Let’s Discuss: The Keepers, Netflix Documentary Series about the Murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik and Systemic Sexual Abuse

The Keepers, Netflix, Cathy Cesnik, Systemic Sexual Abuse, Catholic Church, Spiritual Abuse, Clergy Sexual Abuse



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The Keepers is a new documentary series airing on Netflix. I have watched 5 of the episodes and it is excellent. If you have seen Spotlight, it is similar, however, the investigative reporters in this case are two grandmas who have spent the last three years compiling details of the case and trying to get answers as to who killed their beloved former high school teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969.

Like the movie, Spotlight, the series uncovers systemic sexual abuse of female students at Archbishop Keough High School in Maryland by Father Maskell who was a counselor on campus. When I refer to the word “systemic,” I mean it is a whole system of cover-up and abuse. Father Joseph Maskell was not the only one who committed the crimes. His friends in high places also committed sexual crimes and helped to conceal the crimes: police officers, businessmen in the community, etc.

The first episode lays the groundwork for the story and introduces the main characters. Then, the second episode goes into repulsive, unimaginable sexual abuse descriptions. This episode is definitely difficult to watch and I would caution those who get triggered by topics of abuse to be very careful watching it. The second episode was the most difficult for me to watch, but this is important information to know how insidious these crimes were, not only sexually, but spiritually.

Because this documentary series is being discussed so much, I wanted to have a post specifically to address it, and especially to be a place where people can discuss how it may have affected them.

So, let’s use this post to discuss how the show may have affected us and try not to include spoilers for those who have not yet watched it.

Below, I have gathered a variety of links that may be of interest. I encourage you to check out the first link, especially. It is excellent.

Note:  While this sexual abuse scandal – also connected with the systemic abuse cover up with cases around the world uncovered by the Boston Globe Spotlight team occurred in the Catholic Church, Protestant churches are not exempt from these types of scandals. We know of the  Sovereign Grace Ministries sexual abuse scandal which is still ongoing. I am personally aware of several others that are “under the radar.” No one church group is exempt from systemic abuse.

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Related Links

A website was set up for the movie here:  The Keepers. I am very impressed with the information presented at the site, from information about the series, to helpful resources for survivors, therapies, systemic abuse, how to help, etc.

The following links are related and may be of interest:

How Safe is Your Church?

 

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Have you met Boz Tchividjian of GRACE – Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment? This would be a good video to post on Facebook or send to church leaders. Until churches have safe policies in place and survivors feel safe to share their trauma to others in the church, the church is not whole. We need to be proactive in minimizing the opportunity for sex abuse to occur and also to help those who have been harmed by sexual abuse.

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Second Amended Complaint Filed in Bill Gothard & IBLP Sex Abuse Lawsuit: 18 Victims in Lawsuit

Bill Gothard, Lawsuit, IBLP, Institute in Basic Life Principles, David C. Gibbs III, Sex Abuse, Sexual Grooming, ALERT

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Attorney Plans to File Another Sex Abuse Lawsuit against CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries

C.J. Mahaney, Sex Abuse, Failure to Report, Statute of Limitations, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Lawsuit, Pedophiles, T4G

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Bill Gothard Added to Lawsuit; Victims Alleging Sex Abuse and Rape

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A Spotlight on Abuse and Death of VCY America Founder Vic Eliason

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After The Gospel Coalition Staunchly Defended CJ Mahaney in Sovereign Grace Ministries Sex Abuse Scandal, They Now Promote the Movie Spotlight (Sex Abuse Coverup)

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Attorney David Gibbs III Discusses the IBLP Lawsuit and Answers Important Questions

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My Meeting with Heather Wilson to Discuss Doug Wilson & Sex Abuse Scandals

“Now where is the scandal in this?” ~Doug Wilson

Steven Sitler, Christ Church, Moscow ID, New Saint Andrews, Pedophile

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Doug Wilson’s Christ Church and Handling of Sex Abuse Cases to be Investigated by Insider?

