At least 20 allegations of abuse against former Austin pastor

KXAN Investigates, Texas/May 9, 2024

By David Barer, Avery Travis

Austin – For decades, Dr. Helen Maidment carried mixed memories of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in North Austin.

On one side, there was the joy of a fulfilling spiritual and social life centered around the church. Her husband started a church camp, and they hosted parties with church friends.

“But in the shadows, there were things that weren’t so good,” Maidment told KXAN.

That was the other side: pain from the disturbing memory of a sexual assault, she alleges, by Gethsemane’s former pastor in 1998. Maidment said she pushed that memory to the back of her mind, but it weighed on her for decades, at times even making it hurt to breathe.

Last November, it was finally too much, she said.

So, she came forward and called Bishop Sue Briner, who oversees the Southwestern Texas Synod – a collection of Lutheran congregations that includes Gethsemane and are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA.

Briner initiated an investigation that turned up many more allegations beyond Maidment’s.

The revelations of sexual misconduct caused an upheaval for the church. In February, Gethsemane’s longtime senior pastor submitted his letter of retirement after some of the women who came forward accused him of knowing about the sexual misconduct and failing to act. The pastor said he refutes accusations he knew of misconduct, and it was his time, at the age of 82, to move on to the next chapter.

According to Briner’s investigative report, there were at least 20 people with credible allegations against Gethsemane’s former assistant pastor, Vance Daniel, who died in 2000.

KXAN began looking into the allegations after receiving copies of Briner’s report in the mail and multiple emails from women who alleged abuse. KXAN’s investigation would ultimately involve more than two dozen record requests filed in jurisdictions across the country where Daniel worked, as well as conversations and interviews with multiple women who said they were abused.

The allegations against Daniel date back nearly 50 years to his time at Hutto Lutheran Church, where he worked in the 1970s and early 1980s before Gethsemane.

Maidment said her incident happened in 1998. The exact day is etched in her memory because she had just learned of her father’s death.

‘Forcing me back’

Maidment recalls she was finishing a grueling shift at Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital, where she worked as a kidney specialist. She slept fitfully that night and was exhausted the next morning when she heard someone at her door. It was Daniel; he had dropped by unannounced. By that time, Daniel was retired.

Maidment figured he came to console her.

“I let him in, and the next thing I knew, he was all over me,” Maidment said. “He was forcing me back against the sofa and trying to force me down.”

Maidment, a small-statured woman disabled in her childhood by polio, said she managed to kick Daniel off her. He then hastily left the house, she said.

The next time she saw him, Daniel acted as if nothing had happened, she said.

Maidment said she made the decision not to go to police at that point because she didn’t want to be stopped from traveling back to her native New Zealand to mourn with her family.

She told an associate pastor about the incident a few years later, but nothing was done about it, she said. Maidment said she decided to push the memory back and carry on, remaining at the church until 2016.

Church investigative findings

People alleging they were victims of Daniel date back to his time at Hutto Lutheran Church, “including confirmation-aged children,” according to the church’s investigation. It added, “these allegations included groping women’s chests and inner thighs, as well as pinning one of them to the wall during counseling.”

During the course of the investigation, Briner’s committee did 35 interviews and corresponded with 70 individuals, according to the report KXAN obtained.

Five women said they went to Karl Gronberg, the former senior pastor of Gethsemane, and informed him of the abuse, but nothing was done.

“After he failed to act, several of them went with their husbands to two bishops. Nothing was done, and, as a result, Pastor Daniel was able to victimize more women,” according to the investigation.

KXAN spoke with another woman who came forward during the investigation. She asked that her name not be revealed in this story because of the nature of the allegations and her desire for privacy.

Misconduct ignored?

Like Maidment, Gethsemane was a cornerstone of this woman’s life. She was in the choir and did weekly Bible studies. Her children were baptized at the church roughly 40 years ago.

“It was a church family,” she said. “It was good, good times.”

But that changed one day, she said, when Daniel gave her a hug. During the embrace, Daniel “rubbed his body against me” in a way she described as inappropriate.

From that point forward, she recalled how she held books in front of her whenever she was around Daniel to block him from an embrace. Later, during a discussion at Bible study, she said another woman brought up her own discomfort with Daniel.

“Then that opened the floodgates,” she added.

She said the women and their husbands invited Gronberg to one of their houses and explained the allegations to him. However, she claims nothing was done, even after the group escalated its complaint to two bishops in place at the time.

