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Make it safer for sexual violence survivors to name perpetrators

10.5. 2015 Written By: Stephanie Krehbiel 2,045 Times read

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.

One overriding theme of our conversation was the retribution and fallout faced by survivors who come forward with the names of their abusers.

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 make it safer for victims to name perpetrators.

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.”

Complacency endangers everybody who is vulnerable to sexual violence: children; women; people of color; people with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other gender non-conforming people.

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.

Because the impact of sexual violence is divisive. Sexually violent people have a tendency to tear their churches apart and to deflect the blame for that rupture onto their victims.

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.

The LGBTQ survivors I spoke with felt acutely the effort to isolate them from the “model survivors” —the ones to whom the church was willing to acknowledge its debt.

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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21 Responses to “Make it safer for sexual violence survivors to name perpetrators”

  1. Lisa Schirch says:

    Thank you for this compelling, clear call for more work. It strikes me the church prides itself on its ethics, and often condemns the state. But the secular state has been far more proactive in setting up systems of prevention and accountability for sexual abuse. The church is slow to show love to people in the military or police, but quick to hold up and defend perpetrators of sexual violence. Why is that?

  2. Debra Stewart says:

    As I read this article, I had a thought – could we somehow encourage more folks to be “listeners,” to be “watchers,” to ask, “Are you okay?” if something seems off-kilter. And then go from there. Perhaps if more folks were approachable, if those being abused felt comfortable with more than just a few in a congregation, it would make the job of naming and rooting out predators and abusers more effective. I’ll never forget my friend, who was abused as a child, crying and telling me “You’ve got to call the police,” when I called to ask what I should do about a situation. I asked her why and she said, “Because every night I prayed that someone would notice, that someone would tell, that someone would make it stop.” Maybe an idea is to have more folks who can be approached for help? Just a thought.

    • Stephanie Krehbiel says:

      Debra, I wholeheartedly agree with this, and I’m really glad to see you suggesting it. I think it needs to happen, on both formal and informal levels. Part of the goal of forming a Mennonite SNAP chapter is to do this. SNAP does regular trainings for people interested in facilitating survivors’ support groups, and anyone who is interested in that should definitely talk to our contact people at mennonite@snapnetwork.com. But what you’re suggesting can also be something that people work on less formally: learning what the warning signs of abuse are, familiarizing themselves with church policies that are already in place, knowing where survivors can go for legal counsel, looking for ways to show potential survivors that they are safe people to talk to about abusive experiences, and being willing to risk public backlash along with survivors. And learning to listen deeply–without trying to minimize the abuse or immediately “solve” the problem–is a skill that we need so much more of.

  3. Thank you for this excellent article, Stephanie. And for the additional question you raise, Debra. It seems to me a congregation is as “approachable” as its leadership. Besides making sure known and suspected predators are named publicly, what is said from the pulpit carries incredible weight. In preparing sermons, if the leadership is not able to keep in the front of their mind what victims need to hear, then we won’t make much progress. If the little girl in the pew whose father is crawling into her bed at night, or the boy whose aunt is expecting sexual favors, or the sister whose big brother has groomed her since she was five and still expects sex from her as a grown young woman never ever hear out loud from even one church leader that what is being done to them is categorically wrong and deeply harmful, how will anything ever change? If the father and aunt and brother and all those like them are never ever publicly reprimanded, pointed out, reproved, held accountable, and corrected by church leadership how will this ever end? It is far too easy to keep preaching sermons on forgiveness, kindness, meekness, turning the other cheek and loving our enemy. The more difficult task is to start talking to the “enemies” themselves who sit in our pews. If I were a pastor I would hardly know where to begin and I’m no seminarian, but sermon classes could start by helping young pastors figure out how to preach their first “sexual abuse” sermon. People say what about the children? What about them? From the time they are babies they need to know, be assured, understand that such behavior will not be tolerated in Christian communities, no matter who is doing the deed.

  4. Stephanie, I do not want to feed your paranoia about “shooting the messenger,” but your use of language is often highly polarizing. Obviously, such an approach does not build consensus, but then that is not your purpose, right? Indeed, you imply disdain for leaders whom you describe as “fearful of division.”

    So now you are aiming your fearsome skills of deconstruction at survivors who “cooperate with the church.” It’s difficult to tell why you find it important to call them out for criticism, but I’m guessing that in contrast to you and that ”trusted crowd” around you, they too are “fearful of division.”

