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When damage control does damage

3.31. 2016 Written By: Stephanie Krehbiel

Last week, in their coverage of the Luke Hartman case, The Mennonite shared two letters. One came from the pastors of Lindale Mennonite Church and announced that they have had knowledge since August 2014 of an abusive relationship in which Luke Hartman caused serious trauma to another member of the congregation. Another letter, from Virginia Mennonite Conference minister Clyde Kratz, attempted to explain the “difficult pastoral scenario” presented by Hartman’s alleged behavior, and to reassure readers that the conference takes sexual exploitation seriously.

Despite the pastoral laments, exhortations to prayer, and expressions of sadness, these letters read as damage control documents. Kratz makes this clear in the opening paragraph, where he moves swiftly from “lament[ing] the brokenness” caused by Hartman’s alleged actions to, “Luke does not have ministerial credentials associated with Virginia Mennonite Conference.” The subtext here is clear: We’re sad, but we’re not responsible. Kratz reminds readers that in the state of Virginia, clergy are not mandatory reporters, but then he assures us that VMC is, “planning a series of consultations that can assist pastors in the challenges of difficult pastoral cases.”

Few things are less comforting to those who understand the urgency of the devastation presented by sexual abuse in congregations than hearing that pastors are planning a “series of consultations” to deal with a problem that apparently cannot even be named outright.

Based on their timing, we can reasonably conclude that these letters appeared because Luke Hartman was in extremely public legal trouble when they were written. I read fear in these letters: fear of losing control of the narrative around Hartman’s case, fear for their own reputations, fear of who may speak next without pastoral permission. These letters generate far more questions than they answer.

The Lindale letter claims that Lindale pastors knew in August 2014 that Hartman was engaged in an “abusive relationship.” Because they used the word “abusive,” the implication is that violence was involved. If violence was involved, why did they not contact civil authorities? Even if the survivor in question did not want to file a police report herself, two questions remain: Was a man who was capable of committing violence against one person capable of committing it against others? And why did the pastors feel qualified to answer that question on behalf of their entire church community?

The letter reads, “Pastors Dawn and Duane have been involved in…attempting to hold Luke accountable for his actions.” Why did pastors Dawn and Duane feel they were qualified to hold Hartman accountable for actions the letter characterizes as “traumatic” and “abusive”?

The language these pastors use to discuss their involvement with Hartman conforms to a familiar pattern of negligent church officials caught in religious sexual abuse cases, and that should concern us. Boz Tchividjian, a former child sex crimes prosecutor who now directs a Christian sexual abuse prevention agency that conducts independent investigations, characterizes this kind of language as “turn[ing] off the spotlight.” The pattern goes like this: A victim makes allegations that reveal not only abuse but institutional complicity in that abuse. Church leaders, concerned about their own reputations, attempt to control the effects of the allegations by deflecting attention away from their own failure to report that abuse to the appropriate authorities. The Lindale letter covers several such well-worn diversionary tactics: counseling congregations to refrain from talking about the case (“When you’re tempted to speculate, turn that to prayer”); emphasizing their own great concern for the situation (“We have worked long, emotional hours trying to sort through this and most especially to keep the victim safe.”); and using the “hindsight is 20-20” trope (“It is not unusual to look back after some time has passed and wonder what we may have done differently for this to have had a different outcome.”)

It’s OK for pastors to feel confused and overwhelmed by reports of sexual and intimate partner violence. It’s OK to see the situations as complicated and to not immediately understand the best way to proceed. What is not OK is to hide behind those feelings as a way of distracting from negligence. Again, to be clear: If these pastors knew that a member of their congregation posed a physical or sexual threat and did not contact the appropriate civil authorities, that is negligence, and no amount of wordsmithing will change that. When there is an allegation of abusive behavior in a church community, it is not acceptable to respond with a barrage of church speak on behalf of pastors who have been unduly challenged by something “difficult.”

Kratz’s statement makes it clear that VMC’s policies support the kind of in-house accountability that Lindale attempted to implement. Kratz writes, “In spite of these difficult situations pastoral care must still be offered acknowledging that there are situations that are complex and very difficult. These dynamics are discerned by local leaders on behalf of a congregation and their members.” He also calls upon church leaders to report abuse to “the appropriate credible people who can respond to the information with integrity.” This language, while presented as a call for accountability, could also be interpreted as code language for “keep it in the church.”

If we want to see the results of keeping it in the church, there are ample cautionary examples for us. Watch the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, in which former Boston Archidiocese Cardinal Bernard Law protected hundreds of predatory priests from exposure. Read the reports coming from the recent grand jury investigation of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese in Pennsylvania, in which the impulse to protect predators led to layers of institutional complicity in horrific child abuse. Read about Boz Tchividjian’s attempts to bring transparency to evangelical sex-abuse cover-ups. Within recent Mennonite history, the history of the seven church-appointed discernment and accountability groups failing to stop John Howard Yoder’s predatory behavior is definitely worth a read. Mennonites do not have special powers to manage sexual predators within their own congregations that other Christians do not have.

In the resolution about sexual abuse passed by delegates last summer, Mennonite Church USA pledged to work to prevent sexual violence in all of its congregations. If the lack of accountability in Kratz’s letter is the status quo across MC USA conferences, then the denomination needs to get serious about revising its policies in relation to reports of sexual abuse and violence. Pastors need to understand, on no uncertain terms, that they need report violence to civil authorities: law enforcement, child services or independent survivors groups that can help victims to navigate their legal and civil options. Train pastors to know the resources for survivors in their area and train pastors to understand that they cannot be judge and jury.

Survivors of sexual violence and abusive relationships are reading these letters. And probably more than other readers, survivors can recognize the hidden codes of letters like these. The codes that say, “Your protection matters less than our reputations.” The codes that say, “You’re hurting the church by telling your story.” The codes that say, “You should have just let us handle it.” All of these codes are present in these letters, for those who can read them. If you are a survivor who has felt demoralized or erased by church statements such as these, please know that you are not alone.

Stephanie Krehbiel has a PhD in American Studies from University of Kansas and works as a researcher and advocate for the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is the world’s oldest and largest support group for sexual abuse victims and their loved ones. It was founded by victims of Catholic priests in 1988 and now has more than 21,000 members in over 79 countries. SNAP is open to all religious and nonreligious persons who were sexually violated by anyone inside or outside a faith community. The Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP was established in early 2015. A confidential SNAP Survivors Support Group meets the first Thursday of every month in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Call or text 540-214-8874 for more information. You can also e-mail Mennonite@snapnetwork.org

The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of Mennonite Church USA, The Mennonite or the board for The Mennonite, Inc. 

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