This is the second post in OSU’s current blog series on SNAP Mennonite’s MAP List (Mennonite Abuse Prevention List) and the broader issue of naming church workers (lay or ordained) who are credibly accused* of perpetrating sexualized violence. Check out my introduction to the series or Barbra’s post from last week to get a better grasp on what the series is about, where this post fits in, and how we hope it will enrich ongoing conversations. Next week, look forward to hearing from Terry McKiernan, President of Bishop Accountability, an organization focused on preserving a public record of sexual abuse and its cover up in the Catholic Church.
Several weeks ago I received an email from an older Mennonite gentleman who scolded me for my role in what he called “a Mennonite sex offender registry.” He was referring, of course, to my work on the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List. The comparison was materially unfounded. Unlike the actual sex offender registry, which is primarily a tool of law enforcement and imposes restrictions and surveillance on offenders, those of us working on the MAP List can’t make anyone do anything. But the accusation was personally jarring, because I don’t support the sex offender registry system, at least not in its current incarnation. The evidence, which I’ll discuss later in this piece, does not show that the registry does a particularly good job of protecting anyone.
Still, I can see how someone could arrive at a comparison between the sex offender registry and the MAP List, if they focused only on the common factor of naming predators publicly, and the communal exposure that this naming creates for those offending individuals. In the first installment of Our Stories Untold’s series on the MAP List, Barbra Graber explained the reasons why we name offenders. In this post, I’ll explain why I believe that the MAP List actually addresses a core problem with the sex offender registry system: its focus on sexual violence as a “stranger danger” problem, and the complacency this inspires in church communities, which are surprisingly high-risk environments for people vulnerable to sexual abuse. But to do that, I need to start with some history.
When I tell people about my work with the MAP List, I sometimes begin by talking about the early 1990s. For a few years, Mennonites demonstrated some public, risk-taking investments in confronting sexual abuse and the complicity of their churches. Survivors of John Howard Yoder were coming forward, speaking to media, and demanding that church leaders hear them. Mennonite governing bodies were organizing educational events and passing resolutions containing powerful language about challenging violence against women in Mennonite homes and families. Feminist faculty members at Mennonite colleges were speaking up about the violence they and their students experienced. Mennonite editors were even doing what to many was unthinkable: publishing the names of sexually offending church leaders in denominational magazines. In the March 15, 1994 issue of the Mennonite Church’s Gospel Herald, editor J. Lorne Peachey wrote the following, in defense of this practice:
So we persist. Because we believe in the future of the church. Perhaps some day we’ll look back on the 1990s as the time when we embraced the light of truth rather than the darkness of coverup and denial. Perhaps we’ll see them as days when we learned to listen to victims and believe their stories so that they could find hope and healing. Perhaps history will record this as a time we confronted evil….
That’s what keeps us going.
At the same time that all of this was happening, U.S. evangelical Christians were building a powerful political platform based on opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights. It was the era in which “sexual morality” and “family values” emerged as the buzzwords of the right wing, in which conservative Christians began to apply themselves to electoral politics in unprecedented ways. At a historical moment in which sexually conservative Christians were trying to maximize their cultural impact, there was a powerful disincentive to “listen to victims and believe their stories.”
To put it bluntly, it was much easier to shame the victims and blame the homosexuals. That happened nationally, and it also happened among Mennonites. Throughout the second half of the nineties, both the Gospel Herald and its General Conference Mennonite Church counterpart The Mennonite bore testament to this, both in the content they printed and in the content they did not. In 1998, the flagship publication of the soon-to-be-formed merged denomination, Mennonite Church USA, instituted a “moratorium” on talking about “the issue of homosexuality” on its pages. By and large, it became a moratorium on talking about sex, period. And nothing feeds into sexual abuse quite like shame and secrecy about sex in general.
To me, the most powerful evidence that the nineties were not the days in which Mennonites “embraced the light of truth” about sexual abuse in their communities can be found in the present. Somehow a substantial number of powerful predatory church leaders were exposed in the nineties—John Howard Yoder, Urie Bender, Paul Landis, Jan Gleysteen, Murray Phillips, and Peter Ediger, to name a few—without it leading to any widespread understanding of how predatory behavior is enabled and perpetuated within Mennonite communities and institutions. We may need ten years of Rachel Waltner Goossen’s work on the coverup of John Howard Yoder’s abuse being required reading for every Anabaptist college and seminary student before this really starts to sink in. But some survivors don’t have another ten years, and we have a responsibility to protect people who are vulnerable right now.
