Pastor Steve Wingfield and First Christian Church of Florissant offer counseling to Brandon Milburn’s sex abuse victims, but are there ethical issues involved?
There is a large group of people, some current and some former members of First Christian Church of Florissant (FCCF), who have been very disappointed in how Pastor Steve Wingfield and church leaders have mishandled a sex abuse case connected with the church. Brandon Milburn, a former church employee who also worked with the youth at FCCF was sentenced to 25 years for rape/sodomy of two boys a few months ago.
Why are the people in this large group unhappy? For many reasons. I’d like to discuss an important one today. While church leaders have claimed not knowing about the sexual abuse allegations, others in this large group have said otherwise, indicating they had brought the sexual abuse allegations to the attention of church leaders and the church leaders failed to respond appropriately or notify authorities. FCCF is doing a great job of using social media in an attempt to influence their congregation that this group is divisive, ungodly, fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-Jezebel-type word.
I’ve been watching this group. I do not believe they are being portrayed accurately by the pastor, outspoken church members and leaders. Many in this group are upset about what they believe is an ongoing cover-up and a failure to deal responsibly as a church to care for those victims who have been harmed.
Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. Jeremiah 22:3
God is a merciful God. He is just. He cares about the oppressed and those who have been harmed. This is exactly what I have seen in this group – care for those who have been harmed. For example, take a look at this note on Facebook from former member, Matt Mueller to Keith Vehlewald, Chairman of Elders at FCCF. Does this not sound like a reasonable question to ask church leaders? Mueller is asking if FCCF will pay the counseling for the victims:
Did you see Vehlewald’s first response? He calls Matt Mueller’s plea an attack and tells him to trust the church leaders. What in the world? Does it appear that the Chairman of the Elders is responding in a way that would lead people to believe the church leaders will be making efforts to take care of the victims? People are told to blindly trust Vehlewald’s integrity, but according to Mueller and others, nothing has been done to earn an integrity merit badge.
I’ve included only some screenshots of the conversation, but this person had a creative way to generate money to give to the victims for therapy:
Sometimes after going around and around in circles, it’s important to cut to the chase and call a spade a spade. Rich Raynes does a great job here:
And in case people misunderstood Rich Raynes the first time, he offers another chance for people to understand his assessment of the situation involving the complacency of the leaders at First Christian Church of Florissant:
Now, while this conversation was going on, something else was going on at the FCCF website and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first it’s important to note that FCCF has been very good at sharing their side of the story via social media. They have a Twitter account, active Facebook page, a whole page dedicated to the goings on of this legal case including:
- an article of a very wordy document defending and justifying their reasons to file a lawsuit against former church members in their article, Can a church ever file a lawsuit? (they withdrew the lawsuit, so why keep this up – – – weird!)
- court documentation of the defamation lawsuit FCCF filed against 4 church members (they withdrew the lawsuit, but it’s still posted – – – more weird!)
- Motion for a restraining order (court evidently denied this restraining order, but the documentation is still posted – – – even more weirdness!)
- Additional letters from church leadership to congregation
I’m sorry, but this weird way of presenting their side of the story is not making them look good, and sadly, it only gets worse.
Ok, back to the “something else was going on” I was mentioning earlier. It was discovered that on June 2, 2015, a new document was posted on the church website: Counseling for Victims of Sexual Abuse.
But wait . . . . where is it?
Go to the FCCF.org site and see if you can find it. The link is essentially hidden (except from techies). Why would they have such an important page offering counseling to the victims and not put it in a prominent place or advertise it on their active Facebook page? If the church was genuinely interested in reaching out to victims to offer assistance in therapy, wouldn’t they make more of an effort to reach out to the victims and spread the word? This smells fishy to me. Grab the nose plugs, we’re not done yet.
Let’s discuss this document offering counseling for victims. Straight up, I will admit that I am alarmed for a number of reasons. Let’s start at the top of the page:
If you were a sex abuse victim and the pedophile who abused you was connected with the church, . . . .where leaders reportedly failed to notify authorities, would you feel comfortable going back to this church? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Going back to the place which represents harm would be the very last place you would want to go.
Secondly, notice that it says the first session is with Licensed Professional Counselor, Dennis Hounshell. That means that the victims would have to relay their story first to Hounshell, and then get referred to another therapist. Going to one therapist is difficult enough. Imagine adding the sensitive sexual component on top of that. Part of the process of finding a counselor is establishing a level of trust. It is wrong to force a victim to go through these types of hoops. If a church is wanting to help financially, they should allow the victims to find therapists of their own choosing and then submit the therapy bills to the church. The church only needs to be involved only to establish that the victim is in fact receiving care from a licensed provider.
It’s important to note that last Friday, I left a voicemail with Mr. Hounshell, FCCF’s staff counselor, to discuss these matters. I wanted to hear his thoughts on this arrangement because a few people have told me privately that he is a good guy and well-respected within the church.
