The Mennonite Church and Sexual Abuse

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If you thought the Mennonite church’s incompetence in discussing issues of sexuality was limited to its “discernment” of LGBTQ inclusion in the church, then you thought wrong. We are also, it would seem, not particularly skilled at discussing questions of accountability in relation to sexual abuse within church communities and institutions.

We managed to get through some hard truth-telling and sincere hand-wringing about the abuse done by the beloved Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. But not until after he died. Luke Hartman, beloved Mennonite youth leader and former Vice President of Eastern Mennonite University, is still very much alive. As are most of the people responsible for placing and keeping him in institutional positions where he had access to the power he used to manipulate and shame his victims. Apparently it’s harder to hold people accountable while they are still alive.

But we have to hold them accountable. So much depends on it: the spiritual health of sexual abuse victims, the safety of those within our churches and other institutions, the integrity of our denomination, the witness of our church to the healing and hope offered in Jesus Christ.

Our Stories Untold has done a phenomenal job of making sure that voices of victims and their advocates are heard. It has done a phenomenal job of presenting and analyzing the denominational response to the abuse done by a trusted Mennonite leader and institutional employee.

It might be that Our Stories Untold has done too phenomenal of a job—or at least too thorough. Maybe you do not have the time/interest/patience/stomach to wade through all of the reports and testimonies and calls to action. Maybe it is just too much and you never made it to the end where you get to actually participate in holding our church accountable to the standards of peace and justice that we proclaim.

So, consider this your Readers’ Digest edition. And in all the time you save by reading this little cranky post rather than the pages of well-researched and primary source material on Our Stories Untold, you should have PLENTY of time to send a few emails.

In January (2016) Luke Hartman was arrested for solicitation of prostitution and resigned from his position as Vice President of Eastern Mennonite University. The Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter of SNAP urged anyone who had been harmed by Hartman to report to an authority outside of the church. SNAP received information suggesting that Hartman had used his positions within the church to harass and abuse people within the church; SNAP reported that leaders within EMU, MCUSA, and Virginia Mennonite Conference may have withheld information that allowed Hartman to continue in positions that gave him the power he abused in violent and harmful ways.

Lauren Shifflett bravely shared her story, which includes manipulation and abuse by Luke. Her sister, Marissa Buck, wrote about how their congregation, Lindale Mennonite, responded when Lauren told those in leadership about being abused; while Lauren and her family experienced cared and support from some members, adequate steps were not taken to hold Luke accountable or to protect Lauren spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

As it happens, just last summer MCUSA delegates approved—with almost unanimous support—a church-wide statement on sexual abuse. The statement laments our personal and institutional failures of the past that have contributed to sexual abuse, and it calls the church to “repent and seek to change [its] ways.” As a response to that statement, a sexual abuse prevention panel was formed.

So, lucky for us, this wonderful group of people was already assembled to lead the denomination in addressing sexual abuse within the church. In May, this panel recommended that Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia Mennonite Conference, and Lindale Mennonite Church seek out and cooperate with an investigation by an outside organization in a timely manner.” The panel recommended GRACE, Faith-Trust Institute, “or another panel-approved independent organization.” GRACE is considered the “gold standard” of investigating institutions by advocates in SNAP, and is the highly preferred option.

In early June, Ervin Stutzman (MCUSA Executive Director) and Carolos Romero (Mennonite Education Agency Executive Director) met with representatives of EMU, VMC, and Lindale Mennonite to follow up on the panel’s recommendation. Notice that the voices of victim advocates were not prioritized at this meeting. Those who were present developed a plan to “call for and review proposals from several outside organizations.” There is no mention of why they declined to simply hire GRACE as the top recommendation from the panel. The statement from this meeting also contains the problematic statement: “The panel will affirm the final choice prior to board approval.”

The panel, however, should feel free to NOT affirm the final choice. SNAP representatives are concerned that the use of GRACE is being discouraged because of that organization’s insistence on full access to institutional records. An investigation by an outside organization will only be worthwhile IF that organization does their job thoroughly and with integrity.

Mennonite Church USA has an opportunity in this moment to take significant steps toward the repentance and change it says it seeks in dealing with sexual abuse in the church. We can move toward healing and hope for sexual abuse victims, but we must prioritize those victims over the fears of institutional leaders and the personal relationships some people have with perpetrators and their enablers.

Please encourage our church leaders to be accountable to Christian principles of justice as they move forward in addressing the abuse done by Luke Hartman and in investigating the institutions that may have enabled such abuse.

Please contact the Sexual Abuse Prevention Panel members. Thank them for their good work and encourage them to insist that the outside investigation be done by GRACE.

Anna Groff: Anna@DovesNest.net
Regina Shands Stoltzfus: reginass@goshen.edu
Ross Erb: 
ross@thecollinscenter.org
Nancy Kauffman: nancyk@mennoniteusa.org
David Miller: dbmiller@ambs.edu
Jenny Castro: jenniferc@mennoniteusa.org

And if you’ve still got a few minutes after reading this post and emailing the panel, consider reaching out to the MCUSA staff members who are overseeing the selection process. Thank them for taking seriously the denominational commitment to improving our institutional response to sexual abuse, and ask them to trust the expertise of the panel and hire the outside investigating organization with the best reputation among victims and advocates: GRACE.

Ervin Stutzman: ErvinS@mennoniteusa.org
Iris deLeón-Hartshorn: Irisdh@mennoniteusa.org
Carlos Romero: carlosr@mennoniteeducation.org

And if you’ve STILL got a few minutes after reading this and emailing the panel members and the denominational representatives, come on over to my place. I’ve got a kitchen floor that needs mopped.

No matter how much time and energy you have right now, please pray for our church to enact Christ’s love and justice in this world on behalf of victims of sexual abuse.

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3 thoughts on “The Mennonite Church and Sexual Abuse

  1. Pingback: Summary of Sexual Abuse Case in MCUSA – Spacious Faith

  2. I had a brother-in-law that was a member of the Mennonite faith that sexually assaulted my two younger sisters for years. The church was opposed to him being prosecuted, and did not seem to fully grasp what repentance should really include. I am a Christian, and I was not impressed with the Mennonite response. I prayed, researched and went through with seeing him prosecuted. He plead not guilty and then took a plea bargain. I hope they choose GRACE. I too had an incident with this brother-in-law, and I had previously been molested by family members. As a survivor, we need to learn to balance justice with mercy. Most sex offenders do not truly repent, witness the history with John Yoder.

    • Heidi, Thank you for sharing a part of your story. I share your hope that the Mennonite Church will start doing a better job of responding to instances of sexual abuse within their churches and schools.

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