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Another ‘kairos’ moment for the church: Addressing sexual abuse

1.12. 2017 Posted By: The Mennonite 724 Times read

Gordon Houser is the editor of The Mennonite magazine. Hannah Heinzekehr is the Executive Director of The Mennonite, Inc. This editorial appeared in the October issue of The Mennonite.

From Gordon

It seems that issues arise in the Mennonite church at times that feel like “kairos” moments, moments of opportunity for change and for focus by the broader church.

I felt that happened in the early 1990s, when we were confronted by a growing number of cases of sexual abuse by Mennonite leaders. At the time, I was editor of The Mennonite when it was the magazine of the General Conference Mennonite Church. I was part of a group of Mennonite leaders who attended a conference in February 1992 called “Men Working to End Violence Against Women.”

For most of us who participated, this was a life-changing experience, a time of repentance from ignoring the violence against women that was endemic to our society— even our church.

Around this time, stories emerged of sexual abuse by several prominent Mennonite church leaders, including Urie Bender, Jan Gleysteen, John Howard Yoder and others. At that time, Meetinghouse, a group of Mennonite editors, worked on developing guidelines for reporting these abuses. And we reported those we learned about.

Now it seems we’re in another kairos moment. Again, courageous women are helping us all be aware of naming the prevalence of sexual abuse in our community.

Like before, there is still resistance to focusing on this sin. And like then, we need wisdom and perseverance to confront it. This sin of treating people—women and men—in abusive ways seems to be part of “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12) against which we struggle. A part of that struggle is naming it and listening to the stories of those who have been abused and then silenced by the church.

Let us seize this opportune moment to bring healing and hope to those in our church.—gh

From Hannah

As Gordon notes, we are in a powerful moment for churchwide introspection, repentance and change in the ways we talk about and respond to abuse.

In this issue are accounts from three survivors sounding an urgent call for the church to take sexual abuse seriously and to change our patterns of response. As these survivors point out, addressing sexual abuse is not only an ethical imperative but a matter of survival: Many denominations are beginning to go through public reckonings as legal charges and lawsuits are becoming more common when abuse is ignored.

This year, as we have sought to cover breaking news stories about abuse and emerging details about processes, we have heard from many people across the church who long to support survivors of abuse and appreciate public coverage. We have also heard from many who express concern that we are reporting allegations that may prove false, that we are reporting matters that should be private and that we are not tending the Christian call to forgiveness.

At their best, these concerns come from a place of care: for our church, for church leaders and for everyone wounded by the sin of abuse. But for too long these concerns have led to the cover-up and silencing of stories of abuse. They have prevented us from naming and seeing the full scope of the problem we are facing.

In July, Church of the Brethren pastor Alan Stucky explored the infrequency of false reports of abuse (the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found a false reporting rate between 2.0 and 7.1 percent) and wrote, “What should be abundantly clear from the rate of underreporting of abuse is that we still live in a culture where victims of abuse of all sorts do not feel safe coming forward with their stories. Our task as pastors and church leaders is to work to change this culture.”

May we take up this work with courage.—hh

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