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Sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts

9.7. 2016 Written By: Lisa Schirch 5,484 Times read

Lisa Schirch attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and is a member of the Anabaptist-Mennonite SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). She has written several books and chapters on sexual violence and has provided training on the topic for the United Nations, the Swedish government and as a Fulbright scholar in East and West Africa. 

This piece originally ran as a feature in the June issue of The Mennonite magazine. Subscribe to The Mennonite today for more full-length features and resources. 

Mennonites need to do more to understand sexual violence and put into practice victim-centered principles of restorative justice. The Bible contains numerous passages condemning sexual abuse and extending compassion to victims. (see for example, Deuteronomy 22:25-29) Yet too often, it seems the Anabaptist emphasis on Biblical “love of enemies” (Matthew 5) translates to saving the reputations of perpetrators while ignoring victim’s needs. A theology of redemptive suffering also contributes to a culture of silence and complicity with offenders.

Is sexual violence really “violence?”

Pacifist theologians focus on the problem of war and have been largely silent on sexual abuse. Yet rape and sexual assault are widely viewed as the most devastating weapons of war. In places like Rwanda, armed men raped nearly every woman and girl during the genocide. Mennonite scholars note the widespread rape of Mennonite women escaping Russia.

Unlike extramarital affairs between consenting adults, sexual violence is a crime of sexualized power and control. It aims to humiliate and conquer. Victims of sexual assault describe the crime as “soul murder.” Researchers link suicide to experiences of sexual abuse.

There is a global epidemic of sexual violence, including links with prostitution and sex trafficking. Victims of sexual violence are more likely to become prostitutes or fall victim to sex trafficking than others. In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, for example, prostitutes as young as age 12 are forced to work as sex slaves under threat of violence.

The United Nations, the World Bank, and many states around the world have taken significant steps to define sexual violence and identify the damage it creates for victims, for families, for national economic productivity, and for national peace and stability.

Mennonite institutions have only recently taken steps in accordance with state laws such as Title IX and the Clery Act to prevent and respond to sexual violence. But the state’s requirements are limiting, do not go far enough, and do not address the unique aspects of sexual abuse in religious settings.

How is it that the church most concerned with state violence falls so far behind the state in addressing sexual violence?

What we know about people who commit sexual violence

People who commit sexual violence share certain characteristics. Many Mennonite perpetrators credibly accused are well-liked and trusted community or family members. Known perpetrators include popular Sunday school teachers, pastors, youth leaders and theologians. Mennonite communities don’t want to believe that these people who “do so much good” are capable of sexual violence.

Perpetrators often take months or years to “groom” their victims. Using a mix of manipulation and coercion, perpetrators begin the victimization process by building intimate relationships and trust before making sex seem like a natural part of this close, secretive relationship.

Many perpetrators violate multiple people. The number of perpetrators is relatively small compared to the number of victims.

Many perpetrators exhibit signs of serious sexual addiction, with significant denial, and sophisticated coercion and manipulation of others. Many perpetrators experienced sexual abuse as children, contributing to a cycle of abuse. Research confirms that the men who seek out prostitutes often have a history of sexually abusing others.

Are innocent people charged with sexual abuse?

Few perpetrators are publically named or held to account for their crimes. Only 3 out of every 100 rapists is convicted.

Most perpetrators are assumed to be innocent. An offender is “credibly accused” if they have been federally charged, civilly sued, named for the offense in a media article from an established news outlet (not blogs), or dismissed from a post for sexual misconduct. Relatively few victims take steps to sue or press charges because of the significant obstacles and potential for further trauma these processes imply.

 What would a restorative justice approach to sexual violence look like?

Restorative justice practitioner Howard Zehr notes “many misunderstand what restorative justice means when it comes to sexual abuse.” Restorative justice is an approach to harm that puts the victims and the harm done to them in the center of the process. Perpetrators are called to accountability. This means they acknowledge the harm done to victims and they take responsibility for their actions.

Criminal justice processes often have not listened to victims’ voice and interests. As with other crimes, lack of training in sexual abuse and systemic racism and sexism may deter people from reporting sexual violence to police and/or make police responses unhelpful or harmful.

Yet people who commit sexual abuse need others to hold them accountable. Decisions to protect perpetrators implicate others in their crimes. A culture of silence allows perpetrators to victimize others, does further damage to the perpetrator’s family, and creates the potential for greater institutional damage when these secrets and complicity come to light.

Judah Oudshoorn, author of the Little Book of Restorative Justice and Sexual abuse, asserts, “criminal justice processes are exactly what some victims and offenders need. Rule of law, due process, public denunciation, and the protection of rights are important elements of justice and community safety. Too many times, people running institutions have covered up sexual abuse, trying to handle it on their own, only causing further harm.”

Most perpetrators continue sexual abusing others over a long time span. At least in some places, recidivism is lower if law enforcement holds perpetrators accountable.