Doug Wilson, CREC, Christ Church, Moscow Idaho, Randy Booth, Steven Sitler, Jamin Wight, Sex Abuse, Pedophile

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Doug Wilson Series: Introduction, Christ Church Celebrates 40 years and Background

Doug Wilson, Christ Church, CREC, Greyfriars Hall, Association of Classical & Christian Schools, Canon Press, New Saint Andrews, Steven Sitler, Jamin Wight

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A Note to Doug Wilson and Friends and Foes of Doug Wilson

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I have two things to share, first the following invitation. Some may have seen this on Twitter or Facebook, but I want to make it more public here so more eyes can see and have an opportunity to meet:

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Pastor Doug Wilson Accuses Sex Abuse Victim’s Father of Dereliction of Duty as Father – The Jamin Wight Pedophile Case

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Natalie Rose Greenfield, Pastor Doug Wilson, Christ Church, Pedophile Jamin Wight Sex Abuse Case*

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Incest Survivor Shares Her Personal Thoughts about the Josh Duggar Case: “Truth and Reconciliation”

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Sex Abuse, Incest, Truth and Reconciliation, Josh Duggar, 19 Kids and Counting, Purity Culture

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A Closer Look at Ethical Issues Involving First Christian Church of Florissant and the Counseling They are Offering to Sex Abuse Victims

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Pastor Steve Wingfield and First Christian Church of Florissant offer counseling to Brandon Milburn’s sex abuse victims, but are there ethical issues involved?

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There is a Pedophile in My Family: The Tools I Gave My Children to Protect Them from Harm

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Tools to Help Protect Children from Pedophiles and Sex Abuse

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NonFamily Sex Abuse Victim Expected to File Civil Lawsuit against Josh Duggar

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Josh Duggar’s (nonfamily) sex abuse victim intends to file lawsuit against him.

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Former Youth Pastor Responds to Open Letter from Church Leaders Who Mishandled and Failed to Report Child Sex Abuse

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Open Letter from Pastor Steve Wingfield and Elders of First Christian Church of Florissant and Response from Former Youth Pastor

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Earlier this month, I shared a portion of a disturbing story about First Christian Church of Florissant (FCCF) and their pastor, Steve Wingfield. I found this case  especially intriguing because of the similarities with my own former pastor’s failure to report child sex abuse and his lawsuit against me:

  • Pastor Steve Wingfield and church leadership allegedly failed to respond to child known sex abuse allegations
  • Convicted sex offender, Brandon Milburn, eventually plead guilty to seven counts of sodomy with two minors under the age of 12 and was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison.
  • Pastor Steve Wingfield used the civil court system to file a defamation lawsuit in an attempt to control negative public communication by former church members.
  • Pastor Wingfield published a lengthy explanation of why filing a lawsuit against former members was Biblically appropriate, despite the Bible’s clear teaching against it (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).

There’s much more to report, but you now have a quick glimpse of the upheaval occurring in this once largely attended church in Florissant, Missouri.

On June 21, 2015, an Open Letter was widely published and shared via the church website, read from the pulpit, published on the church’s Facebook page, Twitter, and sent by e-mail and snail mail. Apparently, they wanted to reach a very wide audience.

The Open Letter shares the narrative of the pastor (and elders) and their side of the storyHowever, it only shares one side – the side that church leaders want you to hear. It paints those who disagree with them in a negative light and labels them as slanderers, bitter, and accusers.

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Titus and Kari Benton

Pastor Titus Benton has spent the last 4 years as a youth pastor at a church in Texas. Prior to this ministry position, he was on staff at FCCF, first as a part-time intern, later taking a full-time position offered by Pastor Steve Wingfield. He was at FCCF for approximately 10 years, occasionally preaching before the congregation. Benton told me he worked fairly closely with Wingfield until Benton purportedly “took authority [he] had not been given.”

Pastor Benton’s wife, Kari, grew up in the church, and so it was not just a job at any church, FCCF was home to the Benton family. They both care deeply for this church family.

When Titus read the Open Letter, he was moved to respond. He shared his response with me and I asked him if I could share it here. Titus’ voice represents the voice of many current and former members. Titus wrote the entire response to the Open Letter and he also “ran it by the victims’ families to make sure it was accurate.”

