This is part three in a series of posts by Kathy Wiens, a sexual violence survivor, and her husband, Tim, who has been her strong ally. The series focuses on her experience of advocating for people vulnerable to abuse in her Mennonite church home where she struggled to resist retraumatization as the community of faith she trusted prioritized the needs of a perpetrator and his family over the wellbeing of survivors and those vulnerable to abuse in the congregation.

Kathy speaks with truth, pain, and wisdom that many survivors know. Her courage to speak, even as there is mounting pressure to stay quiet and a steep emotional toll exacted for not doing so, is, as I have said previously, an inspiration. We have something to learn from Kathy’s experience, from her determination to protect the vulnerable, and from her knowledge about what it takes for a community of faith to understand sexualized violence, respect survivors, and become a space committed to resisting abuse and holding perpetrators accountable.

If you missed them, you can find part one here and part two here.

Thank you, Kathy. Again today, we are all indebted to you.

Kathy requests that anyone wanting to reach out to her do so through her advocate, Stephanie Krehbiel, at skrehbiel@intoaccount.org. Respectfully, she asks that those wishing to be in touch do not attempt to reach her directly.

By the latter part of 2016, church-wide support for “Sally” (the perpetrator’s wife, not her real name) remained very strong. This seemed to be the main factor paralyzing church processing about sexual violence. The congregation had just (Nov. 13, 2016) unanimously elected Sally to another two-year term on Nurture Commission where she continued her ongoing leadership roles with various children’s programs in the church. This blind churchwide support for Sally mirrored the protective support expressed for her by the lead pastor, and the now former chair of church board. Ironically, I believe that the church’s “protection” of Sally and her husband has also been damaging to them. This is because it denied them what they needed most: full truth and accountability.

In January 2017, one person on the church board asked Tim to provide her with the documents he had uncovered about [the perpetrator’s] history of sexual violence. We were thankful that  church leadership was finally willing to begin investigating the truth even though these leaders had made no effort to dig deeper until now. We met with this church leader at her home and had a basically good discussion. However, the comment again came up about there being “deep wounds on both sides.” (This will be discussed later in this post.) She stated, too, that the perpetrator’s wife was also a victim. I responded that it was certainly a horrible situation for her, but she is not a child victim of this perpetrator’s sexual assault. Again, the attitude continued–that the feelings an adult secondarily experiences as a result of another’s sexual violence are as bad as the sexual violence the child experiences.

Along with this new willingness of church leaders to begin talking about the issues of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), some of our own Sunday school class leaders also expressed willingness to have Tim open discussion about CSA in class. Other than my talk in July and occasional prayers for [the perpetrator], the victim and survivors, the topic had not been spoken of openly in our adult Sunday school class. Besides our small group, our SS class was the church group closest to [the perpetrator] and his wife. As I processed all of this through a survivor’s lens I thought about the mornings [the perpetrator] sat with us in Sunday school or taught our class, but had abused a child the day or week before.

So, initially, the Sunday school teachers in our class were open to Tim leading a series on sexual abuse. I would have been a logical person to do this with Tim, but due to the way this had been handled for months, it did not feel safe for me to be at church. I have only attended church once since the Sunday before Christmas 2016 and I was no longer attending our adult Sunday school class. I would wait and see how the Sunday school teachers and class responded to Tim. That would tell me if it was safe to go back.

The offer for Tim to lead this series on sexual abuse, scheduled to begin the second Sunday in February 2017, was made in November or December of 2016. By mid-January, however, the teachers decided to go in a different direction. They asked another class member to lead a series on prayer. Clearly, prayer was more important to talk about than sexual abuse, which was the elephant in the room. Prayer was obviously a safer topic.

Tim persisted, however, and said that he would say something each Sunday on sexual abuse during the “life-sharing” segment, when any class member can share about their lives. The teachers then allowed him to have 5-7 minutes of class time. But time was not the only restriction he would have. The other major restriction was that everything would be passed by the perpetrator’s wife before it was said in Sunday school. One Sunday school teacher wrote in an email, “In respect to Sally, Tim will not share anything without her prior knowledge.”

The reason for this was to protect Sally. I understand that talking about her husband’s history would be difficult for her, but Tim also wanted to share about child safety, survivors, and how to help survivors feel safe and accepted in church. He was trying to make our Sunday school class, where we had been members for almost 20 years, be a safe place for me. However, it appeared the Sunday school teachers were primarily concerned with protecting the feelings of the perpetrator’s wife.

