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Responding to sexual abuse

1.12. 2017 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite 1,287 read

This article originally ran in the October issue of The Mennonite magazine. 

Editor’s note: Over the past year, we have published—in the magazine and online—a series of articles focused on sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts, support for survivors of abuse and safe church practices and policies. These posts grow out of our desire to take the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse, passed unanimously by delegates at Kansas City, Mo., seriously. The statement calls on the church to “tell the truth about sexual abuse; hold abusers accountable; acknowledge the seriousness of their sin, listen with care to those who have been wounded, protect vulnerable persons from injury, work restoratively for justice and hold out hope that wounds will be healed, forgiveness offered and relationships established or reestablished in healthy ways.” This story is part of our commitment at The Mennonite to hearing the counsel of survivors of abuse in Mennonite contexts.

You can also read Hannah Heinzekehr and Gordon Houser’s editorial regarding sexual abuse in the church. 

Amanda Conrad* does not take the label “survivor” for granted.

Before she was 22, Conrad had survived abuse in Mennonite contexts on two occasions. First at the hands of a trusted family member, and later, while away at college, through rape by a former church youth group member and peer.1

These two incidents alone held enough trauma to last a lifetime, but what surprised Conrad most was the church’s response after the reports of abuse came to light.

After the rape, Conrad called her parents to report what had happened. She also went to the rape crisis center on campus to be examined. Later, she went through the college’s judicial process, which ended without the college pressing charges. In response, Conrad filed a Title IX complaint. As a result, the college was found to have a standard of evidence that did not adequately represent students’ rights under Title IX standards.

The name Amanda Conrad is a pseudonym. In this article, pseud- onyms (*) are used for several survivors, and we do not name the congregations and organizations they reference. Although The Mennonite typically does not allow anonymous sourcing, our policies make an exception for survivors of sexual abuse and violence.

Although Conrad spoke publicly about her experience and the identity of her rapist, she never contacted her church directly. On the one-year anniversary of the assault, Conrad recounts receiving a phone call from the associate pastor at her home church. The pastor emphasized the ways Conrad’s public conversation about the rape was harming her rapist.

“She said that my publicly speaking about the rape was ruining his life,” says Conrad. “She asked me if I would be part of a restorative justice process with the church, where they would have an accountability group for him and a healing group for me.”

Conrad agreed to participate in the process, although she was living three hours from home at the time. The church formed a group of women, and on several occasions, Conrad drove to meet with them. At one of the meetings, Conrad recalls, the group asked her to write down all the ways she had contributed to the rape, and they encouraged Conrad to move quickly toward forgiveness. Later, Conrad also learned that her attacker had refused to participate in the accountability process the church had designed.

“Ultimately, for me, I think it did more harm than good,” says Conrad. “I was really only doing it to try [to] get some form of accountability. It wasn’t until I was completely through my process that I found out he hadn’t agreed to participate at all.”

As churches wrestle with how to respond ethically and compassionately to sexual violence in Mennonite contexts, heeding the wisdom and stories of survivors like Conrad will be imperative for the church’s health and survival.

How churches respond to reports of abuse

Conrad’s story is not unusual. According to the 2006 Mennonite Church USA Church Member Profile survey, 21 percent of Mennonite women report experiencing sexual abuse. This number is on par with the U.S. rate of one in five women, or 20 percent, who report experiencing sexual assault or rape.

However, sexual abuse statistics are “notoriously fraught” according to Hilary Scarsella, PhD student at Vanderbilt University studying sexual abuse and executive director of the Our Stories Untold, a network dedicated to supporting survivors of abuse in Mennonite contexts. Scarsella says when you take into account the fact that many instances of sexualized violence go unreported and that sexualized violence includes other behaviors like harassment and grooming, “the scope of this violence is staggering.”

Given these numbers, pastors and church leaders should not be surprised when reports of abuse arise in their congregation.

According to Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, restorative justice coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S., church groups may be tempted to deal with reports of abuse internally, but they should resist this desire. “Part of this is a self-protection that churches have to move away from. There’s a sense of not wanting other people to know or airing our dirty laundry,” she says. “I think that probably one of the ways we can further harm people is when we say we can handle this internally.”

