When a church’s honesty is a liability

May 13, 2011

When officials at a Presbyterian church in Virginia 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.

What surprised leaders at Vienna Presbyterian Church
was the admonishment they got from the church's insurance company. On
March 23, a lawyer hired by 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.

The church's governing board 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 board said in a letter to the congregation.

In a
sermon on 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 often run
counter to the legal tenets of avoiding self-incrimination. "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.

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.

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.

Five years ago, Vienna Presbyterian officials learned
that Eric DeVries, the church's student ministries director, had
"crossed the boundary of emotional and physical propriety in his
relationship with female students."

DeVries, hired in 2001,
resigned in September 2005 amid the allegations. Church officials
reported him to authorities; he later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor
charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and received a
12-month suspended jail sentence.

In 2009, the church began to
reexamine what went wrong. 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 adamant concerns about the church's approach. Church
officials responded with ad­amant refusals to let legal interests steer
their decisions.

The correspondence shows that 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 February 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 pertinent events, seek legal
counsel and enc­ourage counseling for victims, she added.  —USA Today