Abuse discernment group sets goals

Panel to review Yoder evidence, promote healing

Oct 11, 2013 by and

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A Mennonite Church USA discernment group addressing sexual abuse by the late theologian John Howard Yoder has set five goals.

The six-member discernment group met for the first time Sept. 4-5 in Goshen, Ind. The MC USA Executive Board unanimously affirmed the group’s goals at its Sept. 15-17 meeting at Camp Deerpark in Westbrookville, N.Y.

The discernment group will:

  • Review the evidence to document the scope of Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response to it.
  • Publicly thank the women who “tenaciously persisted over many years to bring [Yoder’s] abuse to light to prevent further victimizations and to seek healing” and also thank “those in church leadership who worked hard to hold [Yoder] accountable with a desire for his restoration.”
  • Work through conference leaders and mennoniteusa.org to provide resources for victims of sexual abuse and to encourage educational experiences to prepare pastors and leaders for caring for abuse victims.
  • Arrange for a public service of lament, repentance and healing at a large church gathering, most likely the 2015 convention.
  • Explore the possibility of a denominational statement addressing sexual abuse.

In an Oct. 2 phone interview, MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman, a member of the discernment group, said documentation of the abuse will take both a scholarly approach — perhaps an article in an academic journal like Mennonite Quarterly Review — as well as a more widely accessible article.

Sources will include materials at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Indiana-Michigan Conference. Goals include making sure victims are not counted multiple times and confirming the validity of sources.

“It’s not because we’re trying to downplay anything that happened,” Stutzman said. “We would like to replace rumor and innuendo… . We feel the church owes the John Howard Yoder legacy to document that in a careful fashion.”

Though some of the five goals deal with the past, Stutzman said each is geared to the future.

“This is really not primarily about John Howard Yoder,” he said. “It’s about how we can be a faithful church dealing with a big issue in our society.

“I would like the Mennonite church to be in a different place than the Catholic church. Their mode seems to be, ‘We will only give information if you sue us and a court makes us.’ … And that doesn’t seem to be what our church is called to do. We are to be forward with these things.”

The Executive Board sent the group’s list of goals to the Constituency Leaders Council for broader discernment. The CLC is a gathering of conference ministers, moderators and representatives who meet twice a year.

In addition to Stutzman, the discernment group includes Sara Wenger Shenk, president of AMBS; Linda Gehman Peachey, who served as director of women’s advocacy for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.; Chuck Neufeld, conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference; Ted Koontz, a former colleague of Yoder at AMBS; and Regina Shands Stoltzfus, a professor at Goshen College.

Carolyn Holderread Heggen, a specialist on sexual abuse in Christian settings, is an adviser.

Concerns addressed

In an article posted to the MC USA website Sept. 23, Stutzman addressed concerns for Yoder’s surviving family members.

“We deeply regret that family members who were hurt by [Yoder’s] actions will no doubt experience renewed pain with this new round of discussions,” Stutzman wrote. “Our explicit hope is that circles of friendship and pastoral care will surround each family member in their own communities.”

He also acknowledged worries that these activities will overshadow Yoder’s theological work.

“We expect and hope that persons will continue to feel free to learn from [Yoder’s] theological legacy — both to value its contribution to our reading of the gos­pel and to critically examine its limitations,” he wrote.

Yoder is best known for his landmark 1972 book, The Politics of Jesus. His ministry credentials were suspended in 1992 and revoked in 1996 after sexual abuse of dozens of women came to light. He died in 1997.


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