Doubting the Messenger

Let’s start with disclosures, since at least Sarah Morehead, the person at the heart of this story, is trying to make this a personal dispute rather than whistleblowing on financial and organizational impropriety.

I’ve never met Sarah Morehead that I can recall. I might have, since I attended the conference that was a precursor to Apostacon in Omaha in 2012 and we’ve been at other conferences at the same time, but it would have been in passing only. I interviewed her by phone for Atheists Talk radio regarding her work with Recovering from Religion. I was ambivalent about her work, supporting Recovering from Religion while not being very impressed with the celebrity-driven direction Apostacon took. Nonetheless, last fall, I reached out to her about the possibility of her doing a workshop at Skepticon with Secular Women Work.

I’ve worked with Steph, putting her in front of audiences for both the Secular Women Work conference and the workshops at Skepticon. We’ve socialized at CONvergence, and I expect we will again.

Of the Omaha/Apostacon crew, Josiah Mannion is on my very short list of favorite people. We’ve geeked out about organizational effectiveness together for a couple of years. I’ve made sure he and his camera could get to several conferences and conventions, including raising money for us to travel together to the Secular Social Justice conference in January and report out. We’ve traded critique and advice and personal confidences. I just conspired with a bunch of other local atheists to get him up to Minneapolis for a week, where he stayed in our guest room. If I’m going to be biased anywhere in this, here’s where.

I’m Facebook friends with many of the rest of the interested parties without having met them more than briefly at best. The main exception is JT Eberhard, with whom I had a fairly public falling out a few years ago.

All that said, my introduction to allegations of financial mismanagement against Sarah Morehead didn’t come out of Omaha. It came out of Atlanta, where she had originally been scheduled to keynote at the Atheist Alliance of America conference last October. In her absence, word quietly spread across the deep grapevine that she wasn’t there because she and her entire Reason Rally crew had been let go because of her financial irregularities. Obviously, I can’t speak to these allegations as more than rumors, which is why I haven’t discussed them publicly to date.

From there, someone let me know almost immediately, because I had the Skepticon invitation outstanding to her. I reached out to Josiah with condolences because I knew how much he’d been looking forward to taking pictures at Reason Rally. He thanked me but was otherwise discreet, letting me know he was still covered by a non-disclosure agreement. The Reason Rally news was spreading but not out of Omaha. (This all happened before November, when her Facebook profile identifies her as having left Reason Rally.)

By the time of Sarah’s fundraiser in December, I knew she was no longer in charge of Apostacon. It had occurred to me to ask, and I’d gotten confirmation she was gone and it wasn’t voluntary. To the extent Josiah and I had talked about this beyond that, it was about excitement for Apostacon moving in a new direction. I’d checked the Recovering from Religion site and discovered she wasn’t their director anymore either.

The day the fundraiser launched, it wasn’t hard to see that several people were uncertain and/or distressed. I signaled that I had some sense of what was going on and why people were upset and ended up talking to many of them privately. Once again, the information I received was mostly guarded. Once again, the most concrete bits didn’t come from Omaha.

Overwhelmingly, people’s concerns were for the children. No one felt they could trust the information coming out about their welfare, and as much as they wanted to stay far away from Sarah, they were distressed that being at odds with her meant they couldn’t check on the kids.

After that, people worried that others were being defrauded by the fundraiser. However, with the possibility that the biggest lies of the fundraiser were the omission of Sarah’s other misdeeds and that these were what had cost her the income she had, people weren’t willing to act on that worry. As more than one person explained to me, there was generally some truth at the heart of any story from Sarah, but her talent was for making the facts of the matter tell whatever story she needed them to at the time. No story would be 100% true, but it wouldn’t be easy to sort out fact from fiction.

Without that certainty, people weren’t willing to act to dissuade others from donating, not when the children were at stake. Instead, most opted for silence. Normally, one would expect people’s colleagues to be the first to share a fundraiser like this. Instead, I noticed that the people who had worked most closely with Sarah were the least likely group to promote it.

After talking to a few people and noting who was and wasn’t sharing the fundraiser, I chose to share what I had learned with a fairly small group of other people. The main distinguishing characteristics of this group were that they had outsized influence by virtue of having displayed integrity over time and under rough circumstances and that we had a degree of mutual trust. If they chose to promote the fundraiser, their honesty would burnish it. I could trust that they’d take my information to heart then make the best decision they could about what to do with it.

