Tim Wiens, husband of survivor and Our Stories Untold contributor, Kathy Wiens, writes here about institutional betrayal in response to sexualized violence in the church.

We recently published three posts by Kathy Weins that you can find herehere, and here. She spoke of the betrayal and retraumatization she experienced when her church prioritized the needs of a perpetrator and his family over its responsibility to protect the congregation’s children and listen to survivors. Last week, Tim, shared what it has been like for him to experience this betrayal alongside Kathy and for him to learn to respect her all the more deeply through the process.

Now, Tim connects the betrayal he and Kathy have described to specific actions of their church and its leadership.This post offers a window not only into Tim and Kathy’s unique experience, but also into dynamics that make for religious institutional betrayal all across the church for survivors and the people who love them.

Tim and Kathy encourage anyone wanting to reach out to them to do so through their advocate, Stephanie Krehbiel, at skrehbiel@intoaccount.org.

In my previous blog post: When the Church Walks Away:  Learning to Stand With the Survivors We Love, I documented much of what I have personally learned from Kathy. This post is now to speak out about our experience of institutional betrayal. In addition to reading our five posts, I hope that you will read the entire G.R.A.C.E. Executive Summary and FMC Recommendations, which come out of an expert, fair, and impartial assessment of these events. They are a gift to MC USA. I wish that every SS teacher, lay church leader, pastor, and church institution executive would learn from our mistakes at FMC, rather than continue this same pattern of institutional betrayal of children, victims and survivors over and over again.

In mid-December 2015, lead Pastor Kehr initiated a ten-day flurry of email communications with the other two pastors, members of Nurture Commission, Safe Sanctuary (child safety) Committee, and with the chairman of the church board (and former Executive Director of MC USA), James Schrag–about whether or not to publicly acknowledge Combs’ arrest to the rest of the congregation. Kathy’s Part One blog post, as well as the GRACE Executive Summary, both describe this part of the story. I want to emphasize here the significance of two themes that emerge at this point:

  1. The “focus on protecting the Combs couple,” as opposed to a focus on child safety and survivor respect (child safety and survivor respect being two sides of the same coin).
  2. “Dysfunctional FMC culture” that ultimately led to the turning of pastoral betrayal into institutional betrayal. I’ll say more about this below.

The “focus on protecting the Combs couple” can be seen throughout this flurry of emails, and extends concerned support for the perpetrator himself because he is repeatedly linked (19 times, in fact) to his wife’s name throughout multiple emails. Pastor Kehr, for example, begins her initial email (12/9/15) protectively with: “First of all, I ask you to hold this email in confidentiality and not to forward it to anyone else…. “Sally” [wife’s pseudonym] and Michael will also give feedback….” Likewise, Schrag later (12/12/15) wrote: “The piece I’m missing here in this discussion [about announcing Comb’s arrest publicly to the congregation] is what do Michael and Sally say about this? Do they support an announcement and have they read the announcement that is proposed to be read? If they don’t support it then I would say we should be very cautious about doing this and should find another way….” A short time later, one Nurture Commission member emailed back to the group: “I concur with Jim as well…. So I guess my gut instinct is that there would be less unhelpful talk if we went ahead as planned with the newly revised statement [congregational announcement]. At the same time, this affects Michael and Sally the most….” With her last email (12/18/15) to this group, Pastor Kehr summarized her final reasoning for not making a public statement to the congregation thus: “I do not want to cause more pain in an already incredibly-painful situation.” One hour later, a member of Nurture Commission stated her acceptance of this theme also: “I think we all want to do what is most helpful for Sally and Michael, so abiding with their legal counsel seems to be the thing to do.”  

The second theme is the critical role that “dysfunctional FMC culture” played in amplifying the toxic effects of the lead pastor’s decisions and priorities in protecting the Combs couple. Later, these same cultural attitudes would extend similarly defensive protection to Pastor Kehr as well. Many dysfunctional attitudes are illustrated in this series of emails and it is revealing to read through this “ten-day flurry” in their entirety. Some of these are documented in the GRACE Report (footnotes 20-30, on pages 7-9). There is enough there to write a book about it. Instead, I will make three simple observations that stand out almost immediately:

