New group is forming to address sexual abuse within Mennonite Church USA
By Jenny Castro
(Mennonite Church USA) — The Discernment Group on sexual abuse and the church, a committee formed in 2013 to address the painful and complex legacy of sexual abuse by renowned theologian and professor John Howard Yoder and the church’s inadequate responses to that abuse, met for the last time on Monday, Oct. 5.
“It has been humbling and deeply gratifying to work with a team of persons committed to discernment and truth-telling on behalf of victims of sexual abuse,” said Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) and co-convener of the Discernment Group (DG). “I know of no other time I’ve so strongly sensed the Spirit’s provision for each new step on a journey toward transparency, confession, apology and healing.”
Over the last two years, the group’s work has included:
- creating a webpage on the Mennonite Church USA website containing links to frequently asked questions regarding the work of the DG, news updates on the work of the DG, and a list of resources on sexual abuse.
- commissioning Dr. Rachel Waltner Goossen to conduct research that accurately documented the scope of John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse and the church’s response to it; the results were published in Mennonite Quarterly Review in January 2015.
- writing the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse, passed by the delegate body in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 3, 2015.
- creating the Care and Prevention fund in March 2015.
- organizing a Service of Lament and Hope and the Wailing Wall at Mennonite Church USA’s biennial convention in Kansas City in July 2015.
In the group’s penultimate meeting in September, members discussed the disbursement of the Care and Prevention fund. Since March 2015, the Discernment Group has been accepting contributions to this fund, whose purpose, according to Mennonite Church USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman, was threefold: “to recompense, at least in some small measure, the material costs that persons victimized by Yoder or another credentialed leader of Mennonite Church USA undertook on their road to healing; to provide tangible care for persons who have experienced sexual abuse; and to assist in prevention of sexual abuse.”
“The Care and Prevention Fund received nearly $61,000 in contributions,” said Stutzman. Of this amount, approximately $42,000 will go to victims of sexual abuse, and the remaining $19,000 will be divided among:
- Sister Care, a ministry of Mennonite Women USA that provides tangible healing and care for women who have experienced loss or sexual abuse, both in the U.S. and beyond;
- the Women in Leadership Project of Mennonite Church USA, which seeks to undo the systems/patterns within the church that devalue or silence women (including abuse victims);
- Dove’s Nest, a church organization that works with ecumenical faith communities to keep children and youth safe from abuse.
The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (EB) recognized the Discernment Group members and passed a motion thanking them for their work at the board’s Sept. 17-19 meetings.
“While the work of helping all members find healing for experiences of sexual abuse is an ongoing ministry for the whole church, we commend the committee for courageously documenting this painful chapter of the church’s recent history, taking seriously the devastating pain of those victimized by John Howard Yoder, and leading the church to adopt practices that will contribute to the safety of our members from all manner of sexual abuse,” the EB statement said.
At its September meetings, the EB decided that, together with Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), it would appoint a new group to carry forward the work of education and prevention of sexual abuse across Mennonite Church USA and its institutions. The Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse will be the basis for this new group’s work.
“The statement itself, of course, will not be sufficient,” said Stutzman, “We must invest both time and money into the effort to put our commitments into action.”
This new group will be tasked with working to monitor the progress of Mennonite Church USA institutions and agencies based on the commitments of the churchwide statement, as well as with informing and empowering congregations and church institutions to work more intentionally at preventing sexual abuse.