Discernment Group Update

Discernment_BlogHeader_BBThe Discernment Group, convened by Mennonite Church USA to address issues related to sexual abuse, has been working hard on multiple fronts.

The group met on June 3 in Elkhart, Ind. Carolyn Holderread Heggen, who serves as an advisor to the group, was able to join us for the entire meeting. We also conferred with Rachel Waltner Goossen, the historian who is researching Mennonite institutional responses to reports of John Howard Yoder’s sexual violations in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Here are several emerging initiatives the group has been tending to:

1. Documenting the scope of Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response to it. An issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review focusing on sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts is planned for early 2015. It will include an article by Goossen on Mennonite church institutional responses to Yoder’s sexual abuse of women. In the meantime, we want to report several findings as we have revisited the legacy of Yoder’s sexual violations.  We are discovering from previously unexamined institutional and personal files, which include memos by Yoder himself, additional evidence of sexual violation perpetrated by Yoder on many women, including students, missionaries, church workers and others. We are also learning how long it took church leaders to intervene effectively.  There are documented reports of sexual violation by Yoder, including fondling and sexual intercourse.  In some instances, women who engaged in sexual encounters were persuaded, at least initially, by Yoder that such behavior was permissible between Christian “brothers” and “sisters.”  Many others resisted his unwanted advances, and were perplexed and distressed by his pursuit.

While a four-year church accountability process for Yoder began in 1992, doubt lingers about its outcome since very little about this process was communicated to the general public. In 1996, when the process concluded, recommendations were made for “the continuing use of an accountability plan” and that “the church use his [Yoder’s] gifts of writing and teaching.”  Additionally, very little has been communicated about the prolonged and devastating impact that Yoder’s sexual abuse has had on many women.  There is much for the church to lament about the harm inflicted on these individuals, as well as the grief experienced by family members of all involved, and by colleagues and administrators who tried to call Yoder to account.

While much of the Mennonite institutional processes that focused on Yoder was not shared publicly, Mennonite Church USA is now committed to transparency in this matter.  In 2015, all previously unavailable written materials made available for this historical documentation process will be deposited and available to researchers at Mennonite Church USA’s historical Archives.

2. Planning seminars and a service of lament. Planners of the Mennonite Church USA convention have agreed to make space for a public worship service of lament at the 2015 biennial meeting. The Discernment Group has begun conversation about what the service might include and who we might invite to plan and lead the service. In addition, we’ve begun to identify seminars to be offered on sexual abuse prevention and related matters, including a report and discussion of what we’ve learned in documenting church responses to Yoder.

3. Restoration and healing. We’re exploring a variety of ways to enable restoration and healing for those who have suffered sexual abuse. We are particularly interested in healing for those who have suffered abuse by church leaders, such as Yoder, who were not brought to account in a timely manner by the church.

4. Drafting a statement on sexual abuse. On behalf of the Executive Board, the Discernment Group has begun the process of drafting a general statement on the nature and prevention of sexual abuse. The statement will be presented to the Constituency Leaders Council for approval as a study document in the church, and then for approval by the Delegate Assembly at the 2015 biennial meeting in Kansas City.

We welcome conversation and counsel from concerned persons. You are welcome to contact any member of the Discernment Group. Carolyn Holderread Heggen and Linda Gehman Peachey are especially available for conversation with victims of Yoder who wish to report their experiences or receive counsel.

See also the Discernment Group’s webpage.



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13 thoughts on “Discernment Group Update

  1. Blah blah blah – let’s talk about this some more, instead of really doing something about it. How about this for a start – all past and future profits made by/from Yoder be divided amongst his victims and their families? While it is apparent that MCUSA can’t keep track to illegal behavior, we sure know they are good at accounting, so figuring out the dollar amount shouldn’t be too difficult. They want to keep using the fruits of his “gifts.” If this happens, full disclosure of the creep who came up with those insights, whose name should always be prefaced by “The unrepentant repeat sexual predator.” And this is just to start. Anyone in leadership positions during Yoder’s predations and those who continued to support and enforce the cover-up should also be held accountable – both financially and criminally. Discussing what to do – unbelievable. Long past time for concrete action.

