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Eight members of Virginia Mennonite Conference have filed an official complaint with the conference asking that pastor Duane Yoder’s credentials be put under review for breaches of trust.

A letter distributed to the Lindale Mennonite Congregation in March of 2016 revealed that Duane Yoder withheld from his congregation for more than a year and a half a report made in 2014 by Lauren Shifflett of her sexual abuse at the hands of Luke Hartman. At the time of her report, Hartman was serving as vice president of Eastern Mennonite University.

The letter states, “Someone from our congregation contacted SNAP about an abusive relationship [involving Luke Hartman] that was brought to our attention in August 2014.” At the time, Hartman was known to be a close friend and ministerial colleague of Yoder’s. Hartman first met Shifflett when he served as her youth Sunday School teacher at Lindale while Duane was pastor.

The published accounts by Shifflett and her sister Marissa Buck, include a detailed report of grooming, sexual abuse, stalking and threats of violence by Hartman. The March congregational letter further claims that Yoder had been “involved in walking with the victim.” But Buck describes Yoder’s behavior as an attempt to cover up and minimize the abusive details while discrediting Shifflett’s story to others. We believe the sisters’ accounts. They are similar to others we receive from Mennonites and former Mennonites across the US and Canada.

THE COMPLAINT

The following was emailed to Virginia Mennonite Conference leaders Clyde Kratz (clyde.kratz@vmconf.org), Patsy Seitz (seitzp@emhs.net), and Aldine Musser (jamusser@verizon.net) in June of 2016.

6.7.2016

Complaint regarding Duane Yoder, credentialed minister of Virginia Mennonite Conference

“Virginia Mennonite Conference seeks to be an agent of God’s call to individuals, congregations and organizations to follow Jesus and embody faith, hope, peace and love in the world.”[1] In love, we are angry and sad about the presence of sexual abuse in our church body. We hope for the peace that comes from wrongs being brought to light and corrected, the only way to true reconciliation. We have faith in (and faithfulness to) Jesus who went out to seek the lost, and would not settle for outward appearances of piety but called all of us to inner transformation. In the spirit of Virginia Mennonite Conference’s mission, we seek to speak into VMC via the conference’s complaint process.

In April 2016 the Faith and Life Commission of Virginia Mennonite Conference approved a document entitled “Procedural Guidelines for Suspension of VMC Ministerial Credentials in Event of Conducting a Covenanting Ceremony for Same Sex Couple.”[2] According to the document, “A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership, the 2014 polity manual for Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA, identifies a dozen ‘breaches of trust by a credentialed person’ which could trigger a review process” (p. 1). The “non-exhaustive list” is from A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership pages 69-70:

a. Violations of confidentiality

b. Use of technology for illegal or immoral purposes

c. Pornography

d. Intentional deceptions or dishonesty, including misrepresentation of self in training or past records

e. Acts of physical, emotional, or spiritual violence

f. Gross neglect of ministerial responsibilities

g. Financial irresponsibility or irregularities

h. Sexual abuse, sexual violence, or sexual harassment

i. Failure to be accountable to the area conference that holds the credential

j. Major theological deviation from Christian and Anabaptist/Mennonite understandings

k. Effort to harm the leadership of another pastor [OSU asks: how many predators have been protected by other pastors for fear of triggering a breach of trust violation?]

l. Behaviors that undermine the congregation, another congregation, or the relationship with the wider Mennonite church

The “Procedural Guidelines” document cites Book #3 of Manual: Ministerial Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure[3] in offering a “paradigm for a review process which could be used in other cases of alleged misconduct by leaders credentialed by VMC” (p. 3). The steps outlined are:

  1. Complaint
  2. Preliminary investigation
  3. Charge
  4. Accused’s response
  5. Fact-finding meeting
  6. Fact-finding report
  7. Judgment and sanctions
  8. Appeal
  9. Appeal hearing

Using these procedures as a basis, this constitutes a Complaint to VMC regarding Duane Yoder’s actions in the case of Luke Hartman’s sexual abuse. In several instances Duane Yoder’s actions have hurt and alienated victims and their families – people God’s church should be most concerned to comfort and protect. A few examples are:

