MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Shortly after Glen Cary Lutheran Church hired Damian Burkhalter as youth director, Burkhalter’s relatives say they told Pastor Paul Settergren approximately four years ago he should not have any contact with children.
The family says their concerns were based on Burkhalter’s history of inappropriate behavior, stressing that a serious crime wasn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when.
However, Settergren told WCCO-TV that the church had safeguard policies in place that didn’t allow staff to be alone with youth, which he communicated with the concerned family at that time. He says rules maintained that doors were to stay open and while on mission trips, staff and youth must be in minimum groups of three.
Settergren says Burkhalter was never supposed to be alone with children and if the allegations prove to be true, they were betrayed.
Court records show Burkhalter was alone with his victim in many instances, repeatedly attempting sex with a 15-year-old girl at youth camps, his home, church office and the youth room, when she acted as his secretary.
When she told Burkhalter to stop pressuring her, and that she was saving herself for marriage he replied that “Joseph was in his 40s, and Mary was much younger,” according to court records.
Church leaders shared a letter they sent to the congregation, saying, “no one on their staff had any knowledge or suspicion of the crime” adding this Sunday, they will address the issue in a pastoral message and open forum. The church also says they are in the stages of planning an informational session with parents and children, which will be led by a therapist.
Burkhalter was a former Hennepin County jail guard for 15 years and, with that background, was even trusted as the church expert on child safety, according to Settergren.
A post on the Glen Cary church website shows in 2008, Burkhalter taught a course called “Safeguarding God’s Children.” It says, “we owe our children our very best effort to keep them safe from any form of sexual abuse.”
Family sources tell WCCO-TV they would be surprised if there was only one victim. They feel since they alerted the church years ago, the pastor chose not to protect the congregation.
Settergren, however, insists there were no red flags, adding the allegations are a shock.
His letter to the congregation read, “As a people of faith, we now especially look to God for comfort, strength, guidance, and the ability to be gracious and caring. Though we are shaken, our faith in God is not.”