Boulder DA cites VineLife Church's 'disturbing culture of secrecy' in sex-abuse cover-up

By Mitchell Byars
Daily Camera
July 20, 2015

Walter Roberson

Jason Roberson

Robert Young

Edward Bennell

Warren Williams

Boulder prosecutors allege the four VineLife Church officials accused of covering up reports that a youth pastor at the church sexually assaulted a teenaged congregant have refused to accept responsibility for their actions and created a "disturbing culture of secrecy and non-disclosure" at the church.

"At the heart of this case is a local church's coordinated effort to conceal a victim's report of repeated acts of sexual abuse — perpetrated by a youth pastor, the son of one of the church's elders — from the church's own congregation, the local community and law enforcement in Boulder County," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed in the case.

VineLife pastors Walter Roberson and Robert Young, as well as church elders Warren Williams and Edward Bennell, are due in Boulder County Court for sentencing Wednesday after pleading no contest to failure to report child abuse, a Class 3 misdemeanor.

According to the memorandum prepared by the Boulder County District Attorney's Office, prosecutors are asking a judge to sentence the four men to either eight days on a jail work crew or 100 hours of community service.

In the memorandum, prosecutors say they initially were going to seek just 36 hours of community service, but "the defendants' continued refusal to accept any responsibility for their actions warrants a harsher sentence than what was originally contemplated."

Attorneys for all four men did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Officials at VineLife Church, located at 7845 Lookout Road in unincorporated Boulder County, also did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

Cited for failure to report abuse

In 2013, VineLife youth Pastor Jason Roberson was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust after a woman told police she and Roberson had an inappropriate relationship that began when she was 15 and continued for seven years.

Roberson pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of children and stalking, and was sentenced in 2014 to two years in state prison.

In connection with Roberson's case, police also ticketed Walter Roberson — the youth pastor's father — as well as Bennell, Young, Williams and another pastor, Luke Humbrecht, for allegedly failing to report the abuse.

Humbrecht already pleaded guilty and was given a deferred sentence.

According to the sentencing memorandum, all of the defendants knew about the victim's allegations against the younger Roberson, but did not report them and, in fact, tried to cover the allegations up while attempting to reinstate Jason Roberson as soon as possible to avoid public speculation.

"The investigation in this case uncovered a disturbing culture of secrecy and non-disclosure at VineLife. In the present case, the defendants' words and conduct make clear that they went to great lengths to keep the sexual abuse hidden and that their primary concern was protecting one of their own, Jason Roberson, rather than any meaningful concern for the victim, potential future victims, or the community in general."

Prosecutors claim the defendants knew about the reports of abuse in March 2013 and that state law required them to report them — something they did not do until July of that year, on the same day the victim sued the church.

That lawsuit has since been settled.

DA: Congregation 'groomed'

The DA's sentencing memo cites VineLife sermons as evidence that the church's pastors "essentially 'groomed' the congregation to be compliant with their non-disclosure of crime."

The prosecutors note a May 26, 2013, sermon by Walter Roberson — delivered two months after the victim came forward — in which he tells a story about a fictional church that discovered its bookkeeper was embezzling money, but declined to go to police because the embezzler was repentant and "the Bible tells us not to."

Walter Roberson added, in his sermon, that the fictional church's offerings doubled, "suggesting a financial reward or benefit for not disclosing a crime," prosecutors wrote in the memo.

"This sermon, and the conduct it is endorsing, is eerily similar to how perpetrators of sexual crimes groom their child victims to comply with illegal sexual behavior," the Boulder prosecutors wrote.

Additionally, in emails to the victim's father cited in the sentencing memo, church officials claimed that they "determined there was no reporting requirement" under state law, and that the church's goal was "protection and privacy... including not dumping this situation into the laps of an innocent VineLife congregation."

In another email cited in the document, Walter Roberson states that "the decisions we make are under His (God's) authority, not human government."

Ultimately, prosecutors argue that a stiffer sentence is warranted because the defendants still have refused to accept responsibility for their actions.

"The defendants have gone to great lengths to minimize any personal accountability for what occurred in this case," the memo reads. "Since the defendants continue to refuse to take responsibility for their decisions to ignore their duties as mandatory reporters, the people request a sentence that will give the defendants ample opportunity to reflect upon their choices and to prevent this situation from occurring in the future."



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