Vienna Presbyterian Church Rocked by Sex Abuse Scandal

"Each day we are becoming a creature of splendid glory or one of unthinkable horror." C.S.Lewis

 


 

 

 

 4/9/11 correction:  I had planned to provide full credit for the information included in this post to Josh White, reporter extraordinaire of The Washington Post. He has done a superb job in reporting this story! Here is the link to his article.

 

Our intent and practice here at TWW is to ALWAYS give credit where credit is due. I realize now that I should have cited The Washington Post at the beginning of the series, instead of at the conclusion (which will be featured on Monday, 4/11/11). I sincerely apologize for my failure to cite the article at the beginning of the series on Vienna Presbyterian Church.


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Vienna Presbyterian Church (VPC), located in close proximity to Washington, D.C., has undergone severe testing in recent years when it was rocked by a sex scandal. In hindsight, it is somewhat ironic that Eric DeVries was hired by VPC in September 2001, the very month that shook our great nation to the core. During his four year stint at VPC, DeVries caused tremendous damage to the congregation and especially to his victims.
 

Perhaps you are wondering how DeVries got caught after getting away with his shenanigans for so long. Here’s what happened. He slowly manipulated his way into the hearts of one family in the church. They trusted him so much that they gave him a key to their house. A teenage daughter in the family believed that she and DeVries would someday marry. This daughter had a sister who was 15 at the time. The sister grew so suspicious that she became a spy! She became obsessed with figuring out DeVries and his charade. She followed him around and even told him that she knew what was going on. The tipping point occurred in September 2005 when she found explicit sexual images on her sister’s cell phone sent by DeVries. This brave teenager reported the inappropriate relationship between DeVries and her sister to the church.
 

VPC’s senior pastor, Peter James, was stunned to discover that a youth director at the church could be guilty of inappropriate behavior. Although James believed he was doing the right thing at the time (aka Matthew 18) his strategy was flawed. He arranged a meeting between himself, DeVries, and the 15-year-old girl! She cried through most of the meeting as she shared the incriminating evidence she had discovered. In response, DeVries admitted to acting inappropriately but confessed to just kissing this girl’s sister. During a subsequent meeting with the victim, DeVries, and her family, the victim confirmed that what DeVries had confessed to was indeed the extent of the relationship between them. However, her sister knew that the relationship had become far more physical than was being portrayed.
 

Pastor James recently admitted that he didn’t know what was truly going on in 2005. He realized that boundaries had been crossed; however, he did not conduct a thorough investigation back then to see whether there were other victims.
 

Upon discovering DeVries’ inappropriate behavior, the Session (VPC’s democratic leadership body) forced the resignation of DeVries and a week later reported the case to Fairfax County Child Protective Services. Unfortunately, church officials let the matter drop, and the senior pastor chose to protect the victims by “honoring their anonymity”.
 

After DeVries was fired from VPC, he relocated to his hometown in Illinois with the help of not only close friends but church elders. He would await the actions of the criminal justice system there.
 

Initially, court records indicated that DeVries was charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor – proposing sexual contact with a minor under his supervision – a felony that requires registry as a sex offender. Then in February 2006 (five months after being caught by a 15 year old), DeVries agreed to plead guilty to a lesser offense – contributing to the delinquency of a minor – for which he received a ONE-YEAR SUSPENDED JAIL SENTENCE!

Family members of the victim wrote letters to the judge explaining how they had treated DeVries like a member of their own family and that they “loved and trusted him completely”. They finally realized that there was a very dark side to Eric DeVries and that they were unaware of the many signs that there was a sexual predator among them.
 

The detective who investigated the case in 2005 suspected that there were more victims; however, when victims are psychologically tied to a sex offender and willingly involved, it is difficult to find them (probably because they are embarrassed to come forward).
 

After being caught, DeVries explained that he was seeking a family and intimacy and that he unwisely allowed his feelings to escalate out of control. We want to point out that he was in his early 30s while he was at VPC. He further admitted that what he did was hurtful and immoral and that this was the low point of his life. He described it as a life-changing event.
 

 

THE CONGREGATION’S RESPONSE
 

As we understand it, when DeVries pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a minor, there was one identified victim who was under age and one who was eighteen. Unfortunately, the Fairfax police detective was right about there being more victims; however, they did not come forward at the time DeVries was charged, and no one from the church sought them out.
 

