The Discernment Group, convened by Mennonite Church USA to address issues related to sexual abuse, has been working hard on multiple fronts.
The group met on June 3 in Elkhart, Ind. Carolyn Holderread Heggen, who serves as an advisor to the group, was able to join us for the entire meeting. We also conferred with Rachel Waltner Goossen, the historian who is researching Mennonite institutional responses to reports of John Howard Yoder’s sexual violations in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Here are several emerging initiatives the group has been tending to:
1. Documenting the scope of Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response to it. An issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review focusing on sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts is planned for early 2015. It will include an article by Goossen on Mennonite church institutional responses to Yoder’s sexual abuse of women. In the meantime, we want to report several findings as we have revisited the legacy of Yoder’s sexual violations. We are discovering from previously unexamined institutional and personal files, which include memos by Yoder himself, additional evidence of sexual violation perpetrated by Yoder on many women, including students, missionaries, church workers and others. We are also learning how long it took church leaders to intervene effectively. There are documented reports of sexual violation by Yoder, including fondling and sexual intercourse. In some instances, women who engaged in sexual encounters were persuaded, at least initially, by Yoder that such behavior was permissible between Christian “brothers” and “sisters.” Many others resisted his unwanted advances, and were perplexed and distressed by his pursuit.
While a four-year church accountability process for Yoder began in 1992, doubt lingers about its outcome since very little about this process was communicated to the general public. In 1996, when the process concluded, recommendations were made for “the continuing use of an accountability plan” and that “the church use his [Yoder’s] gifts of writing and teaching.” Additionally, very little has been communicated about the prolonged and devastating impact that Yoder’s sexual abuse has had on many women. There is much for the church to lament about the harm inflicted on these individuals, as well as the grief experienced by family members of all involved, and by colleagues and administrators who tried to call Yoder to account.
While much of the Mennonite institutional processes that focused on Yoder was not shared publicly, Mennonite Church USA is now committed to transparency in this matter. In 2015, all previously unavailable written materials made available for this historical documentation process will be deposited and available to researchers at Mennonite Church USA’s historical Archives.
2. Planning seminars and a service of lament. Planners of the Mennonite Church USA convention have agreed to make space for a public worship service of lament at the 2015 biennial meeting. The Discernment Group has begun conversation about what the service might include and who we might invite to plan and lead the service. In addition, we’ve begun to identify seminars to be offered on sexual abuse prevention and related matters, including a report and discussion of what we’ve learned in documenting church responses to Yoder.
3. Restoration and healing. We’re exploring a variety of ways to enable restoration and healing for those who have suffered sexual abuse. We are particularly interested in healing for those who have suffered abuse by church leaders, such as Yoder, who were not brought to account in a timely manner by the church.
4. Drafting a statement on sexual abuse. On behalf of the Executive Board, the Discernment Group has begun the process of drafting a general statement on the nature and prevention of sexual abuse. The statement will be presented to the Constituency Leaders Council for approval as a study document in the church, and then for approval by the Delegate Assembly at the 2015 biennial meeting in Kansas City.
We welcome conversation and counsel from concerned persons. You are welcome to contact any member of the Discernment Group. Carolyn Holderread Heggen and Linda Gehman Peachey are especially available for conversation with victims of Yoder who wish to report their experiences or receive counsel.
See also the Discernment Group’s webpage.