WiCoM priest under fire for ethical and sexual misconduct

Cara Schulz —  September 27, 2017 — 1 Comment

MINNEAPOLIS – A Pagan minister has come under fire with allegations of ethical and sexual misconduct while teaching two students seeking their 2nd Degree with the Twin Cities-based Wiccan Church of Minnesota (WiCoM). The group’s board says that it investigated the five allegations against Rev. Keith Vorderbruggen and, while they found instances of ethical lapses, none rose to the level of misconduct.

[Pixabay]

The decision by the WiCoM board is now being questioned by students and community members, as well as other alleged victims who have since stepped forward.

The events

“It’s not right what we were asked to do,” said Alyssa Reber, one of the two students who lodged a formal complaint against Vorderbruggen.

According to Reber’s account and several corroborating documents, she and Daniel Bicknell were students in a larger class studying with Vorderbruggen and his wife to earn their 2nd Degree. After the March class, Vorderbruggen approached Reber and Bicknell and asked them if they would like to take part in more advanced classes in a Left Hand Path (LHP) tradition.

Reber says that she and Bicknell were told that they were picked because they were more mature and balanced than the others, and that they could handle this type of powerful magic. She adds that Vorderbruggen described the monthly classes as being secret, and that they couldn’t tell anyone.

The two students agreed.

Blood Oath [courtesy]

The first requirement made by Vorderbruggen, according to Reber’s statement, was for the two students to sign a blood oath. This is an oath in which a person signs their name using their own blood as ink. This oath swore the two students to secrecy and obedience for the rest of their natural lives, but it did also say that their conscience was the final word in any and all decisions.

The advanced April and May classes were reportedly not out of the ordinary, with lessons on circle casting and basic binding techniques. However, she says what happened on July 26 left her and her classmate shocked.

“What he was asking us to do, I couldn’t do that to [my husband] or to myself. It would tear me up inside,” says Reber.

What was asked of the students that evening is detailed in the written decision by the WiCoM board regarding complaints of ethical misconduct, as described to them by Reber, Bicknell, and Vorderbruggen. He reads, in part:

In the July meeting, the complainants participated in a trance journey to what they were told was Reverend Vorderbruggen’s astral temple. This is the same meeting in July when they were told of the requirement to perform the Great Rite in True. While in the trance, Reverend Vorderbruggen stated he met his companion with whom he worked in this tradition and, realizing she was in spirit form, feared she was deceased.

… The complainants state Reverend Vorderbruggen appeared distraught and overwhelmed by the death of his companion. The complaints state he then insisted it would be essential to draw down the spirit of the deceased companion into one of the complainants and that the ritual involving the Great Rite in True was more important than ever.

…Without a sense of solid structure of an authentic tradition, the complainants state they believed, as the incident with the astral trance unfolded following the information about the Great Rite requirement, Reverend Vorderbruggen was making all of it up as he went along – that there was no tradition nor companion and it was all a fabrication. They state they were concerned for their physical and ethical safety and integrity.

Rev. Keith Vorderbruggen says the students seemed enthusiastic to learn the topics presented in the LHP classes. But he says that when he informed them of the the Great Rite component “they appeared taken aback.” Vorderbruggen adds that he encouraged them to talk between themselves to ensure they were “ok” with the rite.

Email records show that the two students did engage in repeated conversations with one another about their shock concerning the Great Rite in true, which requires them to engage in ritual sex with one another.

At that point, Reber and Bicknell, who are both in committed monogamous relationships, were bound by the blood oath, as Reber explains, to not discuss the subject with their significant others.

On August 2, the two informed Vorderbruggen that they could not break their oaths of monogamy to their life partners, especially not in secret. Vorderbruggen said that he “applauded their ethics and asked them to talk to their significant others about this.”

However, the initiation requirement for them to perform the Great Rite in true remained in place. Vorderbruggen says that the ritual was necessary, because it would have strengthened the magical bond between the two students. “They would need that magical bond for the magicks I would be teaching them,” adds Vorderbruggen. He added that there would be no future need for them to perform the Great Rite in the future.

Vorderbruggen says that the two students continued to take part in coven events and that they didn’t show any sign of discomfort with the coven or its teachers.