  1. Everyone who responded to this email group of church leaders expressed clear support for publicly acknowledging Combs’ arrest to the congregation, as long as that view was favored by Pastor Kehr and the church board chair, James Schrag.
  2. Once Pastor Kehr made her final decision to not make a public statement to the congregation, however, (GRACE Report, footnotes 29 and 30) EVERYONE quickly concurred, deferring to the lead pastor’s final decision.
  3. Further thinking about this issue seems to have been almost immediately suspended, and in fact, diverted back to Pastor Kehr’s clearly stated priority, which was protecting the Combs couple from further pain. For example, within 20 minutes of Schrag’s email of support for Pastor Kehr’s final decision, a member of Nurture Commission emailed the group about her desire to be helpful for Mike and Sally, and then adds (see GRACE Report, footnote 30): “I find myself praying for them and those involved and wishing there was more I could do. At our December Nurture Commission meeting, Sally asked for adults to help with the Wednesday night children’s program rehearsals. Does anyone know if this is still the case?” Two additional church leaders soon responded back to this deflection about what Sally needed, thereby signaling that the topic of concern was now about being helpful for Sally and that the former discussion had ended. Period.  

Much of trauma that I describe below is the resulting impact of these two major themes and their resonance in the congregation. Restated with different words, these themes are: 1) Protect the Combs couple; and 2) Trust, obey, and protect the Pastor. The GRACE REPORT ASSESSMENT, found on pages 11-22, describes the consequences and folly of FMC living out these themes for–now two years.

By early 2016, I began to see that the church’s official silence about Michael was having an increasingly traumatic effect on Kathy. She seemed sad. Nightmares, in which someone was after her–which have plagued her off and on throughout adult life—started up again more frequently, causing her to cry out in terror during the middle of the night. She experienced extended distraction from her daily work, which included writing her second book, and preparing for her National Counselors Exam. These traumatic stress reactions occurred initially as a direct result of comprehending the reality of Combs’ sexual violence against children. Early on, however, Kathy experienced additional layers of retraumatization because of the protective enmeshment of church leadership, which had encircled Combs and his wife. Kathy worried frequently about the wellbeing of children in our congregation, talking with me frequently about child safety concerns, and about how a culture of silence emboldened other potential perpetrators. She and I dropped out of our small group, which Combs and his wife were still a part of. We could no longer offer the Combs couple affirming, uncritical support.

At the end of January 2016, I began to speak out about the needs of survivors of sexual abuse to our adult SS class, in the form of a prayer request. By February 2016, Kathy disclosed to me the full severity of her retraumatization symptoms. By late March 2016, my understanding and perspective had turned the corner completely and “the switch went on.” I no longer had any delusion of Kathy being “over-reactive” as a result of her childhood trauma. The church’s wrong priorities and actions had become a justice issue for me. It was clear to me that the church was on a road that rapidly diverged from us: children and survivors were being sidelined in favor of a sexual perpetrator. From this point on, things changed: I finally “got it.” Now the journey had become ours together—Kathy’s and mine.

FMC walked away from us in so many ways over these past two years. The individual injuries have been too many to be listed here, other than by way of example or generalization. I recently counted over fifty people at church that I poured my heart and soul out to–through one-on-one conversations, phone calls, emails, SS class sharing and roundtable discussions–about making the church a safer place for sexual abuse survivors as well as for children. The majority of these discussions ended with a painful sense of incomprehension or rejection, in one form or another. Several months ago, I asked Kathy which of her injuries from this “earthquake” in our lives was the most significant: the direct effects of realizing that our close and trusted friend, Michael Combs, had sexually violated multiple women and children for decades; or the secondary effects of the subsequent “Menno-trauma,” or betrayal trauma, we both experienced. She told me that the greatest majority of her pain came from how the church (pastors, leaders, SS class, and others) acted: prioritizing Combs and his wife over child safety concerns, neglecting survivors, and in blaming us for causing the “deep wounds” of Pastor Kehr or other church leaders because we were the whistleblowers.

Looking back over these past two years of institutional trauma, I see it beginning with the lead pastor’s initial decision, and later ongoing decisions, to prioritize protecting the Combs couple. It began on November 19, 2015, when Pastor Kehr was notified by a Newton police officer about Combs’ arrest, but then decided to keep this information from the congregation, apart from telling the other two pastors. This was the initial violation of the church’s Safe Sanctuary Policy, which stated, regarding a situation of alleged child abuse: “The congregation shall be informed of the investigation with respect to matters that are not confidential, so that the congregation will hear about the investigation from within the church rather than from the news media.” The purpose and benefits of adhering to this statement seem obvious to me. I want to be very clear on this point:  the violation of the FMC Safe Sanctuary policy by all three pastors, in withholding information about Combs’ arrest from the congregation for more than five months, was highly significant in multiple ways, and it increased safety risks for children. The GRACE report also explains the child safety consequences of the lead pastor’s decisions in some detail. Linked here is a highlighted copy of the GRACE Executive Summary, in which I have noted some of the most obvious child safety and survivor impact concerns.

