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I'm not your Valentine

National | The rules of disengagement can keep sexual temptation at bay, but in the Clinton era, do those rules still apply?

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

In the first week after Calvin Pearson was hired as pastor of Bay Area First Baptist Church in League City, Texas, he began the remodeling process. He called in a workman and together, with a drill and a keyhole saw, they cut a hole in his office door and mounted a window. It was a flimsy, hollow-core door and they had difficulty making the window frame fit. "So for a while, it flopped, but it didn't matter," says Mr. Pearson, 46. "That window was important. Very important."

A little over four years later, that window was Mr. Pearson's sole incontrovertible defense when he was accused of having an affair.

Call them "rules of disengagement"-men in high-profile positions know they must take precautions, both to keep themselves out of compromising situations and, just as importantly, to avoid the appearance of evil. Politicians, executives, and pastors find that certain rules are necessary if they're to stay out of trouble.

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"Under no circumstances spend time alone with a woman who is not your wife or mother or sister," says Daniel Akin, dean of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "Never counsel a member of the opposite sex alone. Keep the door open. And when counseling on a matter that is highly personal or sexual in nature, it's best done by an older woman, not you. If you keep these rules, you might be accused of sexism or insensitivity, but better that than finding yourself in an adulterous affair."

Luder Whitlock, president of Reformed Theological Seminary, agrees. "We have to make students very aware of how easy it is to make mistakes from which you'll never recover," he says. "We have to encourage them to be careful, prudent. If people can't trust you, then you can't expect them to follow you." R.C. Sproul Jr. of Ligonier Ministries adds that most of the rules "are simply common sense." Things such as "don't close the door, no touching"-those are just part of staying above reproach, he says.

Even keeping the rules won't make a man immune from accusations. But it will make the accusations easier to disprove, Mr. Pearson knows. "When someone accuses you, it's never enough to say, 'It didn't happen.' You must be able to say, 'It couldn't have happened.'"

The accusation was leveled at Mr. Pearson after the removal of a staff member got ugly. Just days after the staff member was given notice, rumors began to circulate. Mr. Pearson had had an affair, according to the rumors, with a woman who had since left the church and the area. "The first thing I did when I heard about it was call a meeting of the elders," he says. "They began an immediate investigation, and I encouraged that. It was vital that I was able to ask, 'When could it have happened? When was I ever alone with her?'"

Within a few weeks, the elders cleared Mr. Pearson.

"You've got to follow the rules," he says. "They're simple rules, but your career can depend on them."

But the rules seem to be declining in importance these days. The corporate world took the Anita Hill hearings to heart seven years ago, but there are signs that strict policies put in place then are being relaxed now. Barry Spodak, a consultant to firms on the subject of sexual harassment, says companies were moving toward a ban on inter-office affairs because of the liability involved. In light of public indifference over the current sex charges facing President Clinton, that might be changing.

"Now [firms] are confused," Mr. Spodak told The New York Times. "They are looking to this as a test case. What happens to Mr. Clinton could determine whether they press ahead, or say, 'You know, maybe we should loosen up.'"

Now that liberal women's groups are noticeably silent on President Clinton's troubles-or even silently supportive of the president-firms are wondering if the sexual harassment scare is over. "If the same groups that pushed sexual harassment policies onto the agenda are giving the president a pass, then maybe something has changed," says Mr. Spodak.

And things have changed at IBM, according to The Wall Street Journal. Big Blue used to warn its managers that an affair with a subordinate was grounds for dismissal. But now, almost anything goes as long as the manager stops supervising that employee. "If they want to pursue a relationship with a subordinate, we ask them to step forward and transfer to another job within or outside the company," says an IBM spokesman.

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