brokenheart

Lauren Shifflett, recently shared the story of the sexual trauma she experienced in her life including how Luke Hartman coerced her into a sexual relationship, then stalked and threatened her when she tried to end it. If you have a moment, please read it with caution and kindness. It’s long, troubling, and at times unflattering and graphic.

I am Lauren’s sister, Marissa Buck (used to be Benner) and I want to share an important sequel to Lauren’s story, the story of how Lindale Mennonite Church leadership responded to Lauren’s abuse when she told them about it in August of 2014. To the best of my knowledge and memory, this is my truthful account.

Please know that my goal is not to hurt anyone. I believe deeply that the people in this story are good people with good intentions. But Lauren and I have learned through talking to other survivors and experts in sexual abuse that we are by no means unique. Many victims have come forward to well-meaning Mennonite churches and institutions only to feel betrayed. The abusers are “forgiven,” their actions are kept secret, and they are allowed to carry on as before, with potential to abuse again. This has got to stop. Good intentions aren’t enough when the price is deep and lasting harm to another innocent person.  This time it might be your sister, brother, mother, wife, or child. My goal in sharing the truth is to start conversations that will bring change to the church’s response to sexual abuse.

GOODforstalkingOn August 30th 2014, Lauren and I sat down with Dawn Monger, Associate Pastor at Lindale Mennonite Church, and Teresa Anders, another Lindale member who Dawn trusted and chose to bring. Lauren told them the entirety of her story: How she had gone to Luke for help in a suicidal state after being raped. How this respected Christian man made her feel safe and a sexual relationship ensued. How Luke supplied her with pain pills, confessed that he had sexual fantasies about her when she was 15 and again at 18, and admitted to paying for prostitutes on multiple occasions. I heard her tell Dawn and Teresa how when she attempted to end the relationship, he stalked her, degraded her, verbally assaulted her with obscenities, and threatened violence, including mention of a “hit man.” She told them that although Luke’s violence had stopped for a time, he was currently stalking her again and had been for several months since she changed her phone number and cut off all contact.  (Very few details were spared; and the ones that were spared that day, were told to Dawn as Lauren remembered them).

When Lauren finished, the two women said the most beautiful words I have ever heard; “We believe you,” “This is abuse,” and “What Luke did and is doing is wrong.” Both women expressed concern about taking this information to Duane Yoder, the lead pastor. Duane and Luke have been close friends for a long time. Lauren told them she didn’t trust Duane to be involved. Luke had made comments to Lauren in the past like, “Duane and I have lots of shit on each other,” and “Duane and I are like brothers. He’s got my back.” Lauren asked Dawn if there was any way to not involve Duane, but we were told Duane needed to know.

On Sunday, August 31st 2014 our parents came home from Lindale’s worship service applauding the powerful and moving sermon Duane and Luke had preached together about family values and boundaries. That night, a heartsick Lauren sat them down and told them the whole terrible story.

On Monday evening, September 1st 2014 we were told that Dawn had told Duane Lauren’s full account, with her husband Jim Monger and Teresa and Devon Anders as witnesses. Lauren was terrified and inconsolable that evening. After the meeting, Dawn texted: “I was so blessed by Duane’s reaction. He really, really cares about [Lauren]. He made me promise that I would tell her that he totally believes her and is “in her corner.” To reassure Lauren, Dawn texted frequently throughout the evening giving us a play- by- play of what was happening and of Luke’s location. She told us later that Duane went to Luke’s house and threatened him to not get near Lauren or have any contact with her, and as far as I know, that is the only safety measure that was put in place to “protect” Lauren from Luke.

For the days following, Dawn became Lauren’s primary advocate. We relied on her for all our information about what Duane and Luke were saying and doing. Having Dawn’s information was something a terrified Lauren desperately needed for her own safety and sanity. We never communicated directly with any of the Lindale elders and not once heard from Duane. Dawn also offered to support our shaken parents and keep them updated. We were told that Duane had taken Luke to meet with the EMU cabinet to make a “confession.” When Dawn informed us that EMU decided to keep Luke in his position as EMU’s vice president of enrollment, we were shocked. Someone made a giant mistake right here.

