All Are Welcome – Including Tom by Esther Nelson


It’s between semesters so am back in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but just for two weeks.  Due to circumstances out of my control, I’m not able to spend my usual month—mid-December to mid-January—here in the high desert.   When I am here, though, I usually visit the Unitarian Universalist Church (UUC) of Las Cruces and so drove over there last Sunday to attend the 10:30 a.m. service.  Some of the faces were familiar. There were many folks I did not recognize. The place was packed—standing-room only.

One of the familiar faces belonged to Tom Packard, a retired pediatrician, from New Hampshire.  I remember Tom from a couple of years ago when he stood up during the “Joys and Sorrows” portion of the service to adamantly deny “charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault” that had been brought against him by several young girls.  During “Joys and Sorrows,” people are free to tell their own stories in a supportive environment. I remember last year as well when Tom reported to the congregation regarding his upcoming trial—all the while claiming his innocence.

My librarian daughter, who also likes to attend the UUC when she’s in Las Cruces, easily accessed newspaper coverage of Tom Packard’s legal process.  Apparently, the case was wrapped up last summer (2018) when Tom pled guilty to a “lesser charge of felony assault,” as he “admitted to the reckless infliction of mental anguish during the genital examinations of three young girls between 1981 and 1986.”  Here is the link.

So, Tom continues to attend this UUC congregation and from what I can see, the parishioners continue to welcome him.  Last Sunday he sat in the front row, participating in the activities of the service. Nobody recoiled in his presence.  Other times, I’ve seen him function as a greeter, welcoming people as they arrive for Sunday service. He’s also served as an usher during the offertory.  

It’s hard for me to imagine most churches welcoming a felon into their midst.  The Protestant, conservative churches I attended growing up tolerated nothing of the sort.  Adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, and sexual predators, if discovered, were censored and told to repent of their sinful ways.  Once repentant, they were put through various stages of “shunning,” depending on how deviant those men in charge considered their behavior to be.  Should they fall back into their old ways, excommunication soon followed.

The UUC in Las Cruces, based on my own church experiences, seems unusual.  This congregation is made up of mainly White, middle-class people; however, last summer (2018) they called an African-American man, the Reverend Dr. Xolani Kacela to be their minister.  In addition, much like the prophets in the Hebrew Bible (unlike so many preachers today who seem more fearful of offending their parishioners than proclaiming truth), those who speak from the UUC pulpit are not afraid to call out those officials in our government who oppress the poor—whether that oppression be in the form of White supremacy, a border wall, or tax cuts for the wealthy.

There are seven principles that Unitarian Universalists follow.  The first principle asserts the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  Everybody possesses value because of their humanity. It was evident to me that the congregation practices this principle as they include Tom, as much as possible, into their midst.  (The court ruled he’s not allowed to be around children younger than 16 years old unless they are related to him.)

How do we respond to people who have treated us as worthless, having no dignity?  I often hear the following refrain from someone who has been harmed by another: “I just want justice to be served.”  “Justice” can range from monetary compensation to imprisonment to the death penalty. How do we determine what is “just?”  I think the UUC has kept Tom’s dignity in mind as they continue to welcome him into their fellowship. We are social beings.  Human contact, to some degree or another, is vital for our survival and development. “Shunning” a person, I dare say, is an affront to their dignity.  Furthermore, is it possible for a person to experience redemption in isolation? Whatever the process of redemption involves, it seems to me that living within a social context is essential for it to occur.  

I have more questions than I have answers right now.   I think of the many men (like Tom) accused (and often found guilty) of sexual assault in recent times brought about in large part by the #MeToo movement.   How do we navigate our lives with dignity in relation to those men who assault us? If I had been one of Tom’s victims, would I have the strength to remain in the same community with him?  Would I even want to?

How can we all thrive while balancing our responsibility towards both victim and perpetrator?  I’m sure there is no set formula to effectively navigate what many consider to be a quagmire. The first principle of the UUC points in the direction of healing and wholeness, leaving a lot of space for individual and communal creativity.  So often we are all too eager to isolate, reproach, and punish those who have violated us. Those who have been violated can easily spew hatred or become paralyzed while cocooning themselves in a shell of self-pity. If we are all one (as many people assert), do we not hurt and diminish our own selves when we seek revenge or become embittered instead of practicing compassion towards both parties—the one who has inflicted an injury as well as the one who has been injured?

Observing the UUC last Sunday practice their first principle—affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person—was a powerful experience.  People did not fawn over Tom. Neither did they condescend to him. Tom took his place among the congregants, wounded, yet still alive, and I’d like to think, hopeful.

 

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

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Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Community

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25 replies

  1. There is much food for thought in this post.

    It sounds to me like Tom’s last communication to the congregation was his denial that he did anything wrong. Given that his confession suggests that he lied to the congregation, I think the congregation needs to know why: did he just do it to get off without punishment, or does he understand that he harmed women and girls, does he believe he only acted criminally in a small number of cases or does he acknowledge the extent of what he did, does he feel sorry for what he did, and does he feel the need to apologize or make reparations for the harm he caused?

