Tales from the Cult is a website dedicated to preserving important artifacts from a church in Eau Claire where horrific spiritual abuse took place over several years. If you haven’t read the About This Site page, please do so before reading any article here.
Additional Note for this Article:
About a year ago, this website published A Look at Current Valleybrook Leadership which was written by a former member of the Valleybrook community. This article is written by another former member of the Valleybrook community who helped spearhead the process of bringing legal action against Doug Lebsack and Mary Clark. As always, all claims have been vetted and verified by myself and some other former members of the Valleybrook community who are familiar with this particular topic.
After learning of Valleybrook’s decision not to pursue any legal action against former pastors for possible financial crimes, a group of several previous members explored options for justice. The reasons were:
- To protect future victimization of others by creating a legal trail that would minimize the ability of the allegedly abusive pastors to harm others. If a conviction resulted, it would show up on background checks that are commonly used in churches and other agencies, as well as in general information searches.
To deter others from trying to attempt financially fraudulent activities in churches by demonstrating that there are consequences; the result being that resources donated in good faith are used for legitimate ministry purposes.
To bring about justice for the many people who were abused spiritually, financially, psychologically, and emotionally at Valleybrook by offering an additional layer to their healing. We do not believe that financial abuse is the most devastating type, but it is one of the only areas for any legal recourse. It is also the easiest to prove because numbers are objective.
To show that while forgiveness is one of the most important facets of Christianity, it doesn’t mean that we excuse criminal acts and shield offenders from accountability and consequences.
To provide past donors access to the information that Valleybrook, while claiming to be transparent, withheld.
The first approach was to bring a summary of financial information, compiled from the notes taken by many in attendance at Valleybrook’s financial meeting, to the Eau Claire Police Department. A former member who now lives out of state called the police department to make sure that a complaint could be filed anonymously, due to the collective experiences of abuse and harassment experienced by group members. While all parties were willing to be identified at some point, they preferred to proceed unnamed if possible due to fear of retribution by both the former pastors and their followers, as well as the current leaders of Valleybrook Church, including members of the Transitional Leadership Team (TLT). The TLT had actually participated in some harassment toward people who disagreed with their decision.
After the initial call, a local party delivered a binder of information to the Eau Claire Police Department. The detective who received the information approached the Eau Claire District Attorney office and was given permission to investigate. To clarify, both the ECPD and the ECDA thought this was a case worthy of a criminal investigation. They were willing to dedicate law enforcement and court resources to this situation. The detective opened a case.1
One of the reporting parties spoke with the detective, who explained what would happen. He said that, while he was sympathetic to the many people who were involved in bringing this complaint to the ECPD, as individuals we were not the legal victim. We had given money to Valleybrook, and it was allegedly stolen from Valleybrook. It went from our pocket to theirs, and if it was stolen it was out of their pocket, not ours. He understood our position, but explained that legally we had no recourse. Only Valleybrook had the position of being the legal victim and only they could proceed with a criminal investigation against the former pastors. He said he would contact them to let them know it was an option and the ECPD was ready to proceed.
The individual representing the group of former Valleybrook members also discussed the investigative process with the detective. The police investigation could uncover information that Valleybrook’s internal investigation could not, because the PD would have access to subpoenas. Their computer experts could attempt to recover information that Doug Lebsack and Mary Clark had both admitted to deleting; Doug claiming it was inadvertent, and Mary claiming it was out of anger.2 They would be able to do a much more thorough investigation. The reporting party specifically asked if Valleybrook would have any financial obligation for this investigation and the answer was NO. Other than manpower required for cooperating with the detective, there would be no financial cost to Valleybrook. If the District Attorney decided the detective built a compelling case with the information available, it would become a criminal matter prosecuted by the State of Wisconsin.
The detective said he could arrest someone for probable cause, but the court process would determine guilt and consequence. Obviously, it would be more complicated if one of the defendants was out of state, but even then there were options.
The detective contacted Bryan Symes, Valleybrook’s legal representation from Ruder Ware in early February, 2016. Mr. Symes said he would call the detective back to schedule an appointment. According to the detective, he also mentioned that Valleybrook didn’t want to press civil charges because of the cost.
This comment was interesting since Valleybrook had just distributed a letter claiming their decision not to pursue legal action was a “directive from God.” The Transitional Leadership Team wrote 4 paragraphs about how “moving forward” was the clear biblical response. They did write one phrase that indicated there were other, possibly non-spiritual reasons “…we were aware of some practical kinds of considerations that only further confirmed for us the biblical directive to NOT bring suit.” Expense was never mentioned. Lack of evidence was never mentioned either, although it was talked about months later. Another additional “consideration” might have been related to a rumor about possible litigation from the accused pastors. Which would have been an interesting deterrent since Valleybrook leadership claimed on stage their faith in, dependence on, and trust in God. But perhaps a possible lawsuit loomed larger…
Bryan Symes did not schedule an appointment. The detective followed up with him 2 months later and at the beginning of April they chose April 20th, 2016 as an appointment date. Bryan Symes and two members of the TLT from Valleybrook were scheduled to meet with the detective. In an e-mail exchange to establish the meeting time, Bryan Symes wrote: “Valleybrook does desire to put this behind them to the extent possible.” When the detective asked for the information below, and explained that it was Valleybrook’s choice to participate, Valleybrook leadership cancelled the meeting. The case was closed on April 18, 2016.