Tim only shared in Sunday school three times. Once, he was timed to see if he stayed within his allotted time. When he did not, it was clearly noted among the teachers. One email stated “Tim wasn’t able to keep to seven minutes this time, but “Rick” (the teacher leading the series on prayer) adjusted well and brought the class time to a good closure though without time for small groups.” So instead of appreciating the extensive study and work Tim had done on this issue, he was shamed for talking too long.

Now the Sunday school teachers decided they needed to meet between class to further discuss what Tim would say in his 5-7 minutes. There were two three-hour meetings to process what would be said in 5-7 minutes of Sunday school. The primary reason for these meetings is stated in this email:

Plan with Tim regarding his sharing time in class and communication: This Sunday Tim did not share specific information about [the perpetrator’s] abuse. I think it is kinder to the class members, especially [Sally], if they know further ahead of time whether specific information about [the perpetrator’s] abuse will be shared. [Sally] has talked about anxiety multiple times. I would like for her to choose to stay as much as is realistic for her, yet I understand she feels a lot of anxiety leading up to deciding at the last minute whether to stay or not.

The second of these two three-hours meetings was very devastating to Tim. When he came home he reported to me that it felt like the meeting was primarily to criticize him for speaking too long, to complain to him that several class members had threatened to stop coming to class if he was going to speak about sexual abuse, to question Tim’s motives, to tell him repeatedly that he was not the best one to be teaching about this subject, to state that Sunday School was not the right setting to talk about [the perpetrator’s] sexual abuse anyway, that his speaking interfered with the presentations on prayer, had caused “more harm than good,” and that “he must have problems relating to women” (evidently referring to Sally’s feelings, and to the chair of Nurture Commission who had refused to let Tim come and present his concerns about child safety there two months earlier). Being married to Tim for 30+ years I know he has a strong, persistent personality. I’ve never seriously worried about the status of his mental health. But that night he was so defeated that I was very concerned about his emotional health. I remember feeling the need to ask him if he would promise me he wouldn’t harm himself. This meeting was one of the most destructive things that happened in this whole 15-month saga.

Tim, with his “dog with a bone” personality and his justice-seeking spirit is not easily defeated, but this group of Sunday school teachers had defeated him. These people who had been our friends and our spiritual community clearly chose to not honor the extensive work Tim had done to speak for the victim, the safety of children in the church, and for survivors. This group of adults was not really concerned about me as a survivor either. Their primary concern continued to be protecting the feelings of Sally.

Therefore, Tim decided to no longer speak in Sunday school, but he would talk one last time on a Wednesday night to anyone in the class who wanted to come and listen. As before, this information was supposed to be passed by Sally ahead of time. It was stated (via email) that whatever was presented on Wednesday night should be shared with Sally first. It was suggested that perhaps it could be shared early enough that Sally could process it before the meeting, and maybe a couple of women could go and be with Sally as she processed this. However, it was Monday when this email from S.S. leadership was sent out and the meeting was on Wednesday. Tim still had hours and hours of work ahead on his presentation.

Tim’s response to this request was that his schedule was quite busy this week and he would try to get a rough draft ready by Tuesday evening. Tim, in fact, is very busy. He works 60-70 hours a week as a family practice physician.

The response back from the Sunday school teacher who had requested that Tim share the information prior to the meeting said this, “Thanks Tim, Yes, I am sure we all have full schedules, yet this feels very important to me.” This statement, which may seem innocuous, was the last straw for me. After being disrespected, ignored, silenced and shamed by church leadership for more than a year I could no longer hold back my anger. I sent this email to the Sunday school teachers.

I would appreciate the members of this group to not speak in disrespectful ways to Tim. He does have a very full schedule. That schedule has been taxed to the limit because of his passion to “speak truth to power.” NO ONE else at First Mennonite Church has chosen to find out the awful truth about the fact that we had a sexual perpetrator in this church for 20 years. No one else has chosen to speak up for the children that were raped and/or molested by this member of First Mennonite Church.

Tim has been very hurt by the actions of the leadership of this church. He was also very hurt by the unkind comments at the meeting on Wednesday night. If this church is truly a church of peace and reconciliation you will need to recognize the reconciliation that needs to be offered to Tim.

Tim has been a wonderful advocate for victims and survivors for the past year at this church, now it is time for me to speak up as his advocate.

Tim did speak one final time at church on Wednesday March 1, 2017.  There were 19 members from the Life Sharing Sunday school class (approximately half the class) who attended.  Then he was done. He had done all he could do to speak for victims and survivors in this Sunday school class and church. He has not returned to the class.  