Tragically, it appeared to the victims that the congregation supported DeVries. Why? He was given the opportunity to apologize to the youth group (which likely still included the unidentified victims), and he was allowed to give an emotional good-bye to them, reassuring them that although he was leaving he would see them in heaven. Some of the church members even conducted prayer circles for him, and the church held fundraising luncheons for him.
 

In an effort to support DeVries during the legal process, one staff member requested congregants to write letters praising DeVries’ godly character. These letters were to be handed over to the judge for consideration. More than 25 church members submitted letters.
 

Today, this church staffer deeply regrets the pain the letters she solicited caused for DeVries’ victims. When he was charged, she realized he had done something wrong, but she believed that an appropriate Christian response should be to support DeVries during his time of need, not realizing that there were unidentified victims suffering with much worse pain. Her previous action now brings her to tears.
 

Many church members shared this staffer’s sentiments and demonstrated their compassion by supporting him in court, lending him money, and helping him move out of his condominium in Fairfax. Such actions were extremely hurtful to DeVries’ victims, who had not yet come forward to reveal that they, too, had been harmed by their youth leader.
 

Perhaps the worst part of this sordid tale is that some church members blamed the girls by alleging that they threw themselves at their youth leader and that it would have been extremely difficult for a young man to avoid such temptations. YOUNG MAN? DeVries was over 30 years old!!!
 

Furthermore, church officials failed the victims by not asking enough questions when DeVries was caught and abruptly fired. Not only that, church leaders ignored one girl who tried to come forward with information, and they made it difficult for others to report what had happened.
 

BLAME THE VICTIM seemed to be the attitude of a good number of VPC members.
 

 

THE HEALING PROCESS
 

Fortunately for the church, this tragic situation which came to a head three years earlier was about to take a positive turn. In November 2008 David Jordan-Haas was hired as an Associate Pastor at Vienna Presbyterian Church. When Jordan-Haas was told of the problems the church had experienced, he began to ask questions. He soon realized that this serious matter had been swept under the rug in an effort for the church to move forward. Not only that, there was the very real possibility that there were other victims. It appeared to him that there were young women and their families, who were still wounded or just beginning to acknowledge their awful pain.
 

This new set of eyes was able to recognize the tremendous damage that had been done to the congregation in the aftermath of the DeVries debacle.
 

In our upcoming post we will reveal a most surprising conclusion that has greatly encouraged us.

 

Lydia's Corner: Joshua 5:1-7:15 Luke 15:1-32 Psalm 81:1-16 Proverbs 13:1

 

Comments

Vienna Presbyterian Church Rocked by Sex Abuse Scandal — 24 Comments

  1. Virginia’s court case records are online and I can’t find where Eric Devries was charged with anything in Fairfax County? Other than a traffic ticket? Unless it went straight to Circuit court–Fairfax County is one of the only counties in VA not in the Circuit Court database. I checked a couple of surrounding counties too (Arlington and Loudoun and Fairfax City) and can’t find anything then a few traffic violations.

    Obviously he deserved to be charged….just wondering why the info isn’t there?

  2. Oh– and did you know that Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, NH was featured on 20/20 last night?

  3. Oops–sorry for another post but I am guessing it must have gone straight to Circuit Court and skipped the District court phase and that’s why the records aren’t online.

  4. Did anyone watch 20/20 last night, as Anony has mentioned? Unfortunately, I did not.

    Here’s what was broadcast.

    http://blogs.abcnews.com/pressroom/2011/04/a-religious-sub-culture-many-americans-have-never-heard-of-yet-has-thousands-of-churches-across-the-.html

    Elizabeth Vargas’ Yearlong Investigation Into The Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, Airs On “20/20,” Friday, April 8, 10-11 PM ET

    “Try to imagine the pain and humiliation of a teenage girl, just 16 years old, who says she was forced to stand in front of a New Hampshire church congregation and confess her “sin” of being pregnant. She says not only was she forced to confess her pregnancy, but also to ask for their forgiveness – with no mention of the man she says sexually abused her. After all, she says, the pastor told her it’s better than being stoned to death as the bible describes. That is what Tina Anderson alleged happened to her at her ultra conservative Independent Fundamental Baptist, or IFB, Church. The IFB has thousands of congregations across the country, but many people have never heard of it. That was, until another woman, Jocelyn Zichterman, began a public campaign – armed with nothing but a computer and memories of her own alleged abuse that she says church beliefs can foster. And survivors are now coming out of the woodwork, to say she’s not alone.

