Vienna Presbyterian Church 'Unprepared' To Recognize Or Report Sexual Abuse, Study Says
Report by Session Special Committee details missteps by current and former staff, during and after tenure of youth director
When Eric De Vries was forced to resign from the Vienna Presbyterian Church in 2005, its lay-led governing body, the Session, knew almost nothing about the extent of the former youth director's sexual abuse.
It did not know that several more young women came forward with stories of abuse after the first case was reported in 2005; that the church supported those survivors by paying for their therapy; or that in the years that followed, the staff had not received sexual abuse training or reviewed or revised its Child Protection Policy.
The discoveries, among others, were detailed to about 125 church members Wednesday night in a self-study of the situation titled "Understanding the Past to Inform the Future: Learning What Happened During and After Eric De Vries," conducted by a Session special committee.
Though the Session was largely uninformed of the mistakes made in the wake of De Vries' departure, Bill Carter, a Session member who led the study, said everyone at the church has made missteps in the past six years.
"What happened here is very disturbing, and may God have mercy on all of us because all of us participated in some way," said Carter, a 43-year church member. "We conducted this study to make sure youth are safer at our church than [they were in] the past. And for the survivors and the church to heal, we have to seek and speak the truth.”
De Vries, who had worked for a handful of years as the church's student ministries director, was asked to resign in September 2005 as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct against a 17-year-old female parishioner.
At that time, the Session was told De Vries confessed to Pastor Peter James and former Executive Director Dick Eagan that he had "crossed boundaries" of proper behavior with a 17-year-old parishioner, whose 15-year-old sister first reported the abuse to a junior staff member, Carter said. It wasn't clear when that initial report occurred, Carter said.
When asked directly if he had any other improper relationships, De Vries named two other students, admitting "limited improprieties," Carter said.
But that’s about all the Session knew until 2009, according to the report.
What they should have known, according to the church's study, was:
- Child Protective Services was notified about the older sister, but never about the other two girls with whom De Vries admitted having a relationship.
- The charges that were filed against De Vries and led to his misdemeanor conviction were related only to the initial 17-year-old parishioner.
The Session was told that the matter had been turned over to civil authorizes for further action, including specifically Child Protection Services and Fairfax County Police. It's not clear when that actually happened, Carter said.
"It is fair to say that most of us assumed at the time that proper notifications had been made," Carter said.
Eagan, who joined the church staff in June 2005, stepped down from his position May 31, a move requested by church leadership after it reviewed the seven-month study May 16.
The report detailed missteps by several staff members between 2006 and 2011, but named the former executive director in several of them, including:
- In 2007, he traveled to the De Vries home in the Midwest for an "in-person visit" to request De Vries shut down a Facebook account he had used to continue contact with youth at the Vienna church.
- He showed a "lack of sensitivity."
- There were "inconsistencies in leadership." The study said responses to various survivors were inconsistent, and some staff members interpreted one of his comments — that the church needed to "push the reset button on Mr. De Vries" — to mean, "don’t talk about it."
- He inaccurately reported to the Session that church staff had been trained and inaccurately reported that the Child Protection Policy had been reviewed and revised. Reached after the meeting, Carter said “NewSpring Ministry [group formed by Session to address this issue] was told that we had up-to-date and fully implemented child protection policies then. Session was told in November 2010 that all staff and volunteers were trained.”
- The Session also discussed Senior Pastor James’ fitness to continue serving in his position, upon his request. They asked him to continue in his position because they believe his leadership of the congregation is in the church's best interest. James publicly acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes in the De Vries case, Carter said, and had a different job description than Eagan's.
Both James and Eagan knew of the other women who came forward to report De Vries' abuse, as well as the therapy sessions, and chose not to report it to the Session because of confidentiality issues, James said.
The report also found that there was another sexual harassment allegation leveled by a VPC staff member in 2007; and that one survivor contacted the Presbyterian Church at the local—National Capital Presbytery—and national office via email with a plea for help that yielded no direct response.
The "clear root cause" of the De Vries situation, according to the presentation, was the church was not equipped to deal with cases of sexual abuse or misconduct.
- The Church had no educational plan in place to deal with sexual abuse; "It is unfair to assume that untrained individuals should have been able to identify the abuse," Carter said.
- Poor decision-making occurred, such as allowing De Vries to address the youth upon his resignation. "The congregational awareness of De Vries’ evil was minimized by vague official statements which contributed to uninformed, harmful speculation within the adult congregation, staff and youth," the report said.
- VPC’s safety and security plan had not been implemented and purchased security technology was not in use.
The study emphasized the women who reported the abuse should not be blamed for the distrust of staff leaders and the division of the church's community that followed De Vries' resignation.
"It is urgent and critical that all VPC leaders, members, staff extinguish any residual misperception about faulting the survivors," it said. "Blaming the women is uninformed, careless and very harmful to those abused."
Wednesday was the first time the results of the volunteer-led study were revealed to the congregation. Survivors and their families were able to review the report, but could not keep copies. No copies of the report were given at the meeting; findings were presented in a PowerPoint presentation.
Patch requested a copy of the report; Session members said it would require a Session resolution.
After the report presentation, a member read a letter from a mother of a survivor, who could not attend the meeting.
In the letter, the mother pleaded with her fellow parishioners to "believe and honor the people disclosing the abuse and to pursue justice with the law."
Read the full letter by following the link above.
Questions from the audience were numerous and heartfelt. Sarah Verley, the sister of a survivor, spoke about her anger at adults in the church who withheld information. Several members publicly defended Eagan and his service. Others noted the importance of communicating to the National Capital Presbytery and beyond the struggles and the lessons learned so more people learn from the "painful" experience.
When contacted about the study, the National Capital Presbytery said it did not know about the session’s report.
Carter said the Session is forming a new Child and Youth Protection Committee to assist them in oversight of VPC's transition to a "Model Safe Church." Volunteers on the committee will include mental health professionals, lawyers and teachers, who work collaboratively with VPC staff and outside organizations like Fairfax County Child Protective Services, Carter said.
Membership will be announced later this summer.
Carter also said the Session would study how it can improve collaboration and communication — not just about child protection but in all areas — with the help of an outside consultant to be hired later this summer.
Moving forward, the NewSpring Ministry, with the approval of the Session, will be introducing the VIRTUS ("VEER-toos") program, Protecting All Children, created by the National Catholic Group.
Members of Session, deacons and church leadership participated in an in-depth, customized training session on sexual abuse including elements of the Protecting God’s Children program in March 2011. Adult volunteers with Children’s and Student Ministries and interested congregational members will have the opportunity to participate in the VIRTUS Pilot Program in the summer of 2011.
By the fall of 2011, all volunteers in children’s and student ministries will be required to enroll in the Protecting God’s Children Training, before Sunday school and student ministry programs begin. The Safe-Touch curriculum will also be implemented in the fall for children in grades K through 12.
"The point of instruction for our church and other churches who may find themselves in the sad situation in the future is that CPS should do the entire investigation, not the individual church officials, whenever there is even a suspicion of abuse," Carter said. "We know we should have recognized the serious nature of the report and reported it to CPS sooner."
For a timeline of the various incidents related to sexual abuse cases at Vienna Presbyterian over the past 10 years, click on the PDF in the media player above.