The alleged sexual misconduct happened in the mid-80s. It was a different time, in terms of reporting sexual abuse or misconduct, and women, generally, weren’t coming forward to report abuse, she said.

They felt they wouldn’t be taken seriously, and they didn’t consider going to the police, she said. They just wanted Daniel removed, at least from duties dealing with the congregation.

She didn’t want to go to the church’s council over it, and she didn’t want the church to be split over the allegations.

“So rather than having a scandal, we simply left,” she said. “We all left about the same time, and we went to different churches and started a safe home at a different church.”

Both of the former bishops who allegedly failed to act have since died, according to Briner’s investigation.

Cloudy history

Daniel’s pastoral work with the Lutheran Church stretched across Texas and the Southeast back to the mid-1940s. He died in 2000 at the age of 81, according to church records.

KXAN filed record requests at more than 30 law enforcement offices with jurisdiction where Daniel was a pastor. The locations include Salisbury, Sanford and Kings Mountain, North Carolina; as well as Decatur and Albany in Georgia; and Harlingen, Sugarland, Hutto and Austin in Texas.

No police department, sheriff’s office or district attorney in those areas has provided any record of complaints, arrests or charges against Daniel. Several departments did not respond to KXAN’s requests. It is possible that any records, if they ever existed, would have been destroyed decades ago because of their age and retention schedules for law enforcement documents, which vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Bishops leading synods in North Carolina and Georgia told KXAN they both received Briner’s investigation. They said they are taking the allegations seriously and disclosing the findings to congregations where Daniel was posted.

Tim Smith, Bishop of the North Carolina Synod, said church policy dictates that his synod conduct “disclosures” with the information.

“Disclosures is when you go to a congregation affected and announce what you have found and you have found to be credible,” Smith said. “A number of victims have come forward in Southwest Texas alone. That is enough to make this a very credible reality, and it is from a long time ago.”

Smith said he checked Daniel’s church file from his time in North Carolina and found nothing indicating there was a process to remove him from his post.

Bishop Kevin Strickland, leader of the Southeastern Synod of the Lutheran Church based in Georgia, said Daniel’s time working in Georgia was so long ago that it was prior to the current denomination’s formation, one of the congregations closed and the other has no living members left.

“The ELCA takes seriously sexual misconduct of any kind. No matter when it has occurred,” Strickland said in a statement, referring to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which the Texas, Georgia and North Carolina synods are a part. “We have zero tolerance for these things and we do as Bishop Briner has done to follow all the necessary steps. I am so sorry for the victims and the hurt they carry. My prayers surround them.”

In April, Smith and Strickland said no one has made additional allegations against Daniel since their disclosures.

A trend toward transparency

Briner and the other synod leaders’ openness in acknowledging the allegations is part of a broader trend across many denominations to increase transparency. That’s a departure from how some churches, such as the Catholic Church, handled sexual misconduct in the past, said Joseph Laycock, a Texas State University associate professor of religious studies.

“There was an attitude of, ‘We all know this goes on, but we just don’t talk about it.’ Fortunately, things have started to change,” Laycock said. “The Me Too movement has, I think, emboldened some people to come forward with their stories.”

With changes to the social environment in America, allegations like those in the Gethsemane investigation may become more common, Laycock told KXAN in an interview.

Through his research, he believes churches should see that transparency can be a better solution than suppressing negative information in the hope of avoiding collateral damage.

“I think once churches come forward, and they are honest about what happened and transparent about what they’ve tried to do to make it right, they will see that this is actually a much better solution to the problem,” Laycock said. “Hopefully, the temptation to try to sweep things under the rug or to protect predators in order to protect the reputation of the church will no longer be seen as a viable option.”

It seems unlikely any more allegations may come up, given how long ago Daniel worked.

Daniel was a pastor in North Carolina and Georgia in the 1940s and 50s. Even a young congregant at that time would likely be over 80 years old now, or more.

“As painful as this experience has been, we are grateful for Bishop Briner and all involved in bringing this situation to light. Bishop Briner has been very supportive of the congregation, and has personally been in communication with the survivors at Hutto Lutheran Church and offered access to mental health services,” Hutto Lutheran’s statement said.

Gronberg, who retired from his post as Gethsemane senior pastor after the investigation was released, has strongly denied any knowledge of allegations against Daniel prior to Briner’s investigation. He has also condemned the investigative process and its impact on his former congregation.

Pushing back against allegations

Since the Bishop’s investigation began, many in the Gethsemane congregation have supported Gronberg.

