• Woodrow Wagaman

The Gerald Thomas Affair: Why the ELCA needs to be Fixed

Updated: Sep 26, 2018

It will come as no surprise to the followers of this organization that our primary denomination that we seek to change right now is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Using my research and historian skills, I have decided to write an article about a lurid story that would never be published in fiction for, as Mark Twain said, “Fiction has to make sense.” This is a story about alcohol, pornography, indecent exposure, and money. This is a story about ruined lives and the men who could have prevented a terrible situation from happening. This is the story of the biggest payout by a church per victim in American history. This is the story of child abuse in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Gerald Patrick Thomas, Jr. was born in 1963. When he was 31 years old, he applied to enter the Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This particular seminary was called Trinity. On the entrance exam, Rev. Thomas misspelled his own first name as ‘Gearal.’ According to the rules of the current Virginia Synod, bearing in mind that rules can change in twenty years, a seminarian is supposed to have a year long relationship with a sponsoring synod before entering the seminary. In Thomas' case his sponsor was Southeast Michigan Multi-Synodical Call Committee (remember that organization). Rev. Thomas had previously worked as a pizza delivery manager. This should not be held against Rev. Thomas, I just wanted to show that he was not coming from what would be considered a professional background. In his entrance essay the man claims to have worked with teens from the inner city who “lived in roach infested-houses.” Whether this is true or false is unprovable at this current juncture from the information I have gathered.

During his seminary career, this future pastor would go on to fail both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I am not quite sure what a church would think of a minister who failed BOTH classes covering the Word of God, but I digress.

It is customary for a seminarian to get his feet wet in pastoral work during his time in the seminary and Rev. Thomas was no exception. In 1996 he ended up as a ministry intern in Wilson Texas. There he quickly become close friends with two pubescent brothers. According to an interior memo from the Seminary, the kind minister would invite the brothers to spend the night at his home. Eventually their father noticed that his two sons began to avoid the clergyman that they had grown so close with, so he contacted the sheriff’s department (you go Dad!) The officers conducted their investigation and found out that Rev. Thomas had given the boys tequila and watched a homosexual pornographic movie with them. Anyone with experience with groomers would recognize this as classic behavior. Mel Swoyer, who appears to still be actively serving as an ELCA pastor in Texas, was contacted. Why? He was Thomas’s supervisor. When Thomas was confronted about it, he began to cry and said he wanted to throw out the porno a long time ago (But I guess he could keep it around long enough to show it to two drunk boys right?) He denied any sexual contact so Swoyer must have decided to not raise a big stink about it, even though the police had been involved.

When he was back in Columbus, Ohio at Trinity Lutheran Seminary for his last year prior to ordination, he volunteered with an after school program run by Rev. Carol Stumme; she was also a cleric of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An older woman at the time, Rev. Stumme eventually found out that sixth graders were spotted going in and out of Rev. Thomas’ apartment. She contacted the Seminary. She had also noticed during their work together that Thomas had been acting like he had a crush on the boys. When she found out about the situation in Wilson, she immediately banned Thomas from all further work with her organization. However Rev. Stumme did not see to it that Thomas was kicked out of the seminary. In 2011, Rev, Stumme would be awarded the Race, Church and Change Award by Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota for her work among the Hmong People in both Columbus and St. Paul. As is typically with the Lutheran church, Rev. Stumme could make sure that her flock was protected and stopped caring once it did not immediately concern her.

After that contentious meeting between Thomas, Stumme, and seminary officials there was another meeting. This time it was between Brad Binau, an employee of the seminary, and Rev. Thomas. Binau asked Thomas why an inappropriate situation occurred in both Wilson, Texas and Columbus, Ohio. Thomas claimed that a certain type of child just seemed to attract themselves to him. Binau suggested that Thomas seek counseling and therapy for sexual disorders and to explore why children were attracted to him. The President of the Seminary, Dean of Students James M. Childs (remember his name), and Binau discussed later about how Satan seeks to confuse people with evil. No one in the Seminary of Rev. Thomas’ seminary candidacy committee required him to go to therapy. Brad Binau did not fight this at all. Have no fear, he is currently professor of pastoral theology and dean of students at Trinity Seminary.

When determining whether or not to approve a candidate’s qualifications, the seminary can mark approve, deny, or postpone. Instead, they decided to abstain. So Rev. Gerald Thomas went to Texas.

Rev. Thomas was now serving as Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Marshall, Texas. Rev. Thomas proceeded to take pornographic pictures of teen boys in his congregation, a situation only revealed when one of the boy’s friends found a compromising CD and sought to blackmail Rev. Thomas. Some outside source finally contacted the FBI when they noticed Rev. Thomas taking that enterprising youth to car dealerships, trying to shut him up with a new truck. Rev. Thomas’ house of cards quickly fell after that, and the case was fairly open and shut. He was sentenced to 397 years in the Texas jail for child pornography, videotaped indecency, and sexual assault. He ruined the lives of 14 young boys with a bright future ahead of them. After Thomas was left to rot in prison, it then became a case of who was to blame.

The lawsuits against various church figureheads concluded in April, 2004. On April 12th, the ELCA proudly announced that a settlement had been reached. The ELCA as a national organization claimed they had no knowledge of Rev. Thomas’ misdoings before his arrest in 2001. The denomination lauded their insurance company- they would not have to spend a time to disrupt their worldwide ministry! Woohoo for the Lutherans! Their statement concludes with a thrilling act on omniscient: Rev. Thomas was the only clergy member to have passed through their training program that committed such heinous crimes. As you remember when Thomas was in seminary, the program seemed prone to aiding child molesters, not stopping them.

