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Vienna Presbyterian: Coming to terms with itself

Posted by Ron George on April 3, 2011

Vienna Presbyterian: Living honestly into the future, not denying its past

Read it and weep, but then let’s be thankful that The Washington Post was willing to invest in this story.

It’s taken a decade for a Presbyterian congregation in suburban Virginia to take care of its own children, now that they’re no longer children but adult women coping with having been sexually abused by a youth minister. The case is painfully typical, from an ignored red flag to congregational denial and blaming the victims – teenage girls. There are signs of good news, too – the congregation and its former youth minister are repentant, putting on a new mind, taking a new direction and living in hope of healing.

As a woman said at the end of the story, though, the ball’s still in the air.

We’ve heard it all before, and research has generalized patterns of individual and corporate behavior that characterize these demoralizing cases. Still, some aspects of particular cases such as Vienna Presbyterian continue to amaze and astonish. For example, a Presbyterian general presbyter who oversees 180 congregations in northern Virginia told the Post that more than 20 percent of those congregations have had to deal with clergy sexual misconduct. This despite two decades of policy-making efforts to curb it. The takeaway? Enacting institutional polices and procedures may protect institutions in courts of law, but they don’t protect members of congregations that prefer to contain the problem, keep the secret and blame the victim.

Vienna Presbyterian Church home page

Vienna Presbyterian home page: Miserable for a while but set free

“It’s been all too common in the past, and those days have to end,” the Virginia general presbyter told the Post. Well, we’ve heard that before from church administrators of all stripes. We’ve heard it for years, but what it usually means is that we’ll hear it all again the next time a pastor is discovered abusing his authority by using it to seduce parishioners into sexual relationships. It’s unlikely to end before every congregation in every denomination acknowledges that “it can happen here” and “we are going to prevent it.”

A question arises: What is it about the culture of congregational institutions that enables pastors (usually men) to screw members of their flocks (usually women but also children)? The military has had to ask this question with regard to the sexual abuse of women. The business community – well, to some extent – has had to deal with sexual abuse of employees (mostly women) by those with executive authority. The church prefers to think of itself as an organization exempt from the ordinary problems of non-religious groups, but it is not, especially with regard to clergy sexual abuse. In fact, I would argue that Christian congregational culture is more likely than others to lend itself to abuse of leadership authority.

Pastoral authority is rooted in two powerful constructs – public worship and private counsel. Public worship, regardless of denomination, creates a larger-than-life tableau for pastors as preacher and celebrant. Liturgical leadership creates an aura of spiritual authority found in few environments other than religious congregations. Religious leaders are thus publicly imbued with the presence of God. In many ways, they become living symbols of Christian tradition, and their authority generates power, which is attractive in and of itself. The upside of such authority and power is the respect it may cultivate for Christ Jesus and the gospel. The downside is that, like all powerful things of this world, it also can do great harm. Every pastor in every denomination must know how to handle pastoral authority and power with humility and strength. To do otherwise invites a range of pastoral disaster, including sexual misconduct.

An ideal pastor's study

An ideal pastor’s study: A safe place, not a hiding place for misconduct

The flip side of the powerful pastoral role of public worship is the privacy and intimacy of providing pastoral care. The pastor’s study is – or ought to be – a safe place for baring one’s soul in confidence. As such, it is a secret place that can become a hiding place for parlaying close personal relationships into sexual adventures. People seeking pastoral care are likely to be vulnerable, troubled and in pain. Pastors are trained to listen, to comfort, to pray and to open channels of healing by God’s grace in Christ Jesus’ name and the power of the Holy Spirit. Science tells us that sexual and spiritual desire operate from the same part of the brain. In pastoral care, behind closed doors, it’s too easy for those wires to get crossed. Training is important but not enough to restrain such impulses. It takes moral commitment. All too often, pastors’ moral commitment falls short. And another thing: Pastors are always responsible for maintaining boundaries in pastoral care. If misconduct occurs, it’s on the pastor, period. “I was seduced” is no defense.

Congregations tend not to be vigilant about clergy sexual abuse. It’s something that happens elsewhere. We cluck our tongues, wish it hadn’t happened (elsewhere) and assume that “it can’t happen here.” Well, it can, and it’s far more likely to happen when congregations are not attuned to the possibility and fail to establish practical safeguards, especially with regard to children and teens. OK, it’s unlikely. Two in 10 are odds in our favor – but do we really want to gamble with people’s lives?

Shatter the silence, a motto of Take Back the Night

In prayer, silence enhances God’s presence; in fear, it abets the predator

Vigilance means paying attention to red flags, which Vienna Presbyterian did not. The former youth minister joined Vienna’s staff in 2001, and within months of his arrival, a church camp reported that he had had inappropriate contact (apparently not sexual) with a 14-year-old girl. It was brushed off as a misunderstanding. Vienna took no action. What should have happened? The youth pastor should have been suspended on the spot and a third-party investigation begun. Instead, Vienna took his word – and he spent the next four years grooming adolescent girls for sex after they turned 18. The girls were enchanted by his ego-boosting banter and sworn to silence, which they kept, by virtue of his pastoral authority. Later, they were blamed for “coming on” to him and were shunned by adults who supported the youth minister, even after he was convicted of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” He didn’t get what he deserved — something, anything, more than a year’s probation — but at least he’s no longer providing pastoral care.

