This is part one in what will be a series of posts published over the next few weeks by Kathy Wiens, a sexual violence survivor, and her husband, Tim, who has been her strong ally. Kathy has previously written and published a book that powerfully tells the story of the abuse she survived. But this series of posts 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, is an inspiration in itself. 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. I hope you will follow her story over these next weeks and allow her voice to affect you.

Thank you, Kathy. 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.

 

Speaking truth to power often comes with a price. The damaging effects of childhood sexual abuse are long and far reaching, but the lack of care and support by church communities is also devastating to survivors. Many times, the pain caused by churches walking away from survivors is as painful if not more painful than the abuse experienced as a child.

Although I have been a Mennonite for most of my life I did not start out in this faith tradition. The first ten years of my life I lived with my biological family. My biological mother, stepfather, and brother lived on the margins of society. There was never enough money and rarely enough food. The adults were controlled by chaos and alcohol. As a little girl, I learned quickly how to keep myself safe. This included manipulating situations as best I could to thwart the perverted sexual advances made toward me by many males, including my brother.

There was never a time when sexual abuse or the effects of it were not a part of my life. The first abusive experience I can remember was when I was five and my biological, older brother was twelve, our parents were gone and he molested me. But sex was a part of my life before that.  I did not have my own bedroom until I was nine. I also shared a room with my brother when I was eight and he was fifteen. Our family spent a lot of time at bars, where I witnessed inappropriate adult sexual behaviors by drunken patrons.

When my stepfather died in 1969, I was nine, and the sexual abuse escalated. It became even more dangerous for me as a young female to live in this crazy situation.

My biological mother’s drinking got worse and my brother started drinking as well. Plus, my mother was bringing new unsafe men into our home, and my brother brought his friends home.  My brother’s abuse had been constant molestation as well as lewd comments and stares. Now his friends acted the same way he did, some even worse. I witnessed them gang rape a teenage girl, they forced me to play strip poker with them, and other forms of sexual abuse were perpetrated against me. I lived in constant fear of these perverted young men.  

Then in July 1970, my life changed. At age 10 I was removed from the only family I’d known, and my biological mother was charged with neglect of a minor child and jailed for ten days. This was the worst day of my life and the best day of my life. There are many reasons this was the best day of my life. My current life – marriage, children, extended family, and career are a testament to that. But as a ten-year-old child losing my entire family, no matter what the circumstances, was also the worst day of my life.

When I was removed from that home and placed in foster care I gained a sense of safety and security both from my new family and home church. This is how I came into the Mennonite church and how my faith in God started. My foster/adoptive family and my home church were wonderful healing environments for me as a traumatized and broken young girl. But I was never able to talk about the abuse that occurred in my earlier life. The view of my new parents was that sex was dirty and bad, so talking about it would have made me dirty and bad as well.  This environment was also very male dominated and the man’s authority was the most important. Women and children were to be submissive to the man.  If there ever was any talk of sexual misconduct the woman was usually to blame.

Now I’m in a loving, caring marriage. The healing journey started early in my marriage. My relationship with Tim was safe enough to start looking at the abuse I’d suffered as a child. With the help of good therapists and supportive friends I have achieved a lot of healing and been very open about my journey.  (In December 2013 my childhood memoir was published, Bars, Dumps and Other Childhood Hangouts.) However, childhood trauma is usually a chronic condition and many effects still remain: frequent low-level depression and sadness, angry outbursts at injustice, and feeling I just don’t fit anywhere. Also, being who I think others want me to be has become so much a part of my DNA I’m not sure how to find my true self.  

As with any chronic condition I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I’m completely healed, but I believe I’m where God wants me to be on this journey. Now there is a current situation which is another leg of the journey for me.

When it became public in the newspaper that a fellow church member and friend was arrested for sexual abuse of a child I was surprised by my strong reaction. Because of the healing work I had done, I thought I could handle it. When I first found out about this person’s arrest for aggravated indecent liberties with a minor, I was very shocked and saddened. I had been in a small group with him. He was someone I cared about, admired and trusted. He was like a brother to me. Initially, I supported him and his family. But I also realized there is another half of this picture, the victim. Because of my childhood experiences, I immediately identified with the victim. This caused me to experience a lot of triggering which took me back into my own abuse.  