The Church also wished to make it clear that at no juncture they had admitted to wrongdoing. On April 7th, the parties that settled were Trinity Lutheran Seminary (where Thomas was educated), the Southeast Michigan Multi-Synodical Candidacy Committee (the group that did not require Thomas to go for counseling), and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (where he was the pastor when he destroyed the lives of 14 boys who just could not help being attracted to him). Those who had not yet settled where the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod (the formal employer of Rev. Thomas), Bishop Mark Herbener, and his assistant Earl Eliason. This section of the case would go to trial.

The trial began around April 10th and concluded on April 23, 2004. During the trial, the presiding judge denied the defense’s call to not allow evidence concerning Assistant to the Bishop Earl Eliason’s past life. Why would the judge allow evidence related to the Bishop’s Assistant come forward? Well, Earl Eliason was arrested three times for indecent exposure in men’s bathrooms. This happened over a number of years and he admitted under oath that it probably had occurred hundreds of times. He admitted to having a problem. The plantiffs argued that this indiscretion compromised Eliason's handling of Thomas' past improprieties in Texas and Ohio. You see, Eliason handled the Synod relations with the call committees. Call committees in Lutheran churches communicate with the Synod in order to get some candidates suggested for a pastor.

As an aside Eliason would serve out his term as assistant to the bishop until the expiration of Bishop Herbener’s in 2003. A few months later, shortly after the lawsuit was announced, Earl Eliason resigned as a rostered minister.

After finding out that most of the other defendants had settled out of court, one reported asked the synod’s lawyer why it had not settled at the same time. The lawyer said and I quote, “We don’t think we owe anybody anything.” The Synod, by the way, had been made aware of how children were just magically attracted to Rev. Thomas by the Seminary but declined to forward that information to the congregation that called Rev. Thomas. Anyway back to Eliason. At this time (2004) the ELCA had a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct, but Earl Eliason never lost his job as assistant to the bishop. The Synod claimed no one had any information regarding his indiscretions before the lawsuit occurred. The plaintiffs argued that with indecent exposure being a matter of public record, it was impossible for the ELCA to not know.

On April 23, 2004 the successor to Bishop Herbener was quoted as saying, “I still don’t think the synod was ultimately at fault.” Well the Synod is saying it isn’t their fault, the National body says they didn’t do it, and the seminary says its not their fault. How friggin convenient. I guess Thomas must have really pulled the wool over their eyes; I mean, there were no identifying characteristics of a molester. Other than getting kids drunk. And showing them porn. And inviting them to his apartment. And saying children were just attracted to him. You know, nothing obvious for the Lutheran Church to pick up on.

Even in 2004, the ELCA claimed that they have experienced very few claims of sexual misconduct. The Chicago Tribune asked some probing questions regarding this statement though:

“Does the church keep statistics on exactly how many cases?

The answer is no.

Has it published a report of its own internal investigation of this case?

The answer is again no.”

Remember discussing James Childs, the Dean of Students who discussed then seminarian Thomas’ situation with the Seminary President and Brad Binau? Well wouldn’t ya know that he ended up as head of the Lutheran Sexuality Committee for the ELCA and helped draft a statement on child abuse! Yes, Dr. Childs who was too stupid to realize that a sexual predator says things like, “Children are just attracted to me,” was put in charge by the national body to determine their stance on sexuality issues. SNAP demanded his resignation, much to the chagrin of Lutherans, who did not understand why a Catholic organization was attacking them. Dr. Childs is still a respected man in the Lutheran Church and is well-known in the field of ethics. The ELCA would issue a statement wherein they said, “Dr. Childs’ involvement with this case does not detract from his fine leadership of the human sexuality committee.” And pigs fly.

On April 21st, 2004 the jury declared that the Lutheran Church would have to pay 37 million dollars to the victims, bringing the grand total to 69 million or almost 5 million dollars per victim. The jury decided that Eliason was guilty of 35% of the blame and Herbener of 20%.

I would like to close this article with a quote from a Huffington Post article by Rev. James Childs, Ph.D and senior professor of research at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, but supposedly too damn stupid to realize what a sexual predator looks like.

“Persons in positions of power are subjected to powerful pressures that pose a threat to their own security. Personal pride, greed for gain and prestige, and the influence of ambitious intimates can also play a role. Under the sway of these encroaching forces, the courage to serve truth and the common good can flag. The results may not be as gruesome as John’s execution, but the damage can be even more extensive. Even exemplary leaders who are devoted to the welfare of those dependent upon them frequently find themselves mired in a morass of conflicting forces that stymie their best efforts.”

Was this a sermon regarding his own involvement with allowing a sexual predator to serve as a pastor, or his own denomination’s failure to adequately protect their children?

Nope, it was about the Citizens United Case.

You can’t make this stuff up.



Resources

MyPlainview- Settlement report disputed in Lutheran sexual abuse case

ELCA Statement on Texas Civil Case

ELCA Settles Texas Civil Case with 14 Plaintiffs

Judge denies Lutheran synod request to exclude evidence

The Chicago Tribune- Protestant sex abuse: A $69 million jury award

Lutherans: A Texas catastrophe is coming

Please, someone make sure the Gerald Patrick Thomas affair is visited during the assembly

Jury finds Lutheran synod negligent in abuse case.

The Downfall of Giving into Fear- Jim Childs, Ph.D.

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