CLAYTON • A Florissant church has sought to withdraw a defamation lawsuit it filed seeking to silence its pastor’s critics, including a woman who raised issues about a man later convicted of child sexual abuse, her lawyers said Tuesday.
Pastor Steve Wingfield and the First Christian Church of Florissant filed a dismissal motion Monday because they “have invited an independent Christian mediation process and as a sign of good faith,” the motion says.
Lawyer James Wyrsch Jr., who represents the church and pastor, referred questions to Wingfield.
Wingfield issued a statement Tuesday that said, in part, that the suit “was an effort to seek temporary relief from individuals publishing and promoting a false accusation.”
He added, “We are making sincere efforts to invite private conversation, extending grace to bring resolve and healing.”
Nicole Gorovsky, an attorney who represents one of the defendants, Dawn Varvil, said that her client was not involved in mediation and it was not clear what the motion means.
The case centers around a former church volunteer, Brandon Milburn, and what Wingfield was told about Milburn in 2012.
Milburn, now 28, is serving a 25-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in January to seven counts of statutory sodomy. He had been charged with the crimes in February 2014, accused of molesting minors in 2007. In between, he had moved to Valencia, Calif.
The civil suit, filed April 16 in St. Louis County Circuit Court in Clayton, alleged that the months after Milburn’s guilty plea saw an escalating pattern of “harassment” directed at Wingfield by those who said he had failed to act on a 2012 conversation with Varvil. The suit said critics claimed that Wingfield was told of suspected sexual abuse and that Milburn exposed himself to five minors from the church.
Wingfield’s suit said Varvil only spoke of concerns about Milburn spending “too much time with a minor.”
The suit said Varvil had denied any concerns about sexual abuse.
The suit accused Wingfield’s detractors of defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress and “injurious falsehood.”
Wingfield had unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order that would have silenced Varvil and four others, including a former church pastor, and ordered them to delete any of the alleged false statements from social media and retract them. Among the writings and Facebook postings were a 23-page document that later expanded to 41 pages, the suit said.
The suit also claimed that the church lost members and money due to the controversy.
Lawyers for defendant Douglas Lay, a church member and professor at St. Louis Christian College, were the first to seek the suit’s dismissal. Lay’s lawyers, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, said in court filings that Lay essentially only quoted Varvil, and that his chief concern was whether the church was making a serious effort to seek out other potential victims of Milburn.
Varvil’s lawyers said that Wingfield’s suit did not contain facts sufficient to support the allegations. Church members may be voting with their feet and their wallets, the lawyers said, because of Milburn’s crimes or because of Wingfield’s lawsuit.
Defense lawyers also insisted that a court could not restrain Wingfield’s critics from exercising their freedom to speak about the matter.
Gorovsky said that Varvil did not accuse Wingfield of committing the crime of failing to report child abuse, as the suit said, and therefore did not defame him.