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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  • Gene Mast

    Am I reading this correctly?

    Quote: 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. Close quote

    An employee of an allegedly Christian college defends extra-marital sexual relations by saying they are consensual? And the school finds no reason to fire him? I seem to be suffering extreme cognitive dissonance here. A christian university with an adulterous principal? Somebody please tell me this is a misprint, a misunderstanding, written in some sort of new English I do not understand, ANYTHING other than what it seems to say. I must confess I am having trouble articulating a cogent thought expressing my outrage without resorting to some sort of profanity, so I’d better quit.

  • Berry Friesen

    If I were caught up in a web of sin and needed the help of my pastor to be freed, hear my confession and help me to be accountable to those I had wronged, would my pastor help me? Would my pastor go so far as to protect me from causing further harm to myself and others?

    That’s what Lindale Mennonite Church pastor Duane Yoder did for sinner Luke Harman. And for this, Yoder is now being disciplined by Virginia Mennonite Conference and maligned in the Mennonite media, including MWR.

    Worse yet, MCUSA is using his example of pastoral care as the rationale for foisting a burdensome set of requirements on all the member conferences of MCUSA and the pastors those conferences oversee.

    MCUSA conducted no investigation; it only is drawing conclusions based on its reading of the Stafford report and its conversations with the many busy-bodies who have descended on this unfortunate situation. Here is what MCUSA has said: “On multiple occasions, the decisions, actions and inactions of Pastor Yoder resulted in protection of Hartman rather than support for Shifflett” (the woman with whom Hartman had an affair).

    Please read the Stafford report. It demonstrates that the Lindale congregations responded redemptively to both Shifflett and Hartman. Acting under the authority of the lead pastor, the associate pastor walked with Shifflett and responded with care to her requests, following her lead in regard to what was needed. Simultaneously, the lead pastor walked with Hartman and responded with care to his needs, but with a disciplinary approach that held this church leader accountable for his sins.

    Do our MCUSA leaders have any inkling of the mess that occurs when a passionate and illicit sexual relationship hits the skids? The anger, the desperation, the risk of retribution, the potential for emotional harm, the risk of losing people forever? It’s all there. And the Lindale pastors dealt with it all out of love and concern for both participants in this sinful relationship.

    Shame on MCUSA for criticizing pastor Yoder for carrying out his responsibility so well.

    But MWR says Yoder’s care of Hartman was “to the detriment of caring for the victim.” MWR editorializes in its use of the word “victim” to signal to us that Hartman is to be blamed for the affair, but not Shifflett.

    How exactly did this “detriment” occur? Two things: (a) in Hartman’s numerous confessions of his sins, Yoder did not insist that Hartman follow Shifflett’s version of the break-up; and (b) Yoder retained some of the email evidence of the messy break-up.

    These actions by Yoder caused no injury to Shifflett; the Stafford report is clear about that. Yet MCUSA faults Yoder because those actions did not “support” Shifflett. Is that what political correctness requires of pastors—that they must choose sides and “support” one party against the other?

    I say no. Yoder “supported” Shifflett through the careful work of associate pastor Munger. Give the man some credit and stop scapegoating him.

    • Joseph Penner

      Berry, do you dispute the credibility of the allegations of abuse? This may have started as a consensual affair (albeit, one fraught with troubling age and power dynamics) but the subsequent abuse is the most serious component.

      • Berry Friesen

        The Stafford reports carefully defines what “sexual abuse” is and then proceeds to make no finding of sexual abuse in this case. It strongly suggests there was sexual misconduct, and I accept that finding. It discusses behavior by Hartman that was described by Shifflett and her advocates as “stalking” and finds that during his meetings with EMU colleagues, Hartman admitted to stalking Shifflett.

        I suspect the notorious emails shed light on/contextualize that behavior, which would explain why Yoder kept them.

        MWR is wrong to be calling this an “abuse case.” If I were its lawyer, I’d advise it to read the Stafford report and then change the headline.

        The reason this entire matter has become such an expensive and demoralizing affair is because Shifflett’s advocates are determined to brand it “an abuse case,” which then can be leveraged into a campaign aimed at the church, its institutions and its resources. Against all the facts and to the harm of my church, they have succeeded.

        A lot is on the line at this point.