  • Failing to communicate to EMU information regarding Luke Hartman’s actions that, if communicated, would have kept other students out of harm’s way[4]
  • Questioning the credibility of a victim of sexual abuse, minimizing and excusing sexual abuse and harassment (e.g. telling Lauren Shifflett’s mother “Well, Lauren had problems before, right?”)[5]
  • Minimizing Luke Hartman’s subsequent arrest for solicitation of prostitution both on Sunday morning at Lindale and at a men’s bible study at Park View Mennonite Church[6]

These points mostly come from Marissa Buck’s online post – they are allegations. This is how almost any misconduct reporting begins. Marissa Buck is not a member of a Virginia Conference congregation; this should not be an obstacle to VMC addressing potential misconduct she has brought forward. These allegations suggest several points on the above list of “breaches of trust,” such as intentional dishonesty (item d), spiritual violence (item e), and behaviors that undermine the congregation (item l).

The next step is for VMC to investigate the Complaint, which in this case should happen via the proposed independent investigation. For the credibility of the conference it is important that this independent investigation move forward, and we urge VMC to make every effort to cooperate with that process. We want Duane to reach healing and wholeness in his own ministry, which can only happen when concerns are put on the table and addressed.

VMC has stated that “in the event the independent review panel… discovers information that reaches the level of professional misconduct, Virginia Mennonite Conference is receptive to the panel filing the necessary complaint” (letter from Clyde Kratz to Patricia Shelly, May 18, 2016). This complaint begins the process now and includes Lauren Shifflett and Marissa Buck in the process. We expect that VMC will communicate with all submitters of the complaint regarding any steps taken and decisions made, per VMC policy. We recognize that the timeline for this process is affected by the independent investigation, but following the completion of the independent investigation we ask that VMC proceed with their judgment in a timely manner. While the independent investigation is in process, we expect VMC to put any precautionary measures into place which are appropriate during a misconduct investigation, such as:

  • Referring pastoral care at Lindale to someone other than Duane
  • Directing someone other than Duane to be the point person for the independent investigation at Lindale, as Duane’s actions are also under investigation (in process)
  • Taking steps to help all sexual abuse victims at Lindale find safety at their church, such as asking Duane to step back from preaching. There are likely many more victims of sexual abuse who are members at Lindale and in light of this complaint VMC has a role in ensuring they are cared for.
  • Any other precautions which may be necessary given this complaint and the ongoing investigation

Some of these measures may be in place already. Additional measures will acknowledge the uncertainty that already exists regarding Duane’s leadership. VMC has the opportunity to practice restorative pastoral care for victims by keeping them informed. At minimum, we ask that those submitting the complaint receive acknowledgment that the complaint has been received, be informed of precautionary measures taken while the investigation is happening, and be notified promptly of VMC’s judgment upon completion of the independent investigation. The Benner family has been hurt by Duane’s actions and the conference’s lack of communication and decisive action. These steps are a beginning of a pastoral response to this family and a demonstration of VMC’s care for all victims of sexual abuse.

(Please scroll down to bottom of article for notes and source links)

Marissa Buck

Maria Hosler Byler

Kristin Yoder Kauffman

Greta Kreider

Laura Lehman

Russ Leinbach

Sally Leinbach

Lauren Shifflett

WE APPLAUD THE ACTION OF THESE CONCERNED VA MENNONITES

These VA conference members are justifiably concerned that despite a variety of troubling reports and documented evidence, Duane Yoder continues to hold a position of power and spiritual influence as credentialed lead pastor of Lindale Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA.  We urge any readers to sign your name in support of them here. As a supplement to their good work, here’s some additional information we’ve received, along with my own commentary.

 DUANE YODER’S ALLEGED MISCONDUCT

A concerned member of a VA Mennonite Conference congregation sent us a report of a conversation with Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz. Here is an excerpt of that report:

“Clyde was aware that Duane Yoder had a “sealed file” in the VA conference office.  The color of the file indicated that he had a past incidence of “misconduct” which had been “resolved”.  Clyde explained that files on persons in ministry had three colors—one color for no allegations of misconduct, another for active or unresolved allegations, and a third color for resolved allegations….