On Feb. 18 – with full knowledge of the contents of Briner’s investigation – the congregation voted to keep Gronberg as its pastor.

Despite the vote in his favor, he submitted his letter of retirement to the Gethsemane congregation a day later, saying he and his wife were “ready to move on into the next chapter of our lives,” according to the letter.

He noted the difficulty the investigation brought to the congregation.

“These last two months have felt like a wilderness where the work and the people I have loved for over 50 years were lost to me. Our collective pain has been immense,” Gronberg wrote in his letter of retirement.

Gronberg communicated with KXAN through an attorney, Matt Anthony, who represented the pastor during Briner’s investigation.

In a Feb. 13 letter to the Gethsemane community, Gronberg flatly denied any knowledge of the allegations against Daniel prior to the Bishop’s investigation beginning in 2023. He described Briner’s references to him in the investigation report as defamatory and the allegations “untrue.”

“Had I been made aware of concerns about Pastor Daniel from our congregants or from any previous call, I would never have refused to act on such concerns,” he said.

Gronberg noted five of his children were frequently in contact with Daniel over the years.

“I never would have allowed that if I had reason to believe his actions were inappropriate, especially if I knew of any suspicion of sexual misconduct,” Gronberg said in the letter.

Gronberg’s lawyer noted his client has been in ministry for 57 years and was never reprimanded or disciplined. He also received “dozens” of letters of support from former and current members of the congregation, according to a statement provided by the attorney.

“It is a shame that such a legacy is being tarnished by a severely flawed process completely devoid of the most fundamental tenets of due process,” Gronberg’s attorney said in a statement to KXAN.

“Pastor Gronberg is grieved when any victim is harmed by someone they trust,” his attorney went on. “He is praying for those who have stated they were victimized by Pastor Daniel and hopes they will receive the help and support they need. His compassion and prayers for all who claim to be victims remain steadfast.”

In response to the statement sent by Gronberg’s attorney, Briner reiterated that her investigation’s findings were “backed up by multiple survivors/witnesses” of both the abuse and Gronberg’s and another pastor’s inaction, she said in an email.

“This entire process has taken months of painstaking work by the bishop’s committee and myself, with the full support and counsel of synod and ELCA leadership,” Briner said.

‘Undo all of the good’

Gronberg’s attorney also sent KXAN more than two dozen letters he said are from people expressing their support for the former Gethsemane pastor. Gronberg and many of the letter writers have condemned Briner’s methods and investigation.

Gronberg and his attorney declined an on-camera interview.

Prior to his retirement, Gronberg said in a letter to Gethsemane that he wanted to remain on the roster of retired clergy to participate in weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

However, in late April, he withdrew that request just before a synod council adopted a recommendation to reject his retired status, after the unanimous vote of a Committee of Deans within the church.

That meant he cannot “perform any duties or acts associated with the ministry of Word and Sacrament within the ELCA, nor use the title of Pastor,” according to a letter signed by Briner.

The committee also voted to remove a former Gethsemane associate pastor, Kent Bohls, from the roster. According to a letter from Briner to Southwest Texas Synod ministers, Bohls was also made aware of abuse and did not act on it.

He provided the following statement to KXAN, “During my time as a pastor at Gethsemane Lutheran Church until after Vance Daniel died in 2000, I did not observe and was not informed of anything that would have made me think Helen or any other woman had been abused by Vance Daniel. I was disheartened to learn of the allegations of him in November, 2023. I have cooperated with church authorities during this investigation. I pray for healing and recovery for the victims of abuse.”

Moving forward

Briner’s office has acknowledged the difficulty the investigation placed on Gethsemane and its pastors.

Moving forward, Briner said the church would commit to repenting and taking action to prevent future problems, including by strengthening requirements for active and retired rostered leaders.

The current church council of Gethsemane provided a statement, addressing their move forward following the investigation and change in pastors.

“Gethsemane Lutheran Church is deeply saddened by the recent statements and takes this matter seriously. The safety and well-being of our congregation are of the utmost importance, and we are fervently praying for those affected,” the statement said. “Abuse of any kind has no place in our church. Gethsemane Lutheran is a church called by grace and led by faith, and we strive to be a community where faith and friendships are nurtured in a safe, accepting and affirming manner. We hold firm in the belief that God and our church can be an instrument of love and healing for all.”

Hutto Lutheran’s Pastor, Amanda Ullrich, provided a statement to KXAN acknowledging the accusations by members of her church dating back to the ‘70s and ‘80s.

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