#ChurchToo: Women accuse Minnesota pastor of inappropriate conduct

- Suzanne van Dyck never thought she would return to Ft. Snelling State Park.

It was 30 years ago, when she was only 19, that she began coming here with Pastor Mark Darling, who was 31 at the time.

It was on those trips to the park, and in late night phone calls, and in the basement of the home Darling shared with his wife and children, that she says things got intimate with her pastor in a way she never wanted, or encouraged.

“He was very, very much in need of knowing everything sexual that I did,” said van Dyck. “He would ask me what kind of sexual positions I liked. What kind of sexual positions this guy I was dating liked. What I sounded like when I had an orgasm.”

“And then it became him hugging me. He’d have an erection, and not letting go.  And, feeling uncomfortable,” she added.

Van Dyck said things never went further. She alleges there were about 20 such episodes over the next five years. It stopped, she said, when she married her husband, John, who also became a pastor in the same church.  

“I was mentored by him,” said John van Dyck of Pastor Mark Darling. “Sad to say.”

COMING FORWARD, AGAIN

Pastor Mark Darling is one of the founding members of Evergreen Church, and lead pastor of The Rock in South Minneapolis. The Fox 9 Investigators have tried repeatedly for the last month to talk to Pastor Darling. Through a church spokesperson, he unequivocally denies the allegations.

On January 30, Evergreen placed Darling on administrative leave. An Evergreen spokesperson said the church has also hired an outside investigator to look into the allegations. Evergreen has also established a web page where it provides updates on the investigation.

On January 5, van Dyck wrote on Twitter: “Pastor who abused me is still in the pulpit though he was outed to other pastors that are still there. Tweet is for me and other women abused by Mark Darling and Evergreen Community Church.”

There was immediate criticism on social media from many current and former church members, but also voices of support.

Still others saw a pattern. “I said, ‘Wow, that thing happened to me,'” said Natalie Hoffman, who attended Evergreen in the 1990s.

“He would talk a lot about God and his vision, but I felt he was very obsessed with sex,” said Hoffman of Darling.

She also went on long walks with Darling in secluded woods. 

“I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I should be with him here all alone,’" said Hoffman. "And I remember feeling a little bit scared and kind of morbidly fascinated by the idea he might make a move on me there.”

Hoffman said he never did. Today, she said, “I call it spiritual abuse and manipulation with some sexual overtones.”

In response to van Dyck coming forward, Evergreen initially responded with a tweet of its own.

“Suzanne was fully heard on this matter 20 years ago,” the tweet began. “After careful listening and a thorough review of all the facts, the mediator was completely satisfied by the transparency and integrity of the Darlings’ and Evergreen Church’s response." 

In 2001, the van Dycks said they confronted Darling about his behavior with the assistance of a Christian counselor and therapist. The van Dycks said the session was attended by church leader Brent Knox, Darling and his wife. 

John van Dyck, who was a pastor with Evergreen at the time, said the church wanted to know the issues to be discussed in advance and limit any discussion of sexual topics, but that Suzanne brought up those issues anyway.   

“She was highly encouraged not to bring up specific indicting incidents,” said John van Dyck. 

The van Dycks said they left the session with an understanding that Darling would get counseling and step away from the pulpit for a time. To their knowledge, neither happened.

“He said all the right things,” said Suzanne van Dyck. “There were tears and a lot of I’m sorrys. And the I’m sorrys were, ‘I’m sorry you took it that way,’” she continued. “After, ‘What do you sound like when you have an orgasm?’ How are you supposed to take that?” 

Suzanne said two other women have given her anonymous statements about Pastor Darling that she posted on her Facebook page. The Fox 9 Investigators have confirmed the identity of one of the women who declined to go on-the-record.

But in her statement to Suzanne van Dyck, the woman writes, “After I was married, I remember sharing intimate details with Mark [Darling] about our sex life. I even shared private things about our honeymoon with him. I never would have done so… without being manipulated.”

MONEY AND NON-DISCLOSURE

In 2003, the van Dycks left Evergreen Church after returning from missionary work in Berlin with an affiliated group, Great Commission Ministries.