    1. Thank you for this frank reminder of the depth of the offense perpetrated by Yoder and the church’s silence, Mr. Heibner. It seems we need to somehow encourage the victims of sexualized violence by leaders of our church to press charges in courts of law. These offenses do not fall into the same category as our generic “conflict mediation” and require the support of officers of the law. The first response to a suspicion of sexual abuses of power in our congregations should be to contact law enforcement and allow THEM to decide the seriousness and veracity of the suspicion. Our traditional avoidance of courts of law and bringing legal action works against us all in these cases I’m afraid.

      1. Barbara,

        Thank you for your response, which I admit contains less heat than my own reaction to this issue, which comes from a place of frustration with the historic treatment of victims as a whole throughout society, specifically the nearly institutionalized backlash against and shaming of victims of sexual abuse. This is especially true for female victims.

        Outside of these comments, I have seen discussion of this issue which asks about forgiveness, and if that is not part of the healing process and the Mennonite way. While I do believe that forgiveness is important, I do not believe that forgiveness implies freedom from repercussions for our actions. Instead, forgiveness is a starting point, a recognition by the community if you will, that an individual has a problem and needs help – not, as happened here, a cover-up. It is a process in which the wrongdoer is, through a process of restorative justice, led by the community to repair their behavior in the future and, more importantly, show the victims of wrongdoing that they have the support of their community. Forgiveness is a process of reinforcing socially beneficial behavior and punishing and correcting (if at all possible) detrimental behavior. The idea of forgiving and forgetting is a flawed and dangerous way to approach forgiveness – for then there is neither a teaching moment nor consequences for the wrongdoer. Worse, the victim is treated as if the harm done to them no longer matters to the community, and therefore that they do not matter – in essence, forgiving and forgetting makes the victim bear the brunt of the wrongdoer’s actions. In the present case, there are more than one wrongdoers involved whose actions allowed continued predation, and intervention is necessary to correct such wrongdoing so that it does not happen again.

  2. Dear Friends on the Discernment Board:

    Thank you for your update on this painful, invaluable, and necessary work. As an active feminist,
    former college teacher of women’s history/studies, and
    member of a very liberal Mennonite congregation, I support
    your efforts and will keep our council informed. I have
    been trying, for five years,to persuade our council
    to approve presentations on sexual abuse/abuse of authority. These proposals were always rejected,as
    “inappropriate”, “too troubling”, “irrelevant”, “doesn’t happen here”, ” no documentation–just rumor”, ” So what? Yoder isn’t the only one.”
    And the truth is, I had no idea
    how to develop a presentation/service that would give this
    subject a spiritual and, above all, a healing format.

    But it’s good to see that your team is addressing
    all these levels of concern, from the historical to the
    devotional. Please keep me posted on all developments.

  3. Could someone from the Discernment Group clarify the extent (and nature of) “Modified by Executive Board”? This is quite disconcerting to see attached to a report of institutional cover-up.

    1. Hi Deb,
      I can’t find the phrase ‘modified by the Executive Board’ anywhere in the document, and re-reading it again, I don’t know what you’re referring to. If you could let me know what you’re quoting from, I’d be happy to respond.

    2. Hi Deb – Thanks for asking about this. As you’ll see, we removed this line from the piece. It was actually meant as a placeholder to help us know that this was a finalized piece that the board had reviewed. I also asked Ervin Stutzman to clarify the board’s role in looking at this piece, and here was his response: “The Discernment Group report on John Howard Yoder to the Executive Board was met with deep appreciation, not controversy. The changes made to their report were for greater clarity about the broader concern about abuse, in line with the Discernment Group’s stated goals. For example, they changed the order of the paragraphs to show that the focus of the upcoming denominational statement on sexual abuse will not be primarily about John Howard Yoder, but to show concern for all victims of sexual abuse, and for prevention of future sexual abuse in the church.” Hope that helps! Hannah Heinzekehr

      1. Thanks for those who responded. Just a comment from the back benches – would it be so dangerous to let the group put out its own report, and let the Executive Board give its response? For me, that would make MORE clear the support from Executive and protect the appearance of independent discernment (of course, if the discerning is only on behalf of the current Executive Board it would make sense that there is that private discussion first). I just sat through a conference on avoiding even the appearance of immorality (though that seemed to be mostly about women being covered up to local standards in tropical countries, so I might be cranky.)

