How I Learned Evangelical Christianity is Struggling with Child Sex Abuse: An Incident at Milwaukee’s Elmbrook Church in 1999

The problem of child sex abuse in evangelical Christianity. How I learned about an incident at Elmbrook Church after the fact. How the problem of child sex abuse keeps re-occurring and how its a threat to the Gospel. Some statistics on child sex abuse and offenders and some questions for some churches. This post is dedicated to the family of Pam and Dominic Palmer.

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis

                                                                                      Danti Alighiere

 “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”

                                                                                  Martin Luther King

 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

                                                                                     Matthew 25:40 NIV


This is a dark topic that I want to dive into today, and if this is hard or difficult for you, then I suggest you stop reading. In this journal entry I want to explore how I learned that evangelical Christianity is struggling with child sexual abuse.

For a lot of my church life I was deeply naïve. I had a view of things where I kind of believed the best, and was very trusting in many ways. And that was after my experience in Mormonism in college years prior. In or about 2002 or 2003 I attended Elmbrook’s 20 Something Program. I was in my 20’s and my home church Wooded Hills Bible didn’t have anything for post college aged individuals. So I maintained my presence in in Bible studies at Wooded Hills and then I did activities at Elmbrook. Elmbrook grew profoundly under the leadership of Jill and Stuart Briscoe. I had heard that Milwaukee, Wisconsin was tough spiritual ground due to the heavy Lutheran, and Catholic presence; but the Briscoes made it work. In time Elmbrook Church became a mega church in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield. It helped plant a number of nearby churches in SE Wisconsin to include Eastbrook, Metrobrook (which I believe merged with another church and become Brew City Church please correct me if I am wrong), and Westbrook among others.

However, there is a dark and disturbing story that played out at Elmbrook Church before I showed up on the scene. It cast a dark shadow over the church and became known in the evangelical community of Milwaukee. This is how I learned about the sordid tale of Daniel Varga.

In or about 2002 or 2003 I was involved in Brian Sonderman’s 20 Something Ministry Program. I attended because I wanted to hear the word preached and to get to know other 20 something individuals out of college or grad school who were like me, and young in their profession. It was through the 20 Something Program that I befriended a number of people who I am still keep in touch with today. Actually in my story of my faith crisis I repented to so many people I know who were from Elmbrook. When it comes to people like Denny, Rooster or Russell I still love them dearly. Now I haven’t been to Elmbrook in 10 years now so things may have been redesigned but I want to recreate a scene I witnessed which baffled me deeply. So one night the 20 Something Program had ended and I was standing near the bookstore not far from the front doors that were one of the many exists and entrances for Elmbrook. As I type this I can’t remember who I was with, but I was holding my Bible and talking with that person. Against this conversation I hear this yelling and commotion that was so out of place. This female yelled in anger, and she was yelling obscenities. I had never encountered this in a church setting before, or actually any setting. I’ve had a few difficult customers in retail over the years and a couple of people that yelled at me when I worked in banking. But not to the extent like what I was witnessing here. This female was storming out of the church and she screamed something to the effect of “They knew! They fucking knew!!” And she kicked the door so hard that I thought it was going to come off the hinges. And then the scene was over. I was stunned and I wondered to myself the following question…what did I witness? What was that all about? I knew that something had happened but I didn’t know what had happened or what drove a person to act in such a manner. Sometime after that incident I was at my home church of Wooded Hills Bible and I asked my Senior Pastor about it and ran the incident by him. Pastor Joe Jenkins told me, “You never heard the story?” And he remembered that I came to Milwaukee after everything had transpired. And with that I learned some of the following.

