Hackers recently released a massive amount of data they copied from servers belonging to Ashley Madison, an online "dating service" for cheaters. This highly profitable business guaranteed real life affairs to anyone willing to pay a few hundred dollars to be matched with a suitable partner. But business went bad when the stolen information (including names, addresses, and payment methods) from 35 million users was posted and compiled in searchable online databases, allowing anyone to look for evidence of a partner's unfaithfulness.
The fallout has already begun. There have been daily reports of one public figure or another being identified as an Ashley Madison user. And for every popular personality caught in indiscretion, there are hundreds of lesser known men and women wondering if their dark secret will eventually be dragged into the light.
There may be a few users who choose to cut their anxiety short by confessing before being caught, but most will probably hold their breath, say nothing, and hope they remain undiscovered. But with so many reporters, investigators, lawyers, curiosity seekers, and inquisitive spouses combing through the evidence, many more affairs or attempted affairs are sure to be revealed.
This week, two stories received a fair amount of press because the guilty parties had built their public reputation on a foundation of moral virtues. Josh Druggar (star of the canceled show 19 Kids and Counting) and Sam Radar (a popular Christian vlogger) both issued public confessions after they were found to be past paid members of Ashley Madison.
Josh Druggar: "I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife."
Sam Radar: "I’ve sought forgiveness to God, and he’s forgiven me. So, I’ve been completely cleansed of this sin, and also, I need to be clear that I’ve never met with a single person face to face through that website, and that I never had an affair with anybody, ever, while I’ve been married with Nia. The account was opened out of pure fleshly desires and just sinful curiosity... this has already been completely resolved within my family and within my church, we won’t be saying any more on this matter. I wont be talking to any media outlets. The only place you’ll hear of this out—of our mouth—is here on this video. The only time. You know, this is why we need a savior. We’re sinful by nature, and we do stupid things like this. And this is what the atonements all about: Forgiveness and second chances."
As more affairs are exposed, more confessions will be made. Are they legitimate? Are these people truly sorry for their behavior, or sorry because they were caught? Should they be forgiven? Can they be trusted?
I am no longer surprised by revelations like these; I've seen what goes on behind the curtain in lives of celebrities and common folk alike. Most of us, I suspect, would hide in shame if every hidden fact about us was revealed. Even so, we wrestle with questions of forgiveness and trust when sins of others are exposed.
My work with couples struggling through infidelity gives me a close-up perspective of the betrayed partner's pain and confusion. For them, the answers to these questions have life-long implications. They need to hear their partner's answer to: If you're really sorry, why didn't you admit this before you were caught?
It's natural for the rest of us to be skeptical, too, of confessions made only after the evidence has been uncovered. We've all witnessed insincere apologies, usually accompanied by justifications of one sort of another. But that is not true of everyone. For some, getting caught becomes a turning point. Change happens. And the evidence of that change, of sincere repentance, is seen in their commitment to restitution and relationship repair.
I'm thankful for the Ashley Madison breach. Not just because I despise a service like this, but because it provides an opportunity for people to confront their behavior stripped of all its fantasy. They have a chance to change; a chance to heal.
The rest of us, standing on the outside, should drop our stones. We should feel sorrow, not glee. We should encourage a kind of thoughtful response that will last beyond this moment of shaming. We should hope for the best, not for the worst, while we watch for evidence of trustworthiness.