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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Youth Minister's Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Page 7 of 8

FCCF senior pastor Steve Wingfield (left), insists he knew nothing about Milburn's predatory behavior before the 2014 arrest.
  • FCCF senior pastor Steve Wingfield (left), insists he knew nothing about Milburn's predatory behavior before the 2014 arrest.

On a Friday in April, one week after the court hearing, the hallways at FCCF ring with the giggling madness of some 200 preschoolers. They're here for the church's annual weeklong Vacation Bible School. Playing tour guide amid the chaos is Steve Wingfield, who proudly notes the various safety measures — a check-in system for parents, ID cards for all volunteers, full background checks — as he stops by the open door of a classroom filled with five-year-olds.

Dressed in a gray, military-style shirt and jeans, the 53-year-old cuts a handsome figure as he strides the hallways of the building's second floor. He's been senior pastor for eight years, after previously serving 28 years on the ministry staff under his father.

"Most of the other churches in our community have declined or died over the last fifteen years because of rapid transition in the population, and we're committed to make a difference here," Wingfield says, passing a gaggle of toddlers wearing paper angel's wings. "We love Florissant, we love north county. Not everyone does, but we do."

At more than 100,000 square feet of space, the FCCF compound has sustained four major additions since moving to its current location. The value of the property, says Wingfield, is assessed at more than $18 million.

Wingfield enters another youth-oriented space, called the Tank, a kind of lounge area for teens with comfortable chairs, an air-hockey table and a big-screen TV.

"This was originally decorated by Brandon Milburn," Wingfield says. "That was one of his roles.... It's since been redecorated by my wife."

Accompanying Wingfield on this tour is his lawyer, James Wyrsch, an awkward reminder of Wingfield's ongoing lawsuit against four ex-members of his flock. Lay and the Bentons have retained their own counsel and petitioned the court to dismiss the lawsuit. According to Wyrsch, the church would prefer to settle the matter without a lengthy and expensive legal fight.

Asked about Milburn's role at FCCF, Wingfield bristles at the suggestion that he or the church share any responsibility for the disgraced youth minister's crimes.

"Brandon broke our hearts. We did trust him; he was a part of this church family," Wingfield says. "These events didn't take place in the church, and what he did outside of this building we can't control. We found out six years after the violation of these two children. I never heard of any sexual abuse from Brandon any time prior to that."

Wingfield has good reason for his defensiveness. As a minister, Wingfield is a "mandated reporter" under Missouri law, obligated to report suspected cases of child abuse to the state. So it makes some sense that Wingfield interprets Lay's main accusation — that Wingfield ignored Varvil's warnings about Milburn in 2012 — as more than just a "case study." Rather, Wingfield sees it as an attack on his integrity and a blunt assertion of criminal misconduct.

If it was proven that Wingfield failed to report Milburn when confronted with evidence of molestation, the pastor could theoretically face a misdemeanor charge, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Such a charge would have precedent: Robert Finn, the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese in Kansas City, was convicted of failing to report a suspected child abuse case in 2012. He resigned his position last month amid a storm of pressure from victims' advocates.

"We're going to civil court for one reason," Wingfield acknowledges. "Because there's a legal accusation. There's an accusation that we committed a crime."

Yet Wingfield's stance on the church's limited responsibility for Milburn's actions doesn't extend to the people he's suing. Asked if he had any regrets about the Milburn situation, Wingfield blames Titus Benton, replying immediately, "I wish that I had not let Titus hire Brandon."

He adds, "I did not supervise Brandon, [the hiring] was [Benton's] personal request." He doesn't mention that, according to multiple former FCCF staff members, Milburn first joined the church's paid intern staff in 2005 under the oversight of Wingfield's mother, Ruth.

(Wingfield and FCCF have not responded to requests for Milburn's complete employment history at the church.)

But as Wingfield and his lawyer maneuver against Varvil and her supporters, FCCF's larger community appears conflicted about whether to support its lead pastor. Though Wingfield enjoys the backing of the church elders, some members indicate a growing unease with his leadership style.

Many members appear especially upset that the name of their church is now attached to a lawsuit, which they believe violates a Biblical prohibition against suing other Christians. A GoFundMe campaign founded by a FCCF member has so far raised $4,000 to a legal-defense fund for Varvil, Lay and the Bentons.

Again and again, Wingfield insists the church is doing all it can under horrific circumstances. He wants to see the church move on.

"First Christian Church is also a victim. As is Dawn, as is Titus and Kari," Wingfield says with a sigh.

As for Lay, Wingfield mentions his history as a survivor of sexual abuse.

"Doug is approaching this as an advocate, from his own pain and experience. Doug's saying, 'If I had known Brandon was sexually abusing somebody, I would have done something to stop him.' Isn't that what he's saying? Isn't that what Titus is saying? And isn't that what we're saying? We all have in common the crime of someone we knew. How we handle that, whether we throw somebody under a bus..."

Wingfield stutters, searching for the right words. "You have to wrestle with the accusations."

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