Elmbrook had a popular youth ministry headed up by Daniel Varga. Varga was 37, well liked and popular as a youth pastor. There were about 400 youths involved in the program. In addition to heading up the youth ministry Varga was also involved in Wisconsin Hill Middle School where he was the assistant coach of Odyssey of the Mind. On Friday October 22, 1999 Varga took a 13 year old boy to see a movie. He sexually assaulted the boy that evening and on October 23 at 3:30 in the morning the boy called his parents asking to be picked up from Varga’s town home. The boy told his parents that he was sexually assaulted and shortly thereafter the boy, along with his parents and a church pastor reported it to the police. That same Saturday morning Daniel Varga had fled from his home in the Oconomowoc area and traveled to West Barboo, Wisconsin where he checked into a local motel named the Log Lodge. There in the motel Varga barricaded the door to his room and committed suicide. As news of the sexual assault started to be learned more youth who were sexually abused had started to come forward. In the end I think about 10 people came forward. Varga’s funeral drew about 1,000 people. However for those families affected a number of them scattered from Elmbrook. My home church of Wooded Hills Bible where I would become a member in time took in a couple.

In thinking about what I had witnessed after the 20 Something Ministry at Elmbrook that night I had realized that the person I had seen most likely had come from one of the families directly affected by the situation. And the pain from that sexual abuse had deeply hurt the entire family. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the thought that a person in the position of trust in reality was a sexual predator. You don’t think “Youth Pastor = Sexual Predator”. I never did and I thought the church was a refuge a safe place for people to come to. It took time to wrap my mind around that story of Elmbrook’s Youth Pastor. Here is the coverage in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel if you would like to read more. Plus you can see Daniel Varga’s picture.

Now let me say that I feel strongly on this topic and I was out of the Roman Catholic faith when all the stories of sex abuse were pouring out of Catholicism. Given how I feel had I been a Catholic at the time, it probably would have been a strong push for me to leave especially if it happened in the midst of my diocese. If you are familiar with the faith journey of Los Angeles Times writer William Lobdell, in his book Losing My Religion he writes about how the child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church kept him from converting to Catholicism. That said I am amazed and deeply disturbed bow how much this issue keeps popping up in evangelicalism. When I was in my faith crisis I was being invited to Sovereign Grace. And I remember driving past Sovereign Grace Fairfax on Route 123 in 2010/2011 and realizing that the SGM Fairfax is the church being discussed on SGM Survivors. Since I was being invited to Sovereign Grace by a co-worker one of the reasons why I reacted so strongly is due to all the information of abuse that was hemorrhaging from the organization. In the case of Sovereign Grace the sex abuse is also an indicator of cultural problems that exist in the ministry among the entire denomination. This is why I would not believe nor accept the claim that “our church is different” because someone stated so. In my case the arguments and fighting increased my determination to stay out of Sovereign Grace especially as the information about abuse poured out of the denomination. Or another way to put it….I was not going to explore Christianity in a denomination hemorrhaging child abuse and other stories. SGM was damaged goods. It was against my faith crisis, and being invited to Sovereign Grace that the largest lawsuit in evangelical history kicked off against Sovereign Grace on October 17, 2012. The lawsuit addressed cover up by Sovereign Grace Ministries of child sex abuse, pedophilia, and a list of deeply disturbing charges. As I read the lawsuit details in the Washington Post it dawned upon me that many evangelicals have never learned from the Roman Catholic error of covering up child sex abuse. Of all that I read in the details about the lawsuit the aspect that deeply disturbed me the most was when Covenant Life Church (CLC) coerced a three year old to forgive her sexual abuser. What had happened is that this three year old screamed at the sight of her abuser and fled in terror and tried to hide under a chair. As a man reading that made me livid. As a result of reading that I often would ask the individual inviting me to Sovereign Grace the following question, “Is it the Gospel to force a three year old to forgive her molester?” But things only continued to get worse with Sovereign Grace. On January 14, 2013 the SGM lawsuit grew when Susan Burke filed an amended complaint. Some of the allegations dealt with more graphic child sex abuse to include a pedophile ring at both Covenant Life Church and school. When I read some of the text and the details on the evening of January 14 I was so disturbed that I walked around and paced in my condo and had a hard time sleeping that evening. I just couldn’t get the images out of my mind. Evangelical Christians love to talk about sexual sin, pre-marital sex and pornography. Ask yourself when was the last time you heard a passionate sermon about child sex abuse? It’s like domestic abuse…when was the last time you heard a sermon about domestic abuse? And if you read Brent Detwiler’s latest allegation from a few days ago it shows how CJ Mahaney still doesn’t get it. He never did! There is a raging lawsuit against SGM and he still is engaging in alleged criminal activity and approving a hush fund to prevent a Pastor at a SGM church from joining the lawsuit. The brazenness of CJ Mahaney’s corruption stuns me. I think SGM will go down in evangelical history as one of the most corrupt and decadent ministries that existed. Plus I think the corruption of SGM mirrors and reminds me of the corruption of the Richard Nixon Whitehouse and Watergate. The names have changed of course…but I am convinced you have the SGM equivalent of HR Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, L Patrick Gray, John Mitchell, and countless others. They exist in the names of Tommy Hill, Mark Prater, Dave Harvey, etc.. I think you get the point of what I am trying to say.  The difference of course between CJ Mahaney and Richard Nixon is that Nixon had more character, leadership skills and knows more about what it means to be a man than CJ Mahnaey ever will. Mahaney fled, Nixon on August 9, 1974 resigned and he was adamant that there be no pardon for him. On a side note I consider Ford to be an impressive leader…there was a man who sacrificed his job for the betterment of the country. He did the right thing and knew he was committing political suicide. There is another aspect that troubles me as I write this…it dawned upon me that no matter where I have lived…Wisconsin, or DC this issue hangs over the evangelical Christian church. But here is another thing I would also suggest…due to the overarching issue of how Protestant’s structure authority my analysis is that child sex abuse and pedophilia is likely a bigger problem in evangelical Christianity than it is in Roman Catholicism. Why do I say that? We’re fractured and fragmented. How many churches are created by splits? Wooded Hills Bible in the Milwaukee area split off from Westbrook Church. Due to this fragmentation we don’t have the checks and balances in place. In one regard it attracts people who should never preach a sermon (like Mark Driscoll) and in this difficult topic it creates problems in that in can attract sexual abusers who can be un-monitored, un-regulated, etc…


