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Tuesday, November 01, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Parishioner Sues Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Saying Pastor Seduced Wife


A jilted Long Island husband is suing his pastor, the Presbytery of New York City and one of its largest churches, saying that the pastor seduced his wife and destroyed his "faith and trust" in the church and in the institution of marriage.

The husband, Joseph Vione, 43, who had been living in Garden City, says in papers filed last week in State Supreme Court in Manhattan that the Rev. Thomas K. Tewell, 56, the senior pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Midtown Manhattan, used confidential information obtained during marriage counseling to seduce Mr. Vione's wife, Rachel, 42. Mr. Vione has filed for divorce.

To cover his tracks and to further his relationship with Ms. Vione, court papers say, Dr. Tewell encouraged the couple to join couples clubs and family ministries and attend marriage retreats that he presided over.

The suit also says that officials of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which has nearly 4,000 members, knew of allegations from anonymous parishioners that Dr. Tewell had exploited his position at the church "to prey on" other women by engaging in illicit relationships with them, but did not investigate.

Bob Brennan, director of communications for the church, at 7 West 55th Street, said yesterday that the allegations in the lawsuit were "very sad" and that Dr. Tewell was on an administrative leave of absence while the church conducted its own investigation. He said the Viones remained on the church rolls as members, though he did not know whether they were active.

Barry Fisher, a lawyer for Rachel Vione, declined to comment yesterday.

Mr. Vione is seeking $1 million in damages for what he says was Dr. Tewell's failure to adhere to the "standard of care for a clergyman" of his stature; $3 million for loss of faith and trust in the church, in his religion and in the institution of marriage; and $1 million for emotional trauma.

During the 10 years in which the Viones were members of the church, the pastor was such a trusted figure, the papers say, that he presided over the baptism of the couple's daughter and the communions and confirmations of their children. Through his role as a spiritual and marital adviser, Dr. Tewell obtained Mr. Vione's confidence and "exercised influence and control over him," according to court papers.

Dr. Tewell and his wife, Suzanne, have been married for 30 years.

The lawsuit says that in May 2001, Dr. Tewell invited the Viones to his home, where he told them that Mike Peters, a clerk at the church, had informed him that parishioners had been gossiping about an affair between the pastor and Ms. Vione. At that meeting, Ms. Vione and Dr. Tewell denied having an affair, according to the suit.

When Mr. Vione later asked the church to conduct an investigation to clear his wife's name, the lawsuit says, the clerk dissuaded him, saying that it was not necessary because the accusations were false and that it would mean bad publicity for the church.

UPDATE: May 27, 2006


A randy reverend who was having an affair with a parishioner to whom he was giving "marriage counseling" tried to tempt other female members of his flock as well, court papers charge.

The Rev. Thomas Tewell - who's being sued by former Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church parishioner Joseph Vione for carrying on trysts with his wife while he was supposedly counseling them - allegedly tried the same maneuver on others.

In court filings made public yesterday, Vione said that in 2002, three anonymous church members complained to a church official that Tewell "had exploited his position" at the East Side church "to prey on women to whom he was providing spiritual and marital counseling for the covert and clandestine purposes of surreptitiously engaging in illicit relationships."

The church "failed and/or refused to investigate" the allegations - allowing Tewell, 56, and Rachel Vione, 42, to carry on their affair for years, the suit says.

Tewell's lawyer, Herb Teitelbaum, scoffed at the new allegation. "This is a trumped-up case, from beginning to end," he said.

But in a landmark decision released yesterday, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich allowed Vione's $6 million suit against the priest and the church to move forward. The judge found that the suit "alleges acts of disloyalty and injurious conduct" and that church officials could be culpable for looking the other way.

Kornreich wrote that the legal claims could prove Tewell was "deceiving plaintiff and undermining his marriage, while continuing to act as his marriage counselor."

The unholy communing apparently started in January 2002, which is when Vione's suit says his leggy blond wife started attending more and more of Tewell's church "meetings."

That May, Tewell asked the couple to come over to his house to tell them three anonymous church members had alleged to church officials that Tewell and Rachel were having an affair, the suit says. Both denied the charge to their spouses.

Vione said he wanted an investigation done to clear their names, but a church clerk talked him out of it, the suit says. Tewell "urged [Vione] to continue to attend marital counseling" and urged he and Rachel "to attend more of the weekend long 'marriage retreats' in upstate New York," the suit says.

Rachel came clean about her relationship with the reverend in January 2005, and Vione is now suing her for divorce.

Vione's lawyer, Francis Fineo, said his client was pleased with Kornreich's ruling.

Teitelbaum said he planned to appeal. He noted that Kornreich had dismissed some of the claims against Tewell and the church, and predicted that the whole case would eventually be tossed because Tewell "never counseled" Vione.


UPDATE December 21, 2006:


December 18, 2006 -- The randy reverend who fell from grace - and from his job leading a ritzy Fifth Avenue church - because of an adulterous affair with a married blond congregant has been suspended as a minister until July after pleading guilty in a clerical inquiry.

The Rev. Thomas Tewell also has been barred from formally or informally working in any Presbyterian parish until 2009 as part of a written censure issued by the New York City Presbytery on Thursday.

And the married minister must give Presbytery officials semiannual reports from the therapist who is counseling him as part of a mandated "rehabilitation program."

Tewell, 57, confessed to "engaging in verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature with a married member of your congregation who was not your spouse," the censure stated.

The censure came two months after an apparent settlement of a lawsuit against Tewell and the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church by the man cuckolded by the charismatic cleric.

Tewell had been the senior pastor at the church, where he was credited with significantly boosting membership with his stirring sermons.

But in mid-2005, he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with Rachel Vione, a 43-year-old Long Island woman who at the time was attending divinity school with the intention of becoming a minister.

Vione also was an active church volunteer with her husband, Joe Vione.

The sex scandal prompted Tewell to take a leave as pastor of the church in August 2005 and resign as a trustee of the prestigious Princeton Theological Seminary.

Barely two months later, Tewell resigned as pastor.

In the meantime, Joe Vione sued his wife for divorce, then later filed a $5 million suit against Tewell and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian that called the minister a sexual "predator" who seduced Rachel while giving the couple marriage counseling.

The suit revealed that Tewell and Rachel were first accused of having an affair in 2001 but that at the time they denied it.

Court records indicate that Joe Vione's suit was disposed of in mid-October.

A former church congregant said church officials have indicated Vione was paid an undisclosed amount of money in exchange for his dropping the suit.

Neither of the Viones nor Tewell could be reached for comment.