    As I recall your previous posts, you regard the teaching position of MCUSA in regard to homosexuality to be an act of what you call “sexual violence.” Do I have that right? I ask because you imply our church is a cesspool of abuse (“name after name: of rapists, molesters, harassers, and predators . . . Mennonite pastors, deacons, administrators and elders who, through complicity or passive silence, helped allow the violence to happen”).

    As Alice said to Humpty Dumpty, “You can make words mean so many different things.”

    • Addie says:

      Berry, The Mennonite Church as much as it wishes to be apart from the world, is still a product of the world. It’s not that the Mennonite Church is any worse than other denominations, it’s that it is just a bad as any other denomination, when it comes to abuse. Face it folks, we ain’t special. We are as broken as the world around us.

      Our society is full of abuse (it’s also full of a lot of other things, THANKFULLY!!). John Howard Yoder was a predator like any other predator. His psychopathogy is painfully common; really there is nothing special about it. There are people out there who will find a way to prey on the vulnerable, come hell or high water. Then there are folks who will abuse only if the environment allows it. We cannot ignore that vulnerable populations are more at risk here. All you have to do is look at the statistics of sexual abuse in the Native American boarding schools. People of color, LGBTQI folks, children, women/girls are populations that are victims of sexual abuse at far higher rates. Predators seek out victims who society is less likely to value or believe. We can’t separate the issues and we can’t separate ourselves from society’s problem of sexual abuse.

      I am guilty of espousing some Mennonite Narcissism from time to time. A lot of our society contains pain and we want to believe we are some how separate from all that, a little better, a little more peaceful, a little less broken. So, Berry, I wonder if the anger in your response comes up to protect some tenderness that you feel towards these victims…that if you sat in the possible truth that we as a larger church have just as many issues with abuse as any other denomination the sorrow of that might just crack you wide open, screaming at the heavens, “WHY??” and “NO!!!” Maybe it would lead you to some empathy that victims are fearful of FAR more then church division, these traumas have made them fearful for their lives, Berry, for say an control over their own bodies. Your response here confirms that it is not safe for them to share their stories in a public way, but some of them share their stories anyways. Lord have mercy.

      • Addie , your warning against smugness and complacency in our view of the Mennonite Church is well-taken. I don’t want to be part of either one. And yes, there is a place for critique and anger when describing its faults.

        Yet the fork in the road remains: do we encourage and strengthen it, or do we discredit and tear it down? From what I’ve seen to date of Stephanie’s writing, she has chosen the path of discrediting and tearing down.

        • Addie says:

          Glad we could find some common ground. You know, I wonder if making it about Stephanie could end up being a distraction. I want to talk about the survivors that are among us and what we are doing to make our environment incompatible with abuse. I like Barbara’s ideas!

  5. Liam says:

    Stephanie’s language isn’t polarizing. Retribution for calling out Sexual violence is polarizing. Complacency about Sexual violence is polarizing. Willful ignorance about these things is polarizing.

  6. For those who have never experienced it or loved someone who experienced it and don’t understand why “polarizing language” and “adversarial attitudes” are sometimes just part of the necessary package: http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/stories/my-untold-stories-by-barbra-graber/#comment-63072

  7. I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I have often been considered and treated in the Mennonite church as what Stephanie calls a model survivor. Unlike most survivors, I’m rarely written off, and I think this has a lot to do with the facts that 1) I am white and married to a man, 2) I am theologically trained, 3) I’ve worked in Mennonite institutions, and 4) the people who abused me were mostly not associated with the Mennonite church. In other words, I’m the least threatening kind of abuse survivor around.

    When I first read Stephanie’s description of the way that survivors have been pitted against each other by various dynamics of the current conversations around both sexual abuse and welcoming LGBTQ folks in the church, tears came to my eyes, because she’s right. Being at convention this year was a terrible experience, because I felt myself being forcibly torn away from fellow survivors against my will. Rather than feeling supported by a church full of people who want desperately to end sexualized violence, I felt that my story and others like mine were being used to silence the stories of my sisters and brothers whose stories are more difficult for church folks to bear. This is a terrible injustice to both those of us whose stories are being used (consciously or not) as tools of division and those who are being explicitly silenced. When Stephanie says that the church is pitting model survivors against other survivors, I don’t hear her blaming model survivors for that fact. We “model survivors” have not chosen this role for ourselves. It is imposed in ways that harm all survivors to varying degrees as well as the church’s potential for effectively combating sexualized violence. Stephanie is stating a fact that needs to be acknowledged.

