Report cites pastoral protection in Virginia abuse case

Jan 19, 2017 by

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An external review of responses to reports of sexual abuse in a Virginia congregation has led Mennonite Church USA staff to conclude the lead pastor acted in ways that protected the alleged perpetrator, to the detriment of caring for the victim.

In their response to the report, the staff members recommend ways to prevent future problems, including “regular trainings on healthy boundaries” for all pastors in the denomination.

On Jan. 14, MC USA released a report by D. Stafford and Associates, along with a list of findings by MC USA Executive Board staff. The findings state that Pastor Duane Yoder of Lindale Mennonite Church near Harrisonburg did not disclose everything he knew about allegations of sexual abuse that have been deemed credible.

According to the findings, “on multiple occasions, the decisions, actions and inactions of Pastor Yoder resulted in protection of [former Eastern Mennonite University vice president of enrollment Luke] Hartman rather than support for [Lauren] Shifflett,” who approached Lindale staff.

The investigation was formally requested by Virginia Mennonite Conference in May. On March 20, Lindale pastors and elders acknowledged that an alleged “abusive relationship” involving Hartman was brought to staff attention in August 2014 when Shifflett approached associate pastor Dawn Monger.

Hartman and Yoder then met with EMU President Loren Swartzendruber on Sept. 2, 2014. The two men described the relationship as a consensual affair with a 19- to 20-year-old woman from the congregation — diverging from her descriptions of verbal abuse and threats of physical violence. A university-approved review conducted by DSA found EMU had no information that would have been reason to dismiss Hartman.

“When asked by Pastor Monger, Pastor Yoder was not truthful regarding what he had reported to the leadership at EMU,” says MC USA’s findings. “Shifflett made a request that private emails between herself and Hartman be deleted, and Lindale’s ministerial leadership agreed to her request.

“However, Pastor Yoder kept emails of a sexual nature forwarded from Hartman that Yoder implied had been deleted.”

Though MC USA acknowledges the Lindale congregation was responsive to Shifflett’s story and her request for support and anonymity, “much of the language” in internal Lindale documents “could be perceived as ‘victim-blaming,’ ” according to the DSA report.

MC USA staff praised the Lindale congregation for “tremendous resiliency and faith throughout this process, and a desire to stand on the side of truth and justice even when it is uncomfortable and isolating.”

The MC USA staff representatives — Ervin Stutzman, executive director; Iris de Leόn-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking; and Terry Shue, director of leadership development — admitted “the ways we have made mistakes while walking this difficult path over the last year. We are especially sorry that we failed to find better ways to hear the voices of so many who have been hurt and disappointed by this process.”

Yoder did not respond to requests by phone and email for comment.

Recommendations

MC USA’s report includes recommendations for Lindale and Virginia Mennonite Conference, as well as denominational commitments.

MC USA strongly recommends Lindale review its policies and procedures to determine if senior ministerial staff violated ministerial boundaries or an employee code of conduct and act within the next 90 days to implement appropriate remedies.

It also recommends Lindale contract with FaithTrust Institute to review policies for reported complaints and issues of possible boundary violations.

FaithTrust was originally recommended by the MC USA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention to conduct the investigation, but MC USA and EMU contracted instead with D. Stafford and Associates, a Delaware-based consulting firm that investigates campus safety and law enforcement issues.

MC USA also recommends Virginia Conference consult with FaithTrust to determine if Lindale staff violated ministerial leadership guidelines, and if so, follow protocol for reviewing pastoral credentials.

It is also recommended that Virginia Conference develop a policy for concerns to be reported to leadership by associate ministerial staff, without passing through a lead pastor. MC USA recommends Virginia Conference implement a ministerial misconduct policy applicable to lay leadership, which would include nonpastors such as Hartman.

MC USA commits to support Virginia Conference leaders to carry out the recommendations, providing a “Healthy Boundaries” national training in May 2017 with FaithTrust Institute for representatives from all MC USA conferences.

MC USA hopes to establish a standard practice that pastors and leaders entering an MC USA conference must participate in such a training within 12 months of their employment. It will also create a “document of learnings” from the situation to be shared publicly.

Edits and delays

In September, MC USA committed to publishing DSA’s report in full, without editing — anticipated to be available in late November. DSA presented a 28-page report to MC USA Executive Board staff on Nov. 25, who shared it with Lindale and VMC, as well as Hartman and Shifflett.

However, MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman said DSA “made clear” the report was not a public document. A DSA-produced four-page summary was considered unsatisfactory by Stutzman and other MC USA leaders.

An 11-page final, public report from DSA was given Jan. 13 to MC USA staff representatives, who “believe that it clearly communicates DSA’s findings and recommendations, and reflects the legal, moral and ethical concerns of the original 28-page report.”

The original report is available to all involved entities, in addition to the Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).


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