Kathy has already documented how she felt neglected and finally blamed by the lead pastor, for having caused Combs’ wife pain when she spoke about childhood sexual abuse to our SS class (7/10/16). It was also particularly disturbing for me to witness Pastor Kehr’s lack of professional boundaries when she triangulated herself, as a rescuer for Combs’ wife, into her pastoral support luncheon with Kathy, a survivor, five days later (see Kathy’s Part Two).

These pastoral leadership actions did not take place in a vacuum, either. They had a significant impact on how the rest of the church behaved as well. Dysfunctional thinking by Nurture Commission and Caregiving/Membership Commission is well documented in the GRACE report. On both of these Commissions, Pastor Kehr was, and is, the pastoral staff representative. Sally maintained all of her church leadership roles with the blessing and support of both the lead pastor, as well as the chairman of the church board, James Schrag, who was a close friend of the Combs couple. This furthered the narrative that the church must protect Sally and that she should be considered the innocent victim of the whole situation. This dual support from the two top leaders of the church made it all the more difficult for many in the church to think clearly about Sally’s conflicts of interest, or to process the concern which needed to be expressed for Combs’ victims, and other survivors. It was virtually impossible to publicly discuss Combs’ sexual violence against children, or to hold either Combs or his wife accountable, in any church setting. Herein lies the problem when dysfunctional pastoral actions are coupled with a conflict-avoidant culture: the final decision of the lead pastor becomes a line in the sand that cannot be crossed or disputed without major consequences.

Even recently, these same dynamics continued to play themselves out at FMC. For example, immediately after the presentation of the full GRACE report and Recommendations to the congregation on July 25, 2017, former church board chair, James Schrag, delivered a prepared statement to the congregation. He described his close friendship and ongoing support for Michael and his wife and implored the congregation to see how God was using, and will continue to use, Michael Combs in mission to others. My recollection of his main point was: “Just like God, in the Old Testament, used Moses–a former murderer–in powerful ways for good, God was using Michael Combs in ministry as well.” Forgive and forget, in other words.

Since September-October 2016, Kathy has felt utterly abandoned by the lead pastor. This incredibly painful feeling is quite difficult to explain to a church which loves its pastor, and which had joined Pastor Kehr and the chair of church board in strong, protective support for Combs’ wife. At the annual congregation meeting of 11/13/16, for example, the congregation unanimously elected Sally to another two-year term on Nurture Commission, thereby affirming her leadership role in multiple children’s activities at church. Kathy no longer felt safe in church since the fall of 2016.

Therefore, in the fall of 2016, I began making preparations for one “last ditch effort” at promoting cultural change in our SS class, so that Kathy and I could both find the support we needed. I started speaking with two of our class teachers about my leading a SS series on sexual abuse, intending it to take place by early 2017. The series would include information about sexual violence in general, how it impacts child safety, victims and survivors, as well as specific information that I had discovered about Combs’ past history as a perpetrator. Originally, this plan was viewed favorably by the teachers I spoke with, but by mid-January 2017, they had changed their minds. Since Combs’ wife remained a devoted supporter of Michael and was an important member of the class, I believe that she clearly represented “the elephant in the room.” Sexual violence in general, and Combs’ history, in particular, were therefore largely unacceptable topics.

In February of 2017, I persisted against the wishes of these SS class teachers and insisted that I had the right to share something about Kathy’s and my life, just like anyone else in the class. I agreed to try to limit my sharing to 5-7 minutes each week, in order to make my insistence more palatable. Admittedly, this 5 to 7-minute time frame was impossible for me to adhere to. Likewise, the task was incredibly difficult, because, by early 2017, Kathy and I had already “walked so far on our journey together” in understanding the impact of sexual violence, that it felt as though others in the SS class really had no idea what “continent” we were on. I tried my best to explain some of the main characteristics of “the continent” that Kathy and I were on, or had journeyed to, as follows:

  1. Child safety and wellbeing is the foundational priority that exceeds all other priorities, including adult feelings and embarrassment.
  2. “Let Survivors Lead” (with credits to and respect for Lauren Shifflett)—means being victim/survivor-centered in our journey.
  3. “Crisis” is how Kathy and I felt while experiencing the church walking away from us. A crisis occurs for the victim when she is abused. “Crisis” also describes the retraumatization many survivors feel when they are minimized or silenced. “Crisis” should describe the urgency and priority given to dealing with trauma, by the SS class whose teacher has raped a child.
  4. Ending the silence about sexual violence: accountability, or truth-telling and honest processing, is the only way forward. It represents one initial cultural change in the right direction.