    While I agree with you that shunning seems cruel, I wonder what the middle way is. I personally would not want to have Tom greet me at the door of the church and be forced to shake his slimy (?) hand or hug him if it seemed to me that he has not taken full responsibility for the harm he has done to women and girls.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Carol–you raise some great questions, ones I’ve wondered about myself. Since I’m really an “outsider” to this congregation (attending only when semesters are not in session), I’m not privy to how people in the congregation “really” respond to Tom’s presence. I’ve only reported on what I saw. I have entertained the idea (and I may still do it) of sending this essay to the minister of the UCC in Las Cruces and ask him about the process (if any) that the church enacts when convicted felons want to be a part of this particular community. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. This is why we will never stop sexual assualt.We are to willing to accept these men into society.What about the dignity of his victims?I agree with Carol I would not want to be greeted by this man.Clearly he thinks he has done nothing wrong.He sits on the front row!He has stood up and lied to the congregation and yet it seems no-one is questioning him.It seems to me as a survivor of abuse he is being given the ok by this congregation!I will always maintain we are. to soft on this type of crime.I certainly would not want to raise children in a congregation. where this man feels so at home.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, Teresa, you raise excellent points. From what I can tell, the court has ordered Tom to compensate his victims monetarily and,he cannot have contact with children under 16 years of age–unless he is related to them, and that right there is problematic for me. As I’ve noted, I have more questions than answers. I AM interested in the broader question. How do we balance our responsibility to both victim and perpetrator and still live peacefully in community? Appreciate your comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My sister and I both remember a particularly unpleasant part of our annual physical as children. Our mother would leave the room per the doctor’s order, and he would peer into and probe our genitals. My mother thought this doctor hung the moon. He was her ideal of a doctor–and a man. We did not question her or him. He always drew ducks for us on a tongue depressor and give us gumdrops. I continued to see him for physicals till I was a young adult. At my last checkup he made a fumble for my breast. Yet I still blindly and foolishly believed my mother’s assessment of his character and took my infant son to him. I stopped when he made two mistakes, telling me to feed my breast-fed child only every four hours. And at an early exam he roughly yanked back my son’s foreskin.

    I still feel ashamed that I exposed my son to him and made even an attempt at following the feeding rules. This man is long dead, and probably retired before a time when anyone would have thought of or known how to bring charges against him. But such charges would have been true. My sister and I have talked about what happened often, but I have never told the story before. I have also been the victim of many other assaults, again some of which I did not recognize as assaults at the time, because I had not a clue about having boundaries, let alone asserting them.

    How would I feel if this man were part of my congregation? At the very least I would have to confront him. I assume Tom’s victims are not part of the congregation. An expression of remorse on his part seems important. Even if he believes in his own innocence, those women who filed suit do not and were willing to go to court to say so.

    Memory is tricky. Very often different people’s memories of events don’t match for many reasons. Protestations of innocence don’t help. Openness to listening to others does, even/especially when their memory of events doesn’t support ours.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I was a UU for a decade or more when I was teaching high school and then in graduate school. To this day (50 years later), I remember the Carbondale, IL, UU Fellowship as filled with more love and acceptance (remember–graduate students are at the bottom of the food chain) than any other church or pagan circle I’ve ever been to.

    But now I’m wondering if even the Carbondale UU would have accepted Tom. I find it very hard to forgive a man who preys on women and girls in any way. If he lied to the Las Cruces UU, has he ever told them the whole truth?? Acceptance is kind, but does that mean they condone and accept what he did? It’s a puzzlement.

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. Making us think is good for us, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Barbara. Excellent questions. I doubt very much that this congregation condones and accepts what Tom has been found guilty of in the courts. I am more and more curious as to what he did say (if anything) to the congregation about his conviction.

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  6. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this excellent and nuanced response. I (and probably most women) can identify with this: “I have also been the victim of many other assaults, again some of which I did not recognize as assaults at the time, because I had not a clue about having boundaries, let alone asserting them.” As far as I know, none of the young women he victimized is part of this congregation. I am really curious about what Tom himself has to say about himself now that the court has found him guilty. And you are so right that protesting innocence doesn’t help, but openness to what others have to say about an incident or incidents is much more effective. I really think I need to contact the minister to get a better understanding of the whole process of including Tom in their fellowship. Great comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Esther – your question is my own: How do we respond to people who have treated us as worthless, having no dignity?

    My answer: I do not, and cannot condone sexual assault perhaps because I am a sexual assault survivor and have watched rape and sexual assault forgiven, excused etc my entire life. Lack of accountability makes it impossible for me to rationalize this behavior – and I will not excuse this behavior because the man is just another a flawed human being.

    Sexual assault and rape of women are crimes against all humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sara, for engaging in this conversation. I don’t think the UU congregation of Las Cruces condones or excuses Tom’s behavior at all. I agree with you completely that “Sexual assault and rape of women are crimes against all humanity.” I would add that any criminal activity (theft, forgery, lying, etc.) is a crime against all humanity. How then do we go forward in the best way possible?

