Secrecy enabled sin
Few things cause as much damage and pain in the church as secrecy. Hiding information spawns suspicion, distortion and lies. Secrecy fosters an imbalance of power, as those few people in the know can act with impunity and without accountability.
Historian Rachel Waltner Goossen has proven that with her examination of sexual abuse by John Howard Yoder. Her remarkable and disturbing article in the January issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review pulls back the dark veil on the most shameful episode in American Mennonite history.
Yoder, the renowned theologian who died in 1997, used his intellect and even his physical stature to intimidate women as part of purported experiments in a new Christian ethic of sex and intimacy. He assaulted his victims — perhaps numbering more than 100 — in various ways, from roaming hands to intercourse. Always, he required secrecy.
But that was compounded by the response of the church, in the form of several of its institutions. When confronted with Yoder’s egregious misconduct, they maintained the clandestine cloak and thus failed to care for those who needed it most. They became complicit in Yoder’s sin and enabled the abuse to continue. Now their response to Yoder is finally receiving a long-overdue critique.
Undeniably, Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., where Yoder taught, was navigating unchartered waters in the 1970s. There was little understanding of sexual harassment and abuse in the church, the workplace or the law. Meanwhile, Yoder had become a superstar after the 1972 publication of The Politics of Jesus. Dealing with such misconduct by anyone, especially one of Yoder’s stature, would have been difficult at the time.
Nevertheless, how AMBS and eventually other organizations acted would lead critics to accuse the church of covering up the theologian’s transgressions because his teaching, speaking and writing brought respect and even converts to Mennonitism.
Marlin Miller, seminary president from 1975 until his death in 1994, embraced secrecy to protect AMBS from scandal and lawsuits. He ordered Yoder to cease his activities in 1979, but Yoder disregarded the directive, and accusations continued to roll in.
Finally, in 1984, Miller forced Yoder’s resignation. Yoder, who had also taught at Notre Dame since 1967, negotiated a full-time assignment there. The secret was kept: No reason was given for Yoder’s departure. Nor was Notre Dame told, though Miller had learned that Yoder had assaulted two female students there.
Finally, in 1992, the secret came out. Yoder was supposed to be the keynote speaker at an April conference at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. But the school learned he was under investigation for sexual misconduct by Indiana-Michigan Conference, and in February the school disinvited him. The Bethel student newspaper broke the story, making the allegations against him public for the first time. It was quickly picked up by the Mennonite press. Indiana-Michigan pulled his credentials in June of 1992, which also received media attention.
Indiana-Michigan appointed an accountability and support group to work with Yoder, but he remained combative. The group gave up after four years without reinstating his credential, getting him into counseling, implementing a way to monitor his behavior or establishing a restitution fund for the victims. The conference issued a statement announcing the disciplinary process had concluded, commending Yoder for his participation and encouraging the church to resume using him as a teacher, speaker and writer.
Restoration had been granted, but any sense of reconciliation would be limited. It looked like Indiana-Michigan had achieved it. It had occurred at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Yoder’s congregation, which he and his wife had stopped attending for several years. AMBS, having earlier banished him from campus, asked him to teach a class in 1997.
At the same time, the nature and scope of Yoder’s offenses remained buried. All of this left the impression of success. As a result, some people would condemn the women and their supporters as they continued to pursue justice when it appeared the matter seemed settled. Almost no one knew Yoder’s victims were still being marginalized.
Public relations strategists and Scripture denounce secrecy, which can produce a web of entanglements that make the situation worse. Yet AMBS, Indiana-Michigan and, to a lesser degree, Mennonite Church USA, disregarded the public relations experts and the Bible, which states, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed” (John 3:20).
The results were countless wounded lives, both Yoder’s victims and his family; the loss of a number of women who abandoned Mennonite ministry and even left the church; and severe damage to Mennonite credibility. Goossen’s revealing article is a crucial step for the church to live out its stated commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.
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