Vienna Presbyterian Church seeks forgiveness, redemption in wake of abuse scandal
By Josh White,
Pastor Peter James stood before his congregation at Vienna Presbyterian Church last Sunday and paused before giving one of the most difficult sermons of his life.
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.
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.
Concerned church elders approached The Washington Post recently as details of abuse began to emerge privately, and they have cooperated with a two-month Post investigation.
Five women and their families said in separate interviews that former youth director Eric DeVries infiltrated their lives and manipulated the girls into what they thought were mutual romantic relationships. They said he drew them in as a trusted mentor, friend and Christian role model before professing his love, saying that he wanted to marry them, imploring them to keep the relationship secret and then progressively increasing sexual contact as they approached adulthood.
DeVries, then in his early 30s, maintained simultaneous relationships with several girls, some of them sets of sisters and best friends, according to the interviews with the women. He took them to concerts, community service events, mission trips and camps out of state and out of the country, stealing private moments after chaperons had gone to sleep or when he thought no one was looking. Instances of abuse took place in a girl’s home, in the church’s minivan and in DeVries’s church office, according to the women and their families.
The girls — now young women — said one of the most damaging aspects was that DeVries made them think the relationships were real, bolstering his declarations of love with Scripture that he said made everything okay.
Now in therapy, several of the women said they have persistent trouble with relationships, seeking to re-create a fantasy that came to an end only when DeVries was publicly accused of abusing one girl. He was forced to resign, pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and then left the area in late 2005.
“He was fulfilling the idea of my ideal and was validating that it was real,” said Rebecca Verley, now 23, who said she was abused during her teen years. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sex abuse, but Verley and another victim agreed to speak openly. “I didn’t tell anyone because I thought people would look down on me.”
The victims now say church officials failed them by asking few questions when trouble arose six years ago, ignoring at least one of them when she tried to come forward and making it difficult for the others to report what had happened. Church members supported DeVries in court, lent him money, helped him move out of his Fairfax condominium. Members of the church community said some even blamed the girls, saying that they threw themselves at him and that it would be difficult for a young man to avoid such temptation.
Now, the young women want the church to reach out to other potential victims, seek restoration and make changes so events do not repeat themselves. They think the church let them down by treating the abuse as isolated, ignoring what later became an insidious problem and allowing rumors and speculation to trump fact.
The healing process began in late 2008 with the arrival of Associate Pastor David Jordan-Haas, who recognized the damage and sought to correct it. The church formed a new abuse outreach ministry in 2009 and last year, for the first time, heard the full story of one of the women. Since then, the church has been reaching out to all victims and, last week, made the situation public.
Jordan-Haas thinks the church is heading in the right direction after experiencing a “calculated and evil” deception made worse by complacency.
“We really seek to change, institutionally and relationally, and that comes at a cost,” Jordan-Haas said. “There is still something hopeful here, and that brings me great relief. It is good when we bring the darkness into the light.”
DeVries, now 39 and living in the northwest Indiana suburbs of Chicago, said in an interview that he had “inappropriate and immoral” relationships with three of the girls but declined to discuss specifics. He said that he understands it was wrong of him and that he regrets what he has done to the church.
“I hurt people in the whole congregation, and people think of me and they think I’m a horrible person,” DeVries said. “I still have nightmares, knowing I hurt so many people.”
At Sunday’s service, James said the church is not a museum for saints but rather a hospital for sinners, declaring that hypocrites are everywhere and that DeVries was just a particularly dangerous and devious one. But he also said the church has avoided the truth for too long, and speaking directly to God he said the church would continue to seek it out and deal with it openly.
“This awful truth is hard to admit to you and to ourselves,” James said. “We have imagined ourselves to be too refined and too sophisticated and too prosperous to admit this to you. We have failed to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you.”
‘The lines were
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.
Daryl Wright, who was then the interim youth director at the church and is still on staff there, said he spoke to DeVries, who brushed it off as a misunderstanding.
