Over the past six or so years, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada of Mennonite Church Canada has had to deal with accounts of sexual misconduct by former leaders — a process some have compared to how Mennonite Central Committee is confronting its complicity in hiding Nazis who committed crimes against Jews during the Second World War.
“There are interesting parallels happening between those two things right now,” said Carol Penner, associate professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.
And just as some are critical of this exploration of Mennonite complicity during the Holocaust, others don’t want to revisit abuse allegations.
“Just as some are asking what good it can do to dredge up those old stories from 70 years ago, some are also asking why we should be bringing to light old stories of abuse by Mennonite church leaders,” she said.
The answer, for Penner, is simple.
“We owe it to the survivors to be truthful and honest,” she said. “When we harm others, we should be held accountable for that harm. Part of being a peace church means looking at the ways we have been violent and who we have harmed.”
To that end, Penner praises the openness of MCEC to examine decades-old claims of abuse.
“MCEC is pioneering accountability, and that is helping survivors come forward,” she said of the flurry of historical sexual misconduct cases in Ontario involving former leaders like Frank H. Epp, Vernon Leis, Wilmer Martin and John Rempel.
She gives credit to MCEC leaders who have had the courage to “understand the consequences of pastoral misconduct and who have the guts to address it,” despite the “barrage of criticism,” she said.
A turning point for her was when MCEC was willing to do a posthumous investigation of Leis.
“That opened up the possibility of other investigations,” she said. It told survivors of other abusers they would be listened to if they came forward.
While glad to see the work done by MCEC, she wonders if there are other stories where there are large concentrations of Mennonites.
“It’s not like Kitchener-Waterloo is a hot spot for abuse by church leaders,” she said. She would be “astonished” if there aren’t similar historical cases of abuse by pastors and other church leaders in places like Winnipeg, Man., Lancaster, Pa., or Abbotsford, B.C.
As for why stories of abuse remained hidden for so long, she said it was easier for men to be protected in the past. Conference policies were more informal or not as rigorously enforced.
The idea of a power differential was not well understood. Abuse was often framed as an affair between consenting adults.
“But it was often not an affair for the victim,” she said. “It was an abuse of power. We have a clearer understanding of how power can be misused.”
MCEC’s survivor-centered approach is empowering victims to come forward now, she said.
“They are the ones propelling this whole conversation,” she said. When one survivor comes forward, it can encourage other victims of the same abuser to tell their stories, too.
“That’s why it’s so important to go public about abuse,” she said.
MCEC known for taking abuse survivors seriously
Growing up on a farm, Marilyn Rudy-Froese remembers seeing, and smelling, the “honey wagon” — the manure spreader. It wasn’t the most appealing aspect of life on a farm, but she knew it was important if crops were to grow and be healthy.
Today, as Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada church leadership minister, Rudy-Froese sees parallels between driving the honey wagon and dealing with historical cases of sexual misconduct by church leaders.
“Dealing with old abuse cases isn’t an appealing task either,” she said. “But it’s also essential for a healthy church.”
Since starting her role in 2018, she has dealt with three cases of abuse by former church leaders with national reputations — Wilmer Martin, John Rempel and Frank H. Epp — more than any other Mennonite conference in Canada and the U.S. in that time frame.
Why so many? Rudy-Froese credits MCEC leaders and others who came before her for developing policies and procedures that tell survivors MCEC will take their stories seriously.
She gives special praise to David Martin, who retired as MCEC executive minister in 2020, citing his work on the Vernon Leis case in 2015.
“David’s work set the stage,” she said. Despite taking a lot of criticism, “he showed that the conference was willing to listen to victims and then act.”
Along with that, she credits the larger #MeToo movement for helping victims feel freer to share about abuse they had suffered in the past.
While it is unusual to have so many cases in such a short time, she doesn’t think MCEC is unique.
“I’m sure there are victims out there in other places,” she said. “The key is whether they feel safe going to conference leaders in their provinces or states to share their stories.”
Although she feels good about how MCEC has responded, it hasn’t been easy.
“Dealing with those cases came at a cost,” she said. There was lots of criticism from some who felt MCEC should have left those men alone — especially those who were seen as great leaders in the church.
“The problem with putting people on a pedestal is we don’t know how to take them off when it is appropriate to do so,” Rudy-Froese said. She compared the exercise to how hard it has been in Canada to deal with statues of politicians and others who supported policies that harmed Indigenous people.
And yet, it’s imperative to do that when wrong has been done.
“If the church is to have a witness in the world, if it is to have integrity, it needs to speak the truth about those harmful things and hold people to account,” she said.
Though MCEC has had more experience than other conferences in dealing with historical abuse cases, Rudy-Froese resists thinking they have become the experts.
“We are still finding our way,” she said. One of the things they learned after the most recent case was the need for an independent place where survivors could go to tell their stories.
Through an outside counseling agency, MCEC has created an “arms-length” service where survivors can feel safe. Not everyone feels comfortable going to the organization that once employed their abusers.
“It’s hard for victims to tell their stories,” Rudy-Froese said. “It’s retraumatizing. We wanted to create the best environment for them. I think our processes today are as good as they can be, but we always want to do better.”
— John Longhurst