In my role with Our Stories Untold, I have the privilege of knowing that in response to our Call to Action there are people all over the continent who are voicing their concern to those in positions of Mennonite authority about the way Mennonite institutions are responding to Luke Hartman’s abuse of Lauren Shifflett. Many of you reading this are those people. But, since such conversations tend to happen privately, you don’t often get to experience the sense of support and momentum that comes with seeing that you are not alone in speaking up. And, when such conversations remain entirely private, those who would like to believe that the numbers of concerned Mennonites are small, or that only those on the fringes of the Mennonite church believe there is a problem, are free to assume so. But, our voices are many, and they are diverse, and they are strong. Today, a Mennonite who is a professor of psychology at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, Dwight Krehbiel, is making that clear. He is publicly posting his response to our Call to Action – a letter of concern written to Mennonite Church USA Moderator, Patty Shelly. Here’s what else Dr. Krehbiel has to say about why he decided to go public:

“My reasons for wanting to publish the letter are rooted primarily in my belief that secrecy about sexual abuse has a pernicious effect on the victims; it is used primarily to protect the powerful. Sexual abuse is emerging as one of the foremost human rights issues of our time — in the military, in the corporate world, in the media, in education, in the Christian church and in other organized religions, and in medicine. I hope we in the Mennonite Church can begin to chart a different course that will prioritize the rights and interests of victims. That means truly independent investigation of abuse cases, not controlled or influenced by individuals or institutions implicated in the abuse and not shrouded in secrecy and denial.”

Thank you, Dr. Krehbiel. And, here is his letter:

Dear Patty,

I am writing in response to the request on the blog Our Stories Untold (OSU), with which you are probably familiar. The story at OSU of Lauren Shifflett’s abuse by Luke Hartman is heart-wrenching and all the more so because of the evidence that he was at best passively allowed to continue his abuse by his church and by his Mennonite college employer and at worst quite actively protected by them. The prominence of Hartman as a speaker to Mennonite youth, the perception of him as a rising star in Mennonite college circles, the apparent enthusiasm for his alleged ability to serve as a “role model,” the numerous connections to people and institutions in Hesston and Newton – all these factors make this instance of abuse distressing and acutely embarrassing not only for Eastern Mennonite University, Lindale Mennonite Church, and the people of Harrisonburg, VA, but also for us here in central Kansas and throughout the Mennonite Church. One has the impression of a church that thought it had laid to rest the decades-long scandal of John Howard Yoder only to be faced with apparently violent abuse by another of its “favorite sons.”

To me it seems that one thing we should have learned from the John Howard Yoder scandal is that institutions in which abuses occur will not necessarily prioritize the interests of victims (a great understatement of what the evidence shows, it seems to me). A decades-long secrecy about what happened and a refusal to publicly (and perhaps even privately) acknowledge the victimization of many dozens of women, perpetrated by one of the most trusted institutions in the Mennonite church, provides compelling evidence of the severe conflict of interest in which church leaders find themselves in evaluating evidence of sexual abuse by one of their own, especially if he (usually) or she is a prominent person. Furthermore, there is much evidence that even decades later it was only the relentless voices of some victims and their allies that finally forced church institutions and their leaders to acknowledge the truth of the claims against Yoder.

The Hartman abuse case is a test of whether indeed we have learned these lessons. The Mennonite Church USA is ostensibly in a better position than in earlier times because of the appointment of a competent Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention. Having appointed this panel, the Mennonite Church USA will best serve the cause of sexual abuse prevention by insisting that their recommendations regarding investigation of these events be followed. Failing to do so will surely leave the impression, and probably rightly so, that their appointment has more to do with institutional image management than with protection of victims. Wrong-doing in government and other secular institutions is commonly addressed by appointment of special investigators or prosecutors. If by some means those institutions manage to control the parameters of the investigation (think of Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky case), we are rightly suspicious of the outcome. Our own religious institutional history gives us no reason not to be similarly suspicious when Mennonite institutions and leaders that may be implicated in the Hartman case (EMU, Lindale Mennonite Church, Pastor Duane Yoder, Virginia Mennonite Conference, etc.) are given latitude to determine who will investigate the case and how they will do so.

I can only guess at the great pressures under which the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention is doing its work. I simply ask that you use your influence as Moderator of MC-USA to support them by insisting that their recommendations be followed. They have indicated what alternative they believe will lead to the most rigorous and effective investigation. Please do all you can to make sure that their professional judgment is respected so that the interests of the victim and her family are given priority rather than those of the perpetrator and the powerful institutions with which he has been associated.

I further ask that you consider the important role played by organizations at the margins of the church to bring these sad events to light, especially the staff at Our Stories Untold and the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. As you know, it was the efforts of these overlapping groups of sexual abuse activists and the great courage of Lauren Shifflett and her sister that made this case impossible to ignore, just as victims and allies finally brought the Yoder case out in the open. Please consider how those in the church can make common cause with these groups. They can be a resource to the church’s abuse prevention panel (indeed already are). A brief perusal of Our Stories Untold or of the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List would make anyone wonder whether indeed there may not be many more similar sexual abuse cases in the near future. We will need all the knowledgeable resource people we can get to deal with this emerging reality. Please don’t marginalize these passionate victims and their advocates or treat them as adversaries. Taking them seriously is the only path to a better future on this issue for Anabaptists. My interpretation of what is now happening in the Catholic Church, especially in the wake of the movie Spotlight is that the “jig is up.” Social media, ability to rapidly and widely publicize information, and the empowerment of victims through their use of these tools together with their passionate advocates – all these factors are defeating the secrecy option for churches. We must do what we can to get our own religious institutions on the “right side of history” regarding these issues.

Sincerely yours,

Dwight Krehbiel