        • Joseph Penner

          I guess I’m not sure whether this could be labeled “sexual abuse” in a definitive legal sense but I mourn for the way Shifflett was groomed into the relationship by a much older man who was blessed with power and respectability by our church institutions. It seems like there were a lot of dynamics there that we need to recognize and condemn as uniquely unacceptable (that go way beyond the simpler matter of adultery). Beyond that, I found Hartman’s behavior of harassment and stalking to be pretty terrifying.

          I can empathize with Duane Yoder’s role. He was dealt a very difficult situation to deal with. I believe that ministering to abusers (or those who commit serious misconduct) is part of the church’s redemptive work. The report emphasizes that due to his close relationship with Hartman it was virtually impossible to work on this objectively and regrettably this led to Shifflett being poorly served; that seems like a credible finding to me.

          I think that survivors of sexual abuse and their advocates are rightly holding the church to a higher standard than it’s used to, not in order to destroy it but to make it better.

          • Berry Friesen

            Joseph, the Stafford report explicitly finds Shifflett was well served by the pastoral care of the Lindale congregation. It does not find (as you assert) that she was “poorly served.”

            This became a public controversy early in 2016 because Shifflett and her advocates were angered by what they regarded as an inadequate EMU response to Hartman’s September 2014 confession of misconduct. Their anger was then amplified by the fact that during the EMU disciplinary process, Hartman had been supported by a pastor of the Lindale congregation (Yoder). So Shifflett’s advocates have been digging away at judgments Yoder made in his pastoral role, trying to find fault.

            Don’t you find it troubling that so many seem to feel Luke Hartman was undeserving of Lindale’s pastoral care?

            Don’t you find it troubling that MCUSA is using Yoder’s work as justification for imposing a broad array of new requirements on our church and its pastors? It gives me the impression that Yoder’s commitment to repentance, restoration and redemption has fallen out of favor with our denominational leaders.

          • Joseph Penner

            I will say this, I am impressed by the way Yoder moved quickly to take action after learning about Hartman’s conduct. In one day he learned of the misconduct, confronted Hartman about it and had Hartman confess it to his wife. He swiftly put together an accountability group, compiled a disciplinary plan, and had Hartman confess the situation to his supervisors at EMU. I have every reason to believe that Yoder took this situation very seriously and acted with integrity in spite of it putting him into a highly stressful and uncomfortable position.

            The DSA report indicates that he may have failed to delete an email that he was supposed to delete and that he may have misrepresented (or under-represented) Hartman’s behavior to EMU. The report states, “It is the assessor’s opinion that Yoder could not objectively serve the congregation and Hartman simultaneously given the reported close relationship between the two.” The MCUSA report says, “On multiple occasions, the decisions, actions and inactions of Pastor Yoder resulted in protection of Hartman rather than support for Shifflett.” This is why I asserted that Shifflett was “poorly served.” Maybe “under served” would be more accurate.

            I agree that Hartman is deserving of pastoral care but in my view Shifflett was the victim of manipulation and harassment and, as such, her needs should have come first. I’m not an expert, but maybe Yoder should have worked with the conference to provide pastoral care to Hartman, so that Lindale could be fully in Shifflett’s corner. I’m not interested in the demonization of Yoder. He accomplished the most important goal, which was to ensure that Hartman no longer had contact with Shifflett. But in other ways, there are important lessons to be learned from what went wrong.

            I think a big reason for all the hoopla is the fact that Mennonite male leadership has had such a difficult time acknowledging that sexual abuse is very, very real, even among people we regard as wonderful, respectable, Christian leaders. There’s a tendency towards disbelief or towards wanting to “smooth things over” and “paint them in a rosy light” because these may be people we know and like. Yoder’s missteps seem small relative to all the things he did right, but I’m learning that these seemingly small things are emblematic of a culture that has unfortunately hurt our ability to eliminate abuse.

            I’m hopeful that the new requirements being imposed will save people from victimization without being to burdensome.

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Berry, when a man of Mr. Hartman’s age engages in an illicit relationship with a woman of Ms. Shifflett’s age, it is NOT an “affair.” And the word “consensual” does not apply. He is the predator and she is the victim. The blame is 100% on Hartman’s shoulders. Until you get that, you can’t get the rest.

  • Gene Mast

    As one who only knows of this debacle what I have read from publicly available sources, the comments of Berry Friesen presented here are the most balanced, sensible reaction I think I’ve seen from someone who obviously is better acquainted with the situation than I. Of course, I may be completely mistaken, but this account fits with what most pastors are, compassionate and sincerely endeavoring to do what is right for all involved. Yoder was presented with a nearly impossible situation, one where there seems there was no really good resolution.

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