SERIES INTRODUCTION: This is Part 4 in a series of posts by those who want the opportunity to respond to the findings released in November by Eastern Mennonite University’s hired compliance firm D. Stafford and Associates. Lisa shares the personal and professional costs of advocating for victims and survivors of sexual violence. As a prolific public advocate, she responds to the criticisms, questions and concerns about her work that she has heard from the Mennonite community. Read Part 1 by Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel here and the previous Parts 2 and 3 by Dr. Lisa Schirch here and here.
If you are new to this story, here’s some background: In August of 2016 EMU hired DSA in order to, among other things, look into matters brought to light on this website in April of 2016 by two remarkable sisters: Lauren (Benner) Shifflett and Marissa (Benner) Buck. They wrote in detail about the hidden abuses of a former EMU vice president and how the church officials, to whom those abuses were eventually reported, failed to act in the interests of the public safety or in a way that made it safer for additional victims to come forward. Lauren and Marissa also wrote about why they chose to decline participation in EMU’s DSA inquiry. You can find those articles here and here.
If you are burning with an untold story of your own to tell, please contact us. If you have seen, suspected or suffered sexual misdeeds, no matter how long ago the offense occurred–speak up. Protect children by calling child protective services, civil authorities, or a local crisis center. Start healing by calling a therapist or body worker with special training in sexual violence or join a survivor support group near you. Expose wrongdoers by contacting law enforcement, journalists, civil attorneys, or the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List. This is how your corner of the world will become safer, adults will recover, criminals will be prosecuted, cover-ups will be deterred, and the truth will surface.
We are grateful for your strong and public advocacy, Lisa, and your outstanding scholarship.
Part 4: An Advocate Responds to Concerns at EMU
I am a member of the Anabaptist-Mennonite Chapter of SNAP, known informally as SNAP Menno. SNAP Menno is a loosely organized network of Mennonite-related men and women who are willing to volunteer our time to support survivors of sexual violence. This sometimes means that we take legal and personal risks to investigate, name, and suffer the consequences of naming those who perpetrate and enable sexual violence in Mennonite institutions. SNAP stands for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, and began within the Catholic context. The national SNAP organization has several chapters affiliated with denominations outside of the Catholic Church. SNAP Menno formed to learn from the Catholic experience of addressing sexual violence that takes place in religious institutions.
In this article, I respond to criticism of my work with SNAP. While I am a member of SNAP, I do not speak on behalf of all SNAP members or the network. I speak as an individual.
My Untold Story of the Costs of Advocacy
OurStoriesUntold provides a space for survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories. In Opening Pandora’s Box, I share one story of my own experience with sexual harassment. In this article, I begin by sharing my personal story of the costs of advocating for outspoken survivors of sexual violence.
All advocates know that to speak out on sexual violence has real costs. Because of my work with SNAP, many people in the Mennonite community here in Harrisonburg, Virginia refuse to greet me or acknowledge me when I pass them. Some express anger to me. Some accuse me of hurting Mennonite institutions and “tearing apart the church.” Some say I have “an agenda” other than preventing sexual violence.
Along with other advocates for survivors of sexual violence, we take legal risks when we speak out. Some of us lose friends who oppose our advocacy. We lose professional status from those who think seeking peace and justice should not require disturbing the status quo. We lose sleep as we worry for the safety of survivors, the risk of known perpetrators hiding in plain sight, or we fear the institutional repercussions of speaking out. We lose paying work in order to volunteer our time to prevent sexual violence. We lose time that we would rather be spending with our families, or enjoying theatre or music.
I wish someone would tell me why on earth I or anyone else would be willing to lose all of this if we didn’t care a great deal for people in Mennonite families, churches, and institutions. I wouldn’t volunteer hundreds of hours of my time if there was another way of effectively addressing this problem in the Mennonite Church. I wouldn’t risk my reputation following stories that were untrue. I wouldn’t sacrifice my affiliations with Mennonite institutions if I did not see the necessity of stopping the violence that is leaving lifelong trauma for people of all genders exposed to sexual violence in Mennonite institutions whose stories I’ve heard.
I used to think my Mennonite upbringing helped me to prepare to take on the US military in the paying work I do with other peacebuilding colleagues. I developed a thick skin being the only woman in front of a crowd of military men in uniform to teach about human security and nonviolent peacebuilding efforts. I learned to say unpopular things. I learned to be respectful and diplomatic with people with whom I fundamentally disagreed.
Now I think my work with the US military and NATO has prepared me to take on the Mennonite hierarchy. For I need thick skin and willingness to say truth to those in power in order to confront the protectors of the Mennonite box of secrets discussed in my article Opening Pandora’s Box. And evidently I also need to be ready to lose friendship and respect from colleagues who oppose my advocacy for survivors of sexual violence.
