SERIES INTRODUCTION: Stephanie Krehbiel’s voice provides the first in a series of posts by survivors and advocates who want the opportunity to respond to the recently released findings of Eastern Mennonite University’s hired compliance firm D. Stafford and Associates. This year has been quite a ride and there’s a whole lot that hasn’t been said, needs to be said.
In August of 2016 EMU hired DSA 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.
To be clear, the Benner sisters’ accounts were by no means new or unusual to us at OSU (except that the reported perpetrator was a Black man instead of the usual reports concerning predatory white men). Although their courage and resolve to go fully public was unusual, their account of what happened to them was ‘textbook’ in terms of its similarity to many cases we already know about and others we continue to learn about. So although we continue to reference this particular case, and this focus may seem to some as unfairly targeting of a few, we know it is the tip of the iceberg and that’s why we continue to examine it. We use the example of one case to teach invaluable lessons for many.
Finally, 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.
Part 1: Asking the Right Questions
On November 28 and in the days following, I received messages from victims of sexual violence in the Mennonite Church.
“I can’t read this thing without getting all knotted up. There is just so much that is drastically wrong here.”
“Started reading the [EMU] press release and began laughing…the kind of laughing that I’m sure made me feel better because of the dopamine it released but not because the report was in the least bit funny.”
“I think I’m just exhausted from allowing myself to hope. Time after time, I let myself hope this will be the time they’ll take us seriously and do the right thing.”
“I can’t even finish reading this. And I’m having trouble finding words.”
It was a rough week to be a survivor in the Mennonite church.
On November 28, Eastern Mennonite University released the results of D. Stafford and Associates (DSA) review of EMU, primarily of their response to a very specific moment: the moment they learned that their former VP Luke Hartman had sex with a 19- to 20-year old young woman from his congregation.
DSA is a consulting firm specializing in campus security and Title IX/Clery Act compliance. Firms like this have become an industry, and most of them claim to be “victim-centered” or “trauma-informed.” In an August 2016 piece on the blog of our organization, Into Account, Jay Yoder and I discussed the two types of organizations that institutions hire when sexual violence occurs on their watch. We wrote, “There are two types of firms who do this work. There are firms specializing in seeking truth and justice for survivors. There are firms dedicated to ensuring organizations and institutions meet minimum legal requirements to avoid liability.”
EMU hired the latter. It should surprise none of us that there is far more of this sort of organization than there is of the former. It takes genuine expertise and ethical commitment to locate the former and agree to their parameters. That did not happen here.
A truly trauma-informed organization does not sign a contract promising to complete the investigation by a certain time, because such a projection presupposes that the investigators can address all of the relevant evidence in the allotted time period. In a 2013 report on improving police response to sexual violence, Human Rights Watch states, “Experts and detectives in each of the cities we researched repeatedly stressed the importance of a victim-centered approach, as opposed to one that emphasizes quickly closing cases.” GRACE, the organization recommended to EMU and MC USA by the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, negotiates contracts that leave the end date of the investigation open, and offers institutions the option of dropping the investigation if the hours needed end up being too costly. They do this because they don’t know what they’re going to discover when they start investigating.
In a display of either their lack of expertise or their lack of caring, MC USA and EMU officials identified DSA’s promise of a relatively swift completion to the investigation as one of their selling points.
GRACE is a nonprofit, and their central principle is the prevention of violence. They depend on their reputation as ethical experts, and their ability to appeal to the moral compass of the institution that hires them. DSA, however, is a business. The things that distinguish DSA as a for-profit operation—a long list of completed consultations, satisfied clients, and finite contracts—are very appealing to administrators. But to pretend as though DSA was the best organization to fulfill EMU’s and MC USA’s moral and ethical obligations to survivors is to salt the wounds of sexual violation by insulting our collective intelligence.
A truly victim-centered organization would never have agreed to the terms under which EMU hired DSA, to limit the investigative portion of their contract to the school’s response to one offending individual. Such a parameter presupposes that no evidence of other perpetrators or enablers will surface in the course of the investigation, and no one with expertise in sexual violence and stalking operates on that presumption unless they’re being paid well to do it.
Finally, a truly victim-centered organization operates with the understanding that sexual predation happens within a context. If you’re investigating a perpetrator with high-ranking institutional power, your overriding question isn’t merely, “Were appropriate administrative actions taken based on the available information?”
