Dr. Lawrence Ressler has spent nearly four decades as a social work professor and academic administrator in Christian higher education including time at Eastern Mennonite […]
In August, together with 10 other Mennonite or formerly Mennonite advocates for survivors of sexual violence, I attended the annual conference of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. SNAP is a 30-year-old organization formed by Catholic survivors of clergy sexual abuse. It has since branched out to serve survivors whose abuse occurred in different faith traditions.
After two days of conference sessions, our Mennonite SNAP group gathered to compare notes, get to know one another better and plan for the future. We discussed our experiences with church leaders and law enforcement. In that trusted company and the privacy of that room, we shared name after name: of rapists, molesters, harassers, and predators. We also named Mennonite pastors, deacons, administrators and elders who, through complicity or passive silence, helped allow the violence to happen.
We face a dilemma that has confounded survivors’ advocates for years. We can’t do much of anything to stop sexual violence when perpetrators are allowed to hurt people without accountability. Still, it is hard to counsel survivors to name their perpetrators when the consequences of that action are so routinely vicious. All of us in that room had faced the experience of being attacked—verbally, through threats to our employment and sometimes physically—for naming perpetrators or supporting others who did.
I think of this conversation whenever I read about the efforts of Mennonite Church USA leadership to confront sexual abuse. There are good, competent people working on those initiatives. Still, survivors who want to make the names of their abusers public need more concrete reasons to believe they won’t be shamed or ignored when they name names. What will happen, for instance, when those names create embarrassment for powerful Mennonites?
The threat of retribution against survivors is one of the greatest hurdles we face. It has the potential to undermine all of our efforts to address this problem: from those of families confronting incest to efforts of schools, conferences, congregations, and agencies (such as Mennonite Central Committee’s new initiative to better understand sexual violence and harassment).
We have to stop giving perpetrators access to victims and using bad theology to justify it. Church leaders have to model what it means to support survivors and to take appropriate action when survivors give the names of the people who hurt them.
After all the work Mennonites have done in the past few years to expunge John Howard Yoder’s violent history and to draft resolutions that confess and lament how badly the church has failed its survivors, now more than ever we face the danger of complacency and of indulging in what Dave O’Regan calls “symbolism over substance.”
We know that predators are most likely to target those of us who are already made vulnerable by systems of dominance and subordination. Mennonite Church USA acknowledged this in the recent resolution on sexual abuse passed by the Delegate Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri: “We have tended to listen to voices who have positional power, rather than to those who have been violated and those who are most vulnerable.”
But nothing causes political controversy quite like marginalized people demanding accountability for the way they have been treated. A church leadership that is studiously neutral and pathologically fearful of division is not equipped to confront the ramifications of predators made public.
The outing of a perpetrator creates factions. Loyalists close rank around the accused, particularly if that person is powerful or a family member. People fight over whether or not to believe the victim. Finally—this one I have seen and heard again and again in Mennonite contexts—churches ostracize their victims with silence.
Survivors know what it looks like: the frantic look in someone’s eye when they fear being seen in a conversation with you. The end to dinner invitations or the awkward dodging. When predators are members of a church, we still pay a steep social price for saying, “This person did this to me.” We cannot make life better for survivors when we treat them like political liabilities.
Church leaders have relied on their ability to locate the survivors who are most able and willing to cooperate with the church’s public displays of repentance. The cooperation of some survivors then becomes a weapon of silencing others who are deemed less worthy. Survivors who leave the church can be labeled as irrelevant and not the church’s problem. Leaders thus shelter themselves from knowledge of the most damning stories.
At the Kansas City convention in July, the same delegate body that acknowledged the role of patriarchy and social vulnerability in sexual abuse chose to sanction the vulnerability of LGBTQ people. The message to LGBTQ survivors was, we know our exclusion of you makes you vulnerable to sexual violence and we’re OK with that.
Mennonite Church USA executives, for all their words of contrition, seemed unable or unwilling to see how their actions pitted survivors against one another despite the many voices that offered them counsel leading up to convention.
We can take power away from those who abuse. We can discipline, demote, de-credential, and fire leaders who have committed abuse. We can call out the many quiet enablers within the Mennonite church who are hiding the names of reported predators. We can own the problem and stop shooting our messengers.
All this we can do. But only if we choose to do it.
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