And that’s part of the good news in this story. After finally being removed from pastoral office in 2005, Eric DeVries, Vienna’s former youth minister, is married with children, a churchgoer who works for a paving company. He’s ashamed of what he did. He acknowledges that it was immoral. He has nightmares about it. Let us hope he continues to heal, if that’s what’s happening — and let us hope he’s never again in charge of a youth program.

About red flags: I have personal experience in this regard. After my first year in seminary, I had an inappropriate relationship with a student nurse during my clinical pastoral education (CPE) training. I should have been summoned back to my diocese for intense scrutiny, which likely would have resulted in my not completing seminary and not being ordained. Life would have been different but a lot better for the church and just about everyone I knew. What actually happened? My CPE supervisor assured my bishop that counseling and close supervision would solve the problem. As far as I know, nothing was said to or about the student nurse I had seduced; and, needless to say, I was caught in a full-blown case of clergy sexual misconduct six years after I was ordained. The church would have been better off as an institution without me in ordained ministry; but more important, my sexual misconduct would not have adversely affected many people’s lives – including my wife, my children, my parishioners and a wide circle of friends. That was almost 30 years ago, just about the time widespread sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church was coming to light. You’d think Vienna Presbyterian might have paid more attention to that red flag in 2001.

The other part of the good news in this story is Vienna’s finally coming around to acknowledging its dysfunctional response. On March 27, Vienna pastor Peter James finally took the rap for his congregation:  “We failed as leaders to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed,” he said, speaking to a back row of young women abused by DeVries. “Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed for this abuse. I am sorry. The church is sorry.” That was only a small piece of an eloquent and impassioned message.

“As followers of Jesus Christ, we seek to know the truth and speak the truth,” said James, whose text came from the gospel of Mark and whose theme was religious hypocrisy. “Churches who refuse to tell the truth about sexual abuse are a horrible witness to Christ in the world …

“We never imagined such evil could happen here. Now that it has occurred here, we have the opportunity to model what Christ calls us to do about it.

“The Washington Post will write a feature story this week about what happened here. Sad to say, but abuse in churches is old news. This article holds forth the promise of a different story. We approached the Post to write this story cooperatively. Jesus said the truth will set us free. It might make us miserable for awhile, but it will set us free.”

Every congregation in every denomination should read, mark, learn and inwardly digest James’ message, especially any congregation that has lived in denial, kept the secret or blamed the victims for clergy sexual abuse. Every church administrator, every pastor, priest, bishop, deacon, seminarian and anyone aspiring to Christian ordination ought to listen closely to the Vienna story, not simply as a news account but as a lesson in moral theology leading to intense self-examination.

It’s Lent, right? What better time for it? I can hear excuses piling up already: It’s not our problem; it can’t happen here; it didn’t happen here; or, perhaps worst of all, later, maybe next year, some other time, maybe never. Meanwhile, let’s say conservatively that two out of 10 congregations in the United States – that’s more than 1,000 – are now having, have had or about to have a clergy sexual-misconduct problem. Denial and delay can only do more harm than good.

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3 Responses to “Vienna Presbyterian: Coming to terms with itself”

  1. Shelly Vance said

    There is one very glaring error in your article here. DeVries is/was NOT a PASTOR. Please do not refer to him as such. He was a youth director. Big difference. He was not in an ordained position by any stretch of the imagination. His hiring was very similar to hiring a church secretary, a custodian or some other full-time staff member. This is why the local Presbytery did not have to get involved – they did not hire him, VPC did.

    • Ron George said

      You’re technically correct, and thanks for pointing it out. I would argue, though, that the youth minister was in a pastoral relationship with the young people of VPC, and I doubt that many of the experts in this field would disagree that the dynamics of pastoral sexual misconduct were in play in this case.

      It should be a matter of concern at VPC that hiring the youth minister is on par with hiring a custodian. Putting someone in charge of a youth group is much more akin to hiring an associate pastor than paying someone to mop the floors.

      Most judicatories, anymore, are requiring training for all employees in the practicalities of avoiding and, more important, becoming aware of possible sexual misconduct. If the presbytery wasn’t involved, it should have been, especially as a resource with a plan for dealing with the problem as a pastoral issue — for the congregation, especially the young women and their families, as well as for Mr. DeVries. The sad truth is that most judicatories are not prepared or ill prepared; consequently, they are generally ineffective when it counts the most. The bit of light I found in the VPN story was that despite ineffective leadership and intervention, the congregation finally found its way to something resembling reconciliation and hope. Many congregations never get over an incident of this kind.

  2. bobhorner said

    thanx for this evne tho it may tuff on you to write it..sent it on to Dean at seminary to urge him to teach this stuff if they don’t now..so many lives are being dreadfully impacted..peace my brother..

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