Photo: Delegates at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City last summer passed a Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse. The Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, which is calling for a review of three Virginia institutions, was appointed as a result of this statement. Photo by Vada Snider.
In a May 13 statement, the Mennonite Church USA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention called on Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., Lindale Mennonite Church, Linville, Va., and Virginia Mennonite Conference to initiate an investigation by an outside organization regarding the recent allegations of abuse by Luke Hartman, the former vice president of enrollment at EMU.
The panel wrote: “While Hartman is not credentialed through a Mennonite Church USA area conference, he was a leader, speaker and administrator—and we take that seriously. Therefore, we publicly recommend that—in coordination with the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and Mennonite Education Agency—Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia Mennonite Conference and Lindale Mennonite Church seek out and cooperate with an investigation by an outside organization in a timely manner. We invite the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and Mennonite Education Agency to hold these institutions accountable in this process. We also recommend that the cost be absorbed by all the parties.”
The panel said the purposes of an investigation would include creating space for survivors stories “to lead to responsible action and change among our institutions”; to “expose the truth of what happened, avoiding speculation and taking sides based on incomplete stories”; to lead all involved institutions toward stronger prevention, reporting and accountability policies; and to build the integrity of all three institutions.
The panel suggested two possible organizations—GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, an organization that has conducted independent sexual abuse investigations of organizations including New Tribes Mission and Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and the FaithTrust Institute. According to Anna Groff, chair of the Panel and executive director for Dove’s Nest, the panel chose GRACE as its top recommendation, “due to its unique qualifications, its knowledge of issues related to sexual abuse in Christian settings and its dedication to victims/survivors.” GRACE is also named in an Appendix of the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse passed by delegates at the Mennonite Church USA convention in July 2015.
In a May 13 response to The Mennonite regarding the panel’s recommendation, Clyde Kratz, executive
director of Virginia Mennonite Conference, noted that the conference leadership has been developing an “independent panel to review leadership and pastoral responses to allegations of abuse in congregational life.” Kratz wrote, “I was surprised by the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention’s recommendation but also I am very affirming that an independent panel needs to determine a way forward.” At press time, Kratz had not responded to questions regarding where panel members would be selected from.
When contacted, Duane Yoder, pastor at Lindale Mennonite Church, indicated that the congregation’s board of elders had informed their congregation of their intent to participate in VMC’s review.
In a May 16 statement released to The Mennonite, EMU wrote that its Board of Trustees was ready to engage an external firm for a review last week, prior to the panel’s recommendation. After seeing the recommendation, President Loren Swartzendruber wrote, “We are open to be a part of the process that is being developed by the panel.”
The Panel released this recommendation after becoming “increasingly aware of the need for an outside, coordinated investigation with all three institutions involved,” wrote Groff, in a May 15 email. Groff emphasized that prevention includes both transparency and accountability. “We invite EMU, VMC and Lindale to be leaders in this opportunity to move forward with transparency and integrity,” she wrote.
The panel was appointed by Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board staff cabinet in December 2015.
Hartman was employed at EMU from 2011 to 2016. Prior to that, he was associate director of admissions at Hesston (Kan.) College from 1999 to 2004 and men’s basketball coach from 1996 to 2004. He also was a speaker at four Mennonite youth conventions. In April, a Harrisonburg judge dismissed a solicitation-of-prostitution charge against Hartman.
In a March 20 letter to congregants, the staff and board of elders of Lindale Mennonite Church confirmed that staff had been aware of reports of an abusive relationship since August 2014.
In an email sent to the EMU campus on April 22, President Loren Swartzendruber wrote that Lindale church leadership approached EMU in September 2014 “about a situation that was described as a ‘consensual sexual relationship’ between Luke Hartman and a young adult woman.” The statement claims that EMU was not aware of any harassment or threats and were told that “the affair” ended prior to Hartman’s employment with EMU.
Calls for accountability
The panel is not the first group to call for greater accountability. On April 12, Lauren Shifflett wrote a blog post on the website Our Stories Untold that included accounts of being stalked by Hartman as recently as August 2014. According to Shifflett, some of these events happened while she was a student at EMU. Shifflett says she first met Hartman at age 15, when he was serving as her Sunday school teacher. Interactions outside church did not begin until three years later. Since its publication, Shifflett’s post has been read over 28,000 times.
Shifflett, along with her sister, Marissa Buck, reported this information about Hartman to Pastor Dawn Monger of Lindale Mennonite on Aug. 30, 2014.
In February, Buck and Shifflett responded to an invitation from the Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter of the Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests (SNAP Menno) inviting any individuals who may have experienced abusive behavior from Hartman or others within Mennonite Church USA to report the behavior to police, local crisis centers, civil attorneys or independent survivor groups like SNAP. According to Buck, she first heard about a Feb. 2 Mennonite Church USA blog post, also published on The Mennonite’s website, calling for anyone who may have experienced abuse by Hartman or others in MC USA to come forward. Mennonite Church USA removed the post on Feb. 4, by the time Buck began searching for it. They found a SNAP press release on The Mennonite blog and were able to contact SNAP member Barbra Graber in Harrisonburg, Va., via SNAP’s confidential e-mail.