When I ask Mennonite leaders to acknowledge publicly that they have hired multiple administrators and staff who have been credibly accused of sexual violence, I’m told “Everyone has secrets, Lisa.” “The public wouldn’t understand if we told them.”
When I ask Mennonite leaders to take responsibility for young people hurt by the decisions they made, I’m told “We have nothing to apologize for! We administrators are the victims of those who criticize us!”
When I try to explain the difference between sexual violence and sexual affairs between equals, I’m chastised for not being “sex positive.”
When I check to see if they are aware of the key literature and research on sexual violence, I don’t find even one senior Mennonite administrator who appears to know the literature on the current research or best practices for preventing sexual violence. If you are out there, please let us know, and please let us know publicly! There is a wall of silence from the top tiers of Mennonite leadership toward our work. We receive many public comments from lay people inside and outside the church, but nearly none from persons who evidently have a political position to protect.
I recently received a copy of an email sent by a Mennonite staff person. He said, in summary, that advocates of victims of sexual violence in the Mennonite church exaggerated and lied. He said we weren’t willing to meet with Mennonite administrators and didn’t really understand the situation. He said that if we did meet with administrators, all our concerns would disappear. Yet I have met with Mennonite administrators, and each meeting increases my concern about Mennonite institutions.
We hear assertions about our work that are not true. We hear accusations, often second hand. We thank you who are passing on to us the word on the street about us. We respond, as in Hilary Scarsella’s blog identifying Controversies and Clarifications about OSU and SNAP. In the spirit of responding to these kinds of questions and concerns about my work as an advocate, this article answers questions I often hear.
Do I have an “agenda”?
Yes, like other survivors and advocates, I want to prevent and stop sexual violence. I wrote a detailed piece called Agenda for Change: Policies and Procedures for Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence in Mennonite Institutions to describe the kinds of changes we need. This includes, for example, setting up an online reporting system that protects victim’s identity such as Project Callisto. This system allows victims to create time-stamped reports at any time, but preferably immediately after an incident when their memory of the event will be most detailed. They can then decide at a later date and/or if there is a match for the perpetrator with another report, if they want to report to police or campus officials. This is important since many victims currently are unfortunately fearful, for a variety of reasons, of reporting to officials.
Do advocates support healthy sexuality?
A Mennonite administrator asked me why I am not “sex positive.” I questioned why there is a need to take a side. Is it not possible to be against sexual violence and to support sexual integrity? My article Toward Mennonite Sexual Integrity notes that sexual integrity is an important topic of discussion for the church’s inclusion of LGBTQ people and for our understanding of sexual violence.
Sexual violence is not a crime of sex. It is a crime of power, domination and humiliation. A single older man and a younger woman can have a healthy sexual relationship. But when an older married man in position of authority flirts with a younger woman or man with the goal of using his power to sexually conquer the younger woman or man, we know that this usually results in harm to the younger person. The harmful relationship is based on manipulation and coercion, not love. My opposition to such manipulation and coercion has nothing to do with not being “sex positive.”
Why do survivors ask to have advocates present at meetings?
An advocate is by definition a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of another person, pleads on behalf of another, an intercessor. It is standard practice for victims to have an advocate. Victims experience trauma from what happened to them, and they may be vulnerable in meetings with institutions whose true intention is not immediately clear.
Mennonite leaders have been adversarial with and dismissive of victims of sexual violence and their advocates for decades. The church has a long history of silencing, intimidating, and persecuting victims and whistleblowers who speak out to expose the sexual violence in church institutions. Administrators cannot expect victims or advocates to suddenly trust them when they have done so much over such a long time, to undermine that trust. Institutions have conflicts of interest. They may care about victims. But they may care even more about their public reputation, their funding, and their jobs.
Victim advocates in the court system are professionals trained to support victims of crime. “Advocates offer victims information, emotional support, and help finding resources and filling out paperwork.” Sometimes, advocates go to court with victims or attend meetings with victims to ensure institutions do not attempt to manipulate or coerce victims to not press their case. “ Advocates offer victims information about the different options available to them and support victims’ decision-making. Advocates do not tell victims what to do. Advocates are committed to maintaining the highest possible levels of confidentiality in their communications with victims.”
EMU has hesitated, if not outright refused, to speak to victims of sexual violence with an advocate present on more than one occasion. Both EMU Presidents Swartzendruber and Snyder attempted to reach out to two separate victims’ personal cell phones after they had both requested contact only through their advocates. When a conference call or meeting with an advocate was offered, there appeared to be either no further interest in talking or a long arduous negotiation commenced. Advocates are deemed “adversarial.”
From my point of view, advocates are seen as dangerous because they will not allow a victim’s needs to be minimized by a university’s desire to contain the situation and protect the identity of a reported perpetrator. It is true that reports of sexual violence can damage an institution’s reputation. This is another important reason why institutions would be wise to invest far more on prevention of sexual violence.