During the past weeks since Lindale admitted in a letter to the congregation their knowledge of Luke abusing a church member, a crucial question has surfaced: If Lindale was aware of Luke’s abuse, how could he have possibly kept his job? Since the letter was released to the congregation on March 20, neither Lindale nor EMU has answered this question.

And so we are all left to speculate:  Either Lindale pastors did not insure EMU got the full story and EMU did not ensure they had been given the full story, or EMU was aware of the details of the abuse but carelessly kept Luke in his position anyway, with full access to unaware university students and staff. Which one was it?

I need to pause the story for a moment and address EMU leadership: On March 29th 2016 you released a statement to Mennonite World Review stating that you became aware of a “sexual relationship between Luke Hartman and a church member,” but that, “the relationship had taken place some years prior to Luke Hartman’s employment…at EMU.” You stated again, in a statement released on April 15, 2016 in response to Lauren’s story, that you were “informed in early September 2014 of Luke Hartman’s past relationship with a then, un-named female prior to his employment as vice president for enrollment.”

Bad news, EMU. Those statements are incorrect (Mennonite World Review, check your facts). Luke and Lauren’s sexual contact ended sometime around June 2010, about a year before he worked for EMU. But Luke continued to contact, manipulate and control Lauren during his employment with you. In fact the stalking incident that made her fear for her safety and report to Lindale took place while Luke was a vice president of EMU.  He was your employee.

It gets worse, EMU. Let’s disregard the fact that Luke was your employee while abusing Lauren and assume you were not told the facts. If you would have done your due diligence and asked for the other side of the story instead of taking Luke at his word, you would have discovered that Lauren was one of your students when Luke sexually abused, stalked, and threatened her. She was a student from September 2009 to December 2010, during the worst of his violence. In light of this, is there any question of how dangerous your decision to continue Luke’s employment was for EMU? Any kind of inappropriate “sexual relationship” by one of your employees, especially one with such powerful influence, should be investigated. You are to blame for keeping an abusive man in a high position. No excuse overshadows the fact that you compromised the safety of EMU students and staff, along with the safety of high school students inquiring about attending EMU, who Luke had direct access to in his role as vice president of enrollment.

Lastly EMU, I am disappointed in your disregard of Lauren. Your April 15 press release failed to support Lauren as a victim or explain any of your actions, as an open letter from OurStoriesUntold to EMU points out. Did you actually read her story before releasing your statement? She clearly stated at what point in the chain of events Luke became your employee, yet in your press release, after applauding her for “the strength she had and the courage it took to share her experience,” you contradicted her story by insisting again that Luke was not under your employment. Your outward show of support smells sour because you not only refused to say you believe her story, you chose to publicly challenge her account, seemingly in order to protect yourselves.

My sister and all victims like her need to hear you say this EMU: We believe you. We made a mistake. We deeply regret the harm we caused and the risk we took. We will do all in our power to make it up to you and prevent future abuse. (Take a look at Oregon State University, a secular university, responding correctly after their mishandling of sexual violence.)

Back to the story: Dawn told us she gave the Lindale elders Lauren’s full account. Lauren made one request of Lindale. She asked that the secret email account Luke had set up to communicate with her be deleted. She had shared vulnerable and private thoughts, feelings, and photos with Luke in her emails to him, things she had entrusted to him at the time and was now petrified would be used against her. We were told Duane agreed to this and “watched Luke delete the email account.” He reportedly told Dawn it was deleted and that “no one would ever read one of Lauren’s personal emails.”