This is what the detective initially requested from Valleybrook:
- A list of potential witnesses to interview, specifically those with first-hand knowledge of the alleged theft.
A designated liaison for me, which would be someone who could answer financial questions and confirm whether any specific transaction would be authorized or not.
Specific allegations of theft….when, how, how much, where, who benefited, etc.
How far back should the investigation go? It is not uncommon that embezzlement starts far earlier than an initial examination shows.
A documented complaint, whether written or typed, outlining the chronology of events.
Next Steps—Civil Options for Justice
The idea of Christians bringing forth a lawsuit is controversial, especially since Valleybrook claimed it would go against a “directive from God” in 1 Corinthians 6. Anyone who cares to do a more in-depth study on that passage will see there are many caveats and that a “dispute” between brothers is not necessarily the same as embezzlement by a pastor—financial fraud is criminal behavior. And since the former pastors refused to engage with Valleybrook, it is a stretch to call them a brother or sister and expect the issue to be resolved satisfactorily within the church. The issue was carefully studied and considered, and this group felt that allowing injustice to prevail is not consistent with important themes of the bible, and that 1 Corinthians 6 does not prohibit action in this situation.
Because Valleybrook seemed ambivalent about cooperating with a police investigation (based on the fact that their attorney did not initiate an appointment with the detective) the group of former Valleybrook members began to explore the possibility of pursuing civil litigation even before the criminal case was closed. The goals listed at the beginning of this summary were the same. Members of the group planned to donate any monies recovered.
Researching which area of law addresses lawsuits against a church or former pastors was an interesting journey! We contacted the law firm that is representing victims of the Catholic Church sexual abuse cover-up. We asked for referrals from attorneys with whom we had relationships. We ended up scheduling an appointment with a local attorney who has experience with church-related issues. This attorney normally charges $450/hr, but he met with the representatives of the group for 1.5 hours at no cost because he “shares their concerns, grief, and pain.” We had sent in the same summary that was presented to the Eau Claire Police Department and he and a legal aide reviewed it before our meeting on April 14, 2016.
Unfortunately the attorney delivered the same information as the detective: We as former donors to Valleybrook are not the legal victim. Once again, Valleybrook is the only one to be considered as the potentially defrauded party.
All possibilities were discussed—suing the overseers for their lack of any sort of control of the finances. This group did not have the legal standing to do that (same reason as above), and it is likely that the overseers would have statutory immunity anyway. What about the possibility of a lawsuit against Doug Lebsack and Mary Clark? Financially, same story—we are not the correct party to do so. And in either case, the attorney said it is unethical for him to charge money to pursue litigation if there is not a high likelihood of collectability on the other end. Many scenarios were asked about, and the same legal counsel was given that any case brought forth by this group would likely be dismissed. Not because Doug and Mary were innocent, but because Valleybrook was the only one who had the legal standing to bring suit.
As a side note, while group members were researching litigation options, slander would have been a possible litigable offense. Not every group member experienced this, but we mention for the benefit of those that did. Some states have “pastoral malpractice” laws, but Wisconsin does not.3 New Jersey is considering laws about “predatory alienation,” which would cover what the Hagedorns have experienced with their son Nate. Otherwise there are very few legal protections against spiritual abuse or psychological abuse by a member of the clergy. The attorney explained that because of the “separation of church and state” (not an actual phrase in the constitution, but a legal term), “internal governance of churches is left to churches.”
We, as former members of Valleybrook who sought justice, are sharing our story because we feel it contains information that others should have the ability to know. Valleybrook never publicly discussed the possibility of criminal charges, only “legal action.” Many people assumed that there was nothing Valleybrook could do because they must not have had enough evidence. Others took it as proof that Doug Lebsack and Mary Clark were merely irresponsible, and not fraudulent. Still others said “Well, there weren’t financial guidelines in place, so it’s not really fair to hold Doug and Mary accountable.” The hitch is that Doug Lebsack dismantled the financial accountability that was in place at Valleybrook on his arrival by firing and not replacing the bookkeeper on staff. Internal guidelines aside, there are LAWS and IRS regulations that provide the minimal standards for any non-profit, especially a church, and these appear to have been violated. But it was convenient for Valleybrook to leave people with vague opinions and misconceptions.
We continue to see the ripple effects of the devastation that happened there and want it to be known that while Valleybrook could have pursued criminal charges, they chose not to. They could have pursued justice for all of those harmed. They could have protected others from possible future victimization. They could have allowed the facts to be known rather than allow this prevailing idea of “we’ll never really know what happened.” They could have sent a clear message of responsibility for stewardship so church donors would know the standards of accountability.