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Admin note:The words from FCCF’s Open Letter are in black font and Titus Benton’s words are in green font. I have retained the bolded subheadings as was originally published in the Open Letter. The following is considerably long, so I’ve tried to break it up a bit with screenshots of comments from church supporters.   ~ja

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Open Letter from First Christian Church of Florissant Elders

  • Keith Vehlewald, Chairman of Elders
  • Stanley DuBose, Vice Chairman
  • Bob Dees, Secretary
  • Eugene Storjohann, Treasurer
  • Steve Wingfield, Senior Pastor
  • Bob Farmer, Jr., Executive Pastor

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We’re blessed. First Christian Church of Florissant is an amazing multi-generational, multiethnic family. We joyfully celebrate a 57 year legacy of ministry built on honoring Jesus Christ through compassionately living in the world.

This is true. For fifty years, there were few better examples of Great Commission churches in the United States. So moving was this history that I wrote my Master’s thesis on the rich history. It is one worthy of great honor. I still have one of Charles Wingfield’s ties in my office, a reminder of this legacy.

We have served thousands of families and been recognized nationally for the strength of our diversity. Like every family, our church family has moments when our strength is tested.

This is one of those moments. In January 2014 two former First Christian Church families were told for the first time by their now grown sons that they had been sexually abused in 2007 by Brandon Milburn . . .

Two questions:

1. How do the elders know those families were told in January? They have talked to one of the families sparingly and the other not at all. I know this because I have spoken with both the families.

2. The victims were not abused in 2007 alone, but from 2007-2009. To continue to cite this date inaccurately seemingly minimizes the victims in order to save face, and interfere’s with the victims’ healing process.

. . . then a full time student at St. Louis Christian College and a part-time church employee. These families did the right thing, the difficult thing. They stood strong in their test . . .

They are strong, but I would not say they stood strong. They were crumpled to the floor in agony. They wept. They were broken. They hurt. And again, I’m not sure how the elders would know that they stood strong “in their test,” because there was little-to-no communication between the families and the church.

Also, why should it matter where Brandon Milburn went to school? This is a carefully worded attempt to distract from the fact that abuses happened because of Brandon’s role at the church from at least 2007-2012.

. . . reported this horrible crime to the authorities and sought counseling. A year-long open investigation invited any other victims to come forward and led to a guilty plea and a sentence to 25 years in prison.

The investigation by law enforcement did not last a year. There was no investigation by church leaders (unless a handful of announcements counts as an investigation). At first, there was a not-guilty plea and the defendant minimized his actions. At the last second, when facing trial, Brandon changed his plea to avoid a trial.

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While this abuse did not occur in church facilities or at our programs, we hurt when others do.

There is no doubt in my mind church leaders hurt to learn of Brandon’s betrayal of trust and predatory behavior. I believe that is true. However, this is not the abuse that Steve was confronted about or what the recent controversy is surrounding. For the better part of the last four months, private conversations with Steve and elders attempted to make this clear.

To clarify once again, the recent confrontation was regarding abuses IN ADDITION TO the abuse charges levied against Brandon, and warnings of that abuse that were shared with Steve in 2011 and 2012.

The actions of one had a ripple effect of hurt to many through his violation of trust. Because we are a place of healing, First Christian provides two professional counseling resources available for victims of Milburn’s abuse.

There’s a lot to be said here. First, many were indeed hurt by Brandon’s violation of trust. But, again, that’s not what the recent confrontation has been about. It has been about hurt caused by the elders (including Steve) and the violation of the trust placed in them, beginning with (but not limited to) their inactivity when approached about additional abuse concerns shared with Steve in 2011, and again in 2012. This abuse was not related to the charges against Brandon, but was inflicted upon additional victims.

There is no mention of this in this open letter, and that is deceitful. No one was ever claiming that Steve (or anyone, for that matter) knew about abuse in 2007-2009. However, most readers of this Open Letter surely read recent news stories of first-hand accounts from additional victims saying that they were abused by Brandon in 2011/2012. These are the abuses that Steve was alerted to and failed to report.