By August 15, both students had told their life partners that they were involved in secret classes in the Left Hand Path and that they were expected to do the Great Rite in true with one another “for an important ritual.” The four discussed the requirement. At this point, Reber and Bicknell decided that they would not be going forward with the ritual or the classes. Travis Thorpe, Reber’s husband, also began talking bout the situation with friends in private posts on social media. The situation was quickly becoming more public.

On August 23, Lou Gastuch, May Queen for WiCoM, notified the group’s board that Reber and Bicknell wished to lodge a formal complaint against Vorderbruggen. Additionally, Rose Pernod, who became aware of what happened in the classes, sent an email to WiCoM detailing an incident three years earlier in which she claims Vorderbruggen sexually assaulted her.

The WiCoM board says that it was surprised by the claims and that it didn’t have a process in place to deal with allegations of this nature. The board had to quickly create a process that fit within the confines of their bylaws.

The board then sent a set of questions to Reber, Bicknell, and Vorderbruggen. They met September 6 to discuss the allegations. At that initial meeting it was decided that more information was needed. Another set of questions was sent to all three persons. After receiving back the answers to the second set of questions, the board met again.

The allegations

According to the written decision, the WiCoM board identified five allegations, based on the complaints brought forth by Bicknell and Reber. The first allegation was concerning requiring students to swear a blood oath without giving them adequate time to decide.

The second allegation was whether or not it is even ethical to require students to perform the Great Rite in true with each other. This was questioned by the board because, until this complaint was brought forward, they had never heard of an group requiring students to engage in this act. It is more likely to be used at the 3rd degree level or above.

Also of concern to the board was that the students were split on their understanding on whether or not Vorderbruggen would be watching the rite.

The third allegation was whether students were informed soon enough about the requirement to perform the Great Rite in true. The board and the students all expressed concern that Vorderbruggen not only waited until after the students were sworn to secrecy, but also waited an additional four months into the classes.

In its decision, the board noted that the delay “verges on or becomes undue influence because the student has more to lose by refusing or questioning.”

The fourth allegation concerned whether Vorderbruggen had made up the Left Hand Path tradition. As documented in the complaints, the students have come to believe the entire tradition was created as a tactic to coerce them into sexual acts.

Vorderbruggen reportedly refused to name the tradition or who trained him, both when asked by the students and the board. He has since said that he asked his master for a release from his own oath to do so, but his master refused.

The last allegation was if Vorderbruggen had attempted to coerce the students into performing a sexual act for his personal gratification. The students reportedly told the WiCoM board they believe Vorderbruggen fabricated not only the tradition, but the death of his training companion as way to manipulate them into having sex with one another.

The board focused on whether boundaries were crossed by a grieving teacher seeking out comfort from students while in a teaching situation, as well as considering if informed consent was truly sought “prior to introducing serious life altering requirements of grave concern.”

Additional complaints

“Please, I’m begging you. Make sure he isn’t allowed to do this to anyone else.” Rose Rernod reportedly told the WiCoM board.

At the same time as the board received the official complaints from Bicknell and Reber, the board also received an email from Rose Pernod, as noted earlier. Pernod said that she had heard about the situation with Bicknell and Reber and decided to come forward to tell her story.

According to Pernod’s account, she was attending an event in April 2014 with Vorderbruggen. Prior to the evening, she says that Vorderbruggen asked if they would be attending the event as friends or something more. She says that she told him they were just going as friends. In her report to the Board she goes on:

No one knew I was to be at Keith’s house. And when we got inside, he had me on the couch attempting to coerce me into having sex with him. I never let him, but, out of fear I did let him touch and kiss me. I had to tell him repeatedly no to more. There was literally no way for me to escape. I can’t drive and he’d purposely moved my phone and purse out of reach. Most of you know I’m disabled. I’m disabled and had no one who knew where I was. I didn’t fight him on everything…but only because I was afraid desperation or frustration would escalate into something that would hurt me more than he already was.

Pernod also said that it took her several days before she was able to confide to her best friend what had happened. She said that she was afraid to attend community events, “… because he would be there. And he’d find me. He’d touch my hair, my face, my neck. Seemingly innocent things to the outside world but they were far from innocent. He begged me not to tell his wife. Not to tell anyone. ”

The WiCoM board took Pernod’s email as character testimony.

“Rose received an email in response, asking her if she wanted it to be elevated to a complaint, and if she did, her name would be known. It would be known in the decision, it would be known in the church,” said WiCoM board member Penny Mixhau.