He told us that he would call the Lindale elder board chair [Gloria Lehman] and notify her that there is a file and, at the point at which the elders bring concerns about possible misconduct on Duane’s part he would open the file in consultation with MCUSA.

A follow up note: On May 8, I sent an email in which I asked about whether this had been done. Clyde wanted to meet again to fill us in on further action, but after the call for the investigation by the MCUSA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, we received word that he needed to cancel the second meeting because, the email said “these matters were being cared for by others”.

We do not know how Yoder’s reported misconduct was “resolved” but judging from past experience and present reports, I expect the decision was likely made by persons who lacked the specific training necessary to make such a judgement. We are concerned for the person who brought the complaint. I believe Yoder’s “resolved” status provided him continued access to power and privilege and led to further harm.

In addition, according to a member of the Lindale Mennonite Church pastoral search committee during Duane Yoder’s hiring, knowledge of a sealed file was never brought to their group.  This would indicate that the review of candidates and choice of Duane as their lead pastor was made without this critical information; and thus it appears the breaches of trust listed in the conference manual that could trigger a review process may also have included “4. Intentional deceptions or dishonesty, including misrepresentation of self in training or past records.”

SILENCE AND INACTION FROM WIDER CHURCH LEADERSHIP

It does not take an independent or professional investigator to realize much has gone wrong and much needs to be made right. Yet VMC leadership, the MCUSA Executive Board and its Panel for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse have taken no public action (as yet, to our knowledge) to assure us that a pastor who risks harming others will not be allowed to continue in his position. Instead, this urgent and singular matter of Duane Yoder’s known harmful actions are now being delayed. They have been wrapped into a much wider more cumbersome investigation.

We applaud the Panel for its public recommendation that an independent investigation be conducted of the entire case; but even that process, which at one time represented a sliver of hope, is already heavily compromised by conflicts of interest and shrouded in more secrecy, with little public assurance of its integrity. Will the agency hired, for example, be given freedom to make public its findings without interference from the participating institutions?

Meanwhile a denominational minister, according to his own letter to his congregation and multiple sources, knowingly withheld reports of frighteningly abusive behavior by one of his ministerial colleagues and yet still remains in the pulpit today.

As mentioned, the letter to the Lindale congregation documenting this pastoral breach of trust was sent out on March 20.  A SNAP news conference was held on March 23. A formal complaint with further evidence has now been filed by VA Conference members. SNAP and OSU have received further reports concerning Duane Yoder that lead us to believe he may have caused additional harm to others during his career as a Mennonite pastor.

What further review or investigation of evidence is needed to place Duane Yoder’s credentials under review and remove him, even temporarily, from his pulpit at Lindale?  The matter of his continued status as pastor should not be dependent on a wider investigation.

WHY WE BELIEVE THE WORD OF THOSE WHO BRING ALLEGATIONS

Victims of sexual violation by a pastor, spiritual leader, or other beloved congregant disclose the devastation of what happened to them at great peril. They face criticism for ruining a Godly man’s career and often experience isolation from family, friends, and their entire faith community.  Though it may take years for them to understand the full impact and find the courage to come forward, they are often driven to do so as an act of conscience. They want to protect others. They may also break silence in order to break the power the abuser continues to hold over them even decades later.

On the other hand, perpetrators of sexual violation who hold powerful church appointments have a lot to lose by coming clean. They have many self-protective reasons to minimize and deny the claims made against them.

Perpetrators also know their safe bets for secret-keeping are persons who are already systemically disempowered (people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ people, foster children, etc). Perpetrators also know those in the midst of personal tragedy or emotional difficulty are easy prey. They know all these persons likely won’t, after proper grooming, have the strength to tell.  And if those targeted did tell others in the congregation, they would likely not be believed; or even if they were believed, they would rarely be urged to report the offense outside the church.  This contributes to a pastor’s ability to use their personal and political power to discredit the truth of an accuser’s claim. Too often whole congregations are susceptible to undue influence by the power of the pulpit and display a tragic lack of fortitude to take a public stand against it.

