This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Mennonite Church USA releases report, makes recommendations in sexual abuse case

On Jan. 14, Mennonite Church USA staff released the full report, findings and recommendations of an external review meant to explore the handling of reports of abuse by Virginia Mennonite Conference and Lindale Mennonite Church, Linville, Virginia.

According to the report and MC USA’s findings, Duane Yoder, Lindale’s lead pastor, withheld information about reports of abuse from Eastern Mennonite University staff and misrepresented information to Lindale staff and lay leaders “in ways that resulted in protection of [Luke] Hartman [former vice president for enrollment at EMU] rather than support for [survivor Lauren] Shifflett.” According to Lindale elders, Yoder has been placed on “a structured leave of absence.”

In a March 20 letter to congregants, the staff and board of elders of Lindale Mennonite Church, Linville, Va., confirmed that staff had been aware of reports of an abusive relationship with Hartman, a member of the congregation, since August 2014. On April 12, Shifflett posted an account on the website Our Stories Untold detailing reports of an abusive relationship with Hartman. Shifflett declined to be interviewed for this review, as did her advocates and her sister, Marissa Buck, who also wrote publicly about Shifflett’s experience, citing concerns about the selection process for the investigative firm. Shifflett offered her two blogs on Our Stories Untold as her official statements. Statements from Shifflett were treated as credible during the review.

The review by consulting firm D. Stafford and Associates (DSA) grew out of a May 13 recommendation from the MC USA Panel on Sexual Abuse prevention that EMU, VMC and Lindale undertake an investigation into how reports of abuse were handled. Prior to this recommendation, EMU’s Board had already “determined an external review was needed of EMU’s Title IX /Clery Act policies as well as an administrative review on the allegations related to Luke Hartman,” according to Kay Nussbaum, EMU board chair. The EMU board adjusted their timeline to align their process with MC USA’s.

According to the MC USA report, on August 29, 2014, Shifflett met with Lindale Associate Pastor Dawn Monger to share her story and described behaviors by Hartman that “made her frightened for her safety.” With Shifflett’s permission, Monger shared the full account with Yoder. Lindale also provided funds for ongoing counseling for Shifflett. Yoder approached Hartman and accompanied him to talk with Hartman’s wife. The church also implemented six “church discipline” steps for Hartman, including abstaining from public speaking engagements, having no contact with Shifflett, attending counseling immediately, participating in a church accountability group, telling EMU “why you can’t speak,” and meeting with Yoder, Pastor Dawn Monger, another church member and Shifflett’s parents.

Hartman and Yoder met with then EMU President Loren Swartzendruber on Sept. 2, 2014. The two men described “a consensual affair with a 19- to 20-year-old woman” from the congregation, leaving out Shifflett’s accounts of threatening behavior and stalking. The Nov. 28 EMU report stated that EMU had no information that would have been grounds for dismissal for Hartman. According to the EMU report, Hartman and Yoder also shared this same information with EMU’s cabinet.

According to the MC USA findings, “When asked by Pastor Monger, Pastor Yoder was not truthful regarding what he had reported to the leadership at EMU.” In addition, Shifflett had requested that email correspondence between her and Hartman be deleted, and Lindale leadership affirmed this request. However, despite implying their deletion, DSA found that Yoder kept emails of a sexual nature forwarded from Hartman.

Yoder did not report information about Hartman, who is not credentialed by MC USA, to Virginia Mennonite Conference leaders, and VMC’s current policy stipulates that all communication to conference leaders must pass through a congregation’s lead pastor. MC USA’s findings also acknowledged that some of the language in Lindale church documents including “victim-blaming language.”

MC USA’s staff acknowledged “the ways we have made mistakes while walking this difficult path over the last year. We are especially sorry that we failed to find better ways to hear the voices of so many who have been hurt and disappointed by this process.” They also noted that the Lindale congregation did not receive adequate support from the denomination and praised the congregation as a whole for their attempts to support Shifflett and their “desire to stand on the side of truth and justice even when it is uncomfortable and isolating.”

Yoder did not respond to requests for comment.

Recommendations and policy changes

 The MC USA press release included recommendations from MC USA for Lindale Mennonite Church and Virginia Mennonite Conference.  

 The release recommends that Lindale review its personnel policies and procedures, ministerial misconduct agreements and employee policies in order to determine whether or not senior staff violated church policies. MC USA staff call on Lindale’s elders to respond within the next 90 days if policies were violated.

MC USA also calls on Lindale to work with the FaithTrust Institute, one of the organizations originally recommended to conduct this investigation, in order to review congregational personnel policies, to review “boundary violations” between Yoder and others, and to work with the congregation to set up practices for supporting and responding to survivors of abuse.

In a Jan. 19 statement, Gloria Lehman, chair of Lindale’s elders, wrote that the church “takes seriously” the DSA report and will review policies and practices based on its findings. “We lament the deep trauma, hurt and anger that so many have experienced. We lament the impact, tension and loss of significant relationships–with God, with one another, and within the broader church,” she wrote. Lehman notes that the congregation is committed to “following best practices in keeping with conference and denominational ministerial policies and practices” and invited “the larger church community to pray for our congregation and leadership during this challenging journey.” Read the full statement from Lindale Mennonite Church elders. 

MC USA staff also called on VMC leaders to work with the FaithTrust Institute to assess whether or not Yoder’s actions violated the understandings of pastoral misconduct laid out in A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership, MC USA’s polity handbook, and to review whether VMC’s policies are in line with MC USA’s. They also call on VMC to address its policies on communications and reporting to give all ministerial staff direct access to conference leaders. In addition, MC USA staff recommend the development of a misconduct policy for lay leaders within the conference, as well as providing training on ethics and boundaries for conference lay leaders. On June 22, seven current and former members of VMC, including Shifflett and Buck, submitted a formal complaint to VMC regarding Duane Yoder’s response to allegations against Hartman. At that time, Patsy Seitz, chair of VMC’s Faith and Life Commission that administers its policies on ministerial misconduct, said that the DSA investigation would serve as the conference’s formal investigation into the complaint.