All of this is part of why I’m disturbed by Steph’s post on more recent public allegations against Sarah.  The post, and particularly its postscript, treat any and all attempts to get at the truth of the whispered allegations against Sarah and make it public as an attempt to defend Ray Morehead from the child abuse allegations. That’s a serious problem.

It’s a problem in that it doesn’t fit the facts of the matter as I know them. It doesn’t fit the timing of events in Omaha as documented. It doesn’t fit the concerns expressed to me or the profile of the people from whom I heard those concerns. It doesn’t fit the actions people decided to take or the timing of those actions. Mostly, it doesn’t fit the kinds of handwringing I and others have done over this issue.

Here are a few of the things I’ve thought about or had said to me regarding this situation over the last few months:

  • I am uncomfortable having doubts even about a fundraiser that centers around sexual abuse.
  • I know that fraud most often leverages the parts of our lives we’re unwilling to examine or talk about.
  • Bad things still happen to bad people. They happen more often, in fact, to people whose priorities are messed up and push them to make bad decisions.
  • Having one bad parent doesn’t automatically mean a child’s other parent is “the good one”.
  • I want to tell everyone what she’s done to get money in the past, but what if the children really do need it?
  • I know she’ll say anything she needs to say to get what she wants, but that includes the truth–or part of it.
  • I wish I could talk to the children directly.
  • I’m glad it’s not my job to sort out what the kids are saying.
  • I’m so glad the police and child protective services seem to be taking this seriously.
  • Even if someone is taking care of the kids, that leaves everyone else she’s hurt. What do we do for them?
  • If my father ever tells you anything about me, please don’t trust him.

That last one is me specifically, and I mean it. If the man who told neighbors he was secretly in the CIA, had his lawyer report him dead to a probate court (!), claimed to be racing cars as a hobby when he wasn’t driving otherwise, and told my stepmother we weren’t his children ever tries to tell you anything about me–even if it’s the most complimentary thing in the world–don’t believe him. He’s said a lot of true things in his life. I still don’t want anything you think you know about me to come from him.

That’s what makes this stuff so hard. Life would be much easier if we could always believe that a child’s best interest and a parent’s best interest coincided. We can’t.

Sometimes we’re faced with a situation where we have to hope that parent and child’s interests align because we know whose will win out if they don’t. Sometimes we’re stuck trying to see through the unreliable parent to the child behind them because that parent controls access to the child. We don’t know whether anything is wrong, and even if we suspect something is, we don’t know whether intervening, particularly with authorities, will make the situation better or worse. We just can’t trust anything.

That’s an ugly position to be in. It sucks so hard, I find myself getting angry just at having to explain it. And since that kind of anger can turn us into assholes or make us strike out in incautious ways that make us indistinguishable from assholes, I’ll stop explaining there. Let’s just stop framing this as a dispute between people who want to see the children well looked after and people who don’t, shall we? Some people might not care about the kids, but speculating about which people those might be is another one of those great ways to make righteously angry, good people indistinguishable from assholes.

Instead, let’s get back to those allegations against Sarah, now that we’ve covered whether it’s possible to be concerned about both those and child abuse. For the record, I have known this was coming for a while. I asked Apostacon for access to the same information JT did. I asked in part because I wanted it to come out in a way that maintained proper separation between these allegations and everything involving the children.

Apostacon chose to give the information to JT rather than to me. They had an existing trusted relationship with him that they didn’t with me. Fair enough. And I think JT did a reasonable job with a whole heap of information that often consisted of gaps where there should have been a record.

It’s Sarah Morehead’s non-answers to many of JT’s questions that are the most damning, though. The number of times she failed to begin to address his questions is staggering, let alone the paucity of times that she managed to produce reasonable explanations. Instead, at nearly every point, she deflected, pushing attention away from the question and toward, most often, her personal life.

It’s hard not to see a pattern in that. It’s hard not to see the same pattern in her implication that Omaha people are just after her because she talked about child abuse. And all the evidence I have, with the exception of one person’s angry incoherence, points toward that pattern of deflection over a pattern of persecution.

I’m going to stop this post there, because that kind of deflection also makes me unreasonably angry, and I think I’ve said enough. There’s enough evidence now for people to make up their own minds, or to figure out how to behave when they can’t.

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Doubting the Messenger

One thought on “Doubting the Messenger

  1. 1

    I think it’s important to remember that very few claims made are actually mutually exclusive.

    It is possible that the sexual abuse happened.
    It is possible that the financial mishandling happened.
    It is possible that one side uses the true abuse claims to distract from the also true fraud claims.
    It is possible that the other side uses the true fraud claims to distract from the true abuse claims.

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