I got the impression that some are concerned that he may be in a very difficult position and may not have much say in how this arrangement was made. I don’t know if that is the case, but as a licensed therapist, there are codes of ethics that must be followed and I am concerned that by agreeing with this arrangement Mr. Hounshell could be putting his license in jeopardy and the church’s response may even be illegal, depending on the State’s guidelines. I had hoped to relay that to him.
I’m not going to mince words here. It is my opinion that forcing victims to meet with Mr. Hounshell first, and then be transferring them to another therapist is re-victimizing. I would even go as far as to label it as emotional and spiritual abuse. The leaders of First Christian Church of Florissant are trying to control this therapy and it is not their place to do so. By interfering with the recovery process and forcing victims to go by their rules, church leaders are doing more destruction to these already shattered lives.
I was so disturbed by FCCF’s “offer” for counseling, that I posted the following on a private Facebook forum and asked for feedback. This forum consists of licensed therapists, abuse advocates, and survivors. I received quite a number of responses and received permission to post a couple of them here. I am grateful for that because sometimes we can miss the obvious when we are closely connected to a situation. I am hoping that by reading some of these responses, people from First Christian Church of Florissant can see how outsiders are viewing the handling of this case.
The general consensus from the members of the forum was that the stipulations the victims must go through are unethical and possibly illegal.
Here is how I posed the question on the forum:
I’d like to hear from any therapists here about a church situation I will be reporting on.
[I gave background of the case.]
Now, they [FCCF] have agreed to provide counseling to victims. They have a limited # of sessions they will pay for. The victims first have to meet with the licensed therapist employed by the church, who in turn will then refer victim to licensed therapists of the church’s choosing.
I’m having a problem with the above paragraph. Does anyone else see any conflict of interest or even ethical violations?
This first response came form a male sex abuse survivor:
I’m neither a therapist nor a lawyer. These minors need both.
When I reported my abuse . . . the contact person offered to provide a list of therapists to choose from or, if I preferred, I could get one on my own. The answer to that was obvious. The church wound up paying for twice-a-week therapy for three years, plus psychiatry and medications — until a settlement was reached.
The church in this case needs only to know who to pay and confirmation that the minors are actually attending the sessions. The rest is privileged information — get a good personal injury lawyer double-quick.
Another very concerning part of the offer for help is the amount of therapy they are willing to cover.
Here is a screenshot from the website:
Do you notice any issues here? 12 sessions – count them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and that’s it? Done with therapy? And the victim is fully recovered? Let me remind you of what the male sex abuse victim mentioned above regarding his own sexual abuse therapy:
The church wound up paying for twice-a-week therapy for three years, plus psychiatry and medications.
Jean Coleman, also from the Facebook forum, gave me permission to share her name and words:
First of all, I am not a therapist, but have a masters in counseling, AND am a former child welfare worker, so I am not exactly what you are asking for. Secondly, requiring victims of ANY crime to return to the point of their victimization IS illegal, at least in Ohio, for a court case, so I can’t see it being valid just to qualify for counseling. Secondly, as a child welfare worker, we planned for a MINIMUM of one year, weekly, of individual counseling AND at least one round of group counseling (8 to 12 weeks). It is telling that Ohio Medicaid in the 90’s didn’t bat an eye at paying for this level of counseling and a church isn’t willing to pay for that level of care. I would wonder what the child welfare agency in that area is doing….they would be the best resource for appropriate therapists. 12 weeks of counseling would do nothing more that stir up issues.
I agree with Jean, especially on the last sentence. I think having only 12 weeks of counseling would simply scratch the surface, and then to stop at that point could be detrimental and cause more harm because the work is not completed.
After Jean saw the complete church document, she offered this additional comment which I had not considered:
There’s an ethical issue here, from one Christian organization to another. If the counseling agency is on a sliding fee scale, other sources (insurance, other payers) should be taken into consideration. If this is not included in the calculating of the sliding fee scale, the church is, in effect, taking advantage of the generosity of the counseling agency’s willingness to go on a sliding scale. I wonder if the counseling agency is aware of this???
I hope the leaders at FCCF will see that the path they have chosen to offer help to victims, while may appear good at first, is really harmful. They can do much better. Not only that, I believe the victims in this case may have justification to file a civil lawsuit against the church leaders. This is serious business and the church has not done well.
A couple of individuals closely connected with this case have grown tired of waiting for the church to help and want to get funds immediately for the victims. They have set up a gofundme account:
In recent months, the news of sexual abuse by Brandon Milburn has become quite public. While the perpetrator is behind bars, the victims are suffering in a silent prison of their own. After years of secrecy, many have taken the brave step of confronting their past. Your donations will help fund counseling for these individuals, many of whom lack the support and resources needed to make continued healing a reality. Together we can provide healing and hope for those who were victimized.
Counseling fees will be paid directly to provider of service.