At first, I tried to ignore these feelings. For a couple of months, I denied them and tried to be “okay” and support this person and his family. But my body was giving me a different message.  One time while at church I felt faint and went inward in my head while feeling the people around me were moving farther away. I realize now I had a dissociative episode which is a coping mechanism of children who are being abused. My body was responding the same way it had when I was abused as a child. And just being around this man I felt like I wanted to “crawl out of my skin.” This is the way I felt around the perverted males in my childhood. Clearly, my body was giving me a message.

Let me say that childhood sexual abuse creates trauma and that trauma doesn’t just get processed in our heads, in our minds; but it also gets stored in our bodies. During this time, I was feeling more depressed and I was starting to have suicidal fantasies. This means I wasn’t actively thinking of killing myself, but sometimes as I drove down the road the emotional pain was so extreme that I thought I could easily end the pain by driving my car into a telephone  pole.

The effects of my childhood abuse have been with me all of my life in varying degrees. Now symptoms were again emerging. When these kind of “flare ups” had emerged in the past, along with going to my counselor, I leaned on my faith in God, and the church body for support. These relationships have always been an important part of working through trauma and abuse issues.  In this current situation, I fully believed my church and my pastor would seek justice for the victim and support me as a survivor. However, the church leadership, including all three pastors and the chair of church board, decided to go down a different path.

In December of 2015, shortly after Tim and I heard about this man’s arrest, the lead pastor of my church initially wanted to make a public statement to the church. She even sought the counsel of the Christian Education Committee (Nurture Commission), the chair of church board, and others in leadership. However, after talking to the defense lawyer for the perpetrator her initial response completely changed. She stated in an email that, “the long and short of it is that he (the defense lawyer) really, really, really does not want us to say anything until the whole process finishes in the court.”       

However, she continued to seek counsel via email with the above group. Many advised her to make a statement sooner rather than later. The chair of church board who was also the former executive director of MC USA, the pastor’s close friend and mentor, and a personal friend to the perpetrator and his wife, stated his primary concern appeared to be what the perpetrator and his wife had to say. He advised being cautious without their approval. The pastor was also committed to getting the approval of the perpetrator and his wife. The rest of us on this email chain didn’t know how to handle the aspect of the perpetrator and his wife. We were all in shock.  These people were our friends. The perpetrator played the organ and taught adult Sunday school classes. The perpetrator’s wife was very involved in children’s ministries and was the chair of the Nurture Commission at the time of her husband’s arrest. So, in a final email from the pastor after talking to the defense lawyer and hearing his recommendation that no public statement be made until after the plea agreement, she came to a decision.  Explaining she had decided not to make an announcement to the congregation at this time, she stated, “A new element has come into the situation and I guess that tipped the balance for me.” However, a year and half later when interviewed by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) who performed an assessment of how the situation was handled, she stated she could not remember what the new element was.

So, we would wait until the perpetrator’s arraignment in February. But the court system does not always keep its set schedule and the February arraignment was pushed back until late March.  As a survivor, my triggering and re-traumatization was increasing.  In February, I went to the pastor for pastoral care due to these symptoms. I told her about the dissociative episode I had, the deepening depression, and the borderline suicidal thoughts. She was very caring and prayed with me. I felt good after that visit and was relieved to think that maybe I would be able to stay in this church. Maybe the leadership would do the right thing in this matter. There was no follow up by the pastor to this visit.  

In late March, the perpetrator had his plea bargain. During these four months, December to March, my husband saw the stress I was experiencing due to this situation. He wanted to go to the pastor and press for action. I asked him not to. I don’t think I was recognizing this on a conscious level, but this was playing out in the same way I had experienced sexual abuse in my childhood. Those with power and control were silencing and shaming me. This time it was not my biological parents in their addiction to alcohol, but the leadership of the church in a warped allegiance to “peace” over seeking justice, and protection of the perpetrator above all else. In my childhood I didn’t believe the adults cared about what was happening to me and so my abusers were protected. Now another abuser was being protected by those with the power and I was being silenced.  

