I Think I May Have Kind of Killed a Man

Rusty Pettis is dead.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Rusty Pettis was the associate pastor at the United Methodist church in New Hampshire where my father was pastor, and he sexually molested me when I was a kid. (For all the lurid details, you can read more here.) After I wrote a post about my experiences, the New England Conference of the UM church decided to investigate the matter, and contacted Rusty’s employers at Peak Wellness Center in Wyoming, informing them of his past conduct.

On Sunday, January 21, Rusty Pettis committed suicide in his home. I found out about it the following day, through a comment left on my previous post. It upset me. Quite a lot, at the time.

The first thing that everyone rushed to tell me was that I shouldn’t feel guilty, which leads me to believe that most folks felt that I probably would feel guilty. And I did. By writing that post I had set in motion a series of events that culminated in a man’s death. Given the circumstances, I think it would be very strange if I didn’t feel a degree of guilt about it. I couldn’t help but think ‘I did this,’ three words that reverberated in my head most of the night. Had Rusty Pettis been sent to prison, I don’t think I would have had the slightest twinge of conscience. But dead is another matter altogether.

I had written the post more or less on a whim, inspired in part by the deluge of sexual assault victims who have come forward in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. There was no raw festering wound, I felt no urgent need to unburden myself or to bring my abuser to justice; I was just writing about something that was very much in the public discourse at that moment and decided to share my own story.

“I did this.” Well no, in fact, I didn’t. As family members and others reminded me, Rusty had been offered numerous opportunities to seek help and refused them all. I find I can forgive a lot of bad behavior – if it’s a one-off. But Rusty Pettis sexually abused not only me but a number of others we know about, and probably many others we don’t and never will. We don’t know if he continued to abuse children, but if so then my coming forward might have prevented others from being harmed.

Various members of my family – in an effort, I think, to make me feel better – wrote me emails saying things like “The world is a better place without that piece of crap,” calling him a coward, or, as one of my brothers succinctly put it, “F#*k that motherf#^cker.” Was Rusty Pettis a coward? I imagine he was. He never acknowledged his actions or apologized for them. He never, so far as we know, sought treatment. Is the world a better place without him? Perhaps, but I can’t say for sure.

Jeffrey Lundblad, the current pastor of Laramie First Baptist Church where Rusty Pettis served from 2001 – 2004, wrote a very nice comment on my previous post. I appreciate him taking the time and making the effort. It reads, in part: “…the fullness of who we are is far greater than a few moments, whether it be our best or worst moments. I believe I can honestly say that as a part of the Laramie community, Rusty helped a lot of people deal with the reality of their lives in a more positive way. I am heartbroken and horrified to know that his past self could do those things to you!” 

This echoes something I wrote in my original post, “I have no doubt the Rusty Pettis has done a lot of positive work in the communities he has served.” And Reverend Lundblad brings up a question that’s been on the minds of many people these days – Can a person be judged by their worst actions? I would say – of course not. Should we judge the legacy of John F. Kennedy based on his energetic womanizing? Or the poetry of Ezra Pound in the light of his anti-semitism and fascist leanings? Probably not. But then, Rusty Pettis was no JFK or Ezra Pound, and there’s pretty clearly a difference between sexually preying on children and having consensual sex with lots of women. Or being a fascist poet, come to that.

But did I do the right thing in coming forward with this? My sister-in-law Susan, as always, had the most cogent argument, writing, “One of the most important tools used by a child predator is secrecy. Workshops on prevention recommend teaching your kids not to keep secrets, use correct names for all body parts and just tell it like it is. When people tell their stories, the message is given to potential abusers that the secret won’t stay a secret, it will come out, maybe soon, maybe much later.  It tells large organizations (the Churches, USA Gymnastics…) that they should have no part in hiding or protecting a predator, it helps laws be written to protect those who tell, clearing the way for people and organizations to do something. It helps change societal values (children vs adult careers). So no matter what we feel about Rusty Pettis, all of this may have saved a child we don’t know from abuse by a predator we don’t know – maybe lots of them.”

I can’t argue with that. So do I still feel guilty? Much less so than I did when I first heard the news. I would say I feel somewhat more guilty than if I had, say, taken the last cookie, but perhaps somewhat less so than if I had run over someone’s cat. Does that sound callous? Maybe so.

Ultimately, a person’s life is a complicated, often messy thing. And judging a person’s life is even more so. Rusty Pettis did some good things in his time. He helped some people. But he also harmed some people, in various and often horrible ways. The flaws, the delusions, faults and failings of a person’s life, of their character, define them as much as their stability, honesty, kindness or courage. Rusty Pettis seems to have had a measure of the latter, but perhaps a larger measure of the former. At the end of the day I think that I did the right thing in bringing this thing to light.

Rest in peace, Rusty. Rest in peace.

 

Note: The United Methodist Church did more at the time than I had originally thought, and the current bishop of the New England Conference sent me a very kind letter offering apologies and any assistance I might need. I would like to thank the Conference and Bishop Devadhar publicly.

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “I Think I May Have Kind of Killed a Man

  1. I too am a survivor of abuse that took place for nearly a year by RP. I have PTSD from it as well. When I healed enough and was in my mid 40’s, I went to the church on Clinton Street in Concord NH and shared my story. At that time I needed to know that kids were safe. That’s how I found out he moved to WY. After some google searching, I sent anonymous emails to his place if work in WY warning them that he was a pedophile. I’m only reading the news of his suicide now. For years I have checked the obituaries in hopes that if I saw his name the flashbacks/nightmares/night terrors would stop. I’m only beginning to process this news. I’m less than two hours in as I write this. Tonight I will try to sleep for the first time in nearly 40 years knowing that children are safer. I’m fortunate enough to have wonderful Drs and the most loyal friends and family. PTSD is ugly. But this new information will help on this life long journey of healing. So, Matt, I felt guilty reading about his suicide too. Im writing this post to let you know you weren’t alone. I was doing similar things to keep kids safe. I did what I was strong enough to handle while healing.