Restorative justice does not require victims to meet directly with perpetrators. Sexual violence is more intimate and humiliating than other crimes and direct meeting can be re-traumatizing. Victim-centered restorative justice processes involving family and community conferences to respond to victim’s needs should complement, not replace criminal justice processes. These processes recognize that sexual abuse disrupts entire communities and families, and that there may be other silent victims in the community.

Victim Blaming

Protecting well-loved community members accused of sexual violence, bystanders often lash out at victims and their advocates. This is a significant reason a vast majority of victims do not publically report what has happened to them.

Public shaming and blaming of victims intimidates and silences victims. Victims, not perpetrators, are often held to account for damage done to the perpetrator’s family. Sometimes Mennonites suggest victims should “bear their cross” in private, wrongly suggesting that suffering sexual violence can be redemptive.

There is also public shaming of victim advocates, who turn to social media when formal channels of registering complaints fail. Social media democratizes information, allowing marginalized groups around the world, such survivors of sexual violence, to tell their stories.

 The Problems with Church Processes on Sexual Abuse

Church accountability structures tend to favor and protect the offender and rarely focus on victims and their needs.

Victims often approach a variety of adults or people in authority before finding someone who can stop the abuse. This means many adults choose to do nothing. Institutions have a history of silencing, discrediting, and controlling victims of sexual violence.

Perpetrators, who are often in positions of power and authority, depend upon public discomfort talking about sex and sexual abuse. Perpetrators may coerce others not to tell on them, threatening to expose other secrets or make counter allegations. In the Catholic Church, for example, abusive priests threatened to expose gay priests if the latter exposed abuse.

Institutions usually lack expertise in holding offenders accountable. Church leaders tend to significantly underestimate the offender’s denial and manipulation of the process in order to avoid accountability. Mennonite institutions are not prepared to identify grooming behaviors and coercion characteristic of sexual perpetrators. They lack training and expertise. Mennonite leaders have tended to be over confident that “we can take care of this” rejecting offers to bring in experts for guidance.

Institutional interests take precedence over victims’ interests. Institutions may consciously or unconsciously avoid taking action to prevent perpetrators from abusing others in order to prevent unwanted media attention or damage to their reputation. After the public becomes aware of sexual abuse, institutions have an interest in damage control rather than victim assistance.

Fear of lawsuits may prevent institutions from taking responsibility and offering apologies to victims. Yet ironically, the failure of institutions to recognize victims needs is one of the principle reasons victims take their stories to the press or social media and why victims initiate legal processes. Institutional failure to apologize only tends to make victims more determined to find accountability. In a case of sexual abuse, a Presbyterian church in Vienna, Virginia, leaders illustrated a victim-centered approach ignoring legal counsel not to apologize to victims and choosing instead to value honesty over institutional risk taking.

Preventing Sexual Violence in the Mennonite Church

Mennonites need help putting a theology of peace and justice into practice to prevent and respond to sexual violence. Mennonite churches and institutions need to acknowledge that sexual abuse is a church-wide problem.

  • Listen to and respect victims of sexual violence. Within the Mennonite church, the website Our Stories Untold and MCC’s “We Will Speak Out” survey on sexual violence are places for victims and survivors to tell their stories.
  • Recognize that keeping secrets about sexual abuse undermines the safety of others and is not in the long term interest of the offender, their family, or Mennonite institutions who face greater risks when secrets become public.
  • Recognize that institutions have a conflict of interest to respond to sexual abuse themselves and must refer victims to independent resources such as the Dove’s Nest, Safe Church, Anabaptist SNAP, local sexual abuse and domestic violence centers, and law enforcement experts who can help victims and survivors document and make decisions about what to do to stop sexual violence and begin a process of healing.

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9 Responses to “Sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts”

  1. Keri Kauffman says:

    Thank you for this, Lisa, and thank you to The Mennonite for publishing it. Based on recent/current events involving the church, it seems that now more than ever we need to take a very honest look at our actions, attitudes and institutions and truly take these issues to heart.

  2. Maria Hostetter says:

    Lisa, well done, it would be interesting to know the true incidence of abuse inside denominations based on community and champion focus. Community faith practice seems to be an ultimate for Mennos. With that ultimate in mind, what if Mennos are becoming a group that uses God for common social goals based on community beliefs that stem from a popular social champion? We become social-champion dependent (JHY, Luke Hartman, Bill Cosby) and more apt as a community to become like them and practice pseudo faith. Like them, we use God and others in our path. If the God of Scripture is really who he says he is, would not all things transform? As long as Mennos focus on social and spiritual champions, we will lose our way over and over and over again. What is to be our ultimate worship and focus? Who is my champion?

  3. Karl says:

    One of the reasons sexual assault accusations are so seldom successfully prosecuted (reputedly three out of 100) is that in a court of law there is a rather onerous burden of proof required.