As for the wider church leadership, they decided to hire GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments). GRACE is an organization that investigates religious organizations and how they respond to sexual abuse in their institutions. This had been our recommendation and we were thankful for this decision. A member of the GRACE team, Charissa Dvorak, an attorney, performed the assessment of the church. This process started in March of 2017 and the final report was given in late July. The GRACE report was very affirming to Tim and me, and supported a victim/survivor focus as well as keeping child safety as the top priority.  (see a link to the GRACE report at the end of this blog post.)  

Many in church leadership are trying to follow the recommendations made by the report and take this issue seriously. There are new policies being written to address sexual abuse. These are good efforts, but policies are like roadmaps. They lead us in a direction based on a path that has already been explored. A cultural change is needed to prevent, or at least reduce, sexual abuse.  A moral compass is needed to guide people when new and different situations come up. Without a moral compass shaped by knowledge about sexual abuse and solidarity with survivors, creating change in the culture and achieving long term results are unlikely.

The church’s leadership has never publicly acknowledged the very important role that Tim played in this. In fact, the Sunday after the GRACE report was given to the church, the youth pastor gave a sermon. (I listened to it online.) It was a good and compassionate sermon about what the church had experienced due to the sexual crimes of [the perpetrator] and the importance of the GRACE report. However, one statement this pastor made was completely false. He stated that no one has been there to speak for the survivors. The truth is that Tim Wiens had been speaking for the victim and survivors since January of 2016, but for most of those months, church leadership had refused to take him seriously.

There have been church leaders and others in our Sunday school class who have privately reached out to us. In these conversations, I always mention the fact that it is only because of Tim’s efforts, which came at great cost to both of us, that the church is processing this at all.  Many of those that have reached out to us agree that Tim is the reason this was brought to light,  but this has never been stated publicly. However, some church leaders respond with there being “deep wounds on both sides.” When I ask them what they mean there is no clear answer, “Oh, it’s just things I’ve heard” is a common response. One board member said others on the church board were saying how mean and rude Tim was to the lead pastor. But when pressed for specifics he had none. Again, it was just “things he had heard.”  

I view these statements as a deflection to protect the lead pastor of this church. Rather than keep her accountable for her horrific mistakes and the fall out on Tim and me for the way this was handled, leadership is protecting her. They are trying to deflect blame onto Tim and make him the scapegoat.

What have been the costs, the fall out, for Tim and me? We no longer attend church – not just this church, but any church. The loss of a church community cuts deeper than almost any loss I have experienced either in my childhood or adult life. My faith in God and connection to the body of Christ has been my most stable life anchor. Now, half of that is gone.  

We have experienced a spiritual earthquake with multiple aftershocks that continue coming.  We don’t know where we will land. But how can I let go of something that has been a primary piece of my identity most of my life? The Mennonite church saved me as an abused and broken 11-year-old girl. I love the Mennonite church and desperately want to stay a part of it. But I also know I will not stop speaking for those on the margins, especially children and survivors of sexual violence. I will no longer be content with the status quo and “make nice” so I can “fit in.”  

I so want to believe that I can be a Mennonite and also speak out for those on the margins.  This is what I have always believed being a Mennonite was about. But witnessing firsthand how Tim was treated when he spoke out against injustice I’m not sure anymore what it means to be Mennonite. Is it safe to speak for those who have been devalued and pushed to the margins by the church?

And the wider Mennonite church does not have a good track record in caring for survivors of sexual violence. Just like the leadership of this church, the wider MC USA also chose to protect John Howard Yoder, Luke Hartman, Duane Yoder and many more that we do not know about because churches protect them from public accountability.

Sadly, I am not alone in wondering if I will be able to stay in the Mennonite Church. I know there are other survivors also facing this same challenge. So, perhaps this is the ultimate question: Is there a safe, supportive place for victims of sexual violence in the Mennonite church and in Mennonite institutions?

*****

P.S.  I am very grateful to Our Stories Untold for providing a safe place for all survivors to tell their stories. I’m also grateful to Stephanie Krehbiel of Into Account for her support and advocacy to us as we’ve worked through these issues with our church. I’m thankful to Barbra Graber who has also been a great support person for us.

GRACE executive summary report prepared for First Mennonite Church Newton, Kansas

Kathy requests that anyone wanting to reach out to her do so through her advocate, Stephanie Krehbiel, at skrehbiel@intoaccount.org. Respectfully, she asks that those wishing to be in touch do not attempt to reach her directly.