Additionally, while First Christian did finally offer counseling, they have never provided any outreach to former members or victims no longer attending to make this known. Elders started this document by granting that the known victims and their families were no longer involved at First Christian. So the counseling they reportedly “offered” was not known by those families, because those families were not in services to hear the announcement – the only place those services were spoken of.

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Disturbing methods. Since the February 2015 sentencing . . .

Brandon Milburn’s sentencing was in late March, not February.

First Christian Church has been harassed and slandered by false claims that church leaders knew of the sexual abuse and criminally failed to report it. This is simply not true.

Actually, it is true. In 2011 and again in 2012, two different individuals told Steve Wingfield of concerns regarding behaviors indicative of abuse. They did this privately. Later, both Doug Lay and I confronted the church – also privately. I am the only one to allege this was a crime, which I shared with Steve and the elders privately on one occasion. This was after hearing about the concerns first hand (in Fall 2014) and doing my own investigation to ensure that they were true before confronting them. I came to the elders and Steve through a private letter in February 2015 that alerted them to that which I had been made aware. Even though I was the only one to allege that it was a crime, it is worth noting that failure to report suspected child abuse (not proven child abuse, but suspected) is a crime.

It is also only fair to admit that it was later included in the case study and received a much wider audience.

“Harassment” and “slander” are two legal terms used to describe a criminal offense that the cited behavior does not rise to the level of. The court of law ruled against the restraining order that asserted that these behaviors were present, so to still describe the behavior “against” the church as harassment and slander is legally untrue.  To use these terms in a piece of communication like this is a poor choice as it does not represent the truth.

These unsubstantiated claims . . .

The claims were not unsubstantiated. They were verified by several people before I ever contacted church leadership.

. . . were repeatedly promoted in the unfiltered platform of social media . . .

This is similar to the elders’ Open Letter of which I’m now commenting.

. . . on fake Facebook accounts, in phone calls and emails sourced through the unauthorized use of church databases, in issuing demands for the resignation of leaders and seeking supporters who might disrupt worship services.

To this day, the elders have offered no evidence of harassing phone calls or e-mails, nor that there were those who had the goal of disrupting worship services.

Critics do share a valuable role suggesting need for improvements. However, some opportunistically choose destructive methods…testing great cities, testing law enforcement, testing best of class organizations, schools, and even effective churches.

To assert that someone was being opportunistic infers that they are seeking selfish gain. Though church leaders have hinted at hidden agendas on the part of whistle-blowers, they have never indicated what these agendas might be. As for the various institutions that have been tested, only First Christian has faced critique and ridicule.

Outside of the crimes of Brandon Milburn (and the mishandling of concerns on the part of church leadership in the wake of his arrest), it is easy to argue that FCCF has not been “effective” in various ministry pursuits in recent years. In other words, the people watching all this and yelling “fire” are not the ones that lit the match. There are bigger problems at FCCF than Brandon Milburn.

A line must be drawn. These methods do not belong in our church family.

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Patient leadership. As elders, we have worked in unity over the last months to protect and clear First Christians name legally and through law enforcement.

Understand this phrase “a line must be drawn.” Who is drawing it? If you do not agree with church leaders, you do not belong in “our church family.”

It has long been assumed by many that protecting First Christian’s name was the leadership’s goal based on how these issues have been handled. While some churches would have preferred to seek the truth, minister to victims, and take substantive steps to correct mistakes and not just save face, their goal  – now stated clearly for all to see and understand – was to clear their name and protect their reputation.

Based on the clear evidence, we’ve sought retractions, not financial penalties.

It’s not “clear evidence” when none has been provided that slander and harassment occurred. Several lawyers have read the lawsuit filed against five defendants in Saint Louis County court: four lawyers representing the defense and at least one additional lawyer giving advice. Each of them have been clear — financial penalties of at least $25,000 were being sought in the lawsuit against the defendants. To assert that the purpose was only to seek retractions and not financial penalties is simply not true.

One does not have to be a lawyer to conclude that financial penalties were being sought. In Count 5 of the lawsuit, “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress” against all five defendants, the Plaintiff (that’s Steve & First Christian) “demands judgement against Defendant as follows:

  • for compensatory damages in excess of $25,000
  • for punitive damages
  • for their cost of suit, including reasonable attorney’s fees

Then, on page 12 of the same lawsuit, Steve Wingfield signed his name in front of a notary public on the 16th day of April, “swearing that he read the foregoing petition” and understood was contained therein.