Stutzman Amstutz is clear that congregations should never pressure survivors of abuse into forgiveness. She also cautions churches against trying to support all the involved parties through the same process. “We shouldn’t assume that the same person should be paying attention to [both] the person who is harmed and the one who was doing harm,” she says.

Scarsella notes that part of the Mennonite affinity for internal accountability groups may grow out of a discomfort with the secular legal system. “One thing Mennonites have sometimes done well is think through and carry out an important critique of…the ways the legal system falls short of carrying out actual justice,” says Scarsella. Concerns about the legal system have often led congregations to try to manage processes they are not equipped to handle.

Scarsella says perpetrators of sexual violence have a high rate of recidivism (recent studies suggest that 24 percent of sexual abuse offenders will have a repeat offense within 15 years) and are often skilled manipulators. She emphasizes that it takes specialized skill sets to hold a perpetrator accountable. “Accountability groups in the Mennonite church have a history of not prioritizing the needs of the survivor and trying to hold the needs of the survivor and the supposed needs of the perpetrator equal in the process,” says Scarsella. “That is not a situation in which accountability will ever happen. The needs of the survivor must be absolutely prioritized as necessary for both the perpetrator’s well-being and the survivor’s.”

Amy Hammer, a licensed clinical social worker at Prairie View Mental Health Center, Newton, Kan., echoes Scarsella’s caution that internal accountability groups have a very low rate of success.

“Just because there’s an accountability group does not mean the group will be able to correct a perpetrator’s thinking patterns and their behaviors,” says Hammer. “Even if people are questioning [whether] these [are] false accusations, it’s appropriate to remove individuals from their duties for an interim period of time, just so there’s no confusion to the congregation or the victim.”

Carolyn Heggen is a psychotherapist with a doctorate in counseling from the University of New Mexico and the author of the book Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and+ Churches. She emphasizes that the Mennonite church has a long way to go in balancing “grace and mercy for perpetrators and care and concern for victims.”

Both Heggen and Scarsella noted that a focus on forgiveness has often been used to undermine the severity of sexual abuse. “Forgiveness has often been used as a way to keep survivors of sexual violence in dangerous circumstances,” says Scarsella. “Survivors tend to hear church folks talking about forgiveness as assurance that no one’s listening. [Survivors] need justice, care, understanding, and their communities to listen.”

Heggen also reflects on counsel she received from sex offenders during voluntary therapy sessions she led at the Bernalillo County (N.M.) Detention Center, cautioning all Christian churches to avoid moving too quickly to forgiveness without accountability. “One of the things I used to say to those in prison was, What would you like me to say to people in my church? One man said, ‘Care for our souls enough that you don’t make it too easy,’” says Heggen. “We’re going to have to keep struggling with withholding forgiveness and understanding sexual addiction as part of our deep care for perpetrators.”

Holding perpetrators accountable and publicly exposing instances of abuse in church contexts also has a legal imperative. In the Catholic Church and, closer to home, among the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, denomination, survivors have filed lawsuits against leaders who have failed to address reports of sexual abuse.

Ongoing conversations about sexual abuse in the church

Many victims of sexual abuse cite the church’s discomfort with talking about sex and sexuality as a key factor making it hard to have a good process to address sexual abuse in church contexts.

“Whatever I knew [about addressing sexual abuse] would have been from reading,” says Suzie Conrad*, Amanda’s mother. “I don’t consider the church a place where I heard anything about sexuality.”

Conrad’s parents found help and a way forward through conversations with a therapist. According to Suzie, while the local congregation and extended family wanted to continue family gatherings with both Amanda and the perpetrator present, the therapist taught the Conrads that no survivor should be forced to spend time with their abuser. The therapist emphasized that the health and wellness of a survivor should be the family’s number one priority.

“Church is a very shaming place to talk about sexual activity of any kind,” says Lindsay Peters*, another Mennonite abuse survivor and member of the LGBTQ community who attended the 2015 Mennonite Church USA convention, where delegates affirmed a statement about sexual abuse prevention. “That sexual shame does not make church a safe place for survivors.”2

At Kansas City, Peters observed the church’s discomfort with conversations about healthy relationships for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people that involve sex between two consenting adults. “I went to convention and discovered that the church was having a big conversation about bodies like mine, and I had limited say in the conversation. As a sexual abuse survivor, you’re looking at these conversations going, Wow, the church can’t handle conversations around consensual sex very well. How can I trust the church with sensitive conversations about sexualized violence?”