We were told Lindale leadership made a plan to hold Luke accountable. They asked him not to attend Lindale and to cancel his speaking engagements for a year. They formed an “accountability group” for Luke made up of Duane and several other men. We heard that most were Lindale members and some were Luke’s friends. To our knowledge, no one in the group had training in the treatment of sexual abuse, addictions, or predatory disorders. We understand they asked him to get professional counseling and that Luke refused to switch to a therapist trained in sexual addiction/abuse, wanting to go to his own therapist. Isn’t this where the accountability group should’ve held Luke accountable?

Lindale leadership made a plan to support Lauren. They paid for her professional counseling (and continue to offer to do so). Dawn was assigned to continue to care for my whole family, keeping us updated and reaching out frequently to Lauren. Dawn and Teresa continually encouraged us and reaffirmed their belief in Lauren’s story. When I would return to Harrisonburg for visits, they cared tangibly for us, taking us for a spa day for pedicures and lunch and inviting us to their homes. I am grateful beyond words for their support of us. What would we have done without them?

We were told that Luke tried desperately to dissemble Lauren’s story: He told Duane and Dawn that the relationship only lasted three months and that she “seduced” him. He told them he had lied to Lauren about his many hook-ups with prostitutes, that it was all “part of the fantasy.” He tried to use a note Lauren had entrusted to him during Sunday School class when she was 15 years old  to prove that she was “sexually immoral.”

cartoonThen Duane began to ask Dawn leading questions like, “Who paid for the hotel room?” “Are you sure Lauren was 19? Luke says she was 20,” and “Luke says the relationship only lasted 3 months, is Lauren sure it lasted longer?” We were told that Duane began to stand up for Luke saying things like, “Luke does so much good!” Dawn responded to these questions with her own: “Does it really matter? Does it change what Luke did?” Time and time again over the last year and a half, Duane’s words and actions have clearly shown that he cares more about Luke than he does about Lauren and is choosing to protect him over her.

As recently as March we found out that Luke had forwarded an email to Duane, one from the “deleted” email account. Just as Lauren had feared, he attempted to discredit her with her most personal thoughts and feelings. Duane claims he received this email from Luke prior to deleting the account. Regardless, we were told Duane not only read, but shared that email with Dawn long after he promised that no one would ever have access to it. Lauren felt violated and betrayed again. Her most vulnerable thoughts were read by her pastor, the man who promised no one would read them. And he was sharing them in what appeared to be an attempt to question her credibility.

We were told that Duane and the accountability group felt that Luke was doing much better, even though from our understanding Luke had never taken responsibility for Lauren’s abuse and continued to insist that she was lying. Luke was invited back to Lindale after a few short months, his actions towards Lauren unknown by most of its members. Lauren originally decided not to attend Lindale, mostly out of fear of Luke. But she found herself wanting to go, missing the people and the community. Lauren had done nothing wrong and she had a right to attend Lindale. But when she did attend she was full of anxiety. She was scared of seeing Luke and on multiple occasions she was met with angry glares from people close to Luke and his family. My parents had been asked not to share Lauren’s story with their Sunday School class and had omitted Luke’s name when sharing with their closest friends, so there were no angry glares for Luke.

Duane continued to show he did not believe Lauren’s story, or at the very least, did not think it was abuse. On two separate occasions Duane said to my mom, “Well, Lauren had problems before, right?” Did Lauren having problems mean she was somehow at fault or deserved Luke’s criminal behavior towards her? We heard that when two Lindale leaders asked Duane if he thought Lauren was a victim, he responded “No.” When Dawn discovered that Luke was still on the schedule to speak at the 2015 Mennonite Convention in Kansas City, we were told that Duane was prepared to forego the earlier boundary that had been set for Luke and let him speak, giving him easy access to impressionable and vulnerable 15-18 year old girls.

Dawn voiced many concerns, to both Lauren and me, about Duane’s conflict of interest as Luke’s friend and at times, his lack of integrity. Each time Duane ignored or questioned Lauren’s story, we believe Dawn stood up for her. When Luke was arrested for solicitation of prostitution on January 8th 2016, we were relieved. Finally the public would distrust Luke and Duane would see that Luke was still just as sick and dangerous as he had been a year and a half earlier.

