Not long ago, a pastor friend told me a painful story that he had just heard about his deceased maternal grandfather, a respected longtime minister in the Mennonite church. My friend’s mother had confided that her father had sexually abused several of his daughters, a pattern that continued over some years. The most troubling aspect of the account was that his grandfather’s fellow ministers were aware of these acts of incest but they did little to stop it.
I would to God that such stories were not true, that this case was a rare exception. Yet my interaction with church leaders points toward the sad reality that such cover ups happen too often. Most of us find it difficult to believe that a respected minister could be guilty of serious sexual offenses against their own children or church members. Consequently, children or adults who share painful stories of abuse by church leaders have too readily been disbelieved, shushed up, pushed aside, or given false promises that something would be done to stop it.
The rash of legal actions against the Catholic Church has been as likely to target the problem of cover up by supervisory church leaders as the initial acts of clergy abuse against children. The same is true in the secular world. In the upcoming trial at Penn State University, a former president and his staff are being tried for downplaying or hiding stories of sexual abuse against minors.
In the early 1990’s, our denomination put policies in place which hold leaders accountable for inappropriate sexual conduct. And in 1993, delegates adopted “A Resolution On Male Violence Against Women.” At our recent convention in Phoenix, delegates adopted a resolution on “Protecting and Nurturing our Children and Youth.” I hope that congregations throughout Mennonite Church USA will act to implement this new resolution. It could go a long way toward prevention of abuse of vulnerable children in the future.
But what about the children or adults who were wounded by sexual abuse at an earlier time? What should be the role of the church in acknowledging abuses by past church leaders? What is God’s healing intent for the abused who reached out to the church for help, but were disbelieved or left to fend for themselves against further abuse? How might clearer truth telling from the past lead us toward God’s preferred future?
Dr. Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), recently wrote a blog regarding her commitment to address unfinished business related to the complex legacy of sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder. Yoder, now deceased, was once a professor and a president at the seminary. Yoder’s ministerial credentials were removed by the Indiana-Michigan conference after Yoder was found guilty of sexual abuse of women. Consequently, he submitted to what became a long and arduous accountability process, with considerable question whether Yoder had fully admitted or even comprehended the depth of his wrongs. Not long after the accountability committee released Yoder to resume public ministry, he died suddenly of a cardiac event. By all accounts, the healing process for his victims was left incomplete.
At the same time, Yoder’s influence continues to grow via his many books, including recent first-time publication of his materials. Because much of his writing focuses on Christian ethics, those who suffered abuse from him lament the ironic disconnect between his stated ethics and their lived interaction with him. Many long for the church to more transparently acknowledge the wrongs that were done to them by this man who was widely supported in ministry by various influential church leaders.
Sara and I are shaping a discernment process that will enable the church to move toward deeper reconciliation and healing for victims of sexual abuse by John Howard Yoder. We hope to build on the healing work that has been done in the past, informed by current understandings regarding the dynamics of sexual abuse.
Since the issues surrounding sexual abuse are often complex and sensitive, we know that such a process will take careful discernment and planning. Yet we are convinced that the stated vision of our church calls for just such an effort. God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world. I invite you to join with Sara and me in prayer that it may indeed be so.