  4. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to MCUSA, to the Discernment Group members, and all those brave souls who have worked tirelessly for many years to bring us to this day. Closure on painful historical events in the life of a community of believers CAN happen and though it is only a beginning, we are now, with courageous and prophetic leadership, beginning to head in that direction. This is a watershed moment in our history as a church in regards to sexualized violence among us. Please continue to join OurStoriesUntold.com’s “A Call to Prayer for Sexual Healing….” on Thursdays at 3:00 EST.

  5. I appreciate the more thorough review of the pattern of John H. Yoder’s misconduct, abuse of power, violations of women, and disregard for our church community, the community to which he called us to and that called him . This is such a tragic irony for all of us. Thank you to those who spent many many hours over the years and recently to bring some justice and mercy. The journey’s toward healing for those involved will take time. Our church will be more like Christ as we walk together in this.

    With gratitude and prayers,
    Ruth D. Lesher

  6. As you may know, I have analyzed the disciplinary hearing of John Howard Yoder from a legal perspective. I believe that the hearing was procedurally unjust, and that the evidence did not support the conclusions that some people drew from it. In particular, I do not believe there was evidence of sexual assault or sexual abuse within the meaning of the law at the time, or even the law as it exists today. See:
    The Discernment Group now says it has discovered “additional evidence of sexual violation perpetrated by Yoder on many women” and that “There are documented reports of sexual violation by Yoder, including fondling and sexual intercourse. In some instances, women who engaged in sexual encounters were persuaded, at least initially, by Yoder that such behavior was permissible between Christian “brothers” and “sisters.” Many others resisted his unwanted advances, and were perplexed and distressed by his pursuit.”
    I do not find these statements to be clear enough. Were there acts of sexual intercourse that were not consented to? If there was initial consent by an adult, then there was no sexual abuse and no sexual assault within the meaning of the law. I disagree with Yoder’s ideas of what we may do as “Christian brothers and sisters,” but some of these ideas go back to the early church. If Yoder merely made “unwanted advances” that were resisted, that would not constitute sexual abuse, either. The fact that some were “distressed by his pursuit” is not sufficient to prove sexual assault or abuse. Of course, the church may still find such conduct to be immoral. But morality and legality need to be distinguished, and the terminology needs to be correct if the Mennonite Church is genuinely interested in seeking justice and fairness.
    Perhaps, unlike the evidence at his disciplinary hearing, the new evidence proves that there were sexual assaults within the meaning of the law; I would have the greatest sympathy for any such victims. And yet I am troubled by procedural issues. Yoder, being deceased, clearly cannot defend himself. Written materials will not be made public until 2015. And so judgments are being made by the Discernment Committee without evidence being made public. I hope that this will not set a precedent for how allegations of abuse are handled by the Mennonite Church. There must be justice both for the accused as well as for those bringing forward the allegations.

  7. I worked as a legal secretary in Chicago for over 30 years, ending my career at Seyfarth Shaw, one of the oldest and largest labor and employment law firms in the country. When I first heard of the allegations against John Howard Yoder many years ago, I asked, via a letter to Mennonite Weekly Review, what specifically were the allegations against Yoder – something along the lines of “Did he compliment a prickly woman on her new dress or did he rape someone?” I never got a satisfactory answer, but my inquiry elicited many angry responses from other readers. I continue to have questions about what really happened, but I also think this has morphed into much ado about not much of anything, and agree with Friesen that Yoder’s actions probably do not rise to the level of a sexual crime.

    When I worked at Seyfarth, I learned a lot about the EEOC and other means for employees to complain about unwanted attention. Throughout my working days, if someone said or did something I didn’t like, I simply went to his office, shut the door, and explained in no uncertain terms that I would not abide such behavior and if he never did/said it again we’d be fine. It worked like a charm, and I never had a problem. I knew that I was a valued and respected employee.

    I believe that protection of women, not continued investigations of what Yoder did or did not do at the seminary, should be the priority for AMBS. It is imperative that all Mennonite agencies be proactive, not reactive, in this arena, whether by Codes of Conduct for students and faculty, or legally enforceable workplace policies for all employees. I think it is positive that AMBS now has a written document regarding Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures (Revised December 17, 2013), although it pains me that there is no mention of complaint or redress available outside of AMBS itself.

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