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  8. i am a member of the las cruces uu and i am also a convicted felon(although not of sexual crimes). i do support the truth-telling that is happening in my country and in this post. I also believe in the power of compassion for ALL sufferers and for the light of forgiveness. Should we just kill the abusers? Who knows if they will sin again? Should I sit in judgement as a survivor of abuse(at age three from a family member) and expect others to abide by my judgement? Maybe it should be a congregation-wide confession since I doubt that there are any without sin. And Jimmy Carter reminds me that the sin happens first within the mind and heart of the individual, even if it is never acted upon. Namaste

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Brooks, for being part of this conversation. Compassion towards all who suffer is an admirable goal. The process that all parties navigate in order to reach that goal is what interests me. Especially in the area of sexual assault, many (most?) women have not had that compassion extended to them. For eons, we’ve been expected to “suck it up.” You bring up some great points. Kill the abuser? Who gets to throw the first stone? Redemption and reconciliation need much more attention–in my opinion.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Women, because they do the mothering, have so much compassion, and which the men aren’t always able to seek out in themselves so deeply. The men, it seems, are supposed to be hunters, protectors and brave. And they usually are.

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  10. Wow, bringing up questions that I have been struggling with for the last couple of years. I am a survivor of much sexual abuse, etc. and as one of the ways of finding community in my 60s I have started attending a UU church in eastern Massachusetts.

    Because the UU credo is so open and accepting, it can be really hard to know how to deal with thorny issues such as Esther has described.

    We had a member of the congregation, a young man, who targeted and stalked women in the congregation, including me. It was his pursuit of me and a couple of other women that finally had the minister and directors take action, though it had been going on for some time, and many people did not take us seriously (it was amazing how many women came forward with stories privately). When the required restrictions on his behavior were ignored and we said something, he and his family stopped coming to church and he made sure that people knew how horrible we had been to his family. Our minister left for another post, and this man’s family is back, though he is not. One of my goals is to make sure that my church has a policy for dealing with disruptive/abusive members. Blanket acceptance does not bring safety to the community.

    A close relative of mine was found to be molesting his daughter. He committed suicide rather than go through the ruination of his life, and it left money to take care of his children. It has had me thinking deeply about what to do for/about abusers. I think that this man would have wanted to stop what he was doing, but there was no way to get help stopping. If he told a therapist, he would automatically be reported and prosecuted, his business destroyed, his chance of changing his relationship with his daughter nullified.

    I have spent more than half my life coming to terms with what was done to me, and I had many abusers, both male and female. I have gone through the rage, grief, pain, disability, etc. that the healing journey entails. Where it has brought me to is sometimes I am enraged and sometimes Iforgive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Iris, for contributing your story/perspective to the discussion. So many of us have endured “loss of dignity” through sexual abuse. I like this: “One of my goals is to make sure that my church has a policy for dealing with disruptive/abusive members. Blanket acceptance does not bring safety to the community.” For all I know, the Las Cruces UU may have such policy, but I am really curious now to find out.

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  11. This situation calls for Restorative Justice techniques, which work to ensure truth telling and honesty as well as safety and respect for all persons involved. It was specifically developed exactly for this kind of situation, and it addresses the concerns you so rightly raise. By some analyses, most if not all men who are raised in a patriarchal society have perpetuated violence against women in one way or another; just as we all have internalized misogyny and racism because of growing up in this society. restorativejustice.org has some good information and resources. Thank you for your important post.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Tallessyn. You address one of the broader issues–“we all have internalized misogyny and racism because of growing up in this society.” I like to think there are ways through it all. I DO like “restorative justice.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Can you explain how Restorative Justice would work in this case? It sounds like a good proposal for the congregation and its leader to consider.

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      • I like the idea of saving, repairing, restoring lives. I have no “hands on” experience with churches (or any other institutions) that employ this method. I suppose there’s no “one size fits all” and the congregation (where churches are concerned) would need to be active and involved, using arbitrators perhaps?

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, there is actually a start of a solution!

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      • The Restorative Justice approach I am referring to would look like the Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) model developed by a Mennonite pastor in Canada. My understanding is that you would surround this person (core) with a circle of trained volunteers (inner circle), who are supported and trained by professionals (outer circle). The constant presence of this inner circle in the congregational setting allows the person to be part of the community while also ensuring that others feels safe. (The core person also feels safe from their own brokenness.) My understanding is that it has been shown to be an effective model.
        There is an article that describes it here:
        https://csgjusticecenter.org/nrrc/circles-of-support-and-accountability/

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  12. This certainly is a difficult issue. I know that a Lutheran church here in Bangor has a convicted sex offender who attends the church. One of my professor’s at Bangor Theological Seminary attended the church, too, and she shared this with our classroom. She said that the congregation had gone through a lot of discussion and I think they developed guidelines, etc. to deal with the situation. I admit though that I wouldn’t want to be around that person. Obviously none of us are perfect, but it would be hard to be around a convicted sex offender, and I think this person was a pedophile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Appreciate your comment, lindacostelloe. It does seem that we today are far more scandalized by “sexual offenders” within our midst than other kinds of what we call deviant behavior (stealing, murder, for example). It would be interesting to unpack that territory. On a practical level, how do we go forward while keeping in mind everybody’s dignity?

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