“I made two very significant errors,” Wright said. “I did not ask the question about whether this incident could be part of a larger picture. The second question I didn’t ask was should somebody who obviously crosses a boundary working with a young girl ever be employed as a full-time youth director?”
DeVries settled in quickly, and parents and church leaders saw that he was particularly good at relating to the teenagers they hoped would someday form the core of the church. The youth group thrived, and DeVries created an energy and enthusiasm that led to growing numbers.
Cindy Hamblen met DeVries in the spring of 2002, when her parents hosted a pool party for the youth group at their Vienna home. Hamblen said DeVries, then about 30 years old, started to pay a lot of attention to her at Sunday school. She was 17.
“The attention I was getting was so great,” said Hamblen, now 26 and an elementary school teacher. Hamblen agreed to speak openly about what happened and has shared her story with senior church leaders. “He would treat me like an adult. He would tell dirty jokes. He would talk about sex all the time. He was fascinated by sex.”
Over the course of her senior year, Hamblen said, DeVries groomed her for a relationship.
“I was in love with an idea, this being that he created,” Hamblen said. “But that wasn’t him. He created this idea for so many people.”
During a youth group ski trip in early 2003, just before her 18th birthday, she said, the two were reading a sex-tip list in Cosmopolitan magazine while lying under a blanket.
“He was going down the list saying, ‘I’d like to do that to you. How would that feel? Would you do that to me?’ ” Hamblen said. “The lines were so blurred. Even when the youth-director hat was on, he was still making moves. He made it seem like he was helping my faith, making me a better person. It turned out he was using my faith to take advantage of me.”
On that ski trip, a younger girl took a prescription narcotic to help relieve pain. When that student nearly passed out and needed to be carried to her room, Hamblen said, DeVries started to undress her and tried to remove her bra.
Hamblen said she had to pull the girl into the bathroom to prevent it from going further. That girl, who has asked that her name not be used, also described a lengthy grooming process and sexual and psychological abuse.
The next month, three days after Hamblen’s 18th birthday, DeVries invited Hamblen to a romantic Valentine’s Day rendezvous at his home.
“He made a more serious sexual move at that point,” Hamblen said. “The fact that he groomed me and waited for me to turn 18 just heightens the abuse. If it had happened 72 hours earlier, would anyone look at it differently?”
Hamblen said DeVries taught her how to be deceptive and led her to lie to her family. She said she concealed meetings with him, was arrested at a Jimmy Buffett concert after he encouraged her to get alcohol while underage and gave her the impression that they had a future together.
Sue Hamblen, Cindy’s mother, has been actively involved in the church and is on the staff there. She said she thought DeVries had a good perspective about children and related well to them.
“It eats me alive what happened on my watch,” Sue Hamblen said. “And I didn’t see it, and I didn’t stop it.”
While DeVries was in a physically romantic relationship with Cindy Hamblen, he also aggressively pursued other teenagers in the youth group, according to the women, including the girl whom he nearly undressed on the ski trip. In the summer of 2003, she said, DeVries bought her beer at a minor league baseball game in North Carolina and was professing love for her at a two-week camp in Pennsylvania.
“He said that we had something very special and that if he had a ring he would marry me right now,” said the woman, now 23. “I was elated.”
According to a journal entry the woman made on Aug. 24, 2003, DeVries invited her into his office and read a passage from Genesis that speaks of Jacob waiting seven years to marry Rachel because his love for her was so strong. She was 15 at the time.
From there, she said, it escalated into massages, cuddling on out-of-state trips, and groping under a blanket on a flight back from a trip to Mexico, with other church members sitting around them. He would send notes on index cards hinting at a deep connection and a future with him.
“I was psychologically manipulated and would have done anything he wanted,” she said. “I was under a spell.”
Verley, 23, likewise fell under a spell while she was 16. In June 2004, DeVries sat with her while watching “Terminator 3” at a party and began stroking her arm. He later commented that she had smooth skin and started sending her texts in which he signed off, “Love, Eric.”
