For critics of First Christian Church of Florissant's embattled lead pastor Steve Wingfield, the road to reform has been paved with hollow promises and paper victories.
In April, Wingfield sued four former members of the north St. Louis County megachurch for defamation. These so-called whistleblowers, Wingfield insisted, were actually spreading lies about how he'd supposedly ignored early warnings about Brandon Milburn, a charismatic youth minister who this March was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys between 2007 and 2009.
Milburn's crime devastated the 2,500-member congregation, some of whom believe Wingfield hasn't done nearly enough to help Milburn's victims or come clean about the full scope of his work at the church. Some current and former members are calling for Wingfield's resignation, while his supporters (including the church's board of elders) have stood firm behind their leader.
But the tide may be shifting. Last month, Wingfield dismissed the defamation lawsuit against the four former church members. Now, one of those defendants, a woman named Dawn Varvil, is taking some demands of her own to Wingfield.
"Wingfield's entire purpose in filing the lawsuit was to harm people who he knew had a constitutional right to speak up for what they believed," wrote Varvil's attorney in a demand letter dated June 4 that was sent to Wingfield's legal counsel. "However, instead of filing a lawsuit, she is willing to attempt to resolve her claims amicably."
Varvil occupies a unique position in this rolling controversy. Once a friend and youth outreach partner with Milburn, Varvil observed his behavior around teen boys grow increasingly brazen. In 2012, she met with Wingfield to discuss her concerns.
The meeting became a central dispute in the defamation lawsuit. According to Wingfield, Varvil disclosed only vague apprehensions about Milburn, not solid proof that the youth minister was sexually abusing minors; According to Varvil, she told Wingfield that she'd already reported Milburn to the state's sex abuse hotline, that she'd received reports that Milburn exposed himself to a group of young boys and that she'd seen him cuddle against a 13-year-old boy during a sleepover at her house.
The question of whether to believe Varvil or Wingfield continues to divide First Christian Church of Florissant, or FCCF. That division appears ready to deepen now that Varvil is demanding Wingfield issue a public apology to her, her co-defendants and "to all the victims of Milburn's abuse."
The other demands for FCCF (embedded in full at the bottom of the page) include:
- Provide church funding for Milburn's victims to obtain their own independent counseling services.
- Hire a Christian non-profit organization that specializes in childhood sexual abuse to audit FCCF's policies, implement reforms and train church staff and volunteers.
- Keep a victim advocate on church staff.
- Remove references to Wingfield's lawsuit against Varvil and the others from the church website.
- Reimburse legal costs incurred by Varvil and her co-defendants.
- Dismiss Wingfield's defamation lawsuit "with prejudice," a legal term that means he could not refile the same lawsuit against Varvil and her co-defendants. (When Wingfield's lawyer dismissed the lawsuit last month, he did so "without prejudice," raising Varvil's suspicions that Wingfield would use the threat of a refiled lawsuit as leverage to keep the whisteblowers quiet.)
In the demand letter, Varvil's lawyer, Nicole Gorovsky, wrote that her client is willing to sue Wingfield for "abuse of process and malicious prosecution" if he doesn't meet the conditions.
Titus Benton, one of Varvil's co-defendants in the defamation lawsuit, says that he supports Varvil's legal offensive against Wingfield.
"Even now she is not seeking to benefit herself but, more so, to benefit the victims, many of whom who are still suffering in silence," Benton writes in an email. "She is giving Steve and the rest of the church leaders another opportunity to do the right thing."
For more on this story, make sure to check out last month's Riverfront Times' investigation: A Youth Minister's Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart
It's also worth noting that last week Daily RFT uncovered evidence that Wingfield's brother, a pastor at a different church, yanked funding to a bible college that employed one of Varvil's main supporters.