Response to Rumors

Dear friends,

I am sad to report to you that Dwight Vaught, our former director of Contemporary Worship, was terminated from his job as Director of the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University.  His termination was a hasty reaction in the aftermath of an attack on Dwight by identity thieves and cyber-extortionists. 

I am writing to you today to share the narrative of how I became aware of this story.  I will also share a summary of what we know and what we don’t know.  And I will conclude with some reflections on our roles in this story:  the people who are the body of Christ.

I first got an email last Sunday night from one of our church members (giving me a heads up) who had heard some rumors going around EIU, accompanied by an internet link. When I checked out the site, it had the rough appearance of being an official list of pedophiles, and Dwight was listed.

My first reaction was pastoral, on behalf of the children and youth of First Church, as well as children anywhere who might have been victimized.  I immediately began gathering information and talking with people who might know whether any of our own children had been abused.  I checked public police reports and sex offender lists.  I talked with current and past staff members.  I talked with Ken Hutchens, the pastor who hired Dwight and was his supervisor for most of his seven years here.  And I inquired about the background checks we had done on him before he was hired.  In all of this research, there was not even a shadow of doubt pertaining to his moral character, any sexual misconduct, or his interaction with children and youth.

I then took a second and more careful look at the website.  It was not official.  Instead, it was a pornographic site that included photo-shopped pictures of several men, all accused of the same identical sex crime.  It also featured personal information about each one (emails, personal cell phone numbers, places of employment, home addresses) that had obviously been stolen. So, I talked to Dwight.  His computer had been hacked in the spring.  Extortion messages appeared and then went away.  He thought it was a computer virus and did not take the extortion seriously. 

But when he applied last summer for a part-time church job as worship director, the hiring committee at the church searched his name on the internet and discovered this website.  Dwight immediately hired a lawyer and worked with the police to try and catch the criminals who did this and get the website taken down.  But both the website and the web-host are disguised and are located outside the United States.  Nothing can be done to get rid of this website until the host can be found.  Law enforcement officials believed they have traced it to Peru, but there is still much work to be done.

Here is what we know:  1) Dwight has been attacked by cyber-extortionists and identity thieves who have put his name and picture on a bogus, pornographic website.  2) Due to the website, rumors are circulating in both Georgia and Illinois about him.  3) In order to protect themselves against rumors, Emory University terminated Dwight.  4) Since Emory is a private university, and Dwight was hired “at will,” there is no legal recourse he can take in order to get his job back. 5) No one anywhere has lodged charges or complaints against him.  6) There are no known law enforcement investigations targeting him. 7) Everyone who has worked with him has vouched for his character in this matter.

The rules of logic remind us that the absence of evidence can suggest innocence but not prove it. The wisdom of our faith reminds us that none of us has the perfection of God, that we all sin, and that we all need redemption. My experiences in ministry remind me that I do not know everything, that there are still shocking things I may learn, and that I need to keep an open ear and mind for new information.  In other words, even though there are things we know, there are also things we do NOT know.  But what we do not know should not paralyze us when it comes to standing with one another, fighting for someone who is being treated unjustly, or offering sanctuary to people until the day when culpability can be decided thoughtfully, in a non-anxious environment.

For all that I don’t know, I do know this: We are a church.  The main room in our building is called a “sanctuary.”  In Bible times, a “sanctuary” was a city where the accused and oppressed could flee and find safety from rumor, innuendo, and second hand information.  An essential task of every church is to maintain the sanctity of its sanctuary.  Jesus never trafficked in rumor in his dealings with people.  In fact, he had the uncanny ability to dismiss what others said about you and get right to the heart of who you really were.  As a church, we continue this work of Christ by being skeptical about any label one person puts upon another.

And I do know this:  I am an ordained pastor. I try every day to pattern my life on the work of a shepherd:  observing, protecting, nurturing, healing, confronting, comforting, and assembling.  Given all that I know, I do not hesitate to stand with Dwight, advocate on his behalf, and urge the people of First United Methodist Church to be a living sanctuary for him. The despair, pain, and darkness that is overwhelming our friend, Dwight, is our call to truly be the body of Christ.

This issue is particularly difficult, given all that is in the news these days.  Each news cycle seems to feature yet another story of a popular or powerful guy, believing he is entitled to trespass any way he wants against women or children or subordinate young men.  I suspect nearly all the stories making the news these days are true:  about Al Franken, John Conyers, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charles Rose, etc. The day of reckoning for all of these men is long overdue, and we are at last starting to see God’s justice being done as people speak up, tell their stories, and hold their fellow human beings accountable.

But there is also a need for caution.  In this atmosphere, institutions (such as churches and universities) feel the strong appeal to jump aboard the crusade and demonstrate that they too have zero tolerance toward anyone who threatens the safety of others.  But righteousness quickly morphs into self-righteousness. 

It is important to note that we live in the “information age.”  Our lives are filled with more words and images than we can process.  And some of those words are false and some of the images are misleading.  Let’s not be naïve.  Our country, for all of its good, is beleaguered by political hatreds, conspiracy craziness, Twitter lies, cyber-crime, election tampering, and unbridled bigotry.  Deception proliferates.  And in avalanche after avalanche of lies, the guilty are finding cover, the innocent are ambushed, and the First Amendment to the constitution is taking a battering.  Our only way forward is for thoughtful people to handle all allegations humanely and rationally.  Freedom of speech and freedom of press (and the internet) demand that people sort through and separate the truth from the lies.  As you hear or read things about Dwight, please use your wisdom and intelligence, and be discerning.

I often find myself returning to the words of the old Shaker hymn, ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down…where you ought to be.  And when you find your place in the light just right, you will dwell in the valley of love and delight.”  Amidst all we are hearing, the simple core truth is this:  our place is to be a sanctuary for anyone abused and attacked:  children, women, the elderly, people of ethnicity, the unjustly accused…no exceptions. By God’s grace and wisdom, so be it.

 J. Michael Smith

Pastor, First United Methodist Church of Mattoon