However, my husband, with his wonderful “dog with a bone” personality, could wait no longer. We were now into late March and Tim called the lead pastor. He stated his concern for me: my triggering and lack of support at the church. due to the silencing of the sexual abuse crimes and the protection of the perpetrator. Tim also stated his concerns for child safety in the church.  The lead pastor reactively dismissed his concerns about child safety. Scoffing as if to emphasize the absurdity of his statement, she said, “I would never put children at risk.” She also encouraged Tim to talk to the perpetrator and his wife to get their approval before anything was said to the church.  

As in my childhood, the perpetrator was being protected and even given authority in the matter. Telling my husband to get the perpetrator’s approval clearly sent the message that the perpetrator and his family were the gatekeepers of the truth to the congregation. Also, the pastor’s lack of understanding about child safety was very disturbing. When a perpetrator, a man who is charged with sexual assault of a child, has been in the church for twenty years and when that person has been an integral part of the church family, how could anyone think we should not examine child safety? But this pastor did not believe we needed to question whether child safety has been affected by his presence.  

I finally realized I had to take care of my own needs and could not put the needs of the perpetrator and his wife ahead of mine as a survivor, as it seemed the church was doing. So, I dropped out of my small group, which the perpetrator and his wife were attending. And I tried to find a new group to get support. I called the pastor and stated my need. After discussing my needs for a while over the phone, she stated there was no group for me at our church unless I wanted to start a new group and lead it. This was clearly not what I needed. I called two other women at church asking them about a group and neither had any idea of a group for me.  However, one of these women understood my need for support in this difficult situation and started calling me regularly and getting together for coffee. This was a helpful relationship.  

My search for a group continued and I started calling other churches in the area. I did find a women’s group at a Mennonite church in another town. This group has been a great support and has served as the body of Christ for me during this difficult time. I also started seeing my counselor again. I have been in counseling, on and off, for most of my adult life. This has been very helpful to deal with the abuse of my childhood. However, I never thought I would have to go back to my counselor due to the actions of my church.

In early April, still nothing had been said publicly to the congregation about this situation.  So my husband tried again to get the leaders of the church to be open and honest about the perpetrator’s arrest. My husband emailed the members of the Safe Sanctuaries committee, Caregiving Commission, the three pastors, the leaders of Nurture Commission, and the chair of the church board. There were twelve individuals in church leadership that his email was sent to.

This email clearly expressed his concern for me and other survivors in the church. He stated, “I write as the spouse of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Given this fact, I wanted to tell you that the ongoing secrecy of the church serves as a trigger to Kathy, and maybe to other survivors (and their families) who are also aware of this situation.” 

Only three of the twelve replied back. The chair of Caregiving Commission responded immediately with appreciation and concern. She said she had not heard anymore since the decision was made to honor the perpetrator, his wife, and their lawyer and remain quiet about his case. But her email clearly showed she would not break from the herd and work toward truth telling. The chair of church board had a much different response. He did say Tim’s concerns were valid, but went on to say he would not participate in any discussion of this matter until the lead pastor returned from a trip to Israel. He also stated the perpetrator’s wife was a victim as well. This last statement was a slap in the face to me as a survivor and my advocate husband. It minimized what the actual victim experienced at the hands of this woman’s husband – a woman who was vigorously supporting her husband. This kind of attitude is a slap in the face to all survivors because it minimizes the horror of sexual assault. The chair of the board’s comments felt like another way to say to victims and survivors, “It wasn’t that bad, just get over it.” This kind of attitude often shames and silences survivors. It certainly did me.

The third person, one of the other pastors, responded several days later. He did state that there was an eventual need to share this with the congregation, and the need to care for all affected by this. However, he said he would not proceed until after the lead pastor returned and until after her vote for another three-year term was taken. He stated this was the general consensus. Tim then emailed him back and questioned the “general consensus.” Who made that decision? Clearly, we, a survivor and her advocate, had not been a part of that decision. There was no reply from the pastor to this email. And the other nine listed on this email never responded to the email group to express any concern or support for the victim or survivors.