This discomfort with talking about sex can leave Mennonite and Christian young adults ill-equipped to respond to abusive advances when they occur.

Adrienne Brown* characterizes herself as a “naïve and innocent Mennonite girl” who didn’t have any framework for understanding sexual abuse or grooming behaviors prior to a summer as a staff person at a Mennonite camp at age 15. Soon after she arrived at camp, one of her supervisors, a 24-year-old camp program director, began to pay her careful attention.

“He was just this really extroverted, charming kind of guy,” Brown says. “He was really friendly and flirtatious and knew how to make people feel like they belonged and mattered. As someone who had been bullied as a kid, I found that really special.”

Brown developed what she considered a “major crush” on him and fantasized about a dating relationship. After camp ended for the summer, the director continued to initiate contact with Brown. He called her at home talked to her on the phone for hours. Although Brown perceived this as a relationship taking off, she kept the conversations secret, sensing that something wasn’t right about the interactions.

According to Amy Hammer, these types of targeting behaviors by a person in a position of power are known as grooming. Oftentimes, she says, a perpetrator will target an individual who is already vulnerable in some way. “Grooming is a way that a perpetrator can coerce or prepare someone for an abusive relationship,” says Hammer. “Often with grooming there’s a given relationship where there’s already trust or a power differential. In a situation like this, we just generally give or expect trust.”

After months of this grooming, the director invited Brown to meet him in secret to attend a drive-in movie. Brown planned to use a sleepover at a friend’s house as a cover from her parents. However, as the outing grew closer, Brown noticed some red flags. The director talked about his excitement and the fact that he had been able to borrow a truck and a mattress from his brother.

“There was something about it that just did not feel right at all. I started freaking out,” says Brown. “I realized this was not a good idea. I have no exit strategy if something goes wrong.”

A few hours before they were supposed to meet, Brown called the meetup off. And the director? “He was livid,” she says. He sent Brown hate-filled messages and phone calls, calling her a “tease [who] was all talk and no walk.”

Later, Brown found out that other camp staff had had similar experiences with this director, but because he was a gregarious, well-loved, longtime staff person, no one at camp apparently wanted to report the behaviors or take action to remove him from his post.

A different conversation about abuse

Over the course of the past five years, several new initiatives have emerged to support Mennonite victims of abuse and educate Mennonite church members about appropriate ways to prevent abuse and respond when reports of abuse surface. Among these organizations and resources are these:

Survivors and advocates are clear to say the Mennonite church has a long way to go with addressing sexual abuse in congregations and church organizations. As high-profile reports of abuse in Mennonite contexts have gained traction in both church and public media, some members of MC USA are concerned that naming perpetrators and hosting these conversations publicly undermine the church’s call to reconciliation and forgiveness.3

In a March 15, 1994, editorial, J. Lorne Peachey, then editor of the Gospel Herald magazine, addressed similar concerns when he wrote out his rationale for publishing accounts of abuse by church leaders. In response to the question, Why can’t we just forgive?, Peachey wrote: “Yes, we must have an attitude of forgiveness, but it must go more than one way. Healing and hope must also be offered to victims. Too many have told me stories of more abuse, hurt and alienation from the church because they dared to whisper their truth.”

Notes:

1 According to a Bureau of Justice statistics report, 63 percent of women who suffer abuse by a family member also report a rape or attempted rape after age 14 and are 13.7 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape in their first year of college.

2 Statistics show that women, particularly African- American, Native American and transgender women, experience abuse at higher rates than men. See the report from RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) on statistics for victims of sexual abuse: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/ victims-sexual-violence. For more statistics on race and sexual violence, see the Department of Justice Report on Sexual Violence in Communities of Color.

3 For another perspective on why public conversations are important, read Barbra Graber’s piece, “Why we name names” or Stephanie Krehbiel’s “Archiving a culture of silence.” 

To read more full-length editorials and features, subscribe to The Mennonite magazine today. Don’t miss the longer story. 

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