Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Responding in a Crisis: What ABWE Can Learn from Vienna Presbyterian Church

I have been watching with great interest how ABWE (the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism) would respond to a blog created by victims of sexual abuse in Bangladesh. The pedophilia was committed by a missionary doctor named Donn Ketcham. The story is long and heartbreaking, but the bottom line is this - ABWE did not make all the details of the abuse known publicly, and in the minds of many people, Donn Ketcham was able to get away with his crimes.

Since 2001, the victims of this pedophile have been trying to get ABWE to acknowledge what happened and respond appropriately. When those requests fell on deaf ears, the victims created a blog ... and a firestorm. Now, ABWE has finally agreed to an independent investigation. They have finally published the names of their board members.

However, even in recent months, their response in this crisis has been inconsistent and disappointing. There have been many times when their response has seemed much more like self-protection than repentance.

With this as a backdrop, I read with interest the article below that appeared on the cover of today's USA Today. Oh that ABWE would exhibit the same courage and faith that Vienna Presbyterian Church has. Throw caution to the wind and repent!

Church abuse cases and lawyers an uneasy mix
By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

IENNA, Va. — When officials at Vienna Presbyterian Church decided to acknowledge the church's failures in handling reports of sexual abuse by a youth ministries director, they thought it might upset some in the congregation.

Vienna Presbyterian has a new ministry to recognize and respond to sex abuse.

What surprised them was the admonishment from the church's insurance company. And it wasn't the church's lapses in responding to the abuse a half-decade ago that bothered the insurer — it was the church's plan to admit those lapses and apologize to the victims.

The insurance company's position was clear: On March 23, a lawyer hired by the company, GuideOne Insurance, sent a warning to church officials:

"Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit to or apologize for anything that may be evidence of or interpreted as (a suggestion that) the actions of Vienna Presbyterian Church … caused or contributed to any damages arising from the intentional acts/abuse/misconduct" by the youth director.

But in a letter sent to congregants the next day, the church's governing board, known as a Session, took a different course.

"Members of Staff and of Session are profoundly sorry that VPC's response after the abuse was discovered was not always helpful to those entrusted to our care," the letter said.

In a sermon the following Sunday, March 27, Pastor Peter James went further: "We won't hide behind lawyers. … Jesus said the truth will set us free."

Then, turning to a group of young women in the audience, he continued:

"Let me speak for a moment to our survivors," he said. "We, as church leaders, were part of the harm in failing to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed in this church. I am truly sorry … I regret the harm this neglect has caused you."

As churches nationwide struggle with disclosures of sexual abuse in their midst, many find inherent conflicts between the guidance they find in Scripture and the demands of the insurance companies and lawyers responsible for protecting them from legal claims.

Common religious tenets of atonement — admitting mistakes, accepting responsibility, apologizing — often run counter to the legal tenets of avoiding self-incrimination and preserving all avenues of defense against potential lawsuits.

"This sort of conflict is happening all the time," says Jack McCalmon, a lawyer whose company, the McCalmon Group, is hired by insurers to help churches set up abuse-prevention programs.

"The church is in the business of forgiveness, of being forthright and open and truthful, but that often creates liability in a world that's adversarial, in the judicial world," McCalmon says.

Meanwhile, he adds, insurers are in the business of limiting liability. "So, the insurance company has a contract with the church that says, 'If we're going to put our assets on the line, we want you to perform in a way that protects our assets and interests.'"

Church officials often face a wrenching dilemma: If they do what they feel is right in the eyes of God, they can put their church at risk of financial claims that could end its existence.

For the lawyers and insurers obligated to protect those churches, the decisions are equally difficult: If church officials make admissions that suggest liability for the damage caused by sexual abuse or other wrongdoing, the resulting claims could ravage the insurance company.

It's an issue that can fundamentally shape the way churches respond when they discover sexual abuse involving clergy or lay employees.

Since 2002, when reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston made national headlines, scores of churches have wrestled with similar problems.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against churches by people alleging sexual abuse by clergy or church employees. Jury awards and settlements have ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to
many millions.

In a 2007 case, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million to 500 people who alleged they were sexually abused by clergy.

It has been five years since the Vienna Presbyterian congregation got a letter from church officials saying they'd learned that Eric DeVries, student ministries director, had "crossed the boundary of emotional and physical propriety in his relationship with female students."

In the years since, there have been many painful conversations, but so far no lawsuits.
DeVries, hired in 2001, resigned in September 2005 amid allegations that he forged romantic relationships with female students. Church officials reported him to authorities upon learning of the conduct, and he was charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor, a felony.

He later pleaded guilty to the lesser, misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and received a 12-month suspended jail sentence.

The church community reacted with a mix of disbelief, confusion and repulsion.
Some supported DeVries, even writing character references for his sentencing hearing. And, as the pastor's sermon noted, the church did little in the years that followed to help the students who said DeVries had mistreated them.

In 2009, the church began to re-examine what went wrong.

It was through that process, Pastor James said in his March 27 sermon, that church officials "became aware that we were not caring adequately for the victims of Eric's abuse."

The church formed a new ministry to care for those women and is setting up a program to educate its community in preventing, recognizing and responding to sexual abuse. The discussions also led to the decision to acknowledge failures in responding to the abuse, apologize to victims, and recommit the church to their care.