In an address to William and Mitchell Law School law enforcement professional, Michael V. Johnson advises that in the case of suspected sexual abuse, our rule of thumb is no longer that you are innocent until proven guilty. He says the devastation brought on by even one violation causes such deep and long lasting damage that we must not take further risk. Instead, when a disclosure of abuse is brought, we must assume you are guilty until proven innocent. And until that time you must be removed from positions of leadership.  

See also this excellent article Stop Living in Fear of a False Report by Church of the Brethren pastor Alan Stucky.

NO REPORT OF COMPLAINT BY CHURCH MEDIA

On July 12, 2016 SNAP Mennonite emailed this complaint and VMC’s unsatisfactory response to The Mennonite. Their reply stated that “this complaint is not something we’re ready to publish….” and encouraged writing letters to the editor.

If a group of faithful VA conference Mennonites are sufficiently concerned to come together for discernment, collect evidence, write and file a formal complaint against a pastor according to carefully researched conference guidelines, how is their complaint alone not important news for the denomination at large?  Regardless of how the conference responds to the complaint or the outcome of the requested review, is it not a journalist’s job to report significant events regarding the actions of those in power to those with less access to power and information?

Too often church leaders and those media outlets that support them choose to speak and act publicly in an effort to make us all FEEL better (about our church and its leaders) but too often hesitate to take actions that assure we DO better in order to protect those most vulnerable from a lifetime of harm caused by one incident of sexual violation.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:   sign this complaint, report abuse, invite others to come forward

  1. If you are a member of Virginia Mennonite Conference please join your fellow conference members by signing your name in the comment section below and we will see your name is added to theirs on the complaint document.
  2. If you have seen, suspected or suffered anything sexually troubling or confusing in regards to Duane Yoder, or any other church leader, lay or ordained, we urge you to come forward so that the full truth can be known and the vulnerable warned.  We are not here to punish or judge, but to discover the full truth, protect the vulnerable, and deter further harm. We urge any victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to contact legal and civil authorities, local crisis centers, and survivor groups like ours. Contact us at  OurStoriesUntold, mennonite@snapnetwork.org, or call 540-214-8874 for independent and confidential support and a review of your options. You may also send anonymous documentation or communication (in an unmarked envelope if preferred) to MAP List, P.O. Box 442632, Lawrence, KS, 66044
  3. If you are a pastor or administrator, please make the invitation of #2 above from the pulpit and through all possible communication channels.

NOT PUNISHMENT, PREVENTION

The impact of even a fifteen second encounter with a sexual predator is more deeply and widely experienced and more devastating to a life than most persons who have not experienced it can ever imagine. It’s why we must make every effort to stop it.

The true motivation for this post is not punishment or judgement, but prevention. We seek to discover the full truth, protect the vulnerable, and deter further harm. We publish names of accused perpetrators as well as those who enable and protect them in order to….

  • Help victims heal
  • Make it safer for victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to come forward
  • Protect the vulnerable from further harm
  • Let victims know that they aren’t alone
  • Warn the public of possible risk
  • Compel enablers of known or suspected predators to see the danger of their continued silence
  • Compel predators to find the help and support they need to stop their activity and turn themselves over to civil authorities.  

 Together we seek to heal the wounded, protect the vulnerable, and prevent further harm. 

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[1] “Mission and Vision,” http://virginiaconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/mission-and-vision.docx, accessed May 31, 2016. [2] http://virginiaconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/160415-FLC-Credentials-Suspension-Procedure_Same-Sex-marriage.docx, accessed May 31, 2016. [3] Full document begins on page 108 here: “Leadership Handbook,” revised September 2015, http://virginiaconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/1509-Handbook-wAppendices.docx, accessed May 31, 2016. [4] Compare the information Duane had access to at https://themennonite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/LindaleMennoniteChurchLetter_March20.pdf and http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/good-intentions-arent-enough/ with Loren Swartzendruber’s email to the campus community on April 20 regarding the information EMU received.[5] http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/good-intentions-arent-enough/  [6] http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/good-intentions-arent-enough/ and verified by many eyewitnesses.