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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Victim Sues St. Louis Church of Former Youth Minister Convicted of Sex Abuse

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2021 at 2:14 PM

click to enlarge First Christian Church of Florrisant senior pastor Steven Wingfield, shown here during a 2014 sermon addressing the arrest of Brandon Milburn. - SCREENSHOT VIA VIMEO
  • SCREENSHOT VIA VIMEO
  • First Christian Church of Florrisant senior pastor Steven Wingfield, shown here during a 2014 sermon addressing the arrest of Brandon Milburn.

A victim of convicted child sex predator Brandon Milburn is suing the First Christian Church of Florissant, alleging church leaders were repeatedly warned about the former youth minister's pattern of grooming boys and teens long before Milburn's arrest in 2014.

Two of Milburn's victims, abused in 2007 at the ages of eleven and twelve, reported him to police as adults. After a guilty plea, Milburn was sentenced in 2015 to 25 years in prison on seven counts of first-degree statutory sodomy.



But the new lawsuit is unrelated to the victims who pursued criminal charges against Milburn. Instead, the suit is connected to a third victim who had come to trust the youth minister through his connection to First Christian.

The lawsuit identifies the victim as "John Doe 2." Based on the details laid out in the lawsuit, the victim appears to be the same man interviewed under a pseudonym for a 2015 Riverfront Times investigation, which chronicled how Milburn used his position in First Christian to gain the trust of both his victims and the adults who were supposed to protect them.

The abuse described in the lawsuit took place in 2011, already several years after Milburn abused his earlier victims in the church. By then, Milburn's clear obsession with the young boys and teens had been noticed, but the musically inclined and multi-talented youth minister had the backing of senior pastor Steven Wingfield and other members of the church's leadership.

As described in the RFT's interview and the recent lawsuit, Milburn lavished attention on Doe, buying him gifts and expensive electronics, while insisting on sleeping in the same bed during church-sanctioned sleepovers.

In the summer of 2011, during a mission trip to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Milburn slept with the teen in the same sleeping bag — while taking the opportunity to abuse him, the lawsuit alleges.

At the time, Doe was fourteen.

click to enlarge First Christian Church of Florissant is one of the largest evangelical churches in north St. Louis County. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • First Christian Church of Florissant is one of the largest evangelical churches in north St. Louis County.

The Joplin mission trip would become a turning point in Milburn's relationship to First Christian — but it still wasn't enough to spur action. After Milburn's arrest in 2014, Scott Seppelt, a church elder who led the Joplin trip, described his observations in an email obtained by the RFT, writing to another church member how "Brandon brought a young boy and slept away from everyone else."

"I talked with Brandon about this the night it happened," the email continued. "He stated that the boy was shy and would move out where others could see them."

Seppelt also related how, after the trip, he had reported what he had seen to Wingfield. "I wish I had done more," he wrote at the time.

The new lawsuit similarly describes Seppelt's attempt at the time to alert Wingfield to what he had seen in Joplin in 2011; the suit notes, "Neither Defendant Wingfield, nor FCCF personnel chose to report Milburn to Child Protective Services, fire him, or supervise him more closely following this incident."

Seppelt wasn't the only one to report Milburn to Wingfield. Dawn Varvil, a First Christian youth minister who had allowed her home to be used for church-sanctioned sleepover events, found herself increasingly disturbed by Milburn's obsession with particular boys. During the sleepovers — as in Joplin — Milburn repeatedly singled out Doe and slept in the same bed with him.

According to the lawsuit, Milburn "groped Plaintiff's genitals at Varvil's home on multiple occasions."

Varvil eventually told Wingfield about her concerns about Milburn. It wasn't just Milburn sleeping in the same bed as a fourteen-year-old: She had been told by another teen that Milburn had exposed himself to a group of five boys and had encouraged them to do so as well.

Varvil described her experience with Milburn in extensive interviews with the RFT. At her breaking point, she told Milburn he could no longer sleep in the same bed with Doe, but even then, she couldn't bring herself to believe that her fellow youth minister was an abuser.

But Varvil began sharing her concerns, first with other members of the church, and then with a therapist, who was so alarmed by the descriptions that, as a mandated reporter, the counselor felt compelled to report Milburn to a state abuse hotline. Varvil soon did the same.

In February 2012, Varvil brought her concerns directly to Wingfield. She described the meeting to the RFT, recalling, "Steve told me, basically, that he thought I needed mental help ... He said I was obviously overly involved, overly upset and that I should just be worrying about my own family, not worrying about what Brandon was doing."

The lawsuit describes the same pivotal meeting, noting, "Defendant Wingfield did not reveal to Varvil that he had other reports of Milburn’s sexual misconduct with minors."

Varvil would later tell the RFT that Wingfield's refusal to believe her account of Milburn's behavior shook her convictions and made her wonder if she was just "overreacting."

In a June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn directs middle school and teen boys during First Christina's annual Vacation Bible School. (The photo, which has been altered to blur the faces of minors, was provided by a concerned former church member.) - PROVIDED PHOTO
  • PROVIDED PHOTO
  • In a June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn directs middle school and teen boys during First Christina's annual Vacation Bible School. (The photo, which has been altered to blur the faces of minors, was provided by a concerned former church member.)

But by that point, multiple church members had witnessed or heard direct reports about Milburn's actions, and some had started to compare their stories and notes. Yet Milburn continued to work at First Christian youth events.

However, Milburn's time in St. Louis had seemingly come to an end. He moved to California in late 2012, removing himself from the scene of the community's suspicion. With Milburn out of their lives, Varvil and other church members did not attempt to alert his new church, Real Life Church in Valencia, which later said in a statement that Milburn had come "highly recommended" from a pastor in St. Louis.

Milburn was still working as a youth minister in California when St. Louis County prosecutors filed charges against him in 2014.

Milburn should have been stopped long before then, the lawsuit alleges, arguing that Wingfield was a mandated reporter and knew enough about the youth minister's inappropriate behavior to act on that information:

"The Defendants had a choice to fire Milburn, supervise him more closely, or to avoid controversy and encourage Milburn to keep doing what he was doing," the lawsuit states. "Defendants chose to avoid controversy and the consequence of that choice was harm to the Plaintiff."

As for Wingfield, he and other church leaders mounted an aggressive defense in the aftermath of Milburn's arrest. In April 2014, First Christian filed suit against Varvil and other whistleblowers, accusing them of defamation and demanding $25,000 in damages and for Varvil to recant public criticisms.

The lawsuit was eventually dropped, and in August 2015 Wingfield was placed on a paid, six-month sabbatical. A church leader announced the sabbatical in a Sunday sermon, explaining that the senior pastor needed time away "to address the stress, grief, fatigue and emotional trauma that he has sustained, but also to address issues that have become deficits to his management and leadership style."

Attorney Nicole Gorovsky defended Varvil in the 2014 defamation suit. She's now representing Doe in his lawsuit against Wingfield and First Christian.

"One of the things people should know about, with child sex victims, is how hard it is to come forward," she says. "Once someone does process that trauma, they get strong enough to realize that someone needs to be held responsible, and they realize that they need to do something."

"The church," she adds, "needs to be held responsible for what they did here."

Wingfield remains First Christian's senior pastor. The RFT reached out to the church for comment on the lawsuit but did not hear back.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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