After pursuing options that enabled us to name accusers and present affidavits and evidence that could be substantiated in court . . . 

The elders do not note here that it could NOT be substantiated in court…the restraining order that named the accusers and attached the affidavits and provided the evidence was denied by a court in Saint Louis County.

. . . the eldership decided to voluntarily drop civil actions and enlist assistance from two respected Christian mediators.

This is not true. My wife and I were in the meeting where the elders were asked to drop the lawsuit. They did not do so voluntarily. The “mediators” were arranged by a concerned third-party – they did not come at the invitation of the elders. How is that the elders can now claim to have voluntarily dropped the lawsuit in order to instead enlist assistance from outside mediators when the mediators were brought in first (the meeting set up by a third-party, not at the elder’s invitation) and ended up being the ones who asked them to drop the suit?

Our intent – to give our critics yet additional opportunities to reconcile. Regretfully, those seeking to blame us and incite outrage prefer to continue spreading wholly false accusations.

Following the dropping of the lawsuit, only my wife and I were contacted for further dialogue. This dialogue happened on one occasion and did not include any talk of reconciliation, only a rehashing of past events and arguments as to why they had to be that way. In fact, after forty minutes of this banter, the “mediator” decided he’d heard enough and excused himself to go home. The phone call ended abruptly.

Additionally, as it has already been pointed out, the accusations were not “wholly false.” In fact, in the same meeting where it was requested that the lawsuit be dropped, Steve Wingfield admitted that Dawn Varvil had shared with him in the 2012 meeting that Brandon had bought an iPhone for a young man, been seen spooning with him, and had a key to his apartment.

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Standing strong. Upon the counsel of our mediator, we are persuaded that the best course of action for the First Christian family NOW is to refocus our energies exclusively on moving forward with our ministry and mission.

This is true. The “mediators” did not actually mediate — trying to bring two sides together. Rather, they advised church leaders to make a statement and move on. This statement is the statement following that counsel, and they sincerely have no intention of talking about this any more.

With your support and encouragement, First Christian Church will only intensify our commitment to stand strong, becoming an even more compassionate community resource. We’re thankful that this amazing family continues to grow in faith, welcoming first-time guests and each week celebrating new committed followers of Christ. We began June with more than 500 kids and volunteers in Vacation Bible School. Our Celebrate Recovery is an ongoing ministry of support. While we will always have a tear in our eye for those wronged by heinous actions . . . 

Since Brandon’s arrest, no elder has reportedly been seen with a tear in their eye for any victim. Only after a huge public outcry, several newspaper articles, and a drastic reduction in weekly attendance and financial giving did the church even arrange for counseling for victims — and those details are yet to have been shared with a wider audience they are supposedly meant to serve.

. . . our focus is and will be resolutely on the greater things that bring us together… one faith, in one Lord, and one message of God’s love and grace that can bring healing in any life.

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Better not bitter. First Christian Church of Florissant is listening, learning and loving, determined to be better, not bitter.

In the often-scoffed-at case study entitled “Is it Enough?” the authors provide more than a dozen suggestions at how First Christian could do better at recognizing, reporting, and handling sexual abuse within its family. As of the writing of this response, zero suggestions have been implemented.

Our core values determine that we will go forward, empowered by God’s grace to be a place where Christ comes first, where the lost are found, where the Word is heard, where care is shared, and where our world is changed. In this time of testing, First Christian is standing strong.

Given the turnover in staff, decline in attendance, public outrage, divided congregation, and reported spiritual and physical unhealth of the senior pastor in the face of conflict, it is difficult to believe this assertion.

We invite you to stand with us.

Every piece of evidence I’ve suggested in this response is verifiable by someone other than me. I don’t ask you to stand with me; however, I ask you to look into it, find the truth, and stand with it. The truth is powerful enough to stand on its own, but we would do well to align ourselves with it.  ~Pastor Titus Benton

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