the accuser and the accused were present at the time of the incident; there were no witnesses. Therefore the judge can only depend on his own personal interpretation of whatever testimony was provided in court. And according to the news reports, regarding Archbishop Seraphim’s testimony, the judge said, “I just didn’t believe him.” No logical or credible reason for his failure to believe was provided. And testimony from one witness favorable to Archbishop Seraphim was not permitted because it was determined to be biased. Yet are not character witnesses called because their testimony is to be in favor of the accused?

I am not familiar with the court system in Canada, but I have experience with the court system in the United States, and have found it to be often seriously flawed. A good number of attorneys have described it so; one even described it as being “void of integrity.” In a huge number of cases, victory has been shown to be more important to prosecutors than justice, and there are endless news reports of innocent people being released from prison after having been unjustly condemned. One expert told me personally that his estimate is that 5% of those convicted of a crime are actually innocent. So I ask: how likely is it that a high-profile member of the clergy can receive a fair trial in a sexual abuse case?

6. What is the attitude of the OCA Synod of Bishops toward Archbishop Seraphim?

I find the OCA’s written policy on sexual abuse by Church officials to be well thought out and pastorally sensitive. Although I am no expert, from what I have read it appears to be the policy of the Orthodox Church in America automatically to accept a secular court’s disposition of a case as final, and to depose a member of the clergy who is found guilty in a secular court of sexual abuse, most especially abuse of a minor. In times when the court system is trustworthy, its expertise held in high regard, and its decisions received with confidence that justice has been done, such a policy would make sense—although one can ask whether there ever has been such a time in history. In this particular time, in the light of public opinion regarding members of the clergy accused of sexual misconduct, one may ask whether accepting the decision of a secular court without question is always wise.

However, it also appears that the ecclesiastical court reserves to itself the authority to make its own decision. Some online reports excoriate the Synod of Bishops for failing to depose Archbishop Seraphim, and others accuse the Synod of abandoning him in his time of need. Public opinion is spread across the spectrum.

The Holy Synod will, one hopes, be devoted to justice to all parties as its own policy wisely states. One may hope also that Archbishop Seraphim’s overwhelming reputation for compassion and personal holiness, the widespread public support he has from people who have known him throughout the various times of his life, and his known characteristics of humility, compassion, and dedication to honesty will weigh heavily in his favor against one lapse of judgment, which he himself admitted before there were any accusations, for which he expressed regret, and in which he tried to make amends.

In the end, of course, only God knows the facts and the intentions of all hearts. If Archbishop Seraphim has been unjustly condemned, may his heart remain pure and his life in Christ continue to deepen. Though his earthly ministry may have been brought down, may the holiness and innocence of life for which he has been known by innumerable people for decades be preserved.

The souls of the just are in God’s hand; no torment will touch them. For though in the sight of men they may suffer punishment, they have a sure hope of immortality; and after a little chastisement they will receive great blessings, because God has tested them and found them to be worthy to be his. –Wisdom 3:1, 4-5

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