In September 2004, DeVries took Verley and others to a Toby Keith concert in Prince William County. In the church van in the parking lot after the show — a vehicle students named “Nigel” — she said DeVries climbed into the back and snuggled with her, putting his arm around her bare midriff.
Months later, in early 2005, DeVries became only the second person Verley had ever kissed, in his church office. She said he also groped her in a broom closet. He would text her about how he was thinking about kissing her. Later, when she was 17, he spelled out what his sexual boundaries were.
Those boundaries were explored with another girl, who declined through family members to speak with The Post. The victim’s sister, however, described how DeVries slowly worked his way into their family — becoming so close that they gave him a key to their house — and ultimately spent several nights a week on the couch with her sister until after midnight.
It became clear to her what was going on. Then 15 years old, the girl started spying on her older sister, checking out her cellphone and following DeVries.
“She was under the impression she was going to marry him,” said the sister, now a 21-year-old college student. The Post is not identifying her in order to protect the family’s identity. “But I saw him being close with other girls, and I followed him around and told him that I knew. . . . I was obsessed with figuring him out.”
In September 2005, she found explicit sexual images that DeVries sent to her sister’s phone and went to the church to report the relationship.
‘We ignored it,
the church ignored it’
James, the senior pastor, said he was shocked to hear that his youth director could be involved in inappropriate behavior. Thinking he was doing the right thing, he asked the 15-year-old into a meeting with DeVries to confront him. The girl bawled through most of it and told of her sister’s texts and photos.
DeVries did not deny that he had acted inappropriately but said only that he had kissed the girl. In a later meeting involving the victim, her family and DeVries, the victim also said that was the extent of it, though in reality the relationship had become far more physical, according to her sister and law enforcement officials.
“I didn’t know what was going on other than he had crossed boundaries,” James said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t accessible to us. He was involved physically with her, and it seemed he was manipulating emotions to get into that position.”
At the time, James said, DeVries admitted to having a relationship with Hamblen — who was by then an adult college student — and James and other church staffers did not press further, wanting to protect victims and “honor their anonymity.”
So Session, a Presbyterian church’s democratic leadership body, forced DeVries to resign and a week later reported the case to Fairfax County Child Protective Services. Although there was a sense things could be worse, church officials let it drop.
“We felt like we couldn’t get at it,” James said. “Now we’re learning they wished I had. I didn’t see that, and it saddens me.”
DeVries, with the help of church elders and close friends, moved back to his home town in Illinois while the criminal justice process went forward.
According to court records, DeVries initially was charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor — proposing sexual contact with a minor under his supervision — a felony that requires registry as a sex offender. In February 2006, he pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and received a one-year suspended jail sentence.
The victim’s family members wrote to the judge in the case and said that they “loved and trusted him completely” and treated him like a member of their family.
“We now know there is a secret, dark side to Eric,” the family wrote, according to a copy of the Dec. 30, 2005, letter. “Our lament is that we failed to recognize the many signs that a sexual predator was in our midst.”
Detective John Kelly of the Fairfax police investigated the case in 2005 and said he suspected that there were more victims. But in a situation where victims were willingly involved with the offender and psychologically tied to him, it is sometimes difficult to find them.
“Through the success of her case, I was hoping people would come forward,” Kelly said, adding that if additional alleged felonies surface in the case he still would pursue them.
DeVries said that he never intended to hurt anyone but that he was seeking intimacy and a family and allowed his feelings to escalate out of control.
“I became too close with them emotionally, and it was immoral, and I’m sad I hurt them,” DeVries said. “It was the low point of my life, without a doubt. The shame of it — it was a life-changing event.”
Compounding the problem for the girls was that the church appeared to support DeVries. He was allowed to apologize to the youth group and gave a teary farewell, saying he would see them in heaven. Some held prayer circles for him, and there were lunch fundraisers. Ginni Richards, who was on staff, asked some members of the church to write letters praising DeVries’s character for the judge to read. More than 25 wrote.