And not only did they choose not to, they did everything they could to hide the issue of criminality. As recently as this past month, a former member of the TLT stated that Valleybrook had arranged for and completed an investigation. When asked “by whom?” because an internal investigation is NOT the same as a criminal investigation, he declined to answer and removed his comment. He was being dishonest.
Given the information revealed by Valleybrook, there appears to be a high likelihood of fraud, embezzlement, and/or theft committed by Doug Lebsack and Mary Clark. And Valleybrook did not do everything they could to make it right, they chose instead to “put this behind them to the extent possible.” And that is that.
So indeed, that is that. In all honesty, the way Valleybrook has handled the process of justice after Doug fled the area has made me extremely angry. Some readers may remember when I posted An Update Before the Financial Article I said that I had taken an audio recording of the meeting (not having heard them ask that no recordings be made, as I arrived to the meeting about 15 minutes late) and that a member of the Transitional Leadership Team at Valleybrook contacted me and requested I not post it. That individual’s justification to me was, and I quote from the message I received from them, “There are specific legal reasons we asked for the meeting to not be recorded. If you are insistent on helping those you say you are against, I can’t change that. But, know that is what you are doing.” And so that individual, plus another member of the TLT, and I met a few blocks down from Valleybrook and we talked about the financial article that I was going to post. They made it clear that if I were to post that audio, it would hurt their legal options as they pursued legal action.
Well as you can see, that was just a bald-faced lie to protect Valleybrook’s image. I deleted the audio in good faith that they would be pursuing legal action, and they lied right to my face. Whether the audio would have actually hurt their case is pretty immaterial. When an already-open legal case with all of the information they’d need to proceed was dropped into their lap with a bow on it, they rejected it.
The author of this article also sent me a PDF of various budgets and memos that they had collected and saved during their time as members of Valleybrook. I received these too when I was a member. I think there are two main takeaways from these pages:
- Just the sheer scope of how much money we’re talking about. Millions of dollars.
A quote from the very last page, which is a letter from the Overseers to the members of Valleybrook Church, dated December 17th, 2014 – mere weeks before Doug’s empire would come crashing down:
We can also promise you that our staff has been faithful and responsible with the funds you have provided. To date, our giving is $18,000 under what we projected. Our staff went through a significant belt tightening process in our last fiscal year, and if giving continues to fall short of budget they will again be ready to make the necessary decisions in order to allow us to continue funding the ministries where God has called us.4
What a scam. Clearly, they weren’t faithful or responsible even a little bit. Did you catch that bit in the Case Summary, or in a previous post on this site, where a bag full of cash was found in Mary’s office that had been collected for a Kid’s Offering? When that letter was sent to the congregation in December of 2014, during that same period they spent over $7,500 in late fees, penalties, and interest. They may as well have lit a stack of cash on fire.
This PDF, as well as the Case Summary that was linked earlier in this post, is also available on the Media page for quick access.
I’ve been asked now and again why I don’t meet with Valleybrook to talk about these issues. Some of our former-member community discussed with me that perhaps we should all meet with Valleybrook to give them another chance to pursue legal action. We all landed on, “what’s the point?” They know what they haven’t done. They know what they’re trying to cover up.
I’m all for Valleybrook moving on from this nonsense, but to be responsible in moving on, they need to stop ignoring all of the people they hurt by enabling Doug’s behavior and enabling the church to not take action. If you’re currently attending Valleybrook, I strongly suggest considering the fact that they are still not being fully transparent about what happened, and they are still trying to cover it up by remaining silent. Personally, I would have a lot of questions to ask before I gave them another dime in the offering plate, considering their lack of any desire to pursue justice after being, quite frankly in my opinion, robbed.
Finally, I want to end with yet another update on where I’m taking this website. The Chosen Audio is coming next, followed later by the comparison between Valleybrook and Scientology. I’ve added one additional article after the Scientology comparison, though. I realized I have given a lot of information on some particular incidents, but I’ve never painted a bigger picture for you, the readers. So I intend to remedy that by creating a timeline, from the beginning of Doug coming to Valleybrook to the time he fled the state, complete with accounts from former members who were there and experienced it first hand. I hope to give you all of the necessary context of this whole debacle so that you can truly understand what a nightmare this was to be a part of.
As always, thank you for reading, and thank you for sharing!
Tales from the Cult is a free effort to bring stories of abuse into the light so they may be prevented from happening again. There is not now, and will never be, a fee to access this site. Thank you for reading, and please remember to share posts you find interesting to increase our web presence.
- Ordinarily, I would post the PDF of the Police Report that was filed, but given the official and legal nature of the document, and potentially private information, it’s better that I don’t. What I can say, though, is that there is a Police Report filed with the Eau Claire Police Department, and if you’re interested in viewing it, you can try contacting them to request they send you a copy. ↩
- I think that’s really telling of Mary’s ethics and morals. She was angry, so she was willing to commit (potentially) a crime by deleting company/business information. There are, to my understanding, some additional implications since the business was tax-exempt non-profit. ↩
- With the exception of sexual assault. ↩
- Like the over $6,000 that they spent on parking tickets between 2008 and 2014…half of which were from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, where Mary was taking classes. Draw your own conclusions. ↩