    Secondly, it’s not usually my style to make this sort of comment on a blog post, but I am really tired of people in the Mennonite church attacking Stephanie for her rhetoric. Stephanie is one of the very few people in the church who survivors of sexualized violence tend to trust. Stephanie’s directness and willingness to speak up for survivors even when she knows full well that she will reap consequences creates windows of hope for survivors who want to say the very same things but have been too effectively silenced to do so. When you attack Stephanie, you should know that you are also sending the message to survivors that you disapprove of them in the same ways you disapprove of her. If we can’t together tolerate and welcome the kinds of impassioned conversation that Stephanie invites, we have absolutely zero chance of welcoming meaningful conversation with survivors who have been deeply hurt by the church, because the kind of anger that survivors rightfully have toward the church surpasses what Stephanie expresses by incomprehensible degrees of magnitude. Please, for the sake of all who have been abused, engage with Stephanie respectfully, listen to what she has to say sincerely. Do so because she is a human who deserves this, because she is risking an awful lot to advocate for groups of people who desperately need allies and, if for no other reason, to show that we are a people willing to learn to have the difficult conversations necessary to seriously address the reality of sexualized violence in our midst without shaming each other for choosing not to prioritize unity.

    (Berry, I’m writing this partly in response to reading your posts on this page, but please know that I am writing it also in response to countless other responses of a similar nature. In other words, I don’t intend to single you out personally. This is a dynamic that is pervasive of the broader conversation.)

    • Hilary, as I understand it, when we confess our faith in Messiah Jesus, we also confess our hope in the community that bears his name. It is the body of Christ, living still among us. And though it is broken and scarred, it bears a faltering but true witness to Jesus in a world dominated by structures of violence and deception.

      I criticize Stephanie because I don’t see evidence of that worldview in her writing. What I see is a bold advocate with a set of analytical and rhetorical tools by which she can discredit our church as violent and oppressive and portray our leaders as unworthy of our respect and support. I do not see in her what we see in true prophets—a plea for the beloved community to return to its calling and values.

      I’m just another member of that community, Hilary, making my observations. They don’t count any more or less than yours. You appreciate Stephanie’s directness; I trust you will not object to the same quality in me.

      • I do appreciate your directness, Berry. It is refreshing. I don’t appreciate your insinuation that Stephanie is paranoid or your assumption that in order for her to be making an important and meaningful contribution to a conversation that affects the church she needs to prioritize unity in the same way that you do. I don’t appreciate the tone you use to address her work. It is disrespectful and dismissive. Regardless of whether or not Stephanie identifies herself as a part of the community she is speaking to, she is speaking in support of many who are members of our shared community who aren’t able speak up in the same way. I stand by my previous statement that when she is dismissed many survivors (many of whom have left the church due to their experiences of violence in it) receive the message that we too are not welcome. This may not be your intention, but it is important that you know this is reality.

        • Stephanie Krehbiel says:

          Hilary, thank you for defending me. It’s impossible for me to express just how much your words mean to me in this setting. Thank you so much.

  8. Sarah Conrad Yoder says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you said, Hilary, about the many survivors, and their family members, too, who have been supported and advocated for by Stephanie. I have appreciated her rhetoric and tone, because she has said what many of the rest of us haven’t been able to say. Also, I have never heard Stephanie say that she wishes to be considered a prophet, and or a voice for church unity. Before we can even consider the bigger goal of unity, we need to address the many reasons why such unity remains difficult.

  9. Cindy Singer says:

    In regards to the use of the word “violence” – I don’t know what else you would call it – Berry Friesen.

    There are a lot of forms of violence that is not physical.

    When someone is raised up in Christian life and formation in a Mennonite Church and loved by that church’s fellowship and then is totally rejected by the same church because they come out as lgbtq that is violence upon on one’s spirit and mental health.

    When a perpetrator is not removed and a victim must live in fear and silence at determent of their spirit and mental health that is violence.

    When lgbtq persons are told that their true calling cannot be and they are rejected and cannot marry or be ordained or be baptized or even take communion in that church – that is violence.

    When transgender teens are kicked to the curb by good Christian parents and are left to die, be trafficked or commit suicide that is violence.

