Mennonite Church USA sexual abuse panel withdraws from investigation

Aug 10, 2016 by and

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Mennonite Church USA’s Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention has terminated its participation in the process to select an independent organization to look into institutional responses to allegations of abuse by Luke Hartman, former vice president of enrollment at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

The panel released a statement Aug. 8 criticizing EMU for requiring confidentiality in the selection process. Panel chair Anna Groff was limited from sharing certain information with the panel and Lauren Shifflett, who brought the complaints against Hartman.

“The process undertaken, and in which we participated to this point, has focused too much on the needs of the institutions involved, and too little on the needs of the victim,” said the panel. “Keeping information from Lauren and excluding her from the process has created more mistrust and has betrayed the church’s commitment to victim-centered responses to sexual abuse.”

The investigation was announced in May and is intended to also involve Lindale Mennonite Church in the Harrisonburg area and Virginia Mennonite Conference. On March 20, Lindale pastors and elders acknowledged that an alleged “abusive relationship” involving Hartman was brought to staff attention in August 2014.

In May, the panel recommended organizations such as Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE. On Aug. 2, EMU announced it had selected D. Stafford and Associates to complete an “administrative inquiry of the facts related to allegations of sexual misconduct by Dr. Luke Hartman.”

The EMU release makes no mention of Lindale or VMC but does say representatives from the panel and the denomination joined EMU in interviewing two finalists, including an organization recommended by the panel.

“We recognize the importance of transparency and accountability in this process; thus the findings and recommendations will be made public,” said EMU board chair Kay Nussbaum, who noted the report will be made available to EMU trustees first.

The other organization was GRACE, which MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman said had completed six investigations and was relatively inexperienced. He said EMU wanted to review the report before releasing it in case there were matters to remain confidential, which became a sticking point.

As EMU moves forward, Stutzman said conversations about the process with Lindale and VMC are ongoing to see what the panel’s decision means for them.

“We have a challenging situation, and there’s lots of different ideas about moving forward,” he said.

Stutzman does not know if Shifflett will participate in EMU’s investigation or one involving the other parties.

He said the sexual abuse panel was given a difficult job in helping select an investigator — a job that he said was not part of its initial description in the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse passed at the 2015 MC USA convention in Kansas City, Mo. The statement committed the church to “hold abusers accountable” and “listen with care to those who have been wounded.”

“They don’t want to be involved in a process that doesn’t take victims’ voices seriously, and I support them in that,” Stutzman said. “. . . It will be tricky and painful trying to create that new culture with a new way of doing things.”

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