The van Dycks said Evergreen offered them $50,000 if he would sign a non-disclosure agreement.

“It felt like a buy off,” said John van Dyck. “They were asking us to move on, not say anything negative about the church, the organization, and in return we’d get a substantial sum of money.

Van Dyck said he did not sign the document.

Through a spokesperson, Evergreen disputes this. The church said John was employed by GCM, now known as Reliant Mission, not Evergreen.

But Evergreen’s spokesperson confirmed its Board of Trustees approved a severance package on October 13, 2003, which did not include a non-disclosure agreement.

John van Dyck said that severance was a $15,000 payment, and did not include a non-disclosure. But van Dyck disputes Evergreen’s characterization of the initial offer. Van Dyck said the non-disclosure discussion and offer came directly from staff at Evergreen. Reliant Mission did not reply to a request for comment.

After sweeping through the worlds of entertainment, journalism and politics, the #MeToo movement has landed this year at the pulpit of evangelical mega-churches.

Suzanne van Dyck said the #MeToo movement motivated her to come forward. 

“I am amazed what’s happened that the tables have turned,” she said.

In Memphis, mega church pastor Andy Savage stepped down in March, after admitting to coercive sexual conduct with a teenager 20 years ago when he was a youth minister. He confessed to the congregation, and it gave him a standing ovation.

In Chicago, Pastor Bill Hybels stepped down in April amid accusation of sexual harassment. According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, the behavior included “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.” Hybels denies the allegations.

“A core value is we are kind of better than the secular world, we are going to take care of issues in our way,” said Sheila Engelmeier, an attorney who has specialized in sexual harassment cases for more than 30 years representing both victims and the accused.

Engelmeier has handled dozens of cases involving religious organizations where the power dynamic is more unequal, she said, and more susceptible to misconduct. 

“So, what can be more powerful than to be close to God?” said Engelmeier.

Asked whether it is fair to retroactively address cases more than 20 years old, Engelmeier said it depends on how the allegations were initially handled. 

“It seems completely fair that somebody should be able to call out that organization until they handle it right,” said Engelmeier.

Evergreen has hired an independent investigator, attorney Joan Harris, to review Suzanne van Dyck’s allegations. But so far, Suzanne has declined to meet with the investigator.

Van Dyck wants an independent investigator that is mutually agreed upon, and a guarantee the results of the investigation will be made public.

Twenty years after she first brought allegations forward, she remains skeptical.  

“The most insidious thing about all of this is it was framed by Mark as care and love,” said van Dyck. “And it wasn’t.”

Statement from Evergreen Church spokesperson and operations manager, Lynn Newman

"Allegations by one individual have arisen claiming inappropriate sexual behavior prior to 2001 by Mark Darling, a pastor at The Rock in South Minneapolis, which is one of five Evergreen locations. General claims against Darling were first shared by this person through social media on January 5, 2018; more specific allegations were posted online on January 24, 2018. In addition, this person has implied that Evergreen Church was aware of the offensive behavior and did not act appropriately.

Evergreen first learned of these allegations on January 26, 2018, and has moved quickly to address them. Effective January 30, 2018, the Evergreen Board of Trustees placed Darling on paid administrative leave.

We take all allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously, although we are mindful that an allegation alone does not assign guilt. In an effort to discern the truth of these allegations – impartially and without bias – Evergreen hired a reputable, third party investigator, Joan Harris, Esq., from Ogletree Deakins, on February 9, 2018, to independently investigate the facts surrounding these claims. This investigation is ongoing.

Darling denies these allegations and is cooperating fully with this process. He is not performing any pastoral duties during the investigation, including teaching, counseling, or oversight. At the close of the investigation, the findings will be submitted to the Board to determine the appropriate next steps.
We have shared the news of these allegations and are providing updates on the status on our current investigation with the congregations at all five of Evergreen’s locations.

In an effort to protect the integrity of the investigation and those impacted by this process, please understand that it would be inappropriate for us to discuss the allegations with the media, or any other third party, while the investigation is underway. We will, however, be happy to provide you with updates to our congregations on the status of the investigation as they become available."

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