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Photo: The campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Photo provided by AMBS.
Hilary Scarsella has come forward with an account saying a man sexually assaulted her in 2009, when they were students at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana.
Scarsella, a 2012 AMBS alum, describes the events surrounding the sexual assault in detail in a piece published June 11 at ourstoriesuntold.com. “An eternity of confusing and terrifying moments happened in an instant,” she says. “He raped me.” She goes on to say, “I lost consciousness while it was happening. But in that first moment, before my mind went dark, I died. That’s the only way I can explain it. Whatever I was before that night died when I felt—physically, viscerally—that my body was no longer my own.”
Scarsella described the events of that night to the AMBS campus pastor in a meeting in 2010. As a result, the campus pastor, without disclosing names of those involved, sought counsel from the academic dean. They agreed to invite a third party to meet with Scarsella and later with both Scarsella and the man she says sexually assaulted her.
Following that meeting, Scarsella says, she had a follow-up meeting with the campus pastor.
“My nightmares continued,” Scarsella says. “I was diagnosed with [post-traumatic stress disorder]. My whole life lost its color for a few years. Almost a decade later, I am still working through the damage [the alleged assailant] and those involved in the aftermath of his assault caused to my body and psyche and spirit.”
Scarsella is now director of theological integrity for Into Account, director of Our Stories Untold and visiting assistant professor of theology and ethics at Memphis (Tennessee) Theological Seminary.
In March 2018, Scarsella requested that AMBS leadership review the seminary’s 2010 administrative response, which she says was “mishandled” and “unacceptable.”
For the past year, Scarsella and AMBS representatives, led by President Sara Wenger Shenk, have engaged in a review process that culminated in early June in an on-campus meeting of Scarsella, Wenger Shenk and others. The review process did not review the sexual assault itself.
Wenger Shenk, who was not president when the assault happened or was reported, published a response to Scarsella on June 11 at ambs.edu. In her piece, Wenger Shenk affirms Scarsella’s account of her sexual assault, apologizes to her and acknowledges several points of institutional failure. “I am sorry that we failed to read the signs of your trauma and to intervene on your behalf in ways that would have provided some measure of comfort and restoration for you,” Wenger Shenk says.
“We also acknowledge with sharp regret that our lack of understanding of what occurred meant the perpetrator was allowed to graduate, never having had to acknowledge the depth of the harm he had done or be held accountable,” Wenger Shenk says.
As part of the review process, Wenger Shenk formed an AMBS Sexual Misconduct Response Team, which interviewed the two administrators Scarsella interacted with in 2010 and mentions in her June 11 piece. “While only one administrator had direct conversations with Hilary about the assault,” Wenger Shenk says, “both administrators apologized in person to Hilary in early June, expressing their deep sorrow and regret that they didn’t recognize that she was a victim of sexual assault, encourage her to file a formal report, assure her that she wasn’t at fault and help her understand her legal options.”
Wenger Shenk thanked Scarsella for her “bravery in sharing her experience and for her courage in inviting AMBS to review the ways we as an institution do and don’t provide a safe environment for our students. As we shared with Hilary during this process, our AMBS learning community has done serious institutional work over the last eight years to enhance our preparedness and vigilance for detecting and guarding against sexual misconduct and abuse.”
In a piece published June 12 at ourstoriesuntold.com, Scarsella called the review process with AMBS a “success,” adding that “none of the rest of the church-related or academic institutions out there can justify offering survivors who confront them anything less.”
Scarsella says one of the reasons the review process was successful was because “AMBS did not try to hide the disorganization of its [original] administrative process from me. They fessed up. They put it all on the table. They were more interested in telling the truth than they were in managing their image.”
Scarsella believes the AMBS sexual misconduct policy, which has been revised, is still inadequate and has shared her ideas regarding potential revisions with AMBS leadership. The current AMBS academic dean, Beverly Lapp, released a “Statement of Renewed Institutional Commitment Regarding Sexualized Violence Prevention, Reporting and Response” on June 17, detailing six commitments for the next year. The commitments include making changes to the sexual misconduct policy.
In a June 12 email to staff of The Mennonite, Inc., Scarsella wrote: “Examples of institutions successfully taking responsibility for mishandling survivors’ reports of sexual violence are few and far between. I think the Mennonite world’s resources for engaging sexual violence with ethical and theological integrity can be supported by learning from this example at AMBS.”
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