But that did not happen. Duane stood at the pulpit and said these words to the congregation on January 10th 2016: “The vast majority of you know that Luke Hartman was caught in a county/city sting for responding to a web ad for a massage on Friday. The paper and television have blown it out of proportion…” Recently, we heard that Duane stood up at a men’s bible study at Park View Mennonite Church soon after Luke’s arrest and told a group of around 60 men that it had been a “frame-up.” When I heard from my mom, who worked in Lindale’s office, that Luke was trying to plead entrapment and have his charges dropped, I suspected that Duane was supporting him. I bluntly asked Dawn if she felt Duane or anyone at Lindale was protecting Luke. She responded with something along the lines of, “Marissa, things are bad here.”

Trustbroken

I had heard enough. Around that time a friend alerted me to an article she heard was posted on the Mennonite Church USA website in light of Luke’s arrest. The article had a link to a press release statement by Barbra Graber, leader of the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests*) which cited research that connects paying for prostitution to sexually coercive behavior and urged all institutions connected to Luke to reach out to victims and encourage them to come forward with information and work with the police. I Googled “MCUSA Luke Hartman” and immediately found a link to the article, but when I clicked on it an error message appeared. Blood rushed to my face. I stared at the screen. Had MCUSA taken the article down? Later, I found out that yes, they took it down within 48 hours of posting it. I was angry.

Can you imagine, Mennonite Church USA, what removing that article says to a victim who has been disbelieved and silenced, like my sister Lauren? Can you imagine her overwhelming hope when she heard that the broader Mennonite Church was willing to believe Luke capable of more, and her utter defeat when it was suddenly yanked away? Since you offered no explanation, we were left to hypothesize: Perhaps you posted the article to make it look like you support sexual abuse prevention but took it down when negative feedback became too uncomfortable. Or maybe you covered-up or ignored past misconduct of Luke’s and suddenly realized that if victims came forward, you would be liable. What was your reason?

I returned to my Google search and found another link to the article, this time on The Mennonite’s website. Had they not posted the article, which they boldly kept posted despite negative feedback, Lauren and I never would have known about SNAP and Luke’s abuse would have remained a secret.

Lauren and I contacted SNAP Menno’s confidential email. No more silence. No more protecting Luke. And no more shoving Luke’s abuse under that darn rug! With SNAP’s support, we decided to file a report with Corporal Philip Wonderley at the Harrisonburg police department. We urged Dawn, who was still supporting us, to contact SNAP and go to the police as well. The Commonwealth’s Attorney could not issue a criminal misdemeanor stalking and threat of violence case against Luke because the statutes of limitations expired in 2015. After Lauren’s story came out on OurStoriesUntold, Corporal Wonderley contacted Lauren through Barbra with a message to tell her that he regretted not being able to do more with her case, but he read every word of her story on OSU, that he had received it from a local woman who works with young trafficked prostitutes in Harrisonburg,  and was proud of her — that her bravery was helping many others.

Around that time, Dawn told us she had been seeking guidance from others above her in the Mennonite church. She decided not to contact SNAP or the police but said, “You do what you need to do. I support you.” She told us she decided that Lindale leadership needed to write a letter to Lindale members, informing them of their knowledge of Luke’s abuse. Lauren and I were given the first draft of the letter and hated it. The entirety of the abuse Lauren endured from Luke was summed up as “a situation.” It felt cheap and untrue.

We were honest with Lindale leadership, telling them how hurtful it was to have the abuse simply called “a situation,” and we asked them not to print anything if they weren’t willing to be transparent and spell it out. The elders worked together and changed it to say, “An abusive relationship was brought to our attention in August 2014. Pastors Dawn and Duane have been involved in walking with the victim, who has been deeply traumatized by Luke Hartman, and in attempting to hold Luke accountable for his actions.”

