Two Elders Resign from Proclamation Church Over Mishandling of Abuse Allegations

New information has been released about an alleged abuse cover-up at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Part of the Philadelphia Metro West Presbytery, Proclamation was founded in 1988 and has a well-connected history in the PCA. Her first senior pastor was Rev. Dr. Peter Lilliback, now president of Westminster Theological Seminary.

John M. "Jack" Templeton, Jr, son of Sir John Templeton, founder of the Templeton Foundation, was instrumental in funding the building project for the current Proclamation church in Bryn Mawr. His influence is acknowledged in this eulogy given at his memorial service in 2015 at Proclamation.

Dr. David Garner, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and executive council member of the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN), served as Teaching Pastor at Proclamation from 2012-2015. Proclamation is also a GRN supporting church along with Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia.

Proclamation's third and current senior pastor, Ben Falconer, was previously assistant pastor at University Reformed Church under Senior Pastor Kevin DeYoung who currently serves as senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina.

On December 20, 2023 an anonymous commenter on shared the following 2022 letter to the congregation from Dr. Samuel Jones, a former elder at Proclamation.

February 26, 2022
Dear Proclamation Church Members:
We are writing because we feel we can no longer remain silent about a reported sexual misconduct cover-up that has occurred at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA. We want to share the details of what reportedly happened and of how we believe it has been mismanaged. This reported unwanted sexual touching was committed by a church elder (who has not attended in over three years), involved what we believe to be at least twelve reported victims including two minors, and spanned at least ten years. We are calling on the leadership to bring in a qualified independent, third party to investigate.
These are the key facts, as we understand them, about the reported sexual abuse. In early 2018 a group of women made statements to the session. (The session is the ruling body of elders in the church.) They brought complaints against an elder who was also a church employee, reportedly saying he had engaged in unwanted sexual touching. Since then we have learned of other reported victims; we can name twelve. The reported touching spanned the course of years; we have learned of previous reported victims going back to around 2008. Collectively, the women reportedly told of a wide spectrum of unwanted conduct by the elder (the hugging and cheek kissing being the most frequent reported behavior): ● Long hugs ● Kiss on the cheek, could feel his saliva ● Kisses on the corner of the mouth ● Kisses close to the mouth and on the mouth when he seemed to “miss” the cheek. ● Inappropriate comments about clothing, “I can see your underwear” ● Touched stomachs ● Zipped hoodies (yes, over her breasts) ● Placed his head on a woman’s breasts ● Rubbed shoulders ● Rubbed back along a bra strap ● Caressed lower backs during hugs (especially to teen girls)
One woman who came forward further explained this elder was the shepherding elder for at least one of the women. He reportedly seemed to time his meetings so they would meet up alone in the church to have “elder meetings” with them where the reported unwanted sexual touching would occur. He reportedly never did this when their husbands were present. Some reported victims described a period of time leading up to the touching in which they were flattered and gossiped to about other church staff, as if he were bringing them into his circle of confidence. There are additional reported facts that we are choosing not to share to protect the identities of the reported victims.
The women who came forward in 2018 were questioned by the session and session elders reportedly found the accounts to be credible. The reported victims say the tone of the questioning was antagonistic, that they were put on the defensive. The women said that the experience of being questioned by the session was even more traumatizing than the abuse. One elder reportedly asked why they had not come forward sooner.
What was the initial response of the church leadership in 2018 when they heard the women’s stories? Two church elders reportedly took the reported offender aside and spoke with him. He reportedly did not deny the touching of the women who came forward (at this time the teens were unknown). The leaders who spoke to the reported offender said they found him to be sufficiently contrite. They reportedly put a letter into his personnel file and asked him to not touch women anymore. The congregation was never informed that reported unwanted sexual touching had taken place or that the reported offender was allowed to continue in fellowship.
We believe the leadership should have immediately asked the following questions and taken action to find the answers: Are there any additional victims? Were any children touched? (Two teen victims were later discovered.) How many years has this been happening? Did this reported offender touch women at any previous churches or in other settings? We believe the session demonstrated poor judgment by not investing further.