It was a move that Richards cries about even today. Then close to DeVries and thinking he was a good person, Richards knew he had done something wrong but felt that as a Christian she needed to walk beside DeVries in his time of need.
“I really regret the pain that the letters caused for those girls,” Richards said. “They went underground and believed they were not valued by their own church. . . . Then we entered this period of time where it was like it all didn’t happen. We ignored it, the church ignored it and made everyone feel like it was taken care of and that we could move on. The truth was not coming out, and I feel like the girls and their families had to fend for themselves.”
Hamblen said she felt as if members of the church blamed the victims for the abuse, talking behind their backs and driving some of them — such as her — away.
“I was a member of the church since I was 2, and the church met every need in my life,” she said. “When I needed them most, they didn’t respond. When I spoke, they didn’t listen. . . . The pain and hurt the church has caused is deep and lasting.”
Another teenage girl who became close to DeVries near the end of his time at Vienna Presbyterian said: “The church community seemed to think that he was a good person who had messed up. People would say, ‘Can’t they just get over it?’ ”
James said he understands that the church’s response was inadequate and that he now knows that what happened affected an entire generation of church youths.
“It drove some of them away from the church and some of them away from faith altogether,” James said.
‘Finally willing to take ownership’
Jordan-Haas, the associate pastor, arrived there in November 2008. When informed that there had been problems with a previous youth director, he began asking questions and noticed the issue tearing at the fabric of the church. He found that the issue had not been explored, that there appeared to be the potential for numerous victims, and he encountered families and young women who were still hurting or just beginning to deal with their pain.
Jordan-Haas ultimately became part of what is now known as NewSpring Ministry, developed at the church in 2009 to reach out to and help abuse victims.
“There had been an instinct to silence things, to get it done with, to move on,” Jordan-Haas said. “There are layers of culpability. There were plenty of red flags, and too many people suffering.”
Members of the congregation began to see it, too. Mary Heppner, who has two daughters, donated $25,000 because the issue so strongly moved her.
“I hope that young women that need help will feel free to come forward and they will recognize that they were abused and will get help,” Heppner said.
Paige Fishel, a family therapist who is consulting Vienna Presbyterian and NewSpring, said that what the church and its members did probably damaged some of their most vulnerable congregants, but she said the church’s steps now to fully hear them out, investigate and apologize have made a difference.
The church “was finally willing to take ownership for what happened on their watch, to consider themselves part of the collective offender along with Eric,” Fishel said. “And they began to work to identify who had been hurt, what their needs were and how to meet those needs.”
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.
“It’s been all too common in the past,” Gunn said, “and those days have to end.”
‘What’s important is what they do next’
DeVries moved on, settling in northwest Indiana and working for a paving company. He married in 2008 — he said he discussed his earlier problems openly with his wife — and now has two sons, a toddler and a newborn.
Although he attends church near his home, DeVries said he has no involvement with youth activities there. Vienna Presbyterian officials said they have stayed in contact with DeVries’s pastors in an effort to monitor him; church officials in Indiana did not return calls seeking comment.
“I knew I was never going to be involved in ministry or working with kids again,” DeVries said. “I knew that, because of what I had done, that was not an option for me for the rest of my life.”
The sister of the girl whose case went to court said she hopes DeVries understands what he has done, even to people who were not physically abused.
“I hope he knows how much he shattered people’s idea of what Christianity is and what being part of a church is,” she said. “It shattered my faith in church. I always wonder what people are really thinking and doing behind the scenes.”
The Sunday sermons — at all three services — were well attended, and the solemn message appeared to resonate. The pastor highlighted a passage from Mark, which spoke of the danger of religious hypocrisy, or using prayers just for appearances. He apologized and vowed to bring darkness into the light.
The mother of one of the young women leaned over in the rear pew and said softly: “What’s important is what they do next. Or are these just empty prayers, like the ones in Mark?”
White reported from Indiana, Pennsylvania and Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.