(…or what we didn’t say in an attempt to keep it short, and are now saying anyway because not saying it is being used to discredit our concern)

Wow. Here’s a big, hearty thank you! to all of you who responded to our call to action. Your words and energy and care for survivors and people vulnerable to abuse are invaluable. We have yet to see what kind of impact your outpouring of support will make in the policy and procedure decisions of the Mennonite institutions you contacted, but I am positive that your voices are making a difference. When you speak up, you let decision-makers know that there are countless people watching and expecting that care and justice for survivors of sexual violence will be the unambiguous goal and motivation of their response to learning that they have been complicit in abuse perpetrated by their employees. Keep it up, friends.

I also want to address and clear up a matter of confusion that has been brought to our attention by several of you who have received email responses from those you contacted. Some of you have been told that OSU is mistaken to report that the authority of the Panel is being undermined, because after recommending GRACE as their top choice for an investigative organization, the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention included in their recommendation that they would consider “…another panel-approved independent organization with expertise in sexual abuse policy and response.” It would seem, then, say some institutional folks, that it is entirely in-bounds for the institutions who have agreed to an investigation to choose an investigative organization other than GRACE. Not addressing this dynamic in our original call to action was partially an oversight on our part and partially a strategic decision. We needed to keep the call to action short, and wading into these waters gets complicated quickly.

But, because an appeal to the wording of the Panel’s recommendation has been used in the last several days to discredit our concern, into the waters we go!

The Panel names GRACE as their top choice. That means that the Panel wants Mennonite institutions to use GRACE. And, this is no surprise. GRACE is considered by many to be the gold standard. GRACE is trusted by survivor networks (like SNAP and others) to pursue the best interests of survivors and not compromise those interests no matter the institutional pressure. If Mennonite institutions want the trust of  Mennonite survivors, they will need to choose an investigative organization that survivors consider trustworthy. GRACE’s investigative teams include a combination of former abuse prosecutors, psychologists and theologians with expertise in trauma;  and each team is tailored to fit each institution. Thus, the results of the investigation can  provide insight into the institutions’ psychological and theological cultures in addition to their legal responsibilities. GRACE also makes their findings public so that the institutions investigated become fully accountable to those they serve. In other words, GRACE’s process makes it difficult for institutional leaders to hide incriminating results and difficult recommendations should they receive them.

These are a few of the many reasons we want GRACE to conduct this investigation, and likely some of the reasons that the Panel named GRACE as their top choice. Naming GRACE as the top choice means that if the Panel had the authority themselves to choose the organization that is hired, it would be GRACE. If the Panel were allowed the authority they ought to have, the Mennonite institutions involved would be doing everything in their power to hire GRACE.

Some, we’ve heard, are skeptical of GRACE because members of their staff are associated with religiously affiliated organizations that have theological leanings different from their own. But, any theological or political differences we may have with individual GRACE employees should not matter in the prevention of sexual abuse.  GRACE is skilled at working across theological diversity.

It’s important for everyone to know that GRACE does not agree to work with all who request their services. From years of experience, GRACE has learned that investigations only work when all parties actively want and desire the investigation to be done thoroughly. If GRACE senses that any of the leaders or key players in the institutions requesting the investigation are harboring resistance, they will decline to work with us. And, they will be right to do so. This is all the more reason that if our institutions are truly sincere in their desire to address the problem of sexual abuse in our churches they need to rally behind the Panel’s suggestion that we hire GRACE.

Yes, the Panel did technically say they would work with Mennonite institutions in choosing an alternative investigating organization as long as it is one the Panel can approve. Let’s think through this. Imagine for a moment that we’re right that the authority of the Panel is not secure. (And, I promise you, we’re right.) Imagine that the Panel wants desperately for Mennonite institutions to agree to an outside investigation and that the reality of such an agreement seems tenuous. Wouldn’t it  make sense for the Panel, strategically, to frame its recommendation in a way that increases the likelihood of its acceptance? And, wouldn’t it seem easier to imagine institutions agreeing to face an outside investigation if they appear, publicly, to have a choice in the matter?