SNAP members worked with the whole family, which eventually led to Shifflett, Buck and their parents choosing to file a police report this spring. According to Corporal Philip Wonderly of the Harrisonburg Police Department in a May 2 phone interview, although police had “plenty of probable cause,” statutes of limitations for allegations of stalking and threatening behavior are one year and had expired by the time the report was made in 2016.
In a May 16 press release, SNAP members applauded the panel’s recommendation and said: “No institution can police itself. Though it takes courage to do so, those with information or suspicions of sexual violence or cover-ups in churches and universities must call the unbiased, independent, experienced civil and legal authorities. If or after this is done, it may be appropriate for other investigations to start, but only if they are conducted by truly independent parties.”
In response to Shifflett’s story, two 2013 EMU alumni, Emily Harnish and Erika Babikow, created an open letter asking EMU to offer a formal apology to Shifflett and other students “for placing us in harm’s way” and also asking the university to take a “clear, verbalized public stance against abuse and sexual violence”; demonstrate a commitment to ending the “culture of shame and fear that facilitates abuse and sexual violence”; and demonstrate “transparency and accountability in the months to come as we all deal with the fallout of this trauma.”
“For me, EMU was such a good place when I was a student, and when I graduated, I left with a feeling that I had grown so much as a person intellectually and spiritually and in my ability to just understand my place in the world,” said Harnish in an April 23 phone interview. “We want more information and we’re frightened and upset that not everyone at the university had the good experience that we did,” she added.
As of May 13, the letter was signed by 274 alumni. In response to EMU’s April 22 statement, Harnish and Babikow are continuing to push for more accountability, calling for an “investigation into what happened here at EMU with Luke Hartman” and asking EMU to provide more resources, including a dedicated Title IX coordinator position (the role is currently held by the director of human resources) and more support and resources for the student-led Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention.
New resources for sexual abuse prevention and survivor support
The Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention is not the only new organization focusing on education and prevention of sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts. In the last two years, two organizations—SNAP Menno and We Will Speak Out—dedicated to providing resources for congregations and survivors of abuse have launched.
SNAP Menno was founded in June 2015 and has worked on a number of projects to support survivors of abuse and raise awareness about abuse in Mennonite contexts. In April, the group launched the Mennonite Abuse Prevention (MAP) list, an online directory of “credibly accused clergy and church workers” within Mennonite contexts. To date, the list includes 10 names.
SNAP member Barbra Graber created the list and was joined by fellow SNAP members Stephanie Krehbiel and Tim Nafziger. In order to be named on the public list, an individual must be either criminally charged, sued in civil courts or named for being accused of a sex offense in a public media article, legal document or employment record.
According to Krehbiel, the list serves several functions, including safety and prevention. Krehbiel notes that statistics across “multiple fields of study” show that people who commit rape, sexual abuse and harassment are rarely one-time offenders. “It’s an ugly truth to face, but we have to face it. And one of the ways we can deal with it is by making sure that people who offend sexually are kept away from those who are vulnerable to them,” she wrote.
Jay Yoder, another SNAP member, says the MAP list is also meant to prompt introspection in Mennonite congregations and organizations. “I hope institutions begin putting transparency practices into place themselves, turning immediately to outside experts when violence needs to be investigated.…We are not the right experts for our own context.”
The MAP list grew out of a file that Graber began collecting in the 1980s, when survivors of abuse or their friends and family would talk with her about abuse in Mennonite contexts, but it wasn’t until her first encounter with SNAP that Graber thought about publishing names.
In an online essay entitled “Why a MAP list,” Graber names several reasons for naming names: prevention, healing, deterrence, reassurance and credibility. “This is a powerful warning to people who are predators and know they’re predators; they really need to get help,” said Graber in a May 15 interview. Graber notes that it’s also possible to reach victims and survivors by listing a predator’s name. “It’s a powerful healing mechanism to know you’re not alone.”
The We Will Speak Out campaign, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee, officially launched in October 2014. The project’s goal is to strengthen and equip MCC constituents to better respond to and prevent sexualized violence.
According to Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC and director of the project, the main focus of the project thus far has been learning from constituents and church leaders what they need in order to adequately address and prevent sexual abuse in their contexts. To solicit feedback, the group has launched a survey (open to responses until the end of May) and also hosted several focus groups.
Stutzman Amstutz says one theme that has emerged is that survivors don’t see churches as safe places to share their stories of violation. She also notes that people are looking for conversation and education about mutuality and healthy relationships between men and women.
The We Will Speak Out website also includes links to myriad resources aimed at helping congregations equip themselves for preventing and responding to sexual abuse, although Stutzman Amstutz cautions churches against trying to handle allegations of abuse internally.
“Do not assume you can deal with this internally,” she said. “That’s one of the ways we can further harm people….Part of this is a self- protection that churches have to move away from. There are outside experts who can help churches know how to respond, especially when someone who is harmed and the person who has harmed are both in the congregation.”