How Child Sex abuse Affects the Gospel

There are multiple issues I want to briefly tackle in explaining how child sex abuse is a serious issue that is affecting the Gospel.

  • Jesus says that we are to care for the least of these. And what we do for the least of these is what we do for him. That is why I put that part of scripture in the start of this post. Are churches caring for the least of these when they cover up, hide, and beat down victims of child sex abuse?
  • Can a tainted church preach the Gospel effectively? I have to give Redeemer Arlington kudos for breaking away from SGM in October the grand scheme of things that was probably not easy. An organization that is attached to a corrupt ministry and refuses to acknowledge or deal with it is only adversely affecting the Gospel. For Redeemer to separate from SGM is a big step forward. If I meet Eric Simmons again I’ll give him a high five for making a courageous decision.
  • Jesus said we are to render to Caesar unto Caesar and render to God unto God. Paul followed up on that I believe when he wrote about how Christians are to submit to legal authorities and follow the law, pay their taxes, etc.. in Romans 13. (BTW…I filed my taxes last week!) Elmbrook Church I believe did that, and they showed their health in reporting Daniel Varga to the police immediately. CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace did the opposite while trying to hide and cover up said sin and not report it. For a denomination which claims to hold the Bible in high esteem CJ Mahaney proves yet again that even that claim is suspect. CJ Mahaney if you read this can I recommend you sit down and have a coffee with Stuart might learn a thing or two from him. Besides I’d hang around Briscoe any day over Al Mohler.
  • It baffles me deeply that many evangelical Christians think they can hide sin and run from it. Jonah tried to flee…how successful was he? David tried to cover up his sin of Bathsheba, and made an incredible mess. Did he succeed in covering it up? Honestly this baffles me profoundly.
  • Evangelicals that cover up child sexual abuse are only giving ammunition to atheists. Again its another example of how we needlessly create our own enemies. If you are an atheist reading this I challenge and implore to you please…call out Christian hypocrisy. Point it out, discuss it! This is one of the things I am so grateful about from Greta Christina. Its good that she is so angry about child sexual abuse in Christianity. I’m glad she calls it out this Christian applauds her! The question I have for many Christians is why aren’t we as angry as she is?
  • How can evangelicals talk about sexual sin when they are simultaneously covering up child sex abuse? Not only that but it puts things way out of context when people are getting hammered for sleeping with their girlfriend or looking at porn while the said church is covering child sex abuse? Are you kidding me? Dude!!!
  • One other thought as well….I think for some people pornography can play a role in facilitating or enabling child sexual abuse. I am not downplaying that at all. But I think to blame child sexual abuse entirely on pornography is way too simple. I think child sex abuse is a very complicated issue and while some will abuse because of that thrill they get form porn, others will not. In this situation I see pornography to be a substance like alcohol. Some people can’t deal with alcohol while others can. I am not saying pornography is healthy. I’m saying that it is not the end all be all to child sexual abuse.