This was a slight improvement – at least they used the words “abuse” and “trauma.” But now we were disturbed by the presence of an outright lie: “Dawn and Duane have been involved in walking with the victim…” At no point has Duane walked with Lauren through this process. In fact, we’ve been told it has been quite the opposite. In a video conference with elder Gini Trotter prior to the letter being printed, we told her the statement was a lie. She asked us if we needed her to get the sentence changed and we hesitated. We didn’t know if the elders had any knowledge of what Duane had done in the last year and a half and we felt like the elders were doing their best and that they cared about us. Gini assured us that every elder believed Lauren’s story. So we told her no, but repeated that the sentence was a lie and that the elders needed to talk to Dawn about what Duane had done and hold him accountable. I regret not fighting to change that sentence. The members of Lindale should NEVER have been told a lie. SNAP was not involved with this back and forth communication with Lindale and knew nothing of the letter until after it came out to the congregation on March 20.

On March 21st 2016, I called Dawn and asked her to share everything she knew about Duane’s inappropriate and unethical behavior with the Lindale board of elders. She was hesitant and when I asked why she said something like, “I have 400 church members to think about.” I told her I didn’t see how keeping secret Duane’s lack of integrity was caring for the congregation. She responded with, “But I’ve seen Duane do so much good.”

I was stunned. I will never forget the betrayal of that statement, or the sound Lauren’s voice made after I repeated it. The woman who had called Duane out when he excused Luke saying, “He does so much good,” was now making the same excuse for Duane. The one who had fought for Lauren from the beginning, who was the sole witness to many of Duane’s missteps, and who watched Lauren (and me and my parents) suffer because of his choices, was essentially saying, “Duane does enough good to outweigh the damage he has done to you and the trauma Luke has caused you.”

Through tears, I questioned Dawn about the lie that had been printed and distributed to Lindale members. She seemed confused, so I repeated the phrase, “Dawn and Duane have been involved in walking with the victim…and in attempting to hold Luke accountable for his actions.” She told me it wasn’t a lie, that the meaning of the sentence was that Dawn walked with the victim, and Duane attempted to hold Luke accountable. I knew the sentence did not convey that. I was done. I told Dawn that Lauren and I needed her to meet with our SNAP advocate Barbra, hoping that if Dawn felt enough support she would choose to come forward with the truth. Dawn asked for a couple of days to process before she got back to me.

That was over four weeks ago. Lauren and I haven’t heard a word from her. We feel abandoned.

After that conversation I felt panicked. I no longer trusted Dawn to tell the elders the truth about Duane, so Lauren and I sent each member an email on March 23rd 2016. We gave them our account of Duane’s actions and we made some requests that we felt were necessary in order to make Lindale a safe place for us and for any other victims. Among those requests were that they hold Duane accountable for his actions and that they seek outside guidance from professionals who specialize in sexual abuse immediately, before moving forward. My parents have made that same request multiple times. We anxiously waited for a response, but after three weeks none came. Not one of the elders to whom we had written telling of our hurt and fear reached out to us. If they believed Lauren’s story and knew we were hurting, why were they silent? Was it pride, fear of legal action, or desperation to preserve Lindale as it was instead of caring for Lauren? I couldn’t think of a reason that would be good enough.

Finally an email arrived on April 15, four days after Lauren released her story on OurStoriesUntold:

“Dear Lauren and Marissa,

The Board of Elders received your concerns and recognizes that this has been and continues to be a challenging time. May God’s grace and peace be with us all.

Gloria Lehman for the Elders”

Is that all?

Elders – Gloria Lehman, Larry Beiler, Diane Burkholder, Deb Horst, Jay Leaman, Chris Noll, Hazel Shirk, Gini Trotter, Don Tyson, Mike Weaver, and David Waybill: Is this truly all you have to say?

