“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.