We, Mennonites, place a high value on collaborative decision-making. We tend to become suspect when authority figures straightforwardly tell us what to do. We rebel against top-down authority. In our opinion, the Panel was in an impossible bind. If the Panel said, “Mennonite institutions must agree to an outside investigation and GRACE is the organization that must be hired for this investigation to be credible,” they would have been at risk of being dismissed due to an appearance of inflexibility and unwillingness to work with instead of against the institutions. Our Stories Untold and SNAP are often dismissed for this reason. Had the Panel stated their recommendation that strongly, it may have become easier to reject their recommendation for an outside investigation entirely. But, while writing their recommendation in a way that accords with the Mennonite expectation of collaborative decision-making has been successful in getting Mennonite institutions to agree to an investigation, it has also made it pretty easy for Mennonite institutions to downplay the reality that GRACE is the organization the Panel wants them to hire. Institutional leaders can point to the collaborative language included in the Panel’s recommendation and justify their dismissal or lack of full cooperation with the Panel’s top choice.  

I also have to reiterate that while collaborative decision-making is important and good in a whole variety of situations, this is not one of them. Regardless of the wording of the Panel’s recommendation, institutions being investigated for complicity in abuse should not be able to choose the organization that will be investigating them. They should not be allowed to design the process by which they will account for their actions. This is a profound conflict of interest that will subvert the possibility of care and justice for survivors of abuse even if the process maintains a positive public appearance. Note that in many of the responses institutional leaders sent this past week to those who voiced concern – responses that claimed we are wrong to say that the authority of the Panel is being undermined – our objection to the fact that institutional leaders met together to set the terms of their plan without the presence of significant stakeholders, including the harmed party, Lauren Shifflett and survivor network representatives, was not acknowledged.

If you still don’t buy that there is a serious problem, think about the last time you were in a Mennonite congregation looking for a new pastor. A small committee is put together to search for an appropriate candidate. That committee puts countless hours and heaps of energy into sorting through applications, doing interviews, conducting congregational discernment meetings, etc. Eventually, the search committee settles on one individual and invites that person to the congregation to candidate. The congregation spends the weekend with the person chosen and then votes on whether or not to hire them. Have you ever been part of a congregation that votes against the search committee’s choice? Have you ever even heard or one?

While there are differences, to be sure, I liken this process to the current one being led by Mennonite institutions searching for an organization to conduct this investigation. At the end of the day, the institutions (EMU in particular, since EMU is footing the bill) are running the search committee. According to the current plan, they are going to name their choice, and the Panel will be in a position to either affirm that choice or withhold their affirmation. (Note that the plan put forth by MC USA and MEA, says “the Panel will “affirm” the final [organizational] choice…” This is much different from saying “the organization chosen by the institutions will be subject to the Panel’s approval.”) After EMU and the other institutions put money, energy, and countless hours of multiple employee’s time into choosing an organization, how likely is it that the Panel will feel truly free to withhold their affirmation? There will be tremendous pressure on the Panel to voice affirmation even if they have reservations, because, among other reasons, there is no guarantee that the institutions will start the search process all over again. And, a mediocre investigation may seem better than no investigation at all (seem being the key word).

In other words, there are complicated politics at play here, friends. Some of them are likely being manipulated intentionally. Others may be manifesting as a simple result of the fact that we as a denomination haven’t done this before and are bound to run into serious snags as we figure it out. Either way, making  survivors and those vulnerable to abuse our top priority means that we keep ourselves aware of the ways that Mennonite institutional cultures as well as theological and ecclesial persuasions (i.e. collaborative decision-making) threaten our prospects of responding responsibly to abuse in our communities.

So. What do we think the relationship between the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention and Mennonite institutions ought to look like?
The Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, which has been designated the U.S. Mennonite resident group of experts on sexual abuse in the church, needs to have full authority over this broader process. They need to be in charge; not just advising administrators who make the final decisions. We want to see Mennonite institutions agree to submit to the instruction of the Panel wholeheartedly and act accordingly.

And a final note to the Panel: We support you in demanding the authority you ought to have. And, we ask, as survivors and people concerned along with you about the prevalence of sexual abuse in Mennonite communities and institutions, that you act courageously in the face of institutional pressure to compromise this and any future process of accountability and justice.

Keep voicing your concerns. Use the contact list at the end of our original call to action, and keep letting our institutional executives know that we want this process to be done right. We need to do it right for Lauren and for the countless others who will be impacted by the precedent that is set now.