    Elizabeth Vargas’ yearlong exclusive investigation into a religious sub-culture that critics claim can foster – even cover up – physical and sexual abuse airs on “20/20” on FRIDAY, APRIL 8 (10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET) on the ABC Television Network. Critics say the church teaches a strict interpretation of the bible including the practice known as breaking the will of the child, with some advocating that it even be applied to infants as young as two weeks old.

    “I had a decision to make that either I was going to kind of curl up in the corner and be quiet or I was going to stand up for my family and tell the truth,” says Jocelyn Zichterman.”

    Anyone care to chime in?

  5. “In our upcoming post we will reveal a most surprising conclusion that has greatly encouraged us.”

    I can tell you what happened. It’s here in this Washington Post article from April 2. Dee’s article above is taken from the Washington Post article with no credit given. I was under the impression Dee had written this for herself. She might have reworked the wording, but her post above is so clearly the article from the Washington Post it isn’t funny. If credit had been given I don’t think it would have been a problem but Dee passed this work off as her own. Why am I not surprised?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/vienna-presbyterian-church-works-to-overcome-revelations-of-sexual-abuse/2011/03/30/AF3hNxQC_story_1.html

  6. Plagiarized?,

    Yes, the information I am sharing came from the Washington Post article, and when I finish telling the story on Monday, we will provide the link to the article and give the reporter ALL the credit. It’s just too much material to include in one post.

  7. Plagiarized

    You are correct. Deb did not provide the link to the article. She was intending on doing so on Monday after she finished telling the story. She looked at this story as a whole as opposed to three separate posts. She wanted to tell a tale and then provide background. The intent was storytelling but on the Internet one must look at each posts as a stand alone. TWW apologizes for our naivete. Its called live and learn. Thank you for your concern. It is helpful. You are like a Berean-which is a major compliment from us. We are immediately correcting the posts.

  8. As an attorney, I have worked with churches to investigate complaints and determine whether there are other victims. Then to organize a healing process for the victims and congregation. Keep in mind that there are risks of significant liability to the church if due diligence was not performed in hiring, or if the church was involved in a cover-up and there was a subsequent event, or if, without solid evidentiary foundation, the church makes a statement about a former staff member that they cannot prove. So it is important that churches be very careful in how they go about the whole process.

    Churches tend to be either very forgiving or very judgmental and punitive. Either taken too far is dangerous. Most professionals who have dealt with sexual exploitation cases recommend strongly against any attempt at restoration by the church in which the exploitation took place. Before restoration to membership at the church or to the ministry, the offender must have: (1) dealt with the civil authorities and completed any requirements there, (2) spent a minimum of 12 (usually 24) months in regular counseling with a licensed counselor with experience in counseling perpetrators of sexual exploitation, (3) have completely and fully confessed and apologized to the church and the victims and their families (separately, please).

    If the exploitation involves those under the legal age of consent in the jurisdiction, the offender should never be returned to ministry, with the possible exception of a ministry to prisoners.

    Returning the offender to ministry in the congregation where the exploitation occurs, following a confession to the leadership, and no other actions, is almost always the prelude to another offense AND creates a huge liability for the church.

    Any sexual relationship between a minister and a non-adult is exploitation and an offense, regardless of the behavior of the young person below the age of consent, and the behavior of the young person should not even be raised or discussed in dealing with the minister. (Perhaps, after that is resolved, some educational activities for the youth in the church may be appropriate regarding how to protect themselves and their friends from sexual exploitation).

    Any sexual relationship between a minister and a church staff person subordinate to them is exploitation. Any sexual relationship between a minister and a person being or having been counseled is exploitation. Any sexual relationship between a minister and a member that is not that minister’s spouse is exploitation. All should result in termination of the minister from the employ of the church.

  9. Thank you for this link. Perhaps we can write bout it next week. I have read a book called Schizophrenic Christianity which deals with the subject of abuse in the IFB and it was most distressing.

  10. Arce

    Your explanation of the steps involved is very thorough. It is interesting that most churches, when confronted with this issue, go into protective mode and often blame the victim. One church I know got a team of lawyers together to do damage control in this fashion. In the long run, it almost always harms the church.