Statistics of Child Sex Abuse and Offenders

I want to include some statistics in this post for you to consider…

  • According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry child sexual abuse has been reported up to 80,000 times a year, but the number of unreported instances is far greater, because the children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened, and the legal process of reporting can be difficult.
  • Child sexual abuse can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative; or outside the home, for example, by a friend, neighbor, child care person, teacher, or stranger. When sexual abuse has occurred, a child can develop many distressing feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
  • The child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.
  • Studies by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized.
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized.
  • Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.
  • According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well (page 5).
  • A study conducted in 1986 found that 63% of women who had suffered sexual abuse by a family member also reported a rape or attempted rape after the age of 14. Recent studies in 2000, 2002, and 2005 have all concluded similar results (page 8).
  • A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal (page 1)
  • Children who do not live with both parents as well as children living in homes marked by parental discord, divorce, or domestic violence, have a higher risk of being sexually abused (page 171).
  • Offenders are overwhelmingly male, ranging from adolescents to the elderly (page 171).
  • Approximately one-third of offenders are themselves juveniles (page 172).
  • 23% of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18 (page 3)
  • Only 14% of children who suffered sexual abuse were violated by an unknown perpetrator (page 172).
  • 60% of children are sexually abused by someone in their social circle. Hence, the phrase “Stranger Danger” is misleading (page 172).
  • Meta-analysis estimates that 14% of sexual offenders commit another sexual offense after five years, 24% after fifteen years (page 172).
  • Child Maltreatment 2010 reports that 6.2% of child abusers sexually abused a child (page 77).
  • 40-80% of juvenile sex offenders have themselves been victims of sexual abuse (Advances in Clinical Child Psychology, page 19).

Now I also want to be clear that in discussing child sex abuse, I also believe the Gospel is for said offenders, rapists and child molesters. The question is how to have an offender in church. I firmly believe that church should be the tool to help the offender. However, I also believe that the Lord ordains the legal system and uses that to deal with child sex abuse. Is the system perfect? No…it’s deeply flawed. The other question I have is the following…over the years I have been amazed as to how easy and simple it is for people to work in child ministries. I remember when I attended McLean Bible and people would ask, “Hey you want to work Kids Quest?” I remember attending National Community Church and seeing the people working in their youth ministries. The question I have is what are churches like McLean Bible, National Community Church and so many others doing to make sure that they are not creating a potential situation like Elmbrook or Sovereign Grace Fairfax had?

