Sexual abuse challenges conservative communities

When emotional expressions aren't welcome, victims suffer in silence

Jul 30, 2018 by and

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An organization that addresses sexual abuse in conservative Anabaptist communities has suspended the vice chair of its board following allegations that he failed to protect abuse victims from a known sex offender.

The situation that the group, Anabaptist Sexual Abuse Awareness, is dealing with reflects the challenges culturally conservative Anabaptists face when confronting sexual abuse in emotionally reserved church communities.

Generations of abuse victims have suffered in silence because expressions of pain, anger and frustration aren’t welcome, said Trudy Harder Metz­ger of Elmira, Ont., executive director of Generations Unleashed, a survivor-support organization that raised the allegations against ASAA’s vice chair, Steve Stutzman of Lancaster County, Pa.

“Tears and emotion aren’t allowed,” said Metzger, an abuse survivor who grew up in a culturally conservative Mennonite community, in a phone interview. “King David with sackcloth and ashes would be kicked out of church. . . . This new way of allowing King David-style grief in the victims is terrifying. There are churches who would love to have us come speak, but they’re afraid of the emotional upheaval it’s going to cause.”

The ASAA — which seeks “to influence the Anabaptist culture and its leaders toward healthy morality and to find biblical solutions that help churches deal with sexual immorality and abuse,” according to its website, anabaptistawareness.org — is going through upheaval of its own.

In a statement published in June on its Facebook page, ASAA announced Stutzman’s suspension from the board pending an investigation. It cited allegations from Generations Unleashed.

The statement has since been removed.

In an emailed statement, Stutzman said he was disappointed that the board suspended him after the effort he put into helping build ASAA. He said he and his parent ministry, Strait Paths Foundation, “have not responded to these assertions publicly, and believe these types of incidents should be handled more in keeping with Scriptural principle and precedent.”

On her blog, Metzger raised allegations that Stutzman, whose ministry offers spiritual healing and deliverance, had failed to warn vulnerable people about their interactions with a self-admitted sex offender.

She removed the posts from her blog after ASAA responded to her.

Metzger described Stutzman as a friend but said, “I believe he has failed to protect victims adequately.”

ASAA’s Facebook post that announced Stutzman’s suspension identified the offender as DD and said “his known criminal activity has been reported and is in the hands of the law. We strongly denounce DD’s actions and recommend that there be adequate protection in place and public warning to prevent any further harm.”

A survivor helps others

Metzger’s ministry to those who have been sexually abused arises from her own life experience. In 2012 she founded Generations Unleashed to address sexual violence in conservative Anabaptist communities through conferences, spiritual guidance and legal advocacy.

Not long after she started working with female survivors of abuse in 2010, she received numerous requests asking if she would offer help to male survivors.

“Two years later we set up a charity and began working full time with both male and female survivors,” she said.

She hadn’t intended to target conservative Anabaptists.

“From the first conference, that’s who would show up,” she said. “That’s who would come, and that’s who would reach out.”

Metzger believes there is “an epidemic of abuse” in conservative Anabaptist communities. She has experienced it herself.

Born into an Old Colony Mennonite family in Mexico, she moved to Canada when she was 5 and later joined the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario.

Her 2015 book, Between 2 Gods: A Memoir of Abuse in the Mennonite Community, describes verbal and sexual abuse in her childhood and youth.

“My own story is what drew me to working with sexual abuse victims,” she said.

In her early 20s, she joined a Midwest Mennonite Fellowship congregation, where she experienced some healing. But she did not feel fully supported in her desire to minister to other survivors.

“For me, the calling was to bring healing to the victims,” she said.

More than 10 years later, she and her husband, Tim, left Midwest Mennonite Fellowship. They now attend The Meeting House, a multisite church in the Toronto area affiliated with Be in Christ Church of Canada (formerly Brethren in Christ Church in Canada).

A mixed reception

Metzger was surprised at the mixed reception Generations Unleashed received.

“I thought we’d go in and open up the subject and everybody would be grateful and people would heal,” she said. “