Anti-Gay Pastor Outed in Meeting of Gay Men ’Overcoming’ Desires: Is That REALLY a 12-step Program?

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 26, 2010

When Lavender Magazine published John Townsend's article "outing" the Rev. Tom Brock, Minnesota's major gay newsmagazine got a lot more than the editors and publisher bargained for.

What was to be yet another expose condemning the hypocrisy of closeted homophobes received an unprecedented amount of attention -- and, perhaps more surprisingly, considering the controversial nature of this particular 12-step type program -- controversy.

Condemnation from the religious community and the media was swift - -not regarding the murky ethics surrounding the topic of outing, but for the way Townsend went about securing his knowledge that the Lutheran Pastor who regularly spoke out against homosexuality was struggling with same-sex attraction.

On April 16, Townsend attended (infiltrated?) a meeting sponsored by Faith in Action (FIA) -- a Minnesota branch of the Catholic organization Courage (which promotes celibacy as a way of managing same-sex desires.

Townsend describes the event as "a confidential meeting of gay men 'struggling with chastity' at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in St. Anthony, a suburb northeast of Minneapolis.

The Lavender Magazine article's outing of Brock (and its condemnation of his hypocrisy) came largely from what Townsend observed during the FIA meeting. But did Brock have reasonable expectations of privacy, confidentiality and anonymity regarding what went on within the four walls of that room?

Keeping the "Anonymous" in 12-Steps
In the "Understanding Anonymity" section of their website, Alcoholics Anonymous maintains that such guarantees are an inherent part of any 12-step group's efforts. Elsewhere on the site, in an open letter to the media, AA says, "The principle of anonymity is a basic tenet of our fellowship. Those who are reluctant to seek our help may overcome their fear if they are confident that their anonymity will be respected."

AA is best known, of course, for its initial initials: Alcoholics Anonymous. In the past several years, many other addictions have sprung up using the 12-step model with "Anonymous" in their name, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous.

For Lavender Magazine President & CEO Stephen Rocheford, such ethical considerations are rendered moot, overridden by the journalist's obligation to expose hypocrisy as practiced by public figures in leadership positions. "Since the founding of this publication," Rocheford told EDGE, "I have had a policy of not outing anyone, with one exception, and that is when a public figure publicly attacks the gay community on one hand, and is privately homosexual on the other hand."

Asked whether that standard applies when information is gleaned from a meeting such as that which Brock attended, Rocheford launched into a swift defense of his publication's activities as they apply to the letter of the law: "When you have a doctor/patient or lawyer/client relationship, you have expectations of confidentiality under the law," Rocheford asserted. "The key here is the pastor was a public person and is not subject to the same expectations that a private citizen would have. So legally, it was entirely acceptable for us to do it. Our libel attorney approved every word we printed."

Can You Name a Person in Such a Meeting?
But just because it was legal, does that mean it was also right? Before attending the FIA meeting, Townsend had taken part in an entrance interview during which he represented himself as someone matching the group's profile. Rocheford says that far from being unethical, his reporter's actions were part of a longstanding journalistic tradition of going undercover to get the story.

"Reporters infiltrate things all the time," he argued. "In fact, we went into a great deal of discussion about that in the second article," which waspublished at the same time as the first, and addressing many of the ethics brought up by information acquired through the FIA meeting.

Furthermore, Rocheford maintains that the FIA should not be given the same considerations as, say, Alcoholics Anonymous, citing the fact that the second article, "Courage, AKA Faith in Action An Inside Look at Catholic Gay Chastity Group", "cited several PhD therapists who talk about the inappropriate nature of that group and what it does to people. It's a Catholic façade. They add the term 12-step to give it legitimacy, but no sane professional would believe that it is legitimate."

A drug and alcohol counselor at New York City's LGBT Community Center disagrees, noting that such public betrayals of implied confidentiality within any support group can discourage those in crisis from seeking the help they need.

"I was disgusted by what that reporter did." says the counselor (who spoke to EDGE on the condition that he/she not be identified by name). "I understand why the reporter would want to out this pastor, but the way he went about it soils people's feelings on helping themselves."

That said, the counselor is on the same page as Lavender when it comes to outing hypocrites: "Apart from the way he did it, I am glad he outed the pastor. Someone who speaks so negatively against the LGBT population; or somebody else who may be hiring prostitutes or doing other unethical things for a pastor, it's fair game."

Yet the counselor doesn't give Townsend a free pass when it comes to betraying the confidences of a support group.

"The world should honor the confidentiality of people that are trying to help themselves," the counselor maintains, adding "For him (Townsend) to do that gives an open gate to others to do things like that. It makes it harder for people to get the help they need."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.