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    • Wow, MJ, I’m so sorry to hear about your terrible experiences. And the fact that it went on so long. I hope you find some closure in all of this. Thanks so much for sharing your story, and I’ll be thinking of you. Take care of yourself.

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  2. Thanks for your excellent and thoughtful writing. A couple thoughts.

    1. I am saddened and dismayed you had this experience. As one who was also sexually molested by a clergyman (and never told), I long for the day when no one experiences such invasive and repulsive behavior. I appreciate you sharing your experience so eloquently; it shines a light where light is needed.

    2. You seem to draw a direct cause and effect line between your post about Rusty Pettis and his decision to commit suicide. Do you know that is the case? I wonder what else was going on in his life, apart from this, when he made that choice.

    3. I’m guessing it may not be a coincidence that the history of First Baptist Church of Laramie says of Rev. Mary Beth Mankin, the pastor who followed Rusty after he resigned, “Her primary projects at the beginning of her ministry included… creating a Child protection & Safe Sanctuary Plan for the congregation.”

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    • I have read and re-read your insightful entries related to Rusty Pettis, and your unsettling childhood encounters with him. You were an innocent child, and he was supposed to be in a position of trust-worthiness, guidance, and leadership….I feel sadness for what happened to you, and hope you continue to heal. You probably have no idea just how meaningful this reader has found your words to be. And although I was initially shocked, your writings have had a profound impact on me, and they have been very helpful as I try to make sense of R.P.s death, which I understand to be a suicide…. I too knew him, but my experience was at a different time and place. For the past several years, I have been going to a mental health center in Wyoming for therapy related to depression and PTSD. And as it turns out, R.P. was my “therapist” for quite some time. Now that I have learned about so many hidden secrets, and some of the behaviors of his past, I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed, and even betrayed. I was very vulnerable and disclosed so many of the difficult to discuss events related to my childhood, illnesses, and yes, even abuse. Anyway, I feel overwhelmed, and even a bit numb at this point…after discovering such shocking facts about a person I thought I knew, a person I trusted. I used to believe that I was intuitive, and a good judge of character….but now, I have so much uncertainty. I don’t understand how a person with such a history is able to continue to work in a position of trust, guidance, and leadership??? This is a question I will ponder for a long time to come. Anyway, thank you for sharing your story…reading it compelled me to share mine. Kind regards and continued healing for you, and anyone else who can somehow relate.

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      • Wow, I’m not sure what to say. I felt, and feel, in no way broken by what happened nearly 40 years ago. I have never, at least as an adult, felt that I needed to “heal.” That’s kind of what made his suicide problematic for me – I wrote this post not because I was traumatized by what happened to me but – in part – because sexual abuse was so much in the news that it made me think about my own experiences and decided to share them. It wasn’t an open wound – or even a fading scar – it was just something to put out there in the public discourse.
        I’m assuming that your PTSD was related to a military tour of duty, but maybe not. Anyway, don’t feel betrayed. I’m sure that Rusty helped you out in the best way he could. It’s complicated for me. I think that he probably helped a lot of people. Maybe that helps make up for the fact that he hurt a lot of people. I can’t say. A life is a complicated, lovely, loving – and yes, at times fucked up kind of thing at times. RP was no exception. I hope he helped you. Anything he may have done in the past doesn’t negate any comfort he may have given you, and that’s what makes it difficult for me to discount him as purely bad.
        I don’t necessarily mourn his death – but I certainly don’t rejoice in it.
        Thanks for sharing, and I hope this helps in some small way.

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        • Hey, I was glad to see your response to my writing. What’s hard for me is, having been abused as a child…and then finding out after his death, that he was an accused molester… I confided dark secrets from my past to a person I trusted. Its just hard when you realize who you thought you knew, well, maybe not. RP was very kind and helpful to me over the years. And I have truly mourned the loss of his life, and for his mom, son, coworkers, and loved ones. It’s all quite overwhelming and still a shock… just a thought for you though… you say you have no wounds, nor need to heal…but the fact that you wrote and shared your experience may be a way of letting it go, for yourself and that little child you once were… I never would have been able to make sense of things, if I had never seen your writings… so I say thank you and bless you. Your life seems very interesting and wonderful. Be happy, healthy, and well…

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          • P.S.
            Thank YOU so much for reading my 1st entry, and for your ideas and kind words. It means a lot to hear back from YOU. It’s been helpful to know you exist, and so, Thanks ☮

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    • Hi Mary. Thanks so much for reading this and sharing your thoughts. I’m so sorry you had to go through what seems to be an all too common experience.
      Regarding the direct cause-and-effect line, I can’t say for sure. It seems fairly clear to me that, given the timeline – I wrote this, the Methodist church read it, responded to me, formed a committee to discuss it, then contacted Rusty’s employees in Wyoming, and he killed himself a few days later – that his decision to take his own life was precipitated by my calling him out by name. I don’t doubt that he had had suicidal thoughts before – he’d lost his family several years before and was, presumably, lonely and (one would hope) plagued by at least tugging feelings of guilt. Still, I had a briefly difficult time not blaming myself – at least tangentially – for his death. I’ve gotten over that. Rusty Pettis made his own choices – and his last was to take his own life.

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