In a Jan. 19 statement to The Mennonite, Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz wrote, “We acknowledge the pain experienced by those involved, and we apologize for instances where we missed opportunities to provide more support through this process.” Kratz said that VMC leaders will be working on strategies to address each of MC USA’s recommendations and that he will provide a written report of their planned next steps to Terry Shue, MC USA director of leadership development. They do plan to consult with FaithTrust Institute. At press time, no timeline was specified for this process.

MC USA staff committed itself to walking alongside VMC leaders, as well as providing in May 2017 a national training on healthy boundaries to equip MC USA leaders to train others. FaithTrust will lead the training. In addition, MC USA staff is committed to providing regular boundary training for credentialed leaders and preparing a document of learnings from this situation to share with the church.

MC USA staff members hope that making these recommendations public will lend accountability to all involved. They also acknowledge that MC USA polity emphasizes the role of area conferences and congregations.

“The reality is that the denomination has no oversight or administrative ability with a congregation,” said Iris de Leon Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for MC USA, on Jan. 18. “It’s whatever influence the denomination has and whatever influence even the community around them will have.”

MC USA is also instituting a new policy for the handling of ministerial misconduct files, administrative records of pastors who have been “formally accused and processed” by the denomination’s Ministerial Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure. According to the new guidelines for handling these files, the purpose of these files is to prevent further abuse. The guidelines note that, in the event that a pastor with a misconduct file applies for a ministry position, conference ministers will be informed about the file and its contents, and the conference minister will alert any interested search committee, in writing, about the minister’s misconduct.

Names and information from these files are not released to the public, including church press. According to the guidelines, those who may access the files are MC USA denominational ministers, the conference minister or conference credentialing committee, and authorities conducting a formal investigation. The complainant or accused minister can request correspondence addressed to or authored by themselves. The new guidelines were reviewed by the FaithTrust Institute.

A rocky process

 On Aug. 3, the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevent withdrew from the investigation, citing concerns about the institutions’ failure to adequately involve Shifflett in the selection of an investigative firm. In addition, due to disagreements over how findings would be released, Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board staff, along with Lindale Mennonite Church and Virginia Mennonite Conference, entered into a separate contract from EMU for an investigation with DSA. On Nov. 28, 2016, EMU released a summary report to the public, written by the EMU board and reviewed by DSA.

In September 2016, MC USA staff committed itself to release the full DSA report to the public without any changes. On Nov. 26, 2016, MC USA Staff representatives received a 28-page report from DSA, which they shared with Lindale, VMC, Hartman and Shifflett. According to MC USA staff, the original report included factual errors, and DSA “made clear” that they did not intend the document to be a public report.

DSA later produced a four-page summary, which MC USA staff found inadequate.

EB Staff received the final report on Jan. 13 and “believe that it clearly communicates DSA’s findings and recommendations and reflects the legal, moral and ethical concerns of the original 28-page report.”

“The DSA report has not been edited, altered or redacted by Mennonite Church USA EB staff or by Lindale or VMC, the two entities being investigated by the report,” said Ervin Stutzman, MC USA executive director on Jan. 14.

Members of the Anabaptist chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), including Barbra Graber, who served as Shifflett’s advocate, have raised concerns about the reports and ongoing denominational efforts to address sexual abuse.

Graber noted that she has not had time to read the most recent DSA report because of needing to respond to reports of abuse coming in from across the Mennonite church. Graber notes that in each of these cases, SNAP is walking alongside survivors and working with local law enforcement but that “the overall evidence of lack of political will and moral courage on the part of supposedly well-intentioned church people continues to sadden and discourage.”

According to Hilary Scarsella, SNAP member and director of Our Stories Untold, a network dedicated to supporting survivors of abuse in Mennonite contexts, “the process of working with DSA confirmed our original opinion that DSA would not adequately prioritize the interests of the harmed party.”

Scarsella was grateful for MC USA’s apology and acknowledgement of missteps in the process and affirmed the move to partner with the FaithTrust Institute moving forward.

“When those who have done harm acknowledge their wrongdoing and apologize, survivors’ reality is confirmed as actual reality and honored. We need more of this,” Scarsella wrote.

Scarsella and Graber especially affirmed the work of MC USA staff Iris de Leon Hartshorn and Janie Beck Kreider, director of communications, who “put a truly phenomenal amount of time and energy into securing the best outcome they could given the ways this process was already irrevocably flawed.”

Both Scarsella and Graber identified concerns about the inadequate understandings in the report of power dynamics and how these recommendations will translate into action.

Scarsella also raised concerns about any recommendations that locate primary responses or reporting within church institutions, including the recommendation that VMC form a pastoral response team to respond to reports of abuse. “There is a documented history in the U.S. Mennonite church of sexual abuse being sorely mishandled by like groups similarly tasked,” wrote Scarsella.

Neither EMU nor VMC would release the cost of these investigations, although EMU noted that the cost was “comparable with other external firms that provide similar services and reasonable for the scope of the investigation.” Kay Nussbaum also noted the cost of the investigation did not impact recent staffing reductions at EMU, changes she said came as a result of lower than expected enrollment numbers.

The full text of the DSA report is available online. 

Corrections: An earlier version of this story noted that the report released by EMU was co-authored by EMU staff with DSA. It was actually written by the EMU board and reviewed by DSA. In addition, EMU had begun to explore options for an outside investigation prior to the Panel’s May 13 recommendation.

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!