Enter the MAP List. Our inspiration for the MAP List comes from Bishop Accountability, a massive online archive devoted to documenting the worldwide abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. When you visit BA.org, you can read in-depth reports on specific dioceses; multiple grand jury reports; a collection of church statements specifically addressing abuse; a exhaustive timeline organized by decades; long lists of individual predator priests; testimonies from survivors; thousands of links to news stories including investigative reports; and—perhaps most striking, from an archivist’s perspective, and most terrible, for a compassionate reader—hundreds of pages of administrative documents detailing abuse and the attempts of bishops to contain its impact. It is a horrifying collection, curated and maintained with tremendous love, for a church, a tradition, and the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed or forever altered by the powerful and often callous men who reign over it.
Like any record of sexual violence, it is incomplete. Its keepers would be the first to tell you that. To build an archive of the best-kept secrets in the world is to wrestle constantly with what is missing. But I still look at those bishop files and marvel at their presence in such a forum. They provide what so many survivors do not have: evidence. Documentation. The things that count as real, within a cultural and judicial reality that only accepts truth as something written down.
It’s an archive of an enabling system. Despite the hundreds of individual predators listed, the focus and intent of the documentation is to reveal how the Catholic church hierarchy has enabled their abuse and protected them from exposure, at the unconscionable expense of victims and vulnerable people.
How do you begin to build an archive of Anabaptist sexual abuse on this model? We can’t, really. The majority of BA.org’s documentation of abuse cover-ups comes from public court records. Many dioceses have been subpoenaed over the years. There is no comparable legal trail related to the abuse and coverups that we’re trying to document in the MAP List. Furthermore, the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church, coupled with its meticulous tradition of record-keeping, means that even if the records themselves are inaccessible, they probably exist somewhere, and the buck always stops with the bishops.
Anabaptists, by contrast, are a hodge-podge of different and often competing approaches to polity. The Anabaptist groups in which there is the clearest governing hierarchy are, generally speaking, the ones with the least transparency to the outside. And within a denomination like Mennonite Church USA, the question of who answers to whom is genuinely unsettled. We’ve seen that amply demonstrated in Harrisonburg over the past few months, where a pastor who has committed dangerous ethical breaches remains in the pulpit, and no one, not even a denominational panel on sexual abuse prevention, seems to believe they have the power to get him out.
When it comes to tracking down records—even knowing who to ask for them—we’re dealing with the opposite of centralization. In concrete terms, what that means is that it is far easier for us to document the crimes of individuals than it is to document the dysfunctions of the systems that produced and perpetuated their behavior.
Which brings me back to the sex offender registry. As an instrument for preventing sexual violence, the flaws and punitive excesses of the U.S.’s sex offender registry system are well-documented. Federally mandated but governed through state laws, the registry is built on an understanding of sexual predation as a “remote peril,” which means that it fails to meaningfully address most of the sexual violence that actually occurs. (The laws that created it are named after the child victims of high-profile abduction cases.) There is substantial evidence that it contributes to recidivism in some offenders. While the crimes that can land a person on the registry range from serial rape to public urination, there is little differentiation in the amount of legal surveillance to which they are subjected, leading to severely overburdened law enforcement and opportunities for violent offenders to exploit the system. It is a morally repugnant and tragically ineffective response to the widespread problem of children sexually abusing other children, and yet many people spend their lives on the registry for things they did as minors, with terrible consequences. Because of the political risk involved to lawmakers in being perceived as going easy on sex offenders, reform of the registry system is stymied again and again.
While I obviously believe in publicly naming predators, I share the assessment of many sexual violence experts who see the current registry system as an obstacle, not an asset, to prevention efforts. The registry system and its supporting legal apparatus encourage us to do what Americans in particular do best in response to violence: imagine that it comes from a monstrous source, wholly Other, lull ourselves into a false sense of safety by meting out indiscriminate punishment, and fail to look inward at the violence in our own families and communities. Mennonites participate in this nativist logic; at the same time, we imagine ourselves to be subverting it by enabling and demanding forgiveness for the rapists and abusers that our own churches produce. It is a sick faith that leads a parent to believe that they are being spiritually radical by allowing a known child molester access to their own children, and yet I have seen it, and I know many of you have seen it too.
When you look at the MAP List, you will see a list of people who have been credibly accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and/or assault. Under their names, you’ll find out which offenses they didn’t get away with, what consequences that had in terms of their employment, and if they were ever arrested or imprisoned, and then you’ll see a list of all the documentation we’ve gathered about their offenses. The length of this public list is trivial compared to the long private master list that we hold. Every name that goes on the public list requires research, and all the research in the world won’t bring many of the names on the private list up to the standards that make it safe for us to post the names without significant legal threat. The difference in length between the short, public list and the long, private list is one of the reasons I keep going to therapy.
