The upcoming documentary Fight Church focuses on mixed martial arts in the Christian community and centers on the stories of four different pastors who are also fighters. Pastor Paul Burress of Victory Church in Rochester, New York is one of these men. Sporting a shaved head, goatee and tattoos, he doesn't look like the typical pastor even before it's revealed that he runs a "Fight Ministry" in the church.
"I get all the time I don't look like the typical pastor. And that's okay. There's actually a cool verse in the bible that says 'be wary when all men speak well of you.' If everybody loves you, you're doing something wrong," Burress says in Fight Church.
It wasn't long after posting the trailer for Fight Church on Bloody Elbow that we received an anonymous tip--which we have since corroborated with several sources--about possible allegations surrounding Burress.
In mid-2013 the following letter was sent to Victory Church leadership from a former church member. The existence of the letter and its having been provided to church officials was confirmed by four sources. The letter has only been edited to remove the alleged victim's name and contact information as well as a single reference to his career in the interest of protecting his identity:
To the Deacons at Victory:
I am attaching the notes that I tried to present at Saturday’s deacon’s meeting plus a few additions. Before I do, I want to make some things clear:
1) I do not believe I was given a fair chance to speak, and I believe the accusations were softened and misrepresented. I found it very strange that Al did not want me to tell the events how they occurred, and then would not allow you to ask me and my wife questions at the end. Also, it concerns me that you were all told to NOT tell your wives because "it might cause them to stumble." Where is keeping secrets from your wife found in scriptures? My wife and I are ONE flesh and anything that's said is always relayed back to her. I see both of these statements made by Al Ogden as attempts to cover the devastating reality of the nature of Paul's sin. I believe fully that I was the victim of sexual abuse, that my wife’s sisters were the victims of sexual abuse, and that clear attempts were made by Paul Burress to seduce them as recently as this past summer. Because I was rushed out of Saturday’s meeting and nearly silenced, I do not have any reason to believe that the Victory leadership is serious about addressing this fully. I believe you are exposing yourselves, all of you, to serious liability.
2) I believe the victory staff and deacons, if no further action is taken, are engaging in a cover-up of sexual abuse.
I believe the victory staff and deacons, if no further action is taken, are engaging in a cover-up of sexual abuse. -Letter to Victory leadership
3) The Trinity Training coaches will be meeting to discuss our future involvement in this ministry under Paul's leadership due to the possible consequences of improper discipline by Victory leadership.
Here are the notes from Saturday with a few additions:
In 2009, I was at Paul Burress’s house, where I was asked to perform a back-rub on Jill Burress, who had removed her shirt and bra. Paul made sure that my hand made contact with the side of a breast by moving it there with his own hand. Paul also made sure that I touched her bare bottom. This happened on 2 occasions that year. Also in 2009, Paul showed me fully nude photos of his wife, and also showed me a pornographic video of him having sex with his wife. This occurred on several occasions that year. I was a single, 21 year-old at the time. This weighed on me for years, until I couldn’t take it anymore and eventually left Victory because of it. A person shouldbe able to trust his pastor. I could not. 1 Cor 4:2 says it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
In 2012, after Paul had become Senior Pastor of Victory, on separate occasions, two young women came to Paul’s house, alone, where they were going to have their "backs worked on." Paul’s grandmother was in the attached apartment, but Jill was not home. These women were also not underage, they were in their twenties. The girls were asked to remove their shirts and bras because the straps got in the way. They both left Victory, and won’t return, because they were frightened and disturbed by the sexual advances of the pastor. Paul later met with at least one of them at a coffee shop where he shared with her that he had been a swinger before, in his first marriage. She thought he was trying to seduce her into a sexual relationship. The thing that concerns me the most is the pattern in Paul's life. In Missouri he was a swinger and participated in wife swaps. He moves to Rochester and starts Fusion, and soon afterwards gets a divorce that he claimed was not his fault. It was later discovered that he had been committing adultery with a woman in his Fusion ministry at Victory. It is later discovered that he had brought other men into his marriage bed in his first marriage Then the aforementioned happened in 2009 which raised a lot of questions in my head as to Paul's motives in showing me pictures of Jill naked. This pattern of gaining power, and then using his influence to sin sexually is something that needs to be addressed. 1 Timothy 3:2,5,7-10 " Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith a clear conscience. And let them be tested first; and let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless."
I believe that Paul should resign or be asked to resign because positions of authority have caused him to sin sexually. When a pastor engages in sexual behavior with someone in his church, it is an abuse of power and authority. When a person uses a position of authority to lure those under his care into inappropriate situations, those people become victims. As a **PROFESSION EDITED OUT**, I would be fired immediately for behavior like this. 1 Cor 9:27 says "but I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I my self should be disqualified."
I believe the pastors and deacons at Victory need to properly respond to the sexual misconduct of Paul. Cover-ups and non-responses are damaging to the church and the reputation of Christ. I want Paul to do what’s right: Resign, confess to his sin, get counseling, and move on. God has always used him, and will continue to use him. We all have weaknesses, sins, and a past, but we have to run away from our areas of temptation. Hebrews 10:26 says "for if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.
