A vague Presbyterian sexual-abuse scandal

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Is not the bigger story here the possible undercovered sotry of sexual abuse in this Faith community of the DC area.

    If you are correct and the article has a typo the man seems to be saying that 40 out of 108 CHurches have had to deal with sexual abuse problems.

    The article is also interesting because it shows that at least in Protestant circles the covering of sex abuse gets more difficult because of the blurry line between the ordaind and the non ordained. In some place when I have seen this covered “Youth Minister” falls off and its just Church employee

  • http://blog.gajunkie.com Steve Salyards

    TMatt – Very good analysis!

    Thanks for picking up the “akin” to a bishop reference. Even using the term bishop get the blood pressure up for hard-core Presbyterians.

    One polity point in this is the question of the exact ecclesiastical status of the youth worker. It is pretty clear that he was not an ordained minister, but may have carried a title like “youth minister” instead of “youth director.” (Or there may be media references to that.) If truly an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament (technical term) the presbytery has an obligation to act. If an employee of the church in a non-ordained position the church is the responsible party and the presbytery plays a supporting role.

    Thanks also for the clarification from the AP Stylebook. Your correct usage of the acronym on second usage does raise one of my complaints with the AP guide. AP has PCUSA as the acronym but the denomination uses PC(USA). Those of us that write about Presbyterian history use the latter for the present mainline and the former for the church 100 years ago and before to distinguish the two.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    As a Calvin grad and someone raised in the PC(USA), I’m disgusted by what this person – and church – did.
    I think this story is a good start, but it definitely deserves a follow-up.
    However, when minors are involved, you shouldn’t call it a “sex scandal” – that makes it sound like the victims consented, when legally a lot of them probably couldn’t (depending on their age).

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Cathy:

    You are absolute right. It was a headline length issue and I changed the headline….

  • Xander

    I, too, noted the “akin to bishop” reference. Given the construction of the sentence, it was hard to tell whether the writer was saying that the general presbyter is akin to a bishop or that the presbytery (or “region” as it is called) is akin to a bishop. I noted this only because while the former assertion is certainly not accurate, many Presbyterian polity wonks would indeed say that a presbytery functions as a corporate bishop of sorts.

    In that same vein, I was also interested that there were several reference to “church elders,” with one reference to “Session.” (The reference to “Session” particularly caught my eye — while the correct usage would be “the Session,” the reality is that many Presbyterians refer to it simply as “Session.”) Elder is one of those words that can have different meanings in different religious communities. There was nothing here that clued a reader in that “church elders” and “Session” referred to the same group of people.

  • Eileen

    As a Calvin grad and as a “De Vries” I am so saddened by what apppears to have happened here. However, I am also saddened that the article seems to besmirk Calvin College and all with the DeVries name. Common sense should note that the college one attended does not cause a person to do what this young man is accused of doing. In the Dutch culture De Vries is the most common surname. There are thousands of us. Just because this person is a “De Vries” does not mean that all those other De Vries persons connected with Calvin or the Christian Reformed Church should be tarred and feathered. May justice and mercy prevail.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Eileen:

    My post does not have anything to do with criticizing Calvin or the wider DeVries world. I only made that point to note that this may not be your typical PCUSA congregation. Of course his college had nothing to do with his actions.

  • Xander

    TMatt,

    For what it’s worth, as someone in what I think is likely a fairly typical, middle-of-the-road PC(USA) congregation and familiar with many PC(USA) congregations, I don’t think the Calvin College connection seems at all unusual. Perhaps that’s because we have had numerous former Christian Reformed and Calvin College folks among us, both as members and as staff, over the years (the closest CRC congregation is hours away), but that aspect of the story didn’t strike me as atypical for a Prebyterian congregation in an urban area, nor did I read it as a clue as to where Vienna Pres falls in the liberal-to-conservative spectrum.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Xander:

    And that is interesting in and of itself, for any reporters looking at the evolution of the CRC. You think?

  • Xander

    Possibly so, TMatt. I think I see more CRC-PC(USA) interaction and, perhaps for want of a better word, affinity than perhaps I did a few decades ago.

    By the way, it just occured to me that when our congregation was looking for a supplemental hymnal some years ago, we chose the one published jointly by the CRC, the Reformed Church in America and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship (at Calvin College) over the one published by the PC(USA)’s Geneva Press. As I said, I wouldn’t take that as any indication of the congregation’s theological leanings.

    FWIW.

  • Tim

    Interesting metaphorical use of “Mecca” in a Christian context. I find this blog insightful. Keep up the good work.

  • W.Sulik

    Following up on Tim’s comment on “Mecca” in a Christian context – I am reminded of a time the magazine, Christianity Today referred to the Chicago area as “Vatican II.”

  • Julia

    AP has PCUSA as the acronym but the denomination uses PC(USA). Those of us that write about Presbyterian history use the latter for the present mainline and the former for the church 100 years ago and before to distinguish the two.

    Speaking of acronyms used by and for churches: why do people use RC when speaking of Catholics when we don’t use that acronym ourselves?

    You’ll see Catholic, Church of Rome, Latin Church, even Roman Catholic, but never RC to self-describe the church in the West in union with the Bishop of Rome. It is particularly jarring to see an individual member identified as an RC.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    Julia — I understand your frustration, and I understand that many Roman Catholics are sensitive about the use of those initials (and even, sometimes, the adjective “Roman’). And I don’t know what the AP stylebook, recommends, but I certainly hope it is “Roman Catholic.”

    But one answer to your question may lie the fact that the initials are sometimes used on the outdoor signs and even websites of Roman Catholic parishes. I’m not sure if the GR rules allow me to post a link, but I’ll try to show you one from St. Michael’s, Buffalo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dogbert10/3183098871/lightbox/

    Here’s a parish website from Scotland which includes the initials in its address: http://standrewsrclivingston.ning.com/

  • Charlie

    Tim, I attend a CRC congregation in New England. Many members have a connection to Calvin and Grand Rapids – and they often humorously refer to GR/Calvin as “Mecca.” Until recently, all pastors in the CRC had to be grads of Calvin Seminary.

  • Julia

    Rev. Church:

    Thanks. I’ve never seen that use of RC before. But at least the church in Buffalo used periods, indicating it was initials and not an acronym.

    The one is Scotland is probably influenced by the common use of RC by the majority Presbyterians in Scotland and the majority Anglicans in England and Wales.

    I’m 66 and I never see Catholics refer to themselves as RCs in print or in speaking.

  • IWasThere

    I attended VPC at the time of this scandal. And I knew Eric and others mentioned quite well. There’s a lot of info not covered here.


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