Why can’t we just move on?
The problem of sexual violence in Mennonite institutions is not caused by a handful of individuals, a “few bad apples.” In Part 3 of this series, Opening Pandora’s Box, I detail four Mennonite institutional patterns that hinder prevention efforts:
- Keeping secret files on credibly reported or admitted sexual offenders
- Using secret accountability processes
- Encouraging victims to keep quiet
- Confusing sexual affairs with sexual violence
When institutions do not inform communities about sexual offenders, these offenders often continue to hurt others. Persons in our communities who choose to offend in this way have lost the privilege of protected participation in our communities and in our corporate worship.
The film Spotlight won the Oscars for Best Picture for its portrayal of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Spotlight rightly emphasizes that “it not only takes a village to raise a child – it also takes a village to abuse a child.” Solving the problem of sexual violence in the Mennonite church does not just require removing sexual offenders and enablers from their institutional posts. Preventing sexual violence requires bold institutional change.
I have spent countless hours carefully writing materials for the EMU administration that would help them respond to the cases of sexual violence at EMU. This included two longer and more detailed sets of proposals on Mennonite Institutional Policies and Procedures on Sexual Violence and Peacebuilding and Restorative Justice Approaches to Crisis: An EMU Guide. I, along with my SNAP colleague Barbra Graber, have sent diplomatic emails offering information and cautions across many years, but especially beginning in January 2016. I spent hours of volunteer time in meetings with administrators. If we have learned anything, it is that we have wasted our time. EMU administrators have largely ignored our efforts to help them respond.
Am I hostile to Mennonite Officials?
I have experience negotiating with religious leaders in Afghanistan, with military generals in the Pentagon, and with top State Department officials. I use the same set of skills when I sit with a Mennonite administrator to express my concerns about sexual violence. I listen carefully. I summarize their concerns. And I diplomatically lay out the actions they need to take in order to improve community safety.
I have given university officials many opportunities to discuss alternate policies or processes for them to address sexual violence that I proposed to them. I have asked for their phone numbers so I could call them and discuss my concerns. I have offered to volunteer my time providing training and to facilitate role-plays with students to prevent sexual violence on campus. To date, most of my offers have been ignored.
Are Mennonite institutions doing anything right?
MCUSA has taken some steps to open spaces for conversation about sexual violence, which is a radical idea in a church that has long advocated silence. At EMU, some staff have given me support and acknowledge the need for aligning university mission statements and theology with a commitment to meet with and apologize to victims of sexual violence. EMU is taking some steps to make sure it is not breaking any laws with how it responds to sexual violence. But this is not enough.
Among top EMU administrators, I have not found anyone who acknowledges that institutional secrecy about sexual violence is a problem, or who demonstrates an understanding of the literature and research on sexual violence. I have not found anyone who can articulate a theological justification for the refusal of Mennonite institutions to talk to victims or to support victim advocates. I have heard many justifications for why EMU keeps the secrets of those accused of sexual violence. And I have heard a lot about fiduciary responsibility and the need to protect the institution from potential lawsuits by limiting contact with victims and advocates. This includes refusing to write anything down, such as an email apology to a victim, demanding confidentiality, and a request that it is time to “let go” of stories from the past that EMU claims were “handled appropriately.”
Unfortunately, for the victims of sexual violence at EMU, the trauma from years and even decades ago cannot magically disappear. University acknowledgment of what happened and meaningful action to address victim concerns would go a long way toward victims’ healing. The university call to “just get over it” is not possible. Even a public apology and some sense of restorative justice to acknowledge harm won’t erase what happened, but it can go a long way to help restore hope in the church that betrayed victims of sexual violence.
Do I care about EMU?
Yes. I care about EMU very much. I care about EMU so much that I am willing to volunteer my time and take personal risks to ensure that the parents who send their children to EMU can trust that this is a safe place. I care so much that I will continue to press for the needed policy changes until the university publicly takes responsibility for its past mistakes and signals that it will no longer keep secret files or use secret accountability processes. I care so much that I remain willing to train administrators, staff and students so that they can better understand the policies and procedures needed to ensure that EMU is a safe place.
Mennonite institutions are designed to serve people in the church. When they fail to protect and serve people, they have failed at their core mission. I believe Mennonite administrators are putting EMU at great legal risk by keeping secrets about sexual offenders and not doing more to prevent sexual violence and support people who have experienced it.
Do I want to see offenders punished?
Mennonites have historically extended care and kindness to those who do wrong. As a pacifist, I do not believe in causing pain as a way of punishing someone. In the traditional version of this image from the Martyr’s Mirror, Dirk Willems is running away from authorities who are chasing him because he is an Anabaptist. Running across a frozen pond, the authority falls through the ice. Instead of running away, Dirk turns back and helps this officer out of the frozen water. The officer then arrest Willems, who is in turn executed for his beliefs. Dirk Willems is a symbol of Mennonite ‘love of enemies.’