Shortly after this letter was received by church leadership, a second letter was sent to twenty-two members of Victory Church leadership. This letter was sent by an exchange student who had stayed with Burress and his family in 2009, when she was 16 years old.
The letter (which we are not including at the victim's request) detailed a variety of inappropriate physical actions by Burress, culminating in allegations that she suffered physical molestation.
The e-mail from the former exchange student was sent on June 12. On June 13, Dr. Al Ogden, executive pastor at Victory and also their director of counseling, sent the following e-mail to leadership:
Victory Deacons and staff. June 13, 2013
By now you have no doubt received the latest vindictive email attack against Paul and Victory. These unsubstantiated accusations are indicative of all the recent attacks. Paul was told that this was coming several weeks ago. So our enemies are in obviously collusion with each other.
The timing is suspect as she hasn’t said a word for all these years until these other people started up. And last year when she came to visit she came back to Victory. So it apparently didn’t bother her much then. The language and characterizations are almost word for word (almost like she was coached in what to say) as the former allegations. And where did she get the deacon’s list to email out to.
I spoke with Marc Duclos this morning. He said there needs to be two moving parts to a defamation of character lawsuit; the smearing part and a financial loss. The smear is obvious and we have collateral damage in that we have lost several tithing families.
He suggested that we get a consult with the Nixon Peabody firm (Tommy knows a lawyer there who used to go to Victory and I have a recently retired childhood friend there who still does legal work) and get an opinion letter. That’s our start point.
Paul and the guys go over Pikes Peak today on their trip. They are doing well.
We’ll talk more at next deacon’s meeting in July.
The church did not contact the female making the allegations. But Ogden--again, the director of counseling for the church--did reach out to Marc Duclos, a lawyer, and had a discussion about getting an opinion letter from a law firm regarding a defamation of character lawsuit.
An opinion letter is a letter from an attorney with a statement of his professional opinion on specific legal matters.
Many of the Victory Church members that spoke to Bloody Elbow mentioned taking issue with the lack of care or even communication with alleged victims in favor of protecting the church.
People began talking and rumors spread.
This led to church leadership issuing a statement from the pulpit on July 7. One former member of the church stated that the alleged statement revolved around "things from Paul's past," dating back to when he was 19, and ignored the recency of the allegations.
Some former members of the church also have suggested by former church members who spoke to Bloody Elbow that some of those involved have been afraid to speak out because of shame tactics used by Burress and Ogden. These sources suggested that Victory has not hesitated to bring up "sins" that were revealed in counseling sessions in attempts to achieve silence from alleged victims.
According to two victims who discussed abuse in their time at the church this was not the first time sexual assault was covered up at Victory.
"I went to Victory from the time I was born until my early 20s and was sexually molested at age of 3-8 years old by a man who attended, as well. At the time, the pastor's name was Joe Burress," explained one victim who spoke to Bloody Elbow.
Joe Burress was not the alleged abuser, but is the father of Paul Burress.
She continued, "There were rumors that this man had abused other children at another church and Victory leadership was well aware. It wasn't until I was around 21 (1999-ish) that another victim finally came forward with allegations of similar abuse. In a deacons meeting, which my father attended, the abuser, Steve Erickson, was told all he had to do was admit fault of the sexual abuse and then he would have to leave our church but that the authorities would not be contacted."
The condition of admitting the crime, and not having authorities involved, opened the door to a potentially dangerous situation. As the victim explained, "As a result of this cover-up, Steve Erickson was indeed removed from the church, but went on to adopt a little girl, who is currently 15."
She also stated that she was hospitalized and has trouble keeping a job due to the lasting effects of the abuse, "flashbacks come and go as if I am living the nightmare over and over."
Bruce Roberts, a 40 year old former church pastor, has pleaded guilty to a felony charge, admitting he sexually abused a 15 year old male parishioner. The former pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Avon, faces five years in prison, the minimum penalty, at sentencing February 10 for one count of first degree sodomy. He admitted performing oral sex on the boy in October 2002 when the teen lived with Roberts and his wife in Rochester.
Victory in Avon was established by Victory in Rochester, but it should be noted that it was an independent church at the time of Roberts' crimes.
Bloody Elbow had contacted Burress and set up an agreement for a call on Friday, May 9 but Burress didn't answer his phone. Later that day, we informed him via e-mail of the article and what specifically we wanted him to comment on. He asked for my phone number and said he would call that [Friday] evening but did not call and still has not answered any calls or e-mails with details. The latest attempt to get comment was on Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. when Burress was contacted with additional requests for comment on Joe Burress' decision to not involve authorities at the time of the 1999 allegations.
Bloody Elbow also reached out to Ogden, asking several questions about his decision on how to handle the allegations. Why were alleged victims not cared for in favor of discussing lawsuit strategies? Why did he consider a sexual assault victim coming forward after other allegations were made some sort of sign of illegitimacy on the alleged victim's behalf? Was the most reasonable explanation a multinational conspiracy to smear Burress and Victory Church?
As of press time, no one from Victory Church has responded.