Victim Sues St. Louis Church of Former Youth Minister Found Guilty of Sexual Abuse | St. Louis Metro News | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events

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  • Steven Wingfield, senior pastor of First Christian Church in Florisant, shown here during a 2014 sermon on the arrest of Brandon Milburn.

A victim of convicted child sex predator Brandon Milburn is suing Florissant’s First Christian Church, alleging church leaders were repeatedly warned of the former youth minister’s tendency to groom boys and girls. teenagers long before Milburn’s 2014 arrest.

Two of Milburn’s victims, who were 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 for seven counts of first-degree statutory buggery.

But the new trial has no connection to the victims who pursued criminal charges against Milburn. Instead, the lawsuit relates to a third victim who had come to trust the minister for youth through his connection to First Christian.

The lawsuit identifies the victim as “John Doe 2”. Based on the details set forth in the lawsuit, the victim appears to be the same man interviewed under a pseudonym for a 2015 Riverside Time investigation, which chronicled how Milburn used his position in First Christian to gain the trust of both his victims and the adults meant to protect them.

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

As described in the RFTand the recent lawsuit, Milburn lavished attention on Doe, buying him expensive gifts and electronics, while insisting on sleeping in the same bed during church-sanctioned slumber parties.

In the summer of 2011, while on 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 Florissant's First Christian Church is one of the largest Evangelical churches in northern St. Louis County.  -DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Florissant’s First Christian Church is one of the largest Evangelical churches in northern St. Louis County.

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

“I spoke with Brandon about it the night it happened,” the email continued. “He said the boy was shy and would move where others could see them.”

Seppelt also recounted how, after the trip, he reported what he saw 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 saw in Joplin in 2011; the prosecution notes, “Neither defendant Wingfield nor FCCF staff chose to report Milburn to child protective services, discharge him, or monitor him more closely following this incident. ”

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

According to the lawsuit, Milburn “groped the plaintiff’s genitals at the Varvil home on several occasions.”

Varvil eventually told Wingfield of his concerns about Milburn. It wasn’t just Milburn who slept in the same bed as a fourteen-year-old boy: another teenager had told him that Milburn had exposed himself to a group of five boys and had encouraged them to do so as well.

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

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

In February 2012, Varvil raised his concerns directly with Wingfield. She described the meeting to RFTrecalling, “Steve told me, basically, that he thought I needed mental help…He said I was obviously too involved, too upset and should just worry for my own family, not worrying about what Brandon was doing.”

The lawsuit describes the same pivotal meeting, noting that “defendant Wingfield did not disclose to Varvil that he had other reports of sexual misconduct by Milburn with minors.”

Varvil would later tell the RFT that Wingfield’s refusal to believe her account of Milburn’s behavior shook her beliefs and made her wonder if she was just “overreacting”.

In a June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn leads middle school and teenage boys at First Christina's annual Vacation Bible School.  (The photo, which has been edited to blur the faces of the miners, was provided by a concerned former church member.) - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • In a June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn leads middle school and teenage boys at First Christina’s annual Vacation Bible School. (The photo, which has been edited to blur the miners’ faces, was provided by a concerned former church member.)

But by then, several church members had witnessed or heard direct reports of Milburn’s actions, and some had begun comparing their stories and notes. Still, Milburn continued to work at First Christian youth events.

However, Milburn’s time in St. Louis was apparently over. He moved to California in late 2012, removing himself from the scene of community suspicion. With Milburn out of their lives, Varvil and other church members made no attempt to alert his new church, Real Life Church in Valencia, which later said in a statement that Milburn had come “highly recommended by a pastor from Saint-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 arrested long before that, according to the lawsuit, arguing that Wingfield was a commissioned reporter and knew enough about the youth minister’s inappropriate behavior to act on that information:

“The defendants had a choice of firing Milburn, watching him more closely, or avoiding controversy and encouraging Milburn to continue doing what he was doing,” the lawsuit states. “The defendants chose to avoid controversy and the consequence of that choice was prejudice to the plaintiff.”

As for Wingfield, he and other church leaders mounted an aggressive defense following Milburn’s arrest. In April 2014, First Christian filed a lawsuit against Varvil and other whistleblowers, accusing them of defamation and demanding $25,000 in damages and for Varvil to drop public criticism.

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

Attorney Nicole Gorovsky defended Varvil in the 2014 libel lawsuit. She now represents Doe in his lawsuit against Wingfield and First Christian.

“One of the things that people should be aware of with child sex victims is how difficult it is to come forward,” she says. “Once someone processes that trauma, they become strong enough to realize that someone has to be held accountable, and they realize they have to do something about it.”

“The church,” she adds, “must be held accountable for what they have done here.”

Wingfield remains First Christian’s senior pastor. the RFT contacted the church to comment on the lawsuit, but did not hear back.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. Email the author at [email protected]

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