We believe the congregation should have been told that multiple women had made credible statements against this reported offender. He should have been publicly removed from our congregation. The leadership should have led us in a time of mourning for the reported damage this man caused. They should have given any additional victims the opportunity to come forward for trauma-informed counseling. The healing of our church would have begun immediately. Instead, we are four years into near-total silence to the congregation on the topic. What does this silence communicate to the victims? What does the lack of transparency tell these women (and all women) about their value to the church? Unfortunately the story gets worse for the reported victims.
After they came forward, multiple reported victims expressed concern to the session about their reported abuser sitting so near them during worship service. One woman reportedly spent services double checking that her skirt was pulled down as far as possible, and that her chest was sufficiently covered. Another reported victim’s relative finally confronted the reported offender directly and asked him to not sit so closely. The leadership finally asked the reported offender to sit in the balcony.
Within weeks of the women coming forward and the elders’ inaction, the reported offender again touched one of his victims. The church leadership “forced” him into retirement. (The reported victims were told he was fired.) They ensured that he was never alone in the building. His keys were taken away. However, the congregation was still not told of the reported abuse in their midst, or that his retirement was forced. He was reportedly allowed to complete his employment so that his benefits would time with his exit. And what the 2018 session did next shows either complete lack of judgment or a total lack of care for the emotions of the victims. THE CHURCH THREW THE REPORTED OFFENDER A PARTY! Yes, the church threw him a retirement party, with cake. Two elders reportedly gave glowing speeches thanking him for his years of service; at least one of the reported victims listened to the speeches in total disbelief. Both of the elders who gave speeches had reportedly been present when the women gave their statements against the reported offender.
Here is a further misstep of the session. The women who came forward were reportedly pressured to “reconcile” with their reported abuser based on Matthew 18. One reported victim met with the reported offender. Two other reported victims refused to meet with him unless he acknowledged wrongdoing in writing. He refused. Victims should NEVER feel pressured (especially under the guise of Matthew 18) to meet with an abuser who is unrepentant. Here is a TGC article explaining that folly.
It was not known that the reported offender had reportedly touched a minor until some weeks after the group of women came forward, and this was kept secret. (The second reported minor was not known yet.) A couple met with the pastor and revealed that their daughter had been touched by the reported offender as a teenager, ten years prior. At this meeting the parents asked to have the reported offender’s eldership revoked. This did not happen. (While the reported offender voluntarily stepped down as elder at Proclamation, he retains his eldership in our denomination.) The pastor neither revealed this conversation to the session, nor did he report it to the police or to social services. The same couple returned to the pastor in 2020 to again ask for the reported offender’s eldership removal. We understand that it wasn’t until January of 2022 that the other church elders were told there were minors among the reported victims. So many questions should have been raised after the first meeting including “Are there more teen victims?” “Could there be even younger minors who were victims?” “Just how bad might the abuse have been?” It wasn’t until the fall of 2021, that we learned of and spoke to another reported teenage victim. (FYI, the abuse was reported to the police in January 2022.) To hear the stories of the women being reportedly touched as teenagers is heartbreaking.
Teenager One – This woman described the reported offender frequently touching her during a two year span when she was in high school. He hugged her tightly, kissed her on the cheek, and placed his hand on her lower back. She told the story of knowing which hallway he frequently stood in, and always walking past quickly to try to avoid him. Yes, one of our youth came to church each week with her mind focused on how to avoid one of our elders/employee and his touches. See Appendix C for this victim’s letter to the session on February 6, 2022.
Teenager Two – This woman described being touched in high school and college. The reported offending elder would hug her and kiss her and place his hand on her lower back. She has memories that his hand seemed to get lower and lower each time. She shared a clear memory of standing in the back of the sanctuary one day, and the reported offender greeting her as usual. But this time she had a moment of realization that his hand was “lower than it had ever been.” She decided from then on to try to actively avoid him. Yes, another one of our youth came to church each week with her mind focused on how to avoid one of our elders/employee who would reportedly engage her in unwanted sexual touching.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt. 19:14 NIV).