Your overriding questions are, “How did this person get away with it?” “Did he get away with anything else we should know about?” And then, “If he got away with it, then who else did?”
I’m not saying DSA consultants don’t understand these things. They are cops and lawyers with years of experience on cases like this; I’m sure they know perfectly well that where there is one offending official, there are usually others, and that in institutions, powerful people with career-threatening secrets tend to surround themselves with other people who have similar secrets. I’m saying DSA has a business to run. Those questions I just posed are reasons why GRACE doesn’t do contracts the way DSA does.
EMU paid DSA a large amount of money to tell them that just about everyone except for Luke Hartman did what they were supposed to do. Policies could have been a bit clearer, sure. But based on the report released by the EMU board, it seems there was just an unfortunate event in which a beloved, high-profile administrator, who has been part of Mennonite institutions for most of his career, turned out to be a very abusive and scary guy. No one saw it coming, not even the highly educated people who sat in the room while they learned that he had a “consensual affair” with a woman some twenty years younger, barely out of her teens. No one, apparently, was under any obligation to ask further questions about whether this man should be working with college-aged students.
Just because you didn’t ask the questions you should have asked doesn’t mean you are not accountable for the answers.
And this man, Luke Hartman, is Black. The champion of diversity at EMU, mentor to students of color there and at Mennonite colleges around the country. He inspired so many kids. He delivered inspiration like the pro he was. Every one of those students who was mentored or inspired at some point by Luke Hartman has just been told that his failings were no one’s but his own. The white-dominated institutions he worked in did their best, but the Black man just turned out to be a sexual predator. Their claim of innocence says “Sorry, kids, nothing we could have done about that. Sometimes the bad apples just slip in, despite the best efforts of all of us Responsible White People.”
Does this narrative seem like a stretch to the nice, rational people at and around EMU? I wish it were, but in case we haven’t noticed, we just elected a white sexual predator as president of the United States, a man who has spent profitable years ranting publicly about men of color being rapists. When the stories of Hartman’s abuse started coming out, there were reports of racist backlash and harassment towards Black people in Harrisonburg. Given subsequent events, both locally and nationally, I doubt this backlash has abated.
No EMU administrator would support this ugly, racist interpretation of the DSA report that I’ve just suggested. They don’t have to. They don’t even have to be aware of these interpretations. That’s not how these narratives work. They sneak in under the radar; they stay invisible to white people. They do their evil work. The word scapegoat is overused, but the word scapegoat was invented for messes like this one. DSA’s report and EMU’s response scapegoat one Black man for all of EMU’s systemic failings related to sexual violence.
None of the racist backlash generated by this case is the fault of Hartman’s victims, by the way. But the perception that it is—that Hartman was framed by his accusers for racist purposes—can continue to flourish when the institution that should have taken responsibility for his behavior long ago spends this kind of money on the project of looking blameless.
This is how cover-ups of sexual violence work. Not in dimly-lit secret meetings where white men smoke fine cigars and laugh at the plight of the little people they manipulate like puppets.
They function just fine in the daylight, in well-intentioned meetings where institutional financial security and reputation are prized over ensuring prevention of and accountability for violence. And in private living rooms and coffee shops where powerful administrators reassure themselves that they have a good heart and don’t need to give their own actions a hard look, or ask a better educated expert whether they could have done better.
Here’s one thing to remember for perspective: Mennonite communities are full of sexual violence and abuse, the vast majority of it perpetrated and enabled by white people and the institutions they run. As hard as it is to take in, believe and confront together, this is the simple truth. It is not ranting, exaggeration, innuendo, or fabrications by vindictive women. When we tell that truth, we are often told that we are hurting our cause by being excessively critical, that we stir up unnecessary controversy, that we are ruining the lives of good men, that we just want to destroy things.
And we do want to destroy things. Complacency. Denial. Willful ignorance. Cowardice.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Together, we can destroy the things that need to be destroyed. We can replace them with the political will and moral courage to make things better.
It’s that or smile sadly, shake our heads, and participate in the cover ups.
Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel is a scholar, advocate, and speaker with expertise in social change movements, trauma, and institutional violence. She holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Kansas, with a graduate certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She serves as the main researcher for the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List. Together with OSU contributor Jennifer (Jay) Yoder, she co-directs Into Account, a new advocacy organization for survivors of sexualized violence in Christian contexts. Her most recent speaking engagements include Bethel College, Hesston College, and Bluffton University.