The latest scandal to hit the headlines is that of University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. In 2003 he had sex in a restaurant with a woman, then paid her $3,000 to, depending on whose version you believe, buy health insurance or get an abortion.
His partner in the tryst, Karen Sypher, has been arrested for allegedly trying to extort up to $10 million from him.
Some critics have called for U of L to fire Pitino or for him to resign. Some find his acts especially egregious because he's married, has five children — and professes devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes adultery and abortion.
I don't have an opinion about how U of L ought to deal with Pitino.
It's Pitino the Christian who engages my interest. I've been trying to imagine how, if Pitino were a member of my congregation, I'd handle this.
Actually, it's a common dilemma. The majority of churchgoers are far less visible than Pitino, but many share this trait with him: They have, at some point, done something detestable.
My observation is that pastors and laity alike tend to handle these situations by erring on one of two sides.
The first error arises when a minister or a few scattered lay people become aware of a church member's sin. It might not apply to Pitino's situation; his troubles became public well after the deeds were over and he'd moved past them. It's not clear how many folks knew of his wrongdoings before the media latched onto them.
More often, we start hearing reports of another Christian's infidelity or dishonesty in business or domestic abuse while he or she is still caught up in it.
Our inclination is to ignore such wrongs. It's incredibly difficult to confront someone who's doing something that, if mentioned, could humiliate him, his family and the congregation. It's easier to hope the problem will resolve itself.
Yet seriously bad behavior, left unchecked, can lead to even greater harm. It hurts the mental and spiritual well-being of the person committing the sin.
But it hurts others, too. If a parishioner is, say, cheating on her husband, she's not just offending God out in the heavens. She's not just making a personal choice. She's betraying her husband and children, who frequently are part of your congregation as well.
And she's setting a precedent. As more parishioners become aware of her infidelity — and they will — as they see it's not addressed, they'll grow disillusioned or decide that the church doesn't care; they might be tempted to cheat as well.
Thus, serious wrongs should be confronted. Not penny-ante sins. The major stuff.
Whenever it's possible, we should address such issues privately. I try to talk with the malefactor one-on-one. Ironically, most folks seem relieved. They already feel terrible about what they're doing and want to stop. They're not bad people. They're good people who've done a bad thing. As we all have.
Usually we can resolve these matters quietly, without undue embarrassment.
Occasionally, though, as with Pitino, a person's sin becomes an open issue.
Then, Christians tend to err just as badly on the other side. Many of them do a 180-degree reversal, from willful silence to wild indignation. It's amazing how quickly they can turn. Gossip and slander explode.
This creates another, equally threatening set of dangers.
It can crush the heart of the wrongdoer. And that should never be our goal. Our goal isn't punishment, banishment or humiliation. Our goal is restoration.
When we condemn a miscreant, we're claiming we're somehow superior. That's stupid. I guarantee you, whether or not you've committed his specific error, you've done something equally bad. And if you haven't messed up that badly yet, wait. You will.
For me, the moment a person acknowledges his wrongdoing, expresses his sorrow and alters his course, all is forgiven. None of this negates the price he might have to pay elsewhere. He might lose his marriage, the respect of his children or his job.
He should not lose the love, respect and comfort of his fellow churchgoers.
Naturally, we should with equal fervency demonstrate our love and concern for those he's harmed, such as his wife or kids. But we should love him, too.
And I'm not talking here about how churches should deal with people who continue to practice their sins: serial philanderers, pedophiles — those who can't or won't forsake their ways. We must take every necessary step to protect the innocent.
I'm speaking of how we should deal with people who royally mess up, but who, when confronted, face their faults and change their behavior.
And so, back to Pitino. It took him six years to get there, but he confessed. He expressed profound regret. He apologized.
If I were his pastor, I hope I'd greet him with a hug. I hope I'd say, "I'm sorry for what you did, but I welcome you back, my friend. Pray for me and I'll pray for you. Now, let's move forward."