Thanks for coming back with me this week. We had a terrific time away and now I’m ready to hit the ground running.
“If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or a meddler. But if anyone suffers as a Chrisitan, let him not be ashamed but let him glorify God in having that name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What would you do if you suddenly discovered that your parents are not really your parents? I think we can safely say at the very least that this would be a pretty major shock to your system. Let’s add one more layer to this, though: What if your discovery and shock were shared by your parents? A recent documentary film on Netflix pursues this very question in a true crime story that didn’t even have to be designed to shock and disturb. The story Our Father tells does those two things on its own. Yet the story itself isn’t the thing that most got my attention and sparked my writing this morning. That prize goes to the particular angle the director chose to take with the storytelling. It offers a good reminder of where the culture is when it comes to the church and why getting the life of Christ right is so important for followers of Jesus.
Netflix and Blumhouse’s recently released documentary, Our Father, tells the story of Dr. Donald Cline and his medical practice. More specifically, it tells the story of how through the 1970s and 80s he used his fertility clinic to secretly impregnate at least 94 women with his own sperm. The hopeful mothers struggling with fertility would come to his clinic for help. Then, while he left them alone in the exam room to get ready for the procedure, he would go to another room, produce a sample himself, and use that for the implantation process. The documentary was a bit more explicit on how the whole thing unfolded. None of the 94 and who knows how many other women – much less their children – were aware of his violation of their privacy and their trust.
The story is actually told through the eyes of a group of eight of his children. The discovery process began when one of Cline’s secret children, Jacoba Ballard, took a genetic test, and when the results came in discovered that she had multiple half-siblings she did not know about. Over the period of a few years, that number of half-siblings grew larger and larger as more individuals took genetic tests from the same company. Needless to say, this discovery turned their worlds upside down. The rest of the film is dedicated to how she broke the news to more of her half-siblings as their results popped up on the genetic testing company’s database, the efforts of a handful of the siblings to see Cline prosecuted criminally for his actions, and speculations as to his motives. Cline himself was never interviewed for nor participated in any part of the documentary.
The framing of the story presents Cline as a secret moral monster which seems fair because…well…he is. For someone in his position to have done what he did is hard to imagine. Or at least it would be even harder to imagine if he weren’t the only male fertility doctor to do it. As it turns out, as Cline’s story became public, it has been discovered that more than 40 other fertility doctors have done the same thing. The grotesque nature of his actions stirs in our hearts a demand for justice. There are nearly 100 couples (that we know of) who desired to have a child to together, couldn’t do it on their own, went to him for help, and were unknowingly robbed of this opportunity when he inserted himself in the process in a truly horrible way. The couples all still had children whom they raised and loved as their own, but all the while never suspected the children weren’t quite entirely their own. Adding even more intrigue to the story is the fact that most of the 94 known siblings all live within a tight range of one another. Several of them knew each other before discovering they were secretly siblings.
As angrily as our demand for justice in the face of such an abominable act is, though – and the eight Cline children who participated in the documentary were most definitely and understandably angry at Cline and the discovery that their parents weren’t actually both their parents – the previously unimaginable nature of someone in Cline’s position doing something like this meant there were no laws on the books criminalizing his actions either in the state of Indiana where his practice was located or at the federal level. When he was finally successfully prosecuted, it was only on two felony counts of lying to the authorities who were investigating him for his actions. He has subsequently settled three civil lawsuits with some of the siblings and more are pending.
Here, though, is where the storytelling began to take a turn for the worse. This plays out in two different ways. First, the director frames Indiana’s Attorney General’s office as a villain who was standing in the way of prosecuting Cline for his actions. There are several clips from an interview with Tim Delaney, a former prosecutor for Marion County, IN, which are set against interviews with Ballard, to make it look like he and the rest of Indiana’s legal apparatus simply didn’t want to prosecute Cline. The trouble is that Delaney is straightforward and, frankly, likeable, throughout the interview. He presents the facts of the case calmly and with as little bias as possible. The same cannot be said of Ballard, who is understandably simmering with rage during that portion of her interview.
