Sex charges against ex-pastor stir online controversy for Minnesota Missouri Synod Lutherans
A spirited discussion is taking place on a website written by and read by members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod over how the conservative Lutheran church will respond to the recent arrest of a former pastor who had been hired despite being a convicted sex offender. Recrimination, finger-pointing and prayers are pouring forth in the wake of the arrest last month of the former lay pastor, Darwin Schauer, on 15 counts of criminal sexual conduct involving a teen.
Schauer, a resident of Laporte, Minn., had been a minister for years at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lake George, Minn., until 2008, even though church officials knew, at some point, that he had been convicted in 1983 of sexual abuse of a minor.
Some think it could cost an LCMS district president, who presided during Schauer's tenure, re-election this week.
Lutheran ministers are suggesting a convention today in Alexandria, Minn., be used as a referendum for change and allegations have been made of a cover-up of Schauer's past.
The website is called "The Brothers of John the Steadfast ... Defending and Promoting Confessional Lutheranism and its Media."
On it, some are suggesting a shakeup of the way LCMS officials screen church employees.
One post is titled "The LCMS Case -- Darwin Schauer -- Convicted Sex Offender Encouraged to Become Lay pastor. Surprise -- He Abused Again."
The Rev. Don Kirchner, who succeeded Schauer in Trinity Lutheran in Lake George, which is southwest of Bemidji, was reluctant to discuss the charges initially with Forum Communications.
But Kirchner, a lawyer as well as an ordained LCMS pastor, has become a one-man truth squad, asking pointed questions of the Synod, church and district officials, helping to ignite a furor over why Schauer's congregation was never informed a sex offender was ministering to them. In a posting to the website www.steadfastlutherans.org, Kirchner wrote: "Keep in mind that Schauer also continued on the synodical roster after his retirement, filled in for me at Trinity the last several years when I was out of town, filled in for one other Circuit pastor/congregation ... until March 4, when the horror began for the congregation."
Much of the criticism is directed at District President Don Fondow, who said he couldn't discuss specifics of the case.
Kirchner details his efforts to get Schauer, who was a lay pastor, ordained as a pastor, so he could provide more sacramental duties, or be retired. Those talks were in 2007-08. He got minimal cooperation and maximum delay tactics from Fondow, said emails Kirchner referenced in his article.
"So, the reason that Darwin was blocked from being allowed to do this back in the '70s was ...? Something stinks ..." Kirchner wrote, describing his exchange with Fondow as a "testy exchange of word games."
Schauer was hired as a lay minister first in Cass Lake, Minn., then Lake George, approved by district officials. But he was never ordained, and now, ministers are accusing the church of dragging its heels, knowing a sex offender was not ordination material.
"If," wrote another minister, "in 2008, Fondow had informed Rev. Kirchner ... and other pastors within the Circuit about Schauer's criminal record, they would certainly not have allowed Schauer to temporarily tend their flocks or have access to repeatedly molest at least one (minor) in the congregation."
He posits that Schauer's 1983 conviction was grounds to be removed from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ministers' roster.
"In 1983, he forfeited his right to spiritual leadership of a parish or school," the minister writes on the website. "Unfortunately, District officials at the time were negligent in their responsibility. Schauer's arrest in March 2012 for criminal sexual conduct serves to emphasize the need for better checks and balances in the LCMS of its commissioned and ordained ministers."
"A man who is a convicted sex offender has no place on any church's roster of church workers, ever," another posting said.
"Anyone who found out about that should have acted immediately to suspend him and have him removed from the roster," another post said.
Some wondered how Schauer's alleged four marriages escaped church scrutiny and why knowledge of his domestic issues didn't raise a red flag with the district.
Many of the ministers who weighed in on the site voiced anger and resentment that church officials had knowingly placed a sex offender in their midst, suggesting those church officials should be interrogated in their roles over keeping Schauer's past a secret.
The church officials are all identified.
Some wonder if LCMS officials will speak to the issue this week in Alexandria.
"This is horrible and appalling," an open letter to Fondow states.
Another minister questions whether the internal mechanisms of the church are irreparably broken.
"I honestly think the Schauer case can bring an end to the lay ministry program and all the programs that Missouri is using to dupe the hearers in the pews," charged one post.
"It does highlight one of the dangers in having an easy way to work around the qualifications requirements for ordination," one post said, "that a weak or foolish supervisor can make entry decisions that are not right, with considerable impunity and lack of accountability, to the great harm of the Church as a whole."
The 2.4-million-member LCMS, based in St. Louis, is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in America, and more conservative than the 4.3-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Schauer's omnibus hearing is set for May 14 as the internal debate rages on. Many ministers have compared the scandal to that of the Roman Catholic Church, and say they don't want the Missouri Synod to suffer the same bad press as the Catholic Church has.
Kirchner downplays the heated discussion on the website.
"As is often the case, blogs tend to go off on diversions with fallacious straw men and red herrings, as well as personal bickering," he said in an e-mail.
"Thankfully, there are those who keep bringing the issue back into focus -- what did District officials know, when did they know it, and what did they do with that knowledge? We are met with 'no comment' or silence. No one from the District office is going to make any substantive comment, at least not until after the District Convention (April 16-18) where President Fondow is up for re-election. There might be a formal statement made, that what has taken place is a tragedy and Synod/District is looking into the situation ... that sort of thing."
Schauer remains in the Hubbard County jail in Park Rapids on $1 million unconditional bond.
Lost in all the rhetoric is Schauer's victim from the 1983 conviction. A relative says that victim is a happy, well-adjusted adult with two children who does not want to revisit the past.