    I find that the pastors, when confronted by a situation that involves a pastor or pastoral candidate, often circle around the pastors, rarely believing the victim. I knew of one group which intimated that they knew the pastor a lot better than the kid so the pastor got preference in the belief department. It is amazing to me that church members do not believe that pastors could be guilty of nay great sin. It shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sin.

    Also, once the cat is out of the bag, many pastors, etc go into “let’s restore” him mode showing a complete lack of understanding about the complexities of this sort of problem. They believe it was a short term “issue” and Jesus will heal it right away. I guess they overlook the issues with addictions and also the fact the God did not elect to heal Paul of his “thorn in the side.”

  11. Anony

    Thank you for this information. I wonder if there is a you tube on the matter matter so we can post a video. I will check into it.

  12. @Anony – Actually, given the nature of the offense, DeVries may have been charged in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. That court’s records aren’t online at all and many of them are sealed, though certain classes of cases involving adults can be accessed in person by the public at the courthouse. I’m not familiar with Fairfax specifically, but through my job, I’ve dealt with the courts in other parts of Virginia.

    One thing about this story makes me really curious, though. I’m glad the church is finding its way toward healing. However, when all these new victims were discovered, I wonder why DeVries wasn’t charged again? If I recall correctly, Virginia has no statute of limitations on felonies.

  13. Thank you for clarifying that you indeed got your material from the Washington Post article.

  14. As a pastor I am feeling a little intimidated here lol. Unfortunately, I have confronted problems in the church. I must say I do not think the pastor should be looked on as someone who is not to be questioned or doubted under any circumstance. Pastors should not allow themselves to be considered infallible. We all want respect but it should be earned not given because of what our title is. I didn’t see 20/20 last evening but am very familiar with the group of churches that pride themselves that they only use the KJV version of the Bible and believe it unreserveably from “from cover to cover”. There is a modicum of sincerity and devotion to what they believe. However, here we have again what I would consider to be a maverick church. Incidentally, the Greek word from which we get the word we use as church more simply means a gathering for a specific reason. It is used this way particularly in te book of Acts. I lean to the “Bride of Christ” which includes only those whom the Lord knows as forgiven sinners with a consecration to The Heavenly Father. I have a story to tell that happened in a church I was pastoring and I learned a valuable lesson from it. Sometimes I wish I could be a neophyte again when I believed that everyone was saved who attended church and if they weren’t they would accept Christ after they heard what I was preaching. I look back at my naivete and wonder how I could have been so stupid. Now I am so sad at what is happening in the name of Christ.

  15. “I am so sad at what is happening in the name of Christ.”

    Yes. This is happening in the name of Christ. So horrifically wrong. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the most culpable of all are not the abusers, but those of us who turn a blind eye. We are the ones that allow this evil to go on and on and on. Why would anyone want to be a Christian when this is what the church is like? We must rise up and follow our consciences and not be controlled/silenced by our “spiritual authorities”.

  16. Plagiarized?

    Thank you for calling us out on this. We do make mistakes, especially in haste. We appreciate the input from people who seek after truth. We need the priesthood to hold us accountable. May God bless you

  17. Plagiarized?,

    I am so grateful to both The Washington Post and Vienna Presbyterian Church for publicizing what happened at the church. We are a faith watch blog that focuses quite a bit on abuse that occurs in the church, and the information presented in that article will bring hope to others who have been victimized and have never been vindicated.

    I know many of our readers will be encouraged by the information in this article, and that’s why I wanted to share it with them.

    Blessings to you.

  18. Amy

    In my experience, sometimes the victims will not press charges down the years because they have gone on. We need to help the victim to see that they will help other by speaking out.

  19. BOjac

    So….. Can we get u tell ur story? Perhaps as a post? U could email it to us and we could do it up right with picture and quote. No pressure.

  20. KC

    You are right. We need to be vigilant. However some first come into a church in which they are taught to be passive. It usually takes a negative incident to wake people up. That is what we are trying to do here. We write about the issues so Christians can open up their eyes before they have to experience things like we, as well as others, have. My philosophy- Never let a bad church incident go to waste. ;)

  21. IFB backward is BFI, a municipal and industrial waste hauling and disposal company. One cleans up other people’s messes; the other messes up people’s lives.