The film is set so as to make viewers want to see Cline charged with rape, or some other similarly heinous crime, and sent to prison for a long time. And on this count, they succeed. What he did to all of these women and who knows how many more was awful. The life disruption experienced by all of his children has to be intense. Your heart breaks for them and their efforts to make sense of their world in light of this discovery. But as I said before, there aren’t any laws forbidding what he did. I suspect the reason for this lack isn’t because no one considered it a big deal, but because no one could imagine someone in Cline’s position doing something so horrible. And, because there are not any laws prohibiting his actions, he hadn’t legally committed a crime for which he could be punished. It was fortunate that in his efforts to cover up the full extent of his actions he lied to the state authorities investigating the matter – a lie which almost went undetected but for the efforts of a committed journalist with the local Fox affiliate.
As frustrating as it is in a situation like this one, though, it is actually a great and important feature of our legal system that even someone as terrible as Cline cannot be charged with a crime for which there is not a law prohibiting his actions. Furthermore, even if a law was subsequently passed making his actions explicitly illegal, he could not be charged retroactively for what he did. While I understand the cathartic nature of such a charge, it would severely undermine the rule of law on which our nation is built. We should be grateful that even someone like Cline is afforded full legal rights regardless of the feelings of the people he hurt. Those safeguards help make sure people who are innocent can’t be charged unfairly by an unscrupulous prosecutor. It happens, but not like it does in other places in the world. It is to the shame of the director that this is made to seem like a bug in our system rather than a features. Feelings can’t override facts in the justice system no matter how strong or even justified those feelings may be.
The second place where the storytelling ran off the rails is where they began to speculate on Cline’s motives. The truth of the matter is that no one but Cline knows why he did what he did. He hasn’t revealed his innermost thoughts to anyone, least of all the filmmaker. It does seem clear that when it finally appeared he was going to be outed for his actions that he began making efforts to try to cover things up including even possibly intimidating and threatening people involved in the investigation into silence. From the accounts of those involved, somewhere inside he knew what he did was wrong and was hiding from the potential consequences for as long as he could. Still, though, the question remains: why did he do it?
The filmmaker, along with the cooperation of the eight siblings involved, suggested one: his Christian beliefs. A great deal of the film focused its attention on the fact that Cline was ostensibly a committed Christian who was a pillar in his church where he served as an elder. The implication throughout seems to be that his faith in Jesus is what drove him take the actions he took. The Christian faith as a whole is presented as the problem. They go further to suggest that Cline may have considered himself to be part of the Quiverfull movement, a relatively small movement of Christians that believes in the importance of families having many children because children are a blessing. Without even trying to learn more about the movement or having honest interviews with anyone who actually subscribes to that line of thinking, the filmmaker presents the whole movement an evil cult right out of the Handmaid’s Tale that views women as nothing more than baby machines. Again, with the help of the siblings who participated in the film, the filmmaker suggests that since so many of the siblings have blond hair and blue eyes, perhaps it was a racist desire to create a new Aryan-like race that would make the likes of Hitler proud that was part of what drove him to do what he did.
The intellectual laziness and naked bias throughout this section of the film was maddening. The whole thing was presented in a very matter of fact manner in spite of the fact that it was nothing more than rank speculation. There is not a shred of evidence to support any of these claims. It was nut-picking at its finest. The obvious bias against the Christian faith just almost made me stop watching. The handful of siblings who were willing to work with the production process were allowed to simply vent their wildest thoughts on what could have possibly driven Cline without a single bit of effort from the filmmaker to present a fuller perspective on the matter. Allowing them to speak their mind is one thing. Participating in it is another.
