Discernment Group on sexual abuse and the church

By Ervin Stutzman

Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA

On August 19 I released a statement announcing a discernment group to guide a denominational response to John Howard Yoder’s (JHY) abuse.  The discernment group met for the first time on Sept. 4 and 5, 2013, in Goshen, Indiana. We spent significant time in worship and prayer, and in sharing our personal stories with particular attention to our experiences with sexual abuse—whether involving us personally or our family members, friends or colleagues. We also spent considerable time identifying hoped-for outcomes of the discernment process we expect to engage over the next two years. In addition, we discussed patterns of communication within the group and to others about our work.

We agreed to consult regularly with a reference group of survivors of sexual abuse convened by Carolyn Holderread Heggen. Carolyn, who serves as an advisor to the discernment group, has invited three women to accompany her in that role. Carolyn has been an advocate and support for many victims of abuse and is one of the church’s leading voices on sexual abuse, its prevention and the path to healing beyond the violation.

We see our mandate as discernment on behalf of the whole church and begin our work with the shared assumption that the discernment group has been called in response to what is known:

  • We know abuse happened.
  • We know there are victims—some known, some not known.
  • We know wounds remain unhealed.
  • We know that despite previous efforts by church leaders to stop the abuse and to enable healing, further work on the part of the church is being called for and is indeed needed.
  • We know the truth will set us free.

We agreed in a preliminary way on several outcomes we seek in this process. We shared these hoped-for outcomes with the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board in its Sept. 15-17, 2013, meeting. They approved the following outcomes and commended them to the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) for broader discernment. The CLC is a gathering of conference ministers, moderators and representatives who meet twice a year. We welcome their counsel and shared ownership or suggestions regarding the following outcomes for this discernment process.

Outcomes:

  1. In light of the reality that many and varied assumptions are being voiced about what occurred, we will design a process to fairly and accurately document the scope of JHY’s sexual abuse and the church’s response to it after a careful review of the evidence. We will report this documentation for both a popular audience and a scholarly audience in separate venues. Since a full rendering of a report may take months to compile, we will soon report what we already know from earlier published evidence.
  2. We will publicly thank the women who tenaciously persisted over many years to bring JHY’s abuse to light to prevent further victimizations and to seek healing, those who valiantly care for victims of sexual abuse whether by JHY or by other abusers, and those who’ve done the hard personal work to transcend their abuse with a readiness to work for the healing of their communities. We will also thank those in church leadership who worked hard to hold JHY accountable with a desire for his restoration.
  3. We will cultivate a system wide preparedness through conference leaders and links on the denominational website to provide resources for persons who come forward seeking support for dealing with sexual abuse in their own experience. We will encourage denominational and conference leaders to provide educational experiences to better prepare pastors/leaders to care for victims of sexual abuse.
  4. We anticipate that in a large church gathering, most likely our next biennial convention, there will be a public service of lament, repentance and healing. Our hope is that the whole church will experience the grace of God together, including victims of sexual abuse, family members of JHY, church leaders responsible for disciplinary processes, and all whose lives are touched by these relationships.
  5. We will explore the possibility of a denominational statement addressing a variety of dimensions of sexual abuse.

Our discernment group continues to seek for God’s wisdom regarding the best way for our church to respond in healing ways to issues of sexual abuse. During this process, two matters have come to the fore with particular urgency.

First of all, many persons have spoken to us with concern for JHY’s family. I will address that concern very briefly here. We deeply regret that family members who were hurt by JHY’s actions will no doubt experience renewed pain with this new round of discussions. Our explicit hope is that circles of friendship and pastoral care will surround each family member in their own communities. We also expect that any public service of lament, repentance and healing we plan will include the family in ways that they would welcome and find restorative.

We also acknowledge an expressed concern that this process will focus on JHY’s sexual abuse, potentially overshadowing his significant theological contributions to the Mennonite and broader ecumenical church. The primary purpose of the discernment process we’ve undertaken is to work for restoration of those directly harmed by JHY and prevention of similar kinds of abuse in the future. But we expect and hope that persons will continue to feel free to learn from JHY’s theological legacy—both to value its contribution to our reading of the Gospel and to critically examine its limitations. There are many constructive conversations we can and should be having that relate directly to how we live as the body of Christ in the world. Some of these were identified by Sara in a blog. We hope that a range of conversations will grow out of this teachable moment in circles of discernment across the church.

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One thought on “Discernment Group on sexual abuse and the church

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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