That list has already shown its worth to the victims and potential victims of the men who are currently listed. But when I look at it, I long for more documentation of the people and processes that allowed those individuals to do what they did for as long as they did it (and in some cases, continue to do it, as some victims’ reports to us have unfortunately shown). I have lost track of the number of Mennonite survivors who have told me that they were more traumatized by the responses of their churches to their sexual violation than they were by the violation itself. It is not only perpetrators who need to be held accountable.
This problem isn’t just about the John Howard Yoders of Mennonite churches and institutions. It’s also about the abundance of enablers: the college presidents, conference ministers, church elders, and agency leaders who didn’t take reports of abuse seriously enough, who, intentionally or not, made survivors disappear by re-traumatizing them. It’s about the campus pastor who asks a student survivor to help pay the fee for “mediation” with her rapist; the conference minister who hides a pastor’s history of sexual misconduct from the pastoral search committee of the church that hires him; the “accountability group” that determines that a serial predator has “suffered enough,” and asks his survivors to stay silent; the pastor who tells a gay teenager that his own “sin” is the reason he was molested; the administrator who threatens to expel a suicidal survivor from school. This is a small, generalized sample of the kinds of stories that those of us working with SNAP, Our Stories Untold, and Into Account hear on a startlingly regular basis.
The people who participate in this kind of complicity are not generalizable in their moral failings, any more than the people on the sex offender registry are. But that doesn’t mean that we can continue to allow these things to happen behind closed doors. How do we document the sort of things that I listed above? How do we build an archive of a phenomenon that thrives on secrecy?
In 2014, Boz Tchividjian, the founder of GRACE, said to reporter Kathryn Joyce: “The reason why offenders get away with what they do is because we have too many cultures of silence…When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down. Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’”
I read Joyce’s American Prospect profile of Tchividjian when it came out, suspicious at first. I am a left-wing radical feminist; nothing about “Liberty University law professor” and “Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment” screamed “trust” to me. By the end of the piece, I was stunned with recognition, and I have followed Tchividjian’s work closely ever since. The “cultures of silence” that Tchividjian and his organization have diligently decoded and revealed within conservative Christian organizations are deeply familiar to me as a Mennonite, despite the relative liberality of my own upbringing.
Rereading that piece now, I think not only of the crisis in Harrisonburg for which Mennonite Church USA’s Panel of Sexual Abuse Prevention attempted to secure a GRACE investigation and then walked away from what they defined as a flawed process; I also think of stories from our MAP List files. I think of the continuity between the stories we hear from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and the stories we hear from today. How do you document a “culture of silence”? Where do you begin?
From a 1994 letter, written by a Mennonite Publishing House executive to Jan Gleysteen, a high-profile employee accused by multiple women of stalking, sexual coercion, and serial harassment: “Ideally I would like to see Lorne put a note in the Gospel Herald ‘Readers Say’ encouraging persons to discontinue the debate as it relates to the rightness or wrongness of your case.”
From a survivor of Gleysteen, to her employers at MPH: “Do not give me the line about lawsuits. It’s time to move beyond that to see that there are other people here who are experiencing real pains. Is the threat of Jan’s lawsuit more important than all the rest of us? Do you care about us? Prove it.
From a whistleblower who tried to advocate for a victim of a sexually abusive Hesston College choir director David Rhodes in 1989: “Why is [campus pastor] Duane [Yoder] not showing any concern for the victim, the subject and purpose of my letter? One might think the campus pastor would have empathy and express concern. I did not sense either, but rather judgment that I was somehow at fault because it wasn’t a good time to make the contact. Never mind it wasn’t convenient for the student to be abused, and never mind that no one the victim had approached earlier, including the President [Kirk Alliman], seemed to care. And in that moment, it struck me again that no one cared for this victim.”
From a pastor’s notes, 1995, detailing his conversation with a therapist in his congregation, accused of abusing church members: “I explained to him that the Elders would like to work toward closure, hopefully before Christmas, in line with the contract which he signed…we would like to invite him to write a confessional letter and we would send a cover letter with it and be responsible to mail it….He indicated that if sending the letter would bring closure, he was willing to do that but that he had reservations about whether this would bring closure or only create more question, rumors and discussion.”
