(Mennonite Church USA) — Representatives from Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board (EB) staff have contracted with D. Stafford and Associates (DSA) to conduct an investigation into responses by Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC); and Lindale Mennonite Church (LMC), Linville, Virginia, to abuse allegations against Luke Hartman, former vice president of enrollment at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. EMU, under the oversight of Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), is also working with DSA under separate contracts.
The investigation is currently underway, and will include interviews with personnel from VMC, LMC and EMU, the entities involved in responding to abuse allegations against Hartman. Lauren Shifflett, who brought the complaints against Hartman, has declined to participate in the investigation and so has Hartman.
“In the selection process of the investigating firm, we failed to provide Lauren with the information she needed and to take her concerns into account,” says Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA. “I am sorry, and genuinely regret that this happened. Lauren and her family have chosen not to participate in the investigation, and we understand that decision is a result of our mistakes that broke her trust with us and with this process.”
“I am grateful that she has supportive family members surrounding her during this time, and that she has found advocates who have accompanied her and stood with her, when so many others, including myself, have broken her trust and let her down,” Stutzman continues.
DSA, a firm based in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, will produce a public report and recommendations answering the following questions, according to their contract:
- To what extent, if at all, was the staff or board of Virginia Mennonite Conference or Lindale Mennonite Church responsible for malfeasance in the way that they handled the allegations that were made against Luke Hartman?
- How, if at all, might these two entities improve the way they handle allegations of sexual abuse in the future?
- What recommendations would DSA make for best practices in managing allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, or misconduct of a sexual nature, that could also be a criminal offense, particularly when that conduct involves high profile individuals who do not carry ministerial credentials?
The report will be written by the investigative organization and made public without any interference or editing by Mennonite Church USA or by the institutions being investigated, and will be provided in advance to those who have brought allegations before it is made public. The report is expected to be published by the end of November.
Representatives of EMU, EB staff and MEA chose to hire DSA after reviewing proposals from four organizations, including GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), which had initially been recommended by Mennonite Church USA’s Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention.
On Aug. 3, the panel terminated their participation in the investigation process, stating: “We cannot affirm the process that resulted in the selection of D. Stafford and Associates for EMU, or any process that does not involve Lauren.”
Regarding the investigating organization, Stutzman noted that DSA brings the following strengths to their task:
- DSA is completely outside the Mennonite world, with no discernible bias regarding the current situation.
- DSA has conducted investigative services for hundreds of victims of sexual assault, stalking and intimate partner violence.
- DSA’s investigative team has training in investigating sex crimes, domestic violence and dating violence and conducting trauma-informed investigations.
- DSA has full-time employees who are available to complete the investigation and the reporting in a relatively short amount of time.
After the report from DSA is published, the FaithTrust Institute, an organization recommended by the panel, and whose founder, Marie Fortune, is listed in the resource appendix of Mennonite Church USA’s Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse, will provide a two-day consultation for Virginia Mennonite Conference with the following emphases:
- Reviewing “best practices” in policies and procedures for responding to sexual abuse cases and clergy misconduct.
- Developing a restorative justice agenda, in which victims will have the opportunity to speak into the process as the agenda is developed.
- Updating VMC and LMC’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures, working toward developing a victim-centered approach.
- Developing an all-day training for pastors and other church leaders that equips them to: engage with outside professionals to process sexual abuse or clergy misconduct cases; understand their pastoral role; and provide support to victims.
“I resonate with FaithTrust’s values,” says Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA. “In their work, FaithTrust aims to resource faith communities as they learn what it means to be safe and trustworthy spaces for victims and survivors.”
“As Mennonites,” de León-Hartshorn continues, “our priority is learning what it means to be worthy of trust by those who have experienced sexual abuse and sexualized violence within our own communities of faith.”
—Mennonite Church USA staff