In letters and e-mails, GuideOne and a lawyer it hired to defend the church against possible claims raised increasingly adamant concerns about Vienna Presbyterian's approach. Church officials who were handling that matter responded with increasingly adamant refusals to let legal interests steer their decisions.

Among other things, the correspondence shows, the church balked at the idea of defending potential lawsuits by invoking the two-year statute of limitations or raising questions about the sexual histories of women who might file claims.

The conflict intensified when GuideOne learned that church officials were cooperating with The Washington Post on a story about the church's failures — a course the insurance company's lawyer had warned against.

In a Feb. 10 letter, GuideOne reminded the church of its contractual obligation to "cooperate with us to the fullest extent reasonably necessary" in protecting against potential claims.

The church's actions "have impeded our right to investigate the claims and the future defense of this matter," the letter warned. "Any failure … to comply with the conditions of the policy will jeopardize any future coverage available to Vienna Presbyterian Church."

The church stuck to its plan.

"The directions from the insurance company and its lawyer were clear and possibly correct from a legal perspective," says Peter Sparber, who is on a panel of elders handling issues related to the abuse. "They did their job, but as elders, we had to do ours. We still have lots of work cleaning up the mess created by Eric DeVries, but not following their legal advice was a good start."

Officials at GuideOne declined interview requests.

"The situation with Vienna Presbyterian Church continues to evolve, and we have a policy to not comment on open claims," Sarah Buckley, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

Buckley noted that GuideOne offers clients extensive resources to help them respond to abuse cases. The company encourages churches to react with concern and compassion, report allegations to authorities, investigate and document all events, seek legal counsel, and encourage counseling for victims, she added.

But what happens when a church feels the need to do more — to apologize or accept some responsibility for the damage caused when one of its own emerges as a sexual abuser?

Satisfying those needs while shielding the church from liability "is the most delicate task of lawyering in this situation," says Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at the George Washington University Law School.

"It's not unusual for (church officials) to think they did something wrong because they feel grief or guilt for what happened, when in truth they might not be legally responsible," Tuttle adds.

This often results in discussions between the church, the insurer and its lawyers to "find a way for the church to express the sense of the wrongness of the conduct and to be sorry it happened without inappropriately taking legal responsibility."

Both the church and the insurer have an interest in avoiding a potentially devastating lawsuit, but that doesn't mean they can find common ground.

Clergy and legal experts who have been involved in such cases say churches often struggle with the notion that they should let concerns about legal liability dictate the terms on which they apologize or hold themselves accountable.

"For a church, doing what is right is informed by our understanding of what God would have us do, so there's a very clear standard, articulated in Scripture," says Monsignor Edward

Arsenault, president of the St. Luke Institute, a Catholic ministry in Silver Spring, Md., that offers mental health services to clergy.

Lawyers typically want to shape a church's response based on questions of intent and legal responsibility, says Arsenault, who has advised clergy struggling to chart a course in responding to abuse cases.

Churches, meanwhile, are more inclined to focus on concepts of "restorative justice," taking a more general, unencumbered view of what went wrong and how to make injured parties whole again.
'Do the right thing'

Ultimately, Arsenault adds, lawyers are advisers; the decisions clergy and congregants ultimately reach must be their own.

"I have dealt with instances where there was wrongdoing in the past and my church wanted to do the right thing, but a lawyer representing the insurance company said, 'No, you can't do that,'" Arsenault says. "My solution in that instance was, 'I'm going to do the right thing, and I believe you owe me coverage. And if you don't extend me coverage, I'm going to do it anyway, and then I'm going to come back and argue that you owe me coverage," after claims are settled.

But the risks of such a course are substantial: If a church loses its argument that its insurer is responsible for paying a claim, it could be left with a debt it can't afford. In a worst-case scenario, that could mean closing its doors.

There's no telling how often that sort of impasse occurs. Discussions between churches and their insurers on how to handle abuse cases are typically kept confidential, as are any resulting settlements.

In the case of Vienna Presbyterian, the church's decision to ignore the demands of GuideOne and its lawyer was as plain as The Washington Post's page 1 headline on the first Sunday of April: "A church seeking redemption; Riven by an abuse scandal, Vienna Presbyterian tries to do right by the women it says it failed."

Since the story ran, the rancorous discussion between the church and its insurer about potential liability has remained in limbo. And if no lawsuits are filed in connection with DeVries' abuse, it may never be resolved.

"We don't know what happens next," says Sparber, the church elder. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Bangladesh MK Blog
ABWE Responses


1 comment:

Wes Patterson said...

Perhaps BMM could also learn from them as ABWE should.

You may be interested in checking out this story I wrote on my blog about the cover up involving Baptist Mid-Missions and their having paid for the materials used in building an Islamic Mosque. My story is at

This happened in the late 1980's and BMM would not admit their mistakes at the time - mistakes involving this issue as well as other sinful and even criminal actions by BMM missionaries. However, I'm pressing them to do so now. I have already met with the Chairman of the General Council of BMM about this, but nothing has happened on their end as of yet.

Wes Patterson

I am a former MK from Bangladesh who also knew the ABWE missionaries and MKs in question in your article.