Ms. Mixhau says that the board has not yet heard back from Pernod yet.

The decision

On September 19 the board sent their written decision regarding the allegations to all WiCoM members. “Words are powerful. And documents are forever,”  said Penny Mixhau.

The voting members of the WiCoM board who oversaw the investigation are Elders’ Representative Shelly Tomtschik, Teachers’ Representative Penny Mixhau, and General Members’ Representative Maggie Sterba. Lou Gastuch is the current May Queen, holding a non-voting advisory position and Daniel Bicknell was the Green Man, which is also a non-voting position. Bicknell, one of the alleged victims, recused himself.

In their decision, the board found “no ethical misconduct” in any of the charges. It did, however, find several ethical lapses by Vorderbruggen.

Tomtschik explains that the board had lengthy discussions about sex magic and blood oaths in general, but decided it wasn’t their place to say such practices are, in themselves, unethical.

“While I, or any other person may personally not want to do something, including a blood oath or a Great Rite in true, or whatever else it is, skyclad, who cares what it is, if it is something that I’d feel uncomfortable with, I’m not going to say that you can’t do it.”

As for the allegation requiring students to perform the Great Rite in true, the board wrote, “While we find no ethical misconduct, we find the confusion around the issue of privacy to be careless and regrettable. We believe this resulted in undue embarrassment, pain, and fear.”

As for third allegation regarding disclosure, the board found that “Reverend Vorderbruggen presented himself as a trained practitioner of this tradition and, as such, was expected to know the curriculum and the ways in which it could affect his students in multiple areas of life. While we find no ethical misconduct, we find the delay in disclosure of this requirement irresponsible and regrettable.”

The board was unable to fully evaluate the fourth allegation regarding the LHP, but did say that they believed Vorderbruggen. However, the board added, “While we find no ethical misconduct, we find the methodology of communicating information about the tradition, even if only the outline as provided to us, lacks care and concern for the students’ well-being.”

With regard to the fifth allegation concerning sexual coercion, the board said that even though no misconduct was found “We find that informed consent was not properly and completely addressed. We also find seeking comfort from students in this situation to be a crossing of student/teacher boundaries.”

WiCoM board members Mixhau and Tomtschik expressed the important difference between ethical lapses and ethical misconduct. Tomtschik explained: “The two students were put in a position where they were to emotionally care for [Vorderbruggen] while he was in a teaching role and that is not appropriate. That is an ethical lapse.”

“Ethical misconduct,” said Mixhau, “would require things like intentional manipulation, intentional coercion, intentional lying, threats, or continuing to pursue a situation and we saw none of that.”

Vorderbruggen, in an email interview with TWH, agrees what he did was a lapse in his judgement. “Obviously, this whole thing could have been avoided had I told them about the Great Rite at the first class. This was a lapse in judgement that I regret.”

Both Mixhau and Tomtschik added that they believe all three persons accounts of what happened, what they perceived, and how they felt. They also noted that the three accounts were consistent.

The board agreed that, while they may find some practices personally distasteful, it wasn’t their place to decide what legal religious practices their members engage in. The question they struggled over was was of student teacher boundaries, consent, and coercion.

They said what helped them in their decision making was three factors. The first was reportedly the length of time it took the students to report the incident. “I suggest it is important to look at the timing of when the event occurred and when it all blew up. There’s a significant delay there,” said Mixhau.

A second factor in the board’s decision was reportedly that the students only appeared to become upset after they told their life partners and their life partners became upset. Finally, the third factor was the students’ continued interaction with Vorderbruggen in a “normal” fashion even after the incident.

Mixhau said, “The evidence showed that the complainants continued to interact in their coven classes and with their teachers in a way that suggested they felt safe in that setting.”

The board notes that it has a wide latitude in what it can do in response to clergy misconduct. A WiCoM member may be censured, denied the right to participate in the Beltane lottery, denied the right to stand for office, the board could ask the member’s teachers to “Call for Cords,” or they can revoke the person’s membership in the organization.

In the written decision, the board suggested some corrective action for Vorderbruggen. Noting he is “a well-respected and valued member of the local Pagan community for well over fifteen years” and that they believe it would be a “loss to the entire community to have this relationship severed.”