Later that month, the lead pastor got back from her trip and Tim talked to her. It was now five months since the arrest report came out in the newspaper and still church leadership remained silent on this issue. He told her that if she was unwilling to make a public statement, to simply confirm what had already been made public in the newspaper, then he would do it at the upcoming congregational meeting. This was the meeting when the congregation would vote on another three-year term for her. During this conversation, he also said he did not think the perpetrator’s wife should be allowed to continue working with children in the church or be on the Nurture Commission.  

A few days later, Tim talked to the perpetrator and his wife. He stated his opinion that the wife’s judgement was impaired and that she should not be working with children in the church or be on Nurture Commission. She became very upset and went to another room and the perpetrator continued talking to Tim about the abuse.

Later in April there was a congregational meeting at church. The lead pastor did make a statement about the perpetrator’s arrest. She talked about survivors and said that she “did not understand the complex of reactions to this situation had by people who have themselves been victims of abuse. ”

Also stated in the report was: “I hope that we do not have this kind of situation again. But if we do, I hope that I have learned from this one.” I understand the sentiment of this statement; however, it shows a lack of realistic thinking about sexualized violence in the church. It also tells me that if we are hoping “that we do not have this kind of situation again” we will not be looking for it or be fully alert to the risks and that can put children in danger.  

Tim and I did not know that the lead pastor was going to make this statement at the meeting.  Even though Tim had raised this concern, we were not told she would be making this statement. Tim was advocating for me as a survivor and the lead pastor stated that she wished she had attended to survivors better, and yet she did not tell us something would be said. This felt very disrespectful to me as a survivor and to my advocate.

At the end of the month the congregation received a letter in the mail from the perpetrator and his wife. The letter discussed his case and their need for support from the people in the church, especially for his wife. The lead pastor wrote a cover letter for this letter. Both the perpetrator’s letter and the pastor’s letter were sent together to most people in the church. In her cover letter she stated concerns for survivors, saying: “I am sorry that I did not tend well to these people who are also victims – to some of you who may have been victims of abuse in your past.” This was a good statement and I hoped it was true. But putting a cover letter with the perpetrator’s letter is another level of support for the perpetrator. It was a way of putting her stamp of approval on his communication to the congregation. However, in the GRACE report, Charissa Dvorak stated this about the letter: “ (The perpetrator’s) statement to the congregation substantially understates and even deceives the church about the true nature of his sexual abuse history and the crime for which he was convicted.”

The first Sunday in May, the lead pastor gave a sermon on lament and was finally open with the congregation about the perpetrator’s arrest. In this sermon, the issue of abuse was discussed and I was able to give a part of that sermon.  As part of the sermon I talked about how the current perpetrator’s abuse affected me. I shared about my experience as a survivor and discussed some of the losses due to childhood sexual abuse.

In the next week, I visited with another pastor at the church about having times in upcoming services to remember abuse. We decided to have a moment in the service once a month for the next six months. We would have candles, flowers, and say a prayer for all the different parts of this issue. The first month would be for the victim, then for the perpetrator, and then for his family, and then for survivors, and then for our congregation’s healing. This felt hopeful. Maybe the church would now do what I had hoped would happen in December. At least they had acknowledged the perpetrator’s abuse, and the lead pastor had said she wished she had been more responsive to survivors. This was a start – a minimal start, but a start.  

As part of that start I asked the lead pastor to go on a walk with me. I had asked her to do this as a way to support me as a survivor. We had been friends and going on walks was something we did occasionally. This was more specifically for support. Looking back on it, this was probably not a good idea to mix friendship and pastoral support. However, she had stated twice that she wanted to be more supportive of survivors. On this first walk, the pastor seemed to be “off.”  She seemed distant. I thought she must be having a bad day. Also, I knew this situation had been very stressful for her.

On Sunday, June 5, we had the first prayer of lament. This prayer was for the victim and it was very meaningful for me. I sat in church and cried as the prayer was read. I realized how meaningful it was to have this spoken about openly in church. This increased my hope that we were on the right path. Maybe there was hope that I could remain in this church. But as June continued and turned to July my hope was destroyed.

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.