Scarlet Letters

When the Rev. Tony Sirten preaches about the damage caused by lies and gossip, you know you’re getting it honest.

Only a few months ago, Sirten had his life thrown into upheaval when rumors spread on the wings of anonymous phone calls and letters, falsely branding the preacher as a child molester and sex offender.

It took only a few days for whispers to spread the lies and taint the preacher’s image.

"The rumor mill started to turn people," Sertin said.

The 'out' founding minister of the Church of the Living Water in Goodlettsville, Tenn., fought to clear his name. And after wining a defamation lawsuit in November 2008 against Neville Wettlin - a member of his congregation - Sirten thought he had.

But, he found that some damage can’t be undone, especially when it’s caused by a friend.

Neville Wettlin now seems short on words. "I just kind of want to forget about the whole thing," he said in a telephone interview with Out & About Newspaper.

The sentiment is not his alone. Sertin, too, would like to forget that Wettlin drug his name through the proverbial mud. And he’d like for everyone else to forget it, as well.

Sirten’s attorney, Michie Gibson, of Kittrell Gibson & Jones, said the lasting result with cases like Sirten’s is that, no matter what the lie, people don’t easily forget.

"Once people hear things, they get it stuck in their mind and it doesn’t matter what apologies are made,” Gibson said. “That’s just human nature. Mr. Wettlin obviously damaged Mr. Sirten."

Neville Wettlin isn't an ultra-conservative evangelical with an anti-homosexual agenda. In fact, he too is gay and was a member of Church of the Living Water.

Once considering them both good friends, Sirten presided over the wedding of Neville and Lester Wettlin years ago.

For that reason, Sirten said he has found vindication difficult to come by.

"We were friends for years,” Sirten said. “Now Lester is gone and I don’t think I’ll ever know why they did this.”
Sirten said he doesn’t expect to know the reason behind Neville Wettlin’s actions, but he suspects that Wettlin longed to become a minister at the church. When Sertin fell ill, Wettlin may have eyed his open seat as an opportunity, Sertin said.

“Neville didn’t expect me to come back to (to preach at services),” Sertin said. “So when I did, the letters came so that maybe I couldn’t preach anymore.”

And these letters weren’t the first.

Steve McKinney, a deacon at Living Water, received an anonymous letter last year stating that it was a mistake to have McKinney in the church’s ministry.

"I was surprised and hurt that someone thought that I wasn’t the minister that I should be," McKinney said.

Suspecting early on that McKinney’s letter and the more recent ones all originated from the same source, Sirten went through the file of hate mail he keeps at the church and compared the letters.

"They were a perfect match but no one seemed to care,” Sirten said.

For comparison, he then retrieved church documents written by Neville Wettlin while he was a Living Water Board Member.
Jane Eakes, a court qualified handwriting examiner, confirmed that all the letters were written by Neville Wettlin.

Gibson did a background check on Sirten confirming that he had no prior convictions for sexual offenses or child molestation.

With this evidence on his side, Sertin hoped that he could clear his name with a confession from Neville Wettlin. But Wettlin refused.

Soon after, in an agreement to have the charges against him dropped, Lester Wettlin, swore in a written deposition that Neville Wettlin had written the letters and made the phone calls. Lester Wettlin died before the court hearing.

This all but closed the case for Sirten.

On Nov. 10, 2008, Circuit Court Judge Joseph P. Binkley ruled that Sirten had been a victim of outrageous conduct and defamation of character by spoken and written communication. He was awarded $90,200 in the case against Neville Wettlin -- $50,000 of that was for punitive damages.

“I wanted to give up, but (my partner) Ronnie didn’t," Sirten said. "It was so stressful. But we cleared my name, and that’s what I wanted. It wasn't about the money."

Sertin said the members of the Living Water congregation are a close-knit group. Many of them have worshiped together since December, 1996, when Sertin and Linda Kennemer began holding services in Kennemer's home.

The congregation grew steadily under Sertin's leadership and the greater Nashville community took notice. Last January, he was awarded the second annual Edwina Hefner Community Leadership Award by Nashville Symphony.

But when you’re an openly gay pastor in the Bible Belt, 12 years of moral fortitude isn’t necessarily enough to stop people from believing what they want.

 “Some people already have an incorrect stigma about gay people anyway,” Sirten said. “If they think we’re child molesters and pedophiles, this sort of thing only adds to that.”

While most people close to the pastor knew the accusations were untrue, some members of Living Water stopped attending services, he said.

The lies also affected his job at Madison Healthcare, where Sertin was the assistant director of nursing and worked along side his partner and son.

Sirten had worked at Madison Healthcare for 11 years overseeing more than 100 employees and 126 patients.

Sertin said after his boss received a letter and phone calls falsely incriminating him, it wasn’t long before rumors spread throughout the facility creating an uncomfortable work environment.

"My coworkers acted like they hadn't heard anything, but you can tell when people walk the other direction when they see you coming," Sirten said.

Eventually, Sirten left the healthcare facility and his partner, son and another church member followed suit.

Falling victim to lies was especially difficult for the preacher and healthcare provider whose livelihood demands he grow close to and garner the trust of his congregation and patients.

Many of his patients' family members visited him while he was in the hospital after his first stroke in early 2008.

"I used to do the funerals of 20 people a year who didn’t know a minister," Sirten said. "Now, I see their families in the grocery and they don’t even acknowledge I’m there."

Sertin now works for Odyssey Healthcare, a hospice company located in Nashville, but said he fears that the stigma from being wrongly labeled a sex offender may never fully disappear.

"I told them the whole story upfront," Sertin said. "I never know what people have heard about me."

Sertin said he was fortunate that employees at Odyssey were familiar with him when he applied for the job, having conducted business with him in the past. Now, he clings to such silver linings.

“I wish that everybody that had heard the lies could read those court documents,” Sertin said. “I wish everyone who believed it could see the proof that they had believed a lie. I don’t know if that dark cloud will ever get completely taken away."

by Spectrum Medical Care Center

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