Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention Sets Priorities for the Future

(Mennonite Church USA) – On August 26-27, 2016, the Mennonite Church USA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention met together with Executive Board (EB) staff representatives in Elkhart, Indiana, to review the panel’s work over the past eight months, reflect on its role and relationship to denominational staff and determine priorities for its ongoing work.

Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, and Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), jointly appointed the Panel for Sexual Abuse Prevention on December 1, 2015, for a two-year term that will end in December 2017. But in January 2016, before the panel had the opportunity to begin its work, news broke of Eastern Mennonite University administrator Luke Hartman’s arrest and the EB staff requested the panel’s assistance in responding.

“Looking back, we see that our request took them away from their initial work of developing processes for reporting sexual abuse/misconduct cases, providing resources for working with victims and educating our church on sexualized violence,” says Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA and staff adviser for the panel. “The EB staff regrets the confusion it has caused regarding the panel’s mandate.”

The panel’s mandate is to help the church carry out the commitments described in the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse, which was passed by the Delegate Assembly of Mennonite Church USA at its 2015 biennial convention in Kansas City. The panel is accountable to the delegates through their work to carry out the churchwide statement; to survivors and potential victims of abuse across the church; and to MEA staff and EB staff to whom they report.

The following goals were developed together with EB and MEA staff:

  • Develop guidelines for processing complaints brought to the church regarding inappropriate actions by non-credentialed leaders in congregations, area conferences and churchwide agencies.
  • Develop “best practices” for implementing outside investigations into allegations of sexual abuse.
  • Develop a monitoring tool for agency reviews that would evaluate for sexual abuse prevention and response policies and practices that are clear, accessible and public.
  • Develop a tool for agencies to use in interviewing victims who lodge a complaint.
  • Work with leaders of MEA and Mennonite colleges/universities regarding their sexual abuse prevention and response policies and practices, and on processes for ongoing monitoring.
  • Develop educational tools and resources for raising awareness about religious teachings that make it difficult for victims to protect themselves or speak up when they have been violated and hurt.
  • Develop educational materials and/or provide resources to help congregations better understand the realities of sexualized violence by church leaders and other trusted individuals.
  • Develop guidelines for preaching and worship practices that are sensitive to the needs of victims and survivors.

The panel remains committed to its original mandate. Since January, the panel has:

  • Issued an invitation to receive any complaints about sexual abuse or misconduct by leaders within Mennonite Church USA and its congregations and institutions.
  • Published a statement reminding congregations of “best practices” when they encounter instances of sexual abuse in their midst.
  • Made a public recommendation for an independent investigation into the responses of Lindale Mennonite Church, Virginia Mennonite Conference and Eastern Mennonite University regarding abuse allegations against Luke Hartman.
  • Terminated their participation in the selection of the investigating agency due to their criticism that the process “focused too much on the needs of the institutions involved, and too little on the needs of the victim.”
  • Led a webinar on “Congregational Leadership and Ministry in the Face of Sexual Abuse” through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and made plans to lead “Preventing Sexual Abuse Among Youth in Church,” through Mennonite Church USA’s The Gathering Place.

Up-to-date information regarding the panel and its work, as well as resources for prevention and response to sexual abuse in the church can be found at mennoniteusa.org/psap.

“We see that we’re on the verge of a cultural shift within our denomination and in broader society regarding sexual abuse awareness and prevention. As a panel, we want to work to usher in that change,” says Anna Groff, chair of the panel. “Our primary priority at this point is outlining a process for responding when a complaint arises against a non-credentialed leader. We also will continue to work at education through blog posts, webinars and more. We welcome input from victims/survivors, lay people and leaders as we move forward.”

“The panel’s work is crucial in our efforts to put legs on the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse,” de León-Hartshorn says. “It is important for churchwide institutions to have a group of experts recommend and help put in place some major pieces where there are gaps—such as reporting processes, educational material on sexualized violence and how to better work with victims.”

“We are hopeful the panel’s work will help the church become a sanctuary for reporting, outlining restorative processes for justice and ways to support victims as they find healing.”

 —Mennonite Church USA staff

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