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.