When responding to sexual violence in the church, administrators and community members are often quick to offer forgiveness to sexual offenders and ignore the harms and needs of victims. In this version of the portrait, the Mennonite church rescues a drowning sexual perpetrator. A victim of the sexual perpetrator continues to drown.
Advocates against sexual violence witness the church’s one-sided approach to protect the dignity and life of the perpetrator.
This image, part of a series of artwork I made for an illustrated lecture entitled “A Tribe Called Mennonite,” aims to help Mennonites see their preferential support for offenders has real costs for victims of sexual violence. One Mennonite leader who viewed this art asked if I wanted the church to let the offender drown. Of course not! Asking the church to pay attention to the needs of victims or the safety of the wider community does not require inhumane or cruel treatment of offenders.
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) states that there is no proven “cure” for sexual abuse. Thus punishment rarely “teaches a lesson.” I don’t want to see offenders punished for punishment’s sake. Rather, I want to see them stop offending. Experts in ATSA confirm that it usually takes lifelong management strategies to prevent those who feel tempted to commit sexual abuse. Sexual violence is a sickness and addiction not unlike alcoholism. Research on offenders indicates that many offenders find it difficult to stop themselves from continuing to violate others. Alcoholics Anonymous is an ongoing management strategy for addressing addiction. Alcoholics cannot keep their disease secret. Openness and honesty, as well as accountability to others are part of the management of alcoholism, as well as sexual abuse.
Public accountability is necessary to stop sexual violence. An entire community surrounding an offender needs information to prevent further sexual violence. While this may seem like punishment, giving the public information, and holding people publically responsible for sexual violence is in the interest of everyone, including the offender and the offender’s family. An offender is most likely to stop offending if they know that their community is watching them and supports their lifelong management of their sickness and addiction to sexual violence.
What is wrong with using internal church accountability processes to address sexual violence?
Church accountability processes are inherently anti-democratic and authoritarian. People supporting and attending church institutions deserve to know about harms happening in the institution that have such life changing impacts. Too often, a small group of men, some with their own set of sexual secrets, are given the task of holding another male offender accountable.
Church accountability processes fail to understand the sophisticated deception used by sexual offenders. Dr. Anna Salter documents countless stories of offenders describing how they deceived others. For many offenders, the thrill of sexual violence is not the sex. It is the deception and secrecy. The thrill is grooming, deceiving, and coercing a victim and their family to gain sexual power over them. The bigger thrill is getting away with it and convincing others it was “an affair” or that the young person “wanted it.”
In one clear case of deception in the Mennonite community, recently reported to SNAP Menno, a known sexual offender continued to carry out sexual abuse throughout the entire series of the ‘accountability’ group’s weekly meetings. Church administrators fail to understand that sexual offending can very likely be an addiction and a complex psychological sickness. Simply telling a person to “stop” and maybe “get some counseling”, as most church processes do, is ineffective and naive. Church officials lack training or analytical knowledge for how to treat sexual offenders. As Barbra Graber has often said, “a seminary degree doesn’t include courses on how to conduct forensic sex crimes interviews or treat the needs of repeat sex offenders.” By attempting to treat offenders on their own, they enable sexual offense to continue.
Publicly identifying reports of sexual violence and naming those accused of grooming, manipulating, coercing, and forcing others to engage in sexual activities is necessary to discover the full truth and so that others realize they must take steps to ensure their safety. This is why I am a member of SNAP Menno.
A final note
To you the readers, members of the Mennonite Church and those who do not currently speak out on sexual violence:
I invite your questions. No one is perfect, and I am sure I have made mistakes. I have already met with and apologized to some of my colleagues for misunderstandings related to my advocacy. I cannot know what others are thinking unless you share it with me.
I also extend an invitation for you to step forward to support survivors of sexual violence by speaking out in support of changes in church policy and offering survivors and advocates your verbal, public support.
Your silence is disturbing.
It indicates consent for a status quo where institutions do not inform communities of sexual offenders in their midst.
Your silence indicates a lack of care that others may be harmed.
Your silence is neither peaceful nor just to survivors of sexual violence, nor is it a gift to those who offend others.
Public accountability is a gift, even to offenders; as it offers them a chance to live with integrity and to have others in their community help to ensure they do not do further harm to others, to their families, or to themselves.
Dr. Lisa Schirch attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and is a member of the Anabaptist-Mennonite Chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). She has written several books and chapters on sexual violence and has provided training on the topic for the United Nations, the Swedish government and as a Fulbright scholar in East and West Africa. email@example.com