Finally I want to close this journal entry in drawing attention to Pam Palmer and her work in changing the statute of limitation laws in Maryland. She recently testified in trying to get the laws changed. I’m proud of her! And I’m proud of her family. I know they have been through so much. I hope she can make a difference in changing Maryland law. As I have written about in the past one thing that helped drive me in my faith crisis is the problem of evil. That drove me away from the Christian faith for half my thirties. I would like to take a minute and thank Pam Palmer and those in the lawsuit against SGM for their efforts, and I imagine in the near future the lawsuit will continue on the Virginia side. But I have to tell you the efforts by people harmed by SGM and their cover up of child sex abuse in holding SGM accountable is impressive. In another post I would like to explain how these actions by a determined few helped me solve the problem of evil and work through the biggest stumbling block to Christianity. Had it not been for the efforts of Pam Palmer and others I don’t know where I would be spiritually today. Josh Harris once spoke about how the Lord redeemed from the SGM lawsuit. This non-Calvinist agrees with him….my faith blossomed and grew as a result of the lawsuit. In a future post I need to explain why. But I wish Pam Palmer well and hope she is successful in her efforts to change Maryland law. In closing I would like to leave you with Jars of Clay singing “He” which is a song about child abuse I believe.

My prayer is that the church always remembers the least of these….if we can’t nor won’t may we Christians crawl into a cave and disappear off the face of the earth.





12 thoughts on “How I Learned Evangelical Christianity is Struggling with Child Sex Abuse: An Incident at Milwaukee’s Elmbrook Church in 1999

    • my atheist life….and your correct. There is no reason, or excuse for sex abuse to occur and also be covered up. Its a disgrace. I would encourage you to continue to call us out on sex abuse, and many other areas. Its needed and necessary, and I hope you will continue to challenge us in this area. It sickens me that this does happen.


    • You are correct. Believing in God does not make a person good. In fact, the Christians who say they are good should be slapped upside the head. The Christian story is based on the fact that we believe that ALL are sinful and that we all need forgiveness.

      It should be the Christians who are the first to speak out about our sins before pointing the fingers at anybody else. In fact, I do not believe that we should be pointing fingers at anyone outside the church. We have too much wrong going on inside to be spending our time looking elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. my atheist life….I totally agree with you. You do not need God to be moral or good. There are many atheists and agnostics who can be more moral and loving than many Christians. Actually I find the insinuation that you need God to be moral or good insulting. Its not true and its offensive to me to paint atheists in such a light. Some of the ugliest things I have personally seen have come from Christians. My life has been scared and wounded by many Christians. But I deeply affirm what you are saying.


  2. Eagle

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. We need to continue to shine the light on the pain of child sex abuse. What did that young woman mean when she screamed,
    “They knew?” Did the church know he was abusing prior to the final incident? Awesome post.


  3. In some sects of fundagelicalism when two consenting adult parishioners get caught doing the horizontal bop, their hash is settled, their goose is cooked*. But when pederasts and the rapists of little girls are found out, they’re just ‘poor sinners’ in need of restoration. If this weren’t so heart rending (and ludicrous at the same time) it would almost be funny.

    *disposition of the guilty parties will vary, usually it depends upon their station in the pecking order.


  4. Our church uses Ministry Safe which is a comprehensive approach to putting boundaries in place. No one can be around minors without going through the program. Sadly, when we invite local ministries and non-profits to come to the conferences we host, no one shows interest. Most places do a background check which does not catch 90% of predators.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So what would you propose? How would you prevent this from happening? I have been amazed as to how many churches I have been involved with that struggle with this issue. The worst situation happened before I showed up at Elmbrook. But other churches have struggled with how to deal with sex offenders. Its a difficult issue and I don’t know what the answers are, but the church needs to have open and honest discussions about this issue.


  5. Pingback: Michelle Van Loon at Christianity Today on Blogging about Spiritual Abuse | Wondering Eagle

Comments are closed.