    In addition, a completely honest analysis of what actually transpired may find there sometimes was a degree of absence of due diligence in both parties, because of alcohol, playful testing of limits, etc.
    Lisa is completely right in advocating for a more overt process, especially for church organizations, and an acknowledgement that unjust power imbalances not only give predators too many opportunities but can also cause the victim further injury after the event.
    But there are also many, many cases where an existing successful relationship breaks down, and false accusations are traded. How can tragedies such as these be remedied, and perhaps prevented in the first place, within a community of faith?

    • Barbra Graber says:

      Karl, research has repeatedly shown that a very small percentage of victims ever make false accusations and if they do, forensic sex crime investigators are trained to quickly make the call. So your claim of “many, many cases” is not backed by research. And it is absurd that church folks continue to think a committee of peers has the tools to determine who might be lying. Research shows repeat predators do tend to lie, in fact they tend to be highly skilled at manipulation and deception. So I’m getting tired of the “false accusation’ excuse for not taking action to protect the public until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That in my mind is a reckless attitude especially if we claim to have concern for public safety. We need to believe all disclosures of offenses by persons who hold authority. We need to make the leader’s name public immediately and ask for anyone with more information to come forward in order for the full truth to be known. Our church leaders must be above suspicion or they do not deserve to lead.

      I myself cannot imagine anything worse than being falsely accused of sexual violence— because I don’t have to imagine. As a recipient of it I know and have experienced something much, much worse. The impact on a life following sexual violation, especially by those who carry spiritual authority in our communities is never, ever worth the risk.

      My advice to men who fear being falsely accused is to encourage any woman who threatens such a charge to take it directly to the police. It is a federal crime to make false reports to law enforcement. That should shut her up and eliminate the threat. Persons trained in forensic sex crime investigations are the only ones able to make such a call and churches need to get out of the business of trying to do it on their own.

      Pastor Alan Stuckey writes a great article on this issue for Dove’s Nest:

      • E Knapp says:

        I agree that the most important thing in assessing criminal action is involvement of law enforcement, which is exactly why we can’t see eye to eye on John Howard and Luke. As you say, only persons forensically trained in sex-crime investigations should be able to ruin careers and ministries, and only after proper, objective and confidential investigations have been concluded. This never happened with John or with Luke, yet the crusade against sexual abuse in the church has turned on them in a way that is neither objective nor fair.
        Evan Knappenberger
        EMS Senior

      • Joan says:

        Thank you! I work with people who have been convicted of a sexual offense and can guarantee that every one of them initially lied to cover their actions. It is through treatment and understanding of their actions (why they did it and the harm it caused) that they are able to admit their crimes. I have only worked with one person who maintained his innocence throughout and it may be a case where he was falsely accused. MAYBE. Everyone else eventually admitted their crimes and also acknowledged the extent they went to in order to try to evade being identified and receiving consequences. The myth of the frequent false accusation has to stop. SOME victims MAY lie, but ALL offenders lie (at least at first).

  4. Debra B. Stewart says:

    I might just add to the list of prevention: Keep an eye out for women/children who appear to be troubled/unhappy/disassociated/abnormally quiet. Sometimes a simple “How are things with you?” or, “Is everything okay” can be just the thing to start the process to stop something awful. It breaks my heart to think that not one out of 400 Lindale people picked up on a single sign that a child, a fellow member might be in trouble.

    • E Knapp says:

      Respectfully, I wonder what it is that you know about Lindale that the people who go there don’t.
      I would humbly request that you (1) refrain from assuming that something bad happened at Lindale until the MC USA-funded fact-finding report is made public; and (2) that you refrain from assuming that you know more about what happened at Lindale than the many respectable people of all ideologies and backgrounds and genders who are members there.
      Thank you for extending this small courtesy to one of the oldest and most respectable churches in Virginia Conference.
      Evan Knappenberger
      Eastern Mennonite Seminary Senior

  5. Barbra Graber says:

    Thank you, Lisa, for your ever wise, well -researched, rational and passionate voice in this important dialogue. From where I sit, this problem in our denomination is at epidemic, pandemic, public health crisis levels. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye, make excuses, deny, defend and continue to allow reported, credibly accused predators to worship and fellowship and study among us without being identified to the adults of the congregation and wider campus communities. I’ve heard too many well meaning folks promise me they are ‘keeping an eye out’ or ‘keeping tabs on’ known repeated offenders. Meanwhile their communities are unaware. It takes 20 seconds to forever alter a life through sexual violation. At the very least, credibly accused offenders must be shadowed while they are on church property. And known offenders should not be allowed to be “under cover” when they are on our campuses and at church functions. Their names must be made public and special contracts signed. If they resist such public accountability, it is a strong signal that they are anything but repentant. We all need to become more educated in how to recognize grooming behavior and find the courage to interrupt it. We are not living in a world in which there is a predator behind every bush; we are living in a world in which a few repeat offenders abuse many victims, their numbers rising into the hundreds because these behaviors can tend to become compulsive. Every single faithful person in our church needs to consider themselves ‘mandatory reporters’ and report any ‘reasonable cause to suspect. A difficult but important read: “Predators” by Dr. Anna Salter. 540-214-8874 Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, SNAP Mennonite Chapter

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