From an anonymous report sent to the MAP List mailbox, received in July 2016, detailing the author’s reasons for leaving an Ohio congregation: “I left because, as a woman, if I were to ever need care, support and safety, it would not be at ___. I need to hear from ___ and his leadership team that how they responded to that situation was unacceptable. They were alerted of his character and they went ahead and licensed ____. That defines an unsafe place. They did not care for the victims in this situation.”
With an email from a survivor of sexual abuse and stalking by Murray Phillips, former professor at Columbia Bible College, reflecting on reading back over her own records: “One aspect that repeatedly leapt off the pages is how often I deferred to people because I felt I needed to be ‘accountable’ because of ‘my sin.’ I was angriest when I read how my then pastor said I wasn’t to make contact with other women [Phillips had also abused] until AFTER I had made my confession to my church. I see now how terribly I needed that contact with others who’d been through it. As a result of not meeting the others for nearly a year after my disclosure, Murray continued [abusing], though I was repeatedly told all safeguards were in place.”
This is where we begin: with what people will give us. Every bit of it is sacred, regardless of whether it would stand up in court.
The documentation that adds up to “credibly accused” status is terribly hard to find. We can’t get very many court records, because most of the abuse we’re trying to document never makes it into the courts. Mennonite publications still face backlash every time they publish stories on well-known perpetrators; some editors resist that backlash better than others, and some editors ignore survivors altogether. Sometimes secular media pays attention to Mennonite sexual abuse, but not very often. Civil suits against Mennonite institutions are rare, though I suspect that will change if they do not dramatically change course. To be honest, I’m not holding my breath for that, because at this point, the power-brokers of the Mennonite church are not just protecting their institutions. Some of them are also protecting themselves.
The MAP List is meant to force us to look inward, to see the patterns that connect multiple generations of abuse cases, to understand the mechanisms of secrecy that keep us ignorant of what happens in the places we are taught to trust. The more documentation we receive, the clearer it is that the presence of sexual abuse has been a significant force in the lives of many Mennonites, Brethren, and other Anabaptist groups. It clusters in communities: Hesston, Kansas. Harrisonburg, Virginia. Archbold, Ohio. Wayland, Iowa. Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Systemic sexual abuse creates its own subcultures of secret-keeping, denial, and theological justification (both conservative sexual repression and liberal dislike of sexual boundaries can feed abuse, and those extremes have an insidious way of reaffirming each other). These subcultures in turn affect the governing structures of Anabaptist denominations. The predatory behavior of offending Mennonite leaders also relies on the prevalence of incest in Mennonite families, as adult victims of child sexual abuse are far more vulnerable to the manipulations of abusive clergy.
Even now, in the most modern of Mennonite denominations, sexual abusers rely on the cultural residue of shunning to ensure the silence of their victims. “No one will believe you, and you will lose everything.” So say many abusers to their victims, and Mennonite churches too often prove them right. I have to believe that more of that shunning comes from ignorance than from malevolence.
Are we stuck with this? Survivors intimidated into silence, and churches that turn away? I don’t think we are. In a 2013 op-ed, University of Pennsylvania constitutional legal scholar and renowned children’s rights lawyer Marci Hamilton wrote, “This is the era in which institutions are learning that they simply cannot keep their secrets about sexual abuse and assault to themselves, no matter how hard they try.” In the three years since Hamilton wrote this, the growing wave of survivor activism on college campuses, in private schools, and in churches has added weight to her claim. Something has changed, and while the factors are many, the most tangible one is the internet:
When survivors talk to each other and join forces, they increase the chances of bringing their perpetrators to justice, and of uncovering those in power who let the perpetrator hurt them. This community often suffers debilitating effects from the abuse, both psychological and physical, which in the past precluded full communication among survivors from occurring, but when the Internet is available, the barriers to communication dramatically recede, and anonymity is offered to those who are not yet ready to come forward.
The web is anything but a cure-all for sexual violence. Still, there was no comparable tool for survivors to find one another in the early nineties. Survivors and advocates were at the mercy of church gatekeepers in a way that we now have the tools to subvert. Look at what has happened for Lauren Shifflett: yes, there are still people who don’t believe her, who leave hateful comments and trash her motives, but the outpouring of support for Lauren from fellow survivors is a force this church has never seen before, and there is no turning back from it. Now, more than ever, we have a multitude of survivors finding each other: finding that they were victimized by the same offenders or the same enablers, calling out their churches, refusing shame.
For survivors, there is safety in numbers. We have numbers. We aren’t going anywhere, and neither is the MAP List. History will record this as a time when victims started setting the terms of engagement themselves.
That’s what keeps us going.