Theological Seminary Settlement
An evangelical seminary in Dallas has settled a fourth lawsuit claiming that it knowingly allowed a child molester to graduate, enabling him to have access to boys he’d rape years later as a North Texas pastor.
Dallas Theological Seminary required that Jon Gerrit Warnshuis undergo counseling before receiving his diploma in 1992 — but didn’t report the allegation to law enforcement or tell future employers, according to the lawsuit.
Nearly a decade later, Warnshuis was convicted in Denton County for sexually abusing three boys. He is serving a 40-year prison sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2021.
His victims sued the seminary, as well as Oak Hills Community Evangelical Free Church in Argyle and Warnshuis, claiming that the school created dangerous conditions for future congregants by granting Warnshuis a diploma.
“Warnshuis was thus cloaked with all the powers, appearances, and indices of a Man of God that permitted him to infiltrate the community earning the trust of the victims, their families, the congregation and the community at large,” the latest lawsuit said.
That lawsuit, filed in January, was settled in August. The two other victims sued in Dallas County in 2008 and 2009 and settled their cases in 2010. The terms of the settlements with the seminary were not disclosed in any of the cases, and the church was dropped as a defendant in all three. Another suit was settled in Tarrant County in 2005.
The victim who filed the latest lawsuit will use the money to pay for therapy, attend college and marry his fiancée, said attorney Tom McElyea, who represented all four victims in their civil cases.
“More than anything, the lawsuit gave him a chance to have a voice,” McElyea said.
‘A second chance’
Warnshuis was set to graduate from the seminary in May 1988, but was kept from graduation after allegations were made against him. The morning of his commencement, a man told school president Donald Campbell that Warnshuis had molested his 13-year-old son and asked that he get counseling and be separated from young boys, the 2009 lawsuit alleged.
An attorney advised Campbell that Texas law did not require him to report Warnshuis to law enforcement, Campbell testified. Seminary officials required him to attend sessions with Richardson psychologist Stephen Ash.
“Dr. Ash stated that Defendant Warnshuis was unable to be involved with minors or teens and that Defendant Warnshuis should give up the ministry altogether as it relates to teens,” McElyea wrote in the 2008 lawsuit.
Ash wrote a letter to the school in 1991 claiming that Warnshuis had addressed the root of his problems — his father’s death — according to a 2009 deposition. The letter has since been lost, and it’s unclear whether it was intended as an endorsement of Warnshuis’ safety or an update on his progress.
Former seminary chaplain Bill Bryan testified in 2009 that the letter “requested that Dallas Theological Seminary permit [Warnshuis] to graduate” and that the seminary “would not have granted the degree but for receipt of the letter clearing Warnshuis and the recommendation of Dr. Ash that Warnshuis receive his degree.”
The seminary’s attorneys said Ash wrote that he “didn’t think that [Warnshuis] was a danger to boys anymore and that they could go ahead and graduate him.”
In a subsequent letter, Ash asked for feedback about the “letter of three months ago recommending the seminary grant Jon his degree,” according to court documents.
In 1992, Warnshuis graduated with a master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.
“We believe that people should be given a second chance if they turn their lives around,” Campbell told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in August 2001.
Oak Hills church officials say they followed a normal hiring process for Warnshuis, calling the seminary before inviting him to become their pastor in 1996.
Seminary officials testified that they have no records of that call and emphasized that Warnshuis could have been hired without the school’s certification.
As a pastor, Warnshuis spent much of his time with the congregation’s boys, even inviting them to sleepovers at his home.
“I was only really happy when I was working with the boys,” Warnshuis wrote in an undated letter to his mother, according to a 2002 Star-Telegram article.
One boy’s father told the newspaper that he’d directed his son to Warnshuis for spiritual guidance in the late 1990s. That night, the pastor molested the 13-year-old for the first time, the boy’s father said.
“I had peace and fulfillment, only to turn on them and betray them,” Warnshuis wrote to his mother, the Star-Telegram reported.
Investigators believe Warnshuis could be responsible for sexually assaulting several more children, both in North Texas and California, where he lived before enrolling in the seminary.
Title IX guidelines published in 1997 require that sexual-assault allegations be reported to authorities, but it’s unclear whether the seminary changed any disciplinary policies before the legal change.
The accusations against Warnshuis made the seminary “more aware of what they needed to do, as a result of what needed to happen,” seminary attorney Tom Brandon said this month. “It’s really a shame that it had to happen.”
Correction, 6:45 p.m., September 24, 2018: An earlier version of this article did not include information about a fourth lawsuit in Tarrant County.