The board encouraged Vorderbruggen to take a class on consent culture and then teach a class on this subject to ensure he had internalized the lesson.

The board also noted that the decisions were unanimous regarding ethical misconduct, but were split on handing him a formal censure which could have resulted in temporary or permanent expulsion from WiCoM. As a vote for censure has to be unanimous, the vote failed. The board’s decision is final and no further action or discussion of the incident will take place.

Community reaction

When allegations of sexual misconduct become public about a clergy person, other alleged victims sometimes step forward.

“I’m still battling feelings of shame about this, and fear, and lots of guilt,” said Stefanie Davis, who related an an incident she had with Vorderbruggen at Earth House festival “several years ago.” Her allegations aren’t as clear cut as what Pernod reported, but she believes that Vorderbruggen used his status as priest in an attempt to coerce her into having sex with him.

Davis says after a scotch tasting event, she was talking with Vorderbruggen about a sensitive matter, and they mutually agreed he would play the role as priest and teacher. He then asked to speak privately with her and they went to her cabin. As she has reported:

In the cabin it felt different. Once that door closed and I was in a position where I couldn’t readily escape I began to feel uncomfortable. That’s when Keith started talking about the importance of skyclad work between practitioners. Now I’m not the kind of person to go skyclad, I don’t even dance naked around the fires at fests where it’s permitted or anything like that …

Well, when Keith started in on the talk about skyclad something in my head clicked. This was going in a bad direction. But by that point I was kind of already stuck between a rock and a hard place. So when Keith presented the option of “showing ourselves” to each other I wasn’t really sure what to do. I didn’t actually want to strip in front of this massive dude in my cabin, but I also know what happens to women who say “No” as I’ve had issues with that with men in the past. Between that and using the priest card to make me wonder if I wasn’t overreacting, he coerced me to have to put up with his nudity in front of me and my own in front of him.

Davis adds that she still feels shame, wondering if she was in some way responsible for the situation. “All these things are still running through my head years later. If that’s going on with me, on such a relatively minor infraction, I can only imagine the suffering of those who have had much worse with this man.”

Experts respond

“Admittedly, it’s complicated to judge questions of clergy abuse within Wiccan and Pagan groups.” explains Cat Chapin-Bishop, MSW.

The Wild Hunt turned to experts in the fields of the Left Hand Path, psychotherapy, and sexual abuse trauma in order to clarify allegations as described in the written decision by WiCoM and supporting documents such as emails, and note any areas they felt stood out to them.

El Bee is the Dean of Religious Studies and Professor of Dark Artes at the College of Occult Sciences. He is also on the Core Committee of the International Left Hand Path Consortium 2018 and the Board of Directors of Oak Spirit Sanctuary. Professor El Bee looked at what happened surrounding the proposal of sex magic with the students and gave insight into what are the norms surrounding the Great Rite within the LHP.

“The Great Rite is not about sex for sex’s sake. It is not about lust or conquest or any of the hundred reasons people have sex. It’s not just another fuck,” said El Bee.

He explains that the Great Rite is a Sacred Dance between the incarnate God and Goddess who have manifested in the bodies of the Priest and Priestess. He says it is highly unlikely anyone below a 3rd Degree would perform the Great Rite because it requires a skill set lower degrees do not posses.

As for the LHP’s reputation for encouraging students to break taboos, El Bee says, “It is my opinion that pushing people together and pressuring them to have sex is not a legitimate way to push boundaries. It is an abuse of power.”

Cat Chapin-Bishop, a retired psychotherapist who specialized in treating survivors of sexual trauma and abuse, says the board did some things right. “It’s clear that they were trying to pull together a respectful process, and that they understood that they didn’t have the resources of the legal system to work with and shouldn’t try to replicate them,” said Chapin-Bishop.

She says the board also understood that they were not trying a criminal case and didn’t need to meet a standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ She also applauded the board for taking the allegations leveled at one of their own clergy seriously.

“Unfortunately,” she says, “they still let their community down; they failed to understand the nature of clergy abuse of adults as they fit a Pagan religious community.”

Chapin-Bishop says judging clergy abuse in Pagan communities is challenging because Pagan groups can be completely non-hierarchical. Further complicating the issue is that sex is a legitimate part of some Pagan group’s instruction and practice. She says that this means it is even more important to carefully define the ethical boundaries around it.

