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Have we learned anything from the John Howard Yoder cover-up?

12.12. 2015 Posted By: Tim Nafziger 1,054 read

Tim Nafziger is a member of the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Even though “Priests” is in its title, SNAP is open to religious and nonreligious persons who were sexually violated by anyone inside or outside a faith community. SNAP is the world’s oldest and largest support group for sexual abuse victims and their loved ones.

On December 1st, Mennonite Church USA’s (MCUSA) Executive Board staff cabinet announced the members of a new sexual abuse prevention panel. This panel is a direct response to the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse passed by the delegate assembly this summer at the MCUSA convention in Kansas City. Here’s its conclusion:

“We resolve 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…”

We as a church have an important opportunity to take clear and decisive action against sexual abuse and those who have protected abusers in our institutions and communities.

The panel includes Anna Groff, the executive director of Dove’s Nest. This is a hopeful step. Dove’s Nest’s helps Mennonite congregations develop child protection policies and they distribute “Circle of Grace,” a curriculum that congregations can use to help children learn healthy boundaries. That is important work, but they are clear on their website that their area of focus does not include working with survivors and they appropriately refer survivors to groups like the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

As I have have conversed with colleagues from the Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter of SNAP, some questions have been raised for me.

Why aren’t there any known survivors of sexual abuse on this committee? Why wasn’t a recognized and respected Mennonite related survivors’ group such as Our Stories Untold or SNAP Menno substantially invited to help create the panel, participate in it or set out its goals?

From the 30 year cover-up of Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse, it is clear that our institutions have repeatedly failed to do what was necessary to publicly confront and end patterns of abuse within our Mennonite homes, congregations, agencies and institutions. During that time, seven different church appointed committees and working groups attempted to deal with Yoder privately and secretly while largely ignoring the needs of his more than 100 victims still hiding in shame and secrecy. These institutional patterns must end now.

As I wrote earlier this year, it was decades of organizing by feminists and survivor advocates outside of Mennonite institutions that finally led to change. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King noticed a pattern of white people setting up panels on civil rights issues that excluded leaders in the movement that they saw as too radical:

“This is an old story we find in every place. They never want to deal with the local man who began the movement, because invariably he is a true leader and a dynamic force in the community. What it really means is that they don’t want to deal with anybody they can’t control.”*

The current Moderate Mennonite Male Managers of MCUSA have a history of setting up panels and committees that they control. While themselves not complicit in the John Howard Yoder cover-up, they have not learned its lessons of the importance of transparency and welcoming dissent and outside expertise. Many of our Mennonite survivors left the church long ago, so we must work with the secular press, social media and survivor’s groups that are financially independent of the church.

As an organization with over 30 years of experience and 21,000 members in 79 countries, the SNAP network has learned that listening to survivors, combined with a public conversation about perpetrators, is crucial to ending patterns of abuse and supporting victims in stepping forward.

“Survivors have a great deal of collective wisdom. Including them is a sign of sincerity, a matter of respect,” SNAP Executive Director David Clohessy told us on a recent phone call. “My advice to this new Mennonite abuse prevention panel is this: share with experienced professionals in law enforcement and independent groups like SNAP any abuses you fear or suspect are happening.”

In the lament and confession service at the MCUSA convention in Kansas City on July 3, 2015, church leaders read the following lines:

The Church has perpetuated hurts
and has not taken responsibility for its actions.

We confess those times when we stood in the way of the truth being told,
of the pain being named,
of the sin being acknowledged.

We are the Church.
Shake us, O God, and remake us.

Let’s hold our MCUSA Executive Board Staff cabinet accountable to their commitment to be shaken by God and remade.

*This Martin Luther King, Jr. quote is from p. 350 of Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch.

Note: An earlier version of this post stated that Dove’s Nest’s educational work is partly funded by Mennonite Church USA. Anna Groff, director of Dove’s Nest stated: “Dove’s Nest received a one time contribution from the MC USA Care and Prevention Fund, but no other funding from MC USA or the agencies. We are financially independent.”

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