MC USA group reports more evidence of abuse

Yoder sexual abuse discernment group planning convention service of lament

Jun 30, 2014 by

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ELKHART, Ind. — A Mennonite Church USA discernment group addressing sexual abuse by the late theologian John Howard Yoder has reported finding additional evidence of abuse.

After a June 3 meeting in Elk­hart, the group said they found more documentation of Yoder’s abuse of women, including fondling and sexual intercourse. The many women Yoder wronged included students, missionaries and church workers.

The group accessed previously unexamined institutional and personal files, including memos by Yoder.

In some instances, the group reported, women who engaged in sexual encounters were persuaded, at least initially, by Yoder that such behavior was permissible between Christian “brothers” and “sisters.” Many others resisted his unwanted advances, and were perplexed and distressed by his pursuit.

“We are also learning how long it took church leaders to intervene effectively,” the group reported.

An issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review planned for early 2015 will focus on sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts. It will include an article by historian Rachel Waltner Goossen on the topic the group appointed her to research: Mennonite church institutional responses to Yoder’s sexual abuse in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

While a four-year accountability process for Yoder began in 1992, doubt lingers about its outcome, since little about it was communicated to the public.

When the process concluded in 1996, recommendations were made for “the continuing use of an accountability plan” and that “the church use his [Yoder’s] gifts of writing and teaching.”

Yoder died in 1997.

Very little has been communicated about the prolonged and devastating impact Yoder’s sexual abuse has had on many women. MC USA is now committed to transparency in this matter. In 2015, all written materials made available for this historical documentation process will be deposited at MC USA’s Historical Archives.

Service of lament

The group is planning seminars and a service of lament for the 2015 MC USA convention in Kansas City, Mo. A report and discussion of the group’s findings are planned.

In addition, the group has begun conversation about what the service of lament might include and who will plan and lead it.

The group is exploring ways to enable healing for those who have suffered sexual abuse.

“We are particularly interested in healing for those who have suffered abuse by church leaders, such as Yoder, who were not brought to account in a timely manner by the church,” they reported.

Statement on abuse

On behalf of MC USA’s Executive Board, the discernment group has begun drafting a general statement on the nature and prevention of sexual abuse. The statement will be presented to the Constituency Leaders Council for approval as a study document and then for approval by the 2015 delegate assembly.

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; Regina Shands Stoltzfus, a professor at Goshen College; and Ervin Stutzman, MC USA executive director.

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

The group welcomes conversation and counsel. Holderread Heggen and Gehman Peachey are especially available for conversation with victims of Yoder.

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