Speaking of that handful of siblings, that was another major flaw in the storytelling for me. If there really are 94 known siblings, why did only eight participate. Were there efforts to reach out to the others to get their take? At least one of the interviewed siblings did not have blond hair and blue eyes. That seems to undercut the charge of racism on Cline’s part. Interestingly, they didn’t include any interviews with her during that segment of the film. How many of the others have similar features? From a bit of my own research on the matter, at least two of the siblings are suing the filmmaker and Netflix for including their names and pictures in the film after having been assured they would not be mentioned in any way, shape, or form. How many of the other siblings feel the same way as this group of eight feel about it? Are there any who were shocked by the news, but forgave Cline and moved on with their lives? Among the eight siblings in the film, nearly all of them expressed great disdain for the Christian faith – a disdain driven by his actions. People like him are why I don’t want anything to do with religion was the expressed sentiment. Are any of the other 86 siblings Christians who would have brought a more balanced and gracious perspective to the matter? Why weren’t these included? Did the filmmaker’s own anti-Christian bias get in the way? This story is shocking enough on its own. Why not just tell the story rather than letting the effort be driven by an anti-Christian animus?
All of this, though, just brings me back around to look at believers and the church in general. Cline was, by all accounts, a faithful, upstanding member of his community and his church. He was a model that many people looked up to for wisdom and guidance on how to do life right. He was seemingly a perfect picture of what getting the Christian life right looks like. And all the while, he was hiding this awful, dark secret. This prompts two thoughts in me.
First, whatever is concealed will eventually be brought to the light. If you are a follower of Jesus and are trying to hide some struggle with sin from the world, it will eventually be found out. You cannot hide it forever. The light of Christ will shine and bring light to all of the darkness around you and in you. Your best bet is to confess your sin and walk away from it now. The longer it remains hidden, the worse the eventual revelation will be. Cline’s actions went off like a bomb when the light finally hit them. The lives of dozens and dozens of people have been completely upended by all of this including the lives of his own family members. If all of the secret siblings are shocked and devastated by all of this, imagine how his own wife and children and grandchildren must feel. Sin won’t remain hidden. Even if you do manage to keep something under wraps in this life, we will all one day have to stand before the judgment seat of God where all things will be revealed. It will be an awful thing to discover on that day that we were among those who cried, “Lord, Lord,” but from whom He turns His head and says, “I don’t know you.”
Second, when followers of Jesus don’t follow Jesus, the watching world won’t know what following Jesus looks like. Worse, it will either be led or else confirmed in thinking following Jesus is something other than it truly is. People who are looking for a reason to not embrace the Gospel and a relationship with God in Christ will be given all the evidence they need to harden their hearts and to double down on their rejection. If you are a Christian and your life becomes characterized by sin, you will be actively leading others astray. We will be making it seem that divided loyalties between God and the world are just fine. We will lead others into unbelief or make it seem things are true that are not true. We will even lead unsuspecting people into sin. Jesus Himself had some words for people who do that, and they weren’t particularly gentle words. It was something about a millstone, a rope around their necks, and the bottom of the ocean. You can fill in the details from there.
If you are following Jesus, you must follow Jesus. You must follow Jesus with your words. You must follow Jesus with your thoughts. You must follow Jesus with your actions. There absolutely cannot be any disparity among those three. You may suffer for your efforts, but as Peter said, it is much better to suffer for that than to suffer, as Cline now is, for doing evil. Cline didn’t do this, in spite of his public profession of being a Christ-follower, and now millions of people are going to learn of his story, see its polemic against the Christian faith, and conclude that the polemic must be correct. The harm he has done to the kingdom is incalculable. This film does many things wrong in the process of telling its story, but Cline’s prior wrong made the filmmaker feel justified in presenting the story in this way. To put that another way, this is all the result of his sin. He will yet face judgment for it even if he has been able to escape much judgment in this world. But the wound to the kingdom is the far greater matter. For that and the lives he has devastated we should mourn. We should mourn and make sure we aren’t following his path.