My “life-sharing” began in our SS class on February 12, 2017. That first Sunday, I introduced the concept of our “continent,” the distance between the class and Kathy and me, and handed out educational information about sexual violence, including Combs’ original arrest charges. The next Sunday, I explained about our “continent” further, and read a brief article that Kathy and I had written together, entitled Soul Surfer or Soul Murder. This was accompanied by a photo of Bethany Hamilton’s book cover, Soul Surfer set in contrast to an empty oval, representing the anonymous faces of most of the survivors in our church.

I thought that I had prepared myself with enough educational material and had the endurance to make these brief weekly SS presentations for an extended period of time. For Kathy’s sake, I certainly had the motivation. What I didn’t have was the ability to withstand the emotional and social trauma I subsequently experienced. In Part III, Kathy documented some of what went down during the three-hour mid-week meetings that followed each of the first two Sundays of my “life-sharing” in February. In these meetings I was simply unprepared for the pushback, personal criticisms, and accusations of “causing more harm than good.” Two of these SS class leaders also relayed second-hand reports of several class members who had threatened to leave the class if I continued to talk about sexual abuse.

The third Sunday (2/26/17) basically consisted of my brief goodbye to the class, as well as an invitation to attend a Wednesday evening session where I subsequently reported my findings about Combs’ long history of sexual violence, the obvious child safety concerns, and the resistance of church leadership toward bringing all of this to light. This session took place on 3/1/17 and was basically my own miniature version of what is now the GRACE Executive Summary and FMC Recommendations.

These recent events with our SS class, on top of the entire previous year of struggle with FMC leadership, created an ongoing sense of betrayal and grief for me. As a result, I experienced:

  • Feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, distressing dreams, sadness, tears, loneliness, anger, suspicion about Mennonite theology, the loss of almost all friendships, loss of trust in churches, and the loss of trust in pastors. I, a “cradle Mennonite” and formerly active FMC member, no longer attend church anywhere.
  • On the positive side, I developed far greater respect for my wife, more empathy with my family medicine patients who have been marginalized, more awareness of and loathing for the male privilege I grew up with, more motivation to help patients get what they truly need, more commitment toward ending sexualized violence, more awareness of safety issues for women and children, and more respect/love for diversity—especially minorities. I have a long way to go, but at least I am on the way.  

To summarize:  The lead pastor’s choice to prioritize the needs of the Combs couple set the example for the rest of the church to do likewise, thereby creating additional child safety concerns. Furthermore, Pastor Kehr’s actions of neglect, then progressive abandonment, unprofessionalism and blame led Kathy to experience a cascade of retraumatization. She experienced institutional betrayal as an expanding ripple effect from the dysfunctional actions, and inactions of all three FMC pastors, Nurture Commission, Caregiving/Membership Commission, church board, Life Sharing SS class, and other individuals. As her primary advocate, I experienced similar consequences from my interactions with our SS class and dozens of church leaders over these past nearly two years. This has further traumatized Kathy. Kathy’s life has now, perversely, come full circle. In her childhood, she experienced neglect, abuse, and abandonment. She was taken to a children’s home and then placed in foster/adoptive care until adulthood. While in foster/adoptive care, she found identity, belonging, and a new family in Bellwood Mennonite Church, of Milford, Nebraska (see Part One). Ironically, FMC has now abandoned this daughter of God again, through no fault of her own. Because of Kathy, I can now clearly understand that FMC’s loss of this daughter of God is far more significant than they can imagine. Because of Kathy, “my story”–as an advocate and “whistleblower”– and “Kathy’s story”–as a survivor– is more than a collective sum of stories. Instead it is “Our Story – told.”

Timothy B. Wiens
I want to express my deep respect for, and many thanks to our primary advocate since February 2017: Stephanie Krehbiel (intoaccount.org). Thanks also to Barbra Graber for her wonderful support during our time at the Orlando Mennonite Convention this past July. Thanks to every writer on OSU, and especially to Hilary Scarsella for her blog post, “We Are the Answer We’ve Been Waiting For” (OSU, 2/22/17), which came at just the time I needed it the most. Thanks also to Ruth Krall for her “Elephants” series—a free download on ruthkrall.com. Her writings have inspired me daily for months, and are a true gift for the Mennonite Church.

Tim and Kathy encourage anyone wanting to reach out to them to do so through their advocate, Stephanie Krehbiel, at skrehbiel@intoaccount.org.