Not even as Christians but as human beings; as people who have loved and helped raise us; does silence followed by emotionless words feel like the right response to us, to Lauren’s gut-wrenching story? Is that how you prove you believe Lauren and that you will stand behind other victims of abuse? I wish you had stayed silent.

girlinwindowMy heart broke. I watched my little sister, who I love immensely, go numb and crawl into that dreadful corner where she hides after being battered and betrayed by those she trusted. This time she’s not going alone. And someday we’ll crawl out of that corner with the help of people courageous enough to stand with us and carry our pain instead of holding us at a distance.

I do not think that Duane, Dawn, the elders, EMU, or MCUSA purposely tried to harm us. But their inaction, silence, and calculating words ARE alienating and hurtful. It is surprising to me that SNAP, an organization independent from any church, and the Harrisonburg Police Department, a governmental body, have actively demonstrated Christ-like love to us and earned our trust more than any institution within the Mennonite Church.

I believe Duane Yoder’s intentions were good, that he acted out of a blind love for Luke. But Duane’s doubt of Lauren and defense of her abuser after he claimed he believed her and was “in her corner” re-traumatized and re-victimized her. When Duane stood in front of the Lindale congregation and minimized Luke’s arrest implying Luke was simply responding to an ad for a massage, he sent a clear message to Lauren: “The man that hurt you will be protected here, no matter the severity of the accusation against him.”

When my parents met with Duane on March 15th 2016 to confront him about his behavior and betrayals throughout this process, he appeared to listen sincerely but stated that he will not give up his friendship with Luke. Because of this, Lindale is not a safe place for Lauren and me or other people with experience similar to ours sitting in its pews. Lindale needs a pastor and a leadership team who understand and respond appropriately to abuse. If the elders are serious about making their church safe, they will hold Duane accountable and bring in outside experts for guidance and education while moving through this process.   Vienna Presbyterian Church offers a good example for all churches in deciding to stand with the one harmed against the better judgement of their legal advisors.

To our beloved Lindale family – Lauren and I love you. You have not been silent. Many of you have reached out to Lauren after reading her story, writing words filled with love, admiration, support and broken-hearted apologies for the church letting her down, even though you are not in the least bit responsible for her pain. Your words have been healing and have helped lift her up out of the “rubble and ashes.” Thank you. Some of you have reached out to our parents. Please continue to do so – they love you, too. I know most of you had no idea this was happening to us and I’m sorry. How can a church family care for each other when our most difficult, painful stories are kept secret? Each time I come back to this paragraph that feels like goodbye, I cry. Many of you dedicated us, raised us, and watched us be baptized. You modeled goodness and unconditional love, just as I know you’re still doing for Lindale’s children. We shared potlucks, Bible School musicals, Highland Retreat weekends, Christmas caroling, and hundreds of smiles and hugs on Sundays. I will forever hold onto the bright, happy memories of you, my Lindale family.

Even though Lindale is no longer a safe place for Lauren and me, I will pray fervently that it will become so for you, that you will demand that it become so for you, for your children, and for all the lovely people within your walls. I believe it is possible.

Feel free to reach out to me or Lauren through our SNAP advocate Barbra Graber’s confidential email, barbra.graber@yahoo.com and she will forward messages on to us.

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OurStoriesUntold Contact: Hilary J. Scarsella (hjs.osu@gmail.com)

*The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is the world’s oldest and largest support group for survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. SNAP was founded by victims of Catholic priests in 1988 and now has more than 21,000 members in 79 countries. Even though “Priests” is in its title, SNAP is open to religious and nonreligious persons who were sexually violated by anyone inside or outside a faith community. The Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP    was established in early 2015. Their Mennonite Abuse Prevention List was launched in April 2016 to track credibly accused Anabaptist Mennonite predators. A SNAP Survivor Support Group meets the first Thursday of every month in Harrisonburg, VA.

SNAP Contacts: Barbra Graber( 540-214-8874, mennonite@snapnetwork.org) David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, davidgclohessy@gmail.com) Barbara Dorris (314-503-0003 cell, bdorris@SNAPnetwork.org) Barbara Blaine(312-399-4747bblaine@snapnetwork.org)