    Possibly you have never experience spiritual or mental violence like this. If so it may be difficult for you to relate to this use of the word violence. But it is violence all the same.

    I think Stephanie has used the word appropriately.

    • Cindy, I understand what Team Steph is doing: redefining “violence” in a way that discredits MCUSA and its members who understand male-female marriage as the wisdom of YHWH. It’s a rhetorical power-play designed to drive a wedge into a church that has long thought of itself as peace-loving.

      We see this rhetorical tactic in use every day in the politics of the state as candidates for public office distort words to help them “win.” We see it as well in the propaganda of the empire, which justifies its global bullying by pasting dishonest labels (e.g., tyrant, dictator) on leaders who pursue an independent path.

      You and I can argue about this word or that until the cows come home. More important is that we recognize how short-term rhetorical tactics erode community, leaving people divided and unable to engage in constructive conversation with one another over their differences. Team Steph shows little concern about this, but I know many in Pink Menno want a more whole church, not one shattered into a hundred jagged pieces. For us to achieve that goal, we need to respect what words mean, even when we find short-term advantage in redefining them.

      • Hannah Heinzekehr says:

        Berry, I would note that your own tone in these recent conversations (“Team Steph”) has become quite snide and condescending towards Dr. Krehbiel and those who support her. I would hope that as we continue these discussions you could be direct but not derogatory. When things move in the direction of defaming or directly attacking others without making constructive comments, then they fall outside of our acceptable comments policy.

        • Hannah, it is fun—even exhilarating—to ride a bandwagon led by a conductor who boldly discredits a church that has hurt us. That’s what my reference to Team Steph is meant to convey.

          But my larger point is that Dr. Krehbiel’s bandwagon won’t take us to where we want to go. As her rhetoric shows, her forte is deconstructing and tearing down. Only days after the Kansas City convention, she used the Mennonite World Review website to call for a boycott on giving to MCUSA and for Ervin Stutzman to be fired.

          If we want a more vital and diverse church (as I do), we won’t follow her lead or amplify her views.

  10. Dwight Kauffman MD says:

    While in practice I had more opportunities to listen to abused persons than one should need to. And since retirement with reports of other victims of abuse available in forums like this, I find it easy when reading posts such as these to know who has taken time to listen and to guess who would have responded with “I believe you.

  11. Frank Lostaunaua says:

    FIRST: PROTECT ALL CHILDREN, VULNERABLE ADULTS, FAMILIES, COMMUNITIES.

    Despite the physical and sexual violence that many Mennonites have SUFFERED in SILENCE, there CAN BE NO PLACE FOR FORGIVENESS OF THE RAPIST AND HIS OR HER PROTECTORS/CHEER LEADERS.

    IGNORE the duplicity of attorneys invested in protecting Mennonite rapists. It’s HOGWASH! Seek professional medical treatment. Document all the medical proceedings and REQUEST copies of your medical records immediately. Find individuals who BELIEVE what happened to you and do what it takes to maintain that support. You will BENEFIT FROM THEIR LOVING SUPPORT. Your Pastor MAY NOT be a reliable member of your support system. Speak with a trusted attorney for LEGAL ADVICE.

    Eat well. Stay away from caffeine, lower your sugar intake, enjoy veggies and fruit. Exercise daily. Short brisk 20 walks daily. Swim if you have access to a pool. Receive a massage if you can afford it. Avoid TV/movies which feature violence of any kind. You can live a happy and fulfilling life and PLEASE consider joining a group such as SNAP Mennonite. SNAP = Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests/Pastors (Mennonite Chapter).

    When an individual is strongly invested of speaking to you about scripture be aware of how he/she may be attempting to steer/manipulate you away from becoming a Survivor. Such an attempt to manipulate you is CRAZY MAKING! It takes enormous courage to move from victim to SURVIVOR!

    Incidentally, there is NOTHING IN THE BIBLE that supports/approves of any Pastor on planet earth to RAPE you or your loved ones. Rape is an act of sexual violence and is not acceptable in a civilized society such as the United States of America. HELP US ALL STOP THE CLERGY RAPISTS AND THEIR SUPPORTERS OF ALL FAITHS. LETS PUT AN END TO THE SEXUAL VIOLENCE TOGETHER…WE CAN DO IT/SI SE PUEDE! VIVA AMERICA! VIVA!

    As Survivors, WE CAN BUILD BETTER AND SAFER COMMUNITIES.