In the four years since the women came forward, efforts were made by a few to bring the abuse into the light. Conversations were had in which the leadership was asked to revisit their decision to remain silent. It was pointed out that the sexual abuse should be handled differently. Requests for an independent third party investigation were made. It wasn’t until the fall of 2021 that the leadership took any concrete additional action.
In the fall of 2021, the pastor hand selected a committee (of himself and three other elders) to review the church’s response to the reported sexual abuse in 2018. Of the four men on the committee, three of them were involved in the initial 2018 session which covered up these actions. How could a committee like that remain unbiased? They formed a committee to review themselves? That seems unethical, and certainly unwise. It is a further lapse in judgment. When Sam as a new elder volunteered to join the committee (with the support of another elder), the session voted against adding him.
In the summer of 2021, a church couple told us about the abuse. Over the course of about three months, Becky had heartbreaking conversations with four more reported victims of this reported offender and Sam spoke with a fifth. Two of the women Becky talked with had been teenagers when the reported offender repeatedly touched them. Becky asked some key women in the church to pray about how to make things right. In December 2021, Becky met with the pastor to discuss her concerns. She was accompanied by two women. In January 2022, she met with the committee to share reported victim stories and to ask for an independent third-party investigation.
There is a specific third party organization that a group of us has urged the church to hire. They are called GRACE – Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. They specialize in church sexual abuse investigations from a Christian perspective. The reason we have mentioned this group by name is because of their outstanding track record. They have also been used extensively by other churches within our PCA denomination (e.g., Tate’s Creek, PCA). They have a full-orbed staff, including pastors, attorneys, counselors, former victims, and investigators. We believe they would come in as unbiased consultants to give the church recommendations on how to proceed. The other reason we recommended GRACE is that there are not really any equivalent organizations that would be on par with this group. The church might find an organization that would work with sexual abuse victims, but GRACE would do both that and look into the church leadership’s actions. GRACE simply stands out in the field. Dr. Diane Langberg is a premier expert on church sexual abuse and here she writes on how to select an organization to investigate and advise when abuse occurs. Also, See Appendix C for one reported victim’s letter to the session on February 6, 2022 where she specifically asks for GRACE to be used.
In January and February of 2022, the session voted down the option of bringing in a third party. They decided to continue to handle the reported sexual abuse themselves. They chose not to tell the congregation at that time. At this point Sam resigned his eldership in protest, and formally withdrew our family’s membership from the church. Becky also resigned as a bible study leader. (See Appendix for Sam’s letter of resignation)
When Sam was still an elder on the session, any discussion he heard of third parties focused on reconciliation and mediation. It is premature to talk of reconciliation. We need a party to investigate the actions of the perpetrator and the response of the session. A reconciliation and mediation group would not thoroughly review the leadership’s response in 2018. The leaders, especially those on the 2018 session, must be open to a fact-finding investigation. While we appreciate that acting somewhere on the spectrum between poor judgment (unintended coverup) and purposeful concealment (intended coverup) puts the session in an uncomfortable place, these actions must be fully brought into the light by the right organization.
We are writing this letter to you with a few goals in mind. First, we believe you have the right to know. Second, we hope that you might join in the belief that a qualified independent third party must conduct the investigation, and make your voice known to the leadership that this is what you want to happen. Lastly, if an independent third party investigation is not conducted in 2022, we pray for a future set of people at Proclamation to have the courage to seek the whole truth of what happened and make proper Christian amends for the church’s past.
Sincere Regards in Christian Fellowship, Dr. Samuel and Becky Jones
Former Proclamation members, elder, women’s Bible study facilitator, adult Sunday school teacher, toddler Sunday school teacher, choir member, and nursery volunteer

The commenter added

"P.S. Since this letter has been written, ruling elder Rob Haviland has also resigned over similar concerns. Rob and Marcie have asked that their membership be withdrawn."

About the author 

Lynna Sutherland

Lynna has been in the PCA since 1982. Four generations of her family have participated in PCA church planting. Lynna has been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and her particular calling is to equip the people in the pew to understand their church government and to advocate for victims of abuse in the PCA.

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