So although the WiCoM board took the allegations very seriously, Chapin-Bishop says, they lacked the insight into clergy abuse that may have let them make better sense of what happened.

“The Board of the Wiccan Church of Minnesota seems both to have underestimated the degree of authority Reverend Vorderbruggen set up with two of his students and what it implies about the introduction of sex into that relationship.”

Brenda Titus has worked at a rape crisis center for 15 years and is a hypnotherapist in private practice. She explained how being singled out as being special, or advanced in this case, can break down a person’s boundaries.

“When an individual signs on to be made special in some way such as this, it can create a significant internal conflict as to how far they will go, and sometimes they don’t realize how far they’ve gone beyond what they would normally consider acceptable.”

Titus says victims often don’t realize they were victims until after the relationship with their abuser is over. “When they were in the relationship, it felt great, they felt special. After the relationship was over and reality set in, they realized how they’d been groomed, taken advantage of.”

Titus also noted that it is common for victims to not seem concerned about abuse until they tell another person and that person becomes upset on their behalf, as reportedly happened in this situation.

Chapin-Bishop agrees. She related that “Victims are generally conditioned to doubt themselves, and because of the corrosive psychological nature of the abuse, many victims need a ‘reality check’ from a supportive friend even to clearly recognize that what they experienced was abuse…”

Chapin-Bishop was very blunt when assessing the allegations, including the report from received from Pernod. She said the incident sounds like outright sexual assault and the board had every reason to believe Vorderbruggen may have a pattern of sexual abuse.

“It is ironic that, after it took Ms. Pernod years to approach her community about this assault, the Board told her that her complaint could only be considered as evidence of Vorderbruggen’s misconduct if she were willing to share it with someone she has already said she felt afraid of, and with and the very community she feared would believe him rather than her.”

Titus said that she was thankful the situation for the students wasn’t worse. “The students didn’t actually go through with the assignment, but the level of grooming is very concerning to me, as other individuals in similar circumstances would have gone further and likely had a significant emotional impact because of it.”

Chapin-Bishop believes that when you take the all the allegations together it appears, “…these ethical violations were both deliberate and part of a pattern … The idea that a set of lessons in ethics would prevent continuing abuse of his clergy status is naive at best.”

She hopes the WiCoM board will reconsider their decision.

Going forward

All persons interviewed, from those directly involved in the allegations to the board members, have said they are facing difficulty in dealing with the aftermath.

Vorderbruggen says he is experiencing deep regret for the hurt that he caused his former students and wishes he could go back in time and inform them about the Great Rite requirement at the very first class. He says he will be withdrawing from the Pagan community for at least a year and not attending any festival, rituals, or conferences.

He also said he feels he can no longer be open with personal details with friends out of fear of how they will twist his words.

Tomtschik says that, while she doesn’t regret her decision, she regrets having to make a decision. “It’s stressful. These are people I’ve known, all three of them are people I’ve known or do know.”

She wonders how people will react to her when she attends events at places like Earth House, a festival she been attending for 18 years.

Mixhau says she finds herself grinding her teeth and weeping easily. She’s not able to sleep because she replays the decision over and over in her head. “Here’s the information, would I come to the same decision? Yes. Here’s the information, would I come to the same decision? Yes. Here’s the document, would I write that exactly the same? No.”

The WiCoM board says that they will start reviewing their procedures, policies, and bylaws regarding its complaint process to conform to current best practices.

Bicknell relayed through his life partner that he didn’t want to talk about the incident and just wanted to forget the whole thing. His partner withdrew from the coven and resigned from WiCoM.

Reber says that she is trying to stay as disconnected from the situation as possible for the safety of her pregnancy. She says that she can’t go through the painful emotions now and will need to delay healing until after the birth.

Pernod dropped out of the Pagan community two years ago. She still finds it difficult to be intimate with a partner, and says she was devastated by the board’s decision. She sees it as a dismissal of serious allegations.

Pernod also added that she would be filing a formal complaint with WiCoM and filing a police report with the Inver Grove Police Department.

Earth House Project says that they plan to meet soon to discuss the allegations made against Vorbruggen and decide what, if any, actions to take. One such action could be barring him from any events Earth House Project hosts.

The Wild Hunt will follow this story and update as developments unfold.

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.