In this day of tight budgets and a shrinking supply of space in major newspapers, it says something when the editors of the Washington Post devote a giant chunk of A1 turf to a story about a church controversy. This was certainly the case with the recent story that ran under the headline, “Vienna Presbyterian Church seeks forgiveness, redemption in wake of abuse scandal.”
The story is, of course, about sex and, to be specific, sexual abuse of teens by an adult. It is also about the leaders of a wealthy, powerful church in the high-rent Northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., and their struggles to realize the seriousness of the scandal that quietly unfolded in their midst.
I get all of that. However, after reading all 4,000-plus words of this report and cannot figure out why the editors believed that the report needed to be so vague about the role of religion in this crisis and the beliefs of the people involved. In other words, it is a religion story that is hollow when it comes to religion and, in some cases, it ignores major details or gets them wrong. Maybe this was a job for professional religion writers?
I’ll try to keep this as short as possible, but we do need to start with the opening scene:
Pastor Peter James stood before his congregation at Vienna Presbyterian Church … and paused before giving one of the most difficult sermons of his life (.pdf).
Framed by the light coming through the sanctuary’s huge windows, James spoke of sexual abuse by a youth director, of the church’s shortcomings and of the tormenting darkness that has been eating away at the church for nearly six years. A row of young women sat in a back pew as James apologized for just recently learning that their ordeal was “far more devastating and horrific than we had imagined.”
“We failed as leaders to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed,” James said, publicly acknowledging the church’s failings for the first time. “Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed for this abuse. I am sorry. The church is sorry.”
James’s sermon — and a letter detailing the situation for the congregation’s more than 2,500 members in Northern Virginia’s affluent suburbs — comes as the church reels from the recent discovery that as many as a dozen teenage girls may have suffered sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse at the hands of a youth director who worked there from 2001 to 2005.
This is followed, in news feature form, by the “nut paragraph,” the summary statement of the big idea in this story:
The breadth of the accusations and the nature of them have shocked the relatively staid congregation and laid bare the kind of damage that can result from a combination of secretive predation, blind trust and a desire to move on without a full exploration of what really happened. It is the kind of tragedy that has affected churches across the country, and there’s no formula for how to deal with it. But Vienna Presbyterian leaders hope that shining light on their failings will lead to redemption, education and healing.
Reading on, I found it especially interesting that church elders brought this story to the Washington Post. The second I read that sentence, the first thing that popped into my head was this question: What kind of Presbyterian Church is this? After all, there are a wide variety of Presbyterian flocks in this nation.
As it turns out, the story never really tells us, even though that denominational identity is clear (if one digs) on the church’s website. In the story there are references to the “Presbyterian Church” and its structures, but we never find out that this is a prominent church in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of the seven sisters of liberal Protestantism. At the same time, this is a large and thriving congregation with prominent youth and children’s ministries. This particular church, in other words, has strange mainline Protestant demographics. Is it a more conservative, semi-evangelical PCUSA congregation? It is interesting to note that this church is an affiliate of the C.S. Lewis Institute, along with some other famous evangelical congregations in its region.
There is another logical reason to ask that question due to the name and background of the youth minister at the heart of this story — Eric DeVries. Here is how he is introduced:
DeVries arrived at Vienna Presbyterian Church in September 2001 after a stint as a residential director at his alma mater in Michigan, Calvin College. He had worked at a church in Alabama and at a Christian summer camp in Pennsylvania, and officials at Vienna Presbyterian said he came with glowing recommendations.
Shortly after his arrival, however, church officials said the staff at a Pennsylvania religious summer camp notified them that DeVries had inappropriate contact with a 14-year-old girl after the previous summer and that he would need counseling to return to the camp. They said they were never aware of any physical abuse, and DeVries said his contacts with the girl were limited to e-mails and text messages meant to boost her self-esteem.
It should be noted that Calvin College is one of the nation’s most prominent Christian institutions and, while it is way to simplistic to refer to this campus as “conservative,” it plays a highly symbolic, Mecca role for members of the conservative Christian Reformed Church. Veterans on the religion beat may also know that the campus includes more than its share of buildings and projects that carry the “DeVries” name. Do a Google search for “Calvin College” and “DeVries” and one gets 180,000 references.
Is this relevant? I have no idea, in large part because we have almost no idea what role religion, faith and beliefs played in this story. Is his “conservative” branding one of the reasons that DeVries was trusted?
There’s a bit more strangeness when the Post brings the local Presbyterian authorities into this matter. Check this out:
G. Wilson Gunn Jr., the general presbyter for the National Capital region — akin to a Catholic bishop — said he was not fully aware of the situation until a few weeks ago. He said that the Presbyterian Church has a solid sexual-abuse policy and teams of people who respond to such situations but that they were not called into action because Vienna Presbyterian appears to have tried to contain the issue within the church.
Gunn said a recent review of sex abuse cases showed that 40 of the 180 churches in his area have had to deal with the issue. He attended Sunday’s sermon and vowed to do whatever is necessary to reverse that trend.
First of all, one must note that this is “the Rev.” G. Wilson Gunn Jr., if one is following the Associated Press Stylebook. And, again, Gunn would be referring to the sexual-abuse policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as described in the same style manual. And, as a letter from Gunn to the Post notes, there are 108 churches in this region, not 180. I also highly doubt that any thinking Presbyterian leader would use the word “akin” in a comparison of the role or powers of a general presbyter and a Catholic bishop.
I also hear a kind of strangeness in this reference, when Gunn says that the PCUSA’s sexual-abuse experts “were not called into action because Vienna Presbyterian appears to have tried to contain the issue within the church.” So, what is the state of the relationship between this church and its presbytery?
So, is any of this information is essential to understanding the core issues in this event? I literally do not know.
Still, I think there are mistakes and holes in this report that make we uneasy. After all, sexual misconduct by Protestant youth ministers is — tragically — not that uncommon. Why such in-depth coverage of this story? Are there other issues at play and layers to this particular scandal? I get the big idea of this story and it is valid. However, is there more that we need to know? I sense that there is.