Vienna Presbyterian Church forces out executive director in wake of abuse cases
By Josh White,
Vienna Presbyterian Church leaders have forced the resignation of their executive director following recent revelations about a former youth director who allegedly abused teenage girls there.
Dick Eagan, who had run the large and affluent church’s day-to-day operations since June 2005, was asked to leave effective May 31. Eagan was hired just months before former youth director Eric DeVries was dismissed amid allegations of abuse, but church leaders said Eagan appeared to mask the extent of the problem and was later insensitive to additional reports of sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse.
The resignation came two months after Pastor Peter James gave a public sermon about the effects of DeVries’s actions and apologized to the young women who were lured into sexual contact between 2001 and 2005. James has said he and others failed to adequately address the abuse and allowed the issue to fester for years, even as more victims came forward.
A Washington Post investigation published in April found at least five victims of abuse, and church officials have estimated there are as many as a dozen linked to DeVries. In an interview with the Post, DeVries acknowledged that he had inappropriate relationships with several girls and said he regretted any harm he caused.
Eagan’s departure is one part of a series of changes underway at Vienna Presbyterian as it strives to become a “model safe church” that works to prevent abuse and embrace those who have suffered as a result of it, James said. The church has instituted training, security and awareness programs, and church leaders have been trying to identify those who were abused so they can offer healing and support.
“We’re working really, really hard, but it’s not without some blood on the floor,” James said. “We have the chance now to be a safe place, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. It has that potential. It’s still tender. It’s still new. We’re pedaling as fast as we can.”
Eagan, 63 and a member of the church for 25 years, said in an interview that he agrees that the church needs new leadership. He said he believes the church needs to find someone who can offer pastoral care as well as run an organization with a $5 million annual budget.
A career organizational developer who was asked to take the job on an interim basis, Eagan said he was shocked to learn of the abuse then and did not know how to handle it.
“I knew nothing about the dynamics or how complex the problem was,” Eagan said. “Where I missed it was the sensitivity. We knew what we knew when we knew it, and we did the best we could do.”
Eagan said that he came to terms just last year with the breadth of the problem and that he is angered and frustrated by what DeVries’s alleged actions have done to the church.
“We were all in the same boat together,” Eagan said. “I was lied to, I was manipulated, just like everyone else. It was all horrible.”
Eagan, according to some of the young women interviewed by the Post and others within the church, appeared to suppress reports of abuse and, at times, appeared to be blaming the girls for what happened.
“Dick really was protecting Eric,” said the mother of one of the victims, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter’s identity. “It was a concerted effort to protect him and the church.”
A church committee found that “Mr. Eagan’s personal handling of these and related matters were at times highly offensive and inappropriate,” according to a report that in recent days went to the church’s leadership. Church “staff members consistently report that questions about Mr. DeVries were met by Mr. Eagan with the phrase, ‘People, it is time to push the reset button on Mr. DeVries.’ ”
Eagan said that he used similar language but that his message must have been misunderstood.
“I meant that we needed to clear our idea of who he was and accept the reality of what Eric did,” Eagan said. “My heart was and is with the survivors.”
Church officials said privately that they considered whether James should leave the church. But James’s public apologies and desire to learn from the incident protected his job.
“Dick was not the only person who made mistakes in the aftermath of the DeVries abuse,” James wrote in an open letter to the congregation. “Some of these errors belong to me.”
James said he has agonized over the issue for the past six months but feels a renewed calling. He said he hopes that Vienna Presbyterian can be a beacon for prevention of sexual abuse and the healing necessary for survivors.
“God has a greater mission for us here,” James said. “People are coming to us who are abuse survivors, and it’s a huge mission field with a lot of hurting people and families.”
The church is seeking redemption, working to address the broad issue of sexual misconduct through discussion, education and prevention.
“VPC was, and to a significant extent still is, unprepared to avoid, recognize, and deal with a sexual predator in our midst,” the church committee wrote.
The church is also reaching out to victims, hoping to start the healing process and encourage the truth to come out.
“I think they’re doing all they can, now,” said one of the victims. “VPC is a different place now than it was back then, and people are really trying to do what they can. They’re tiptoeing through it, but that’s better than ignoring it.”
Eagan said he sees a powerful force for good behind all that has happened.
“There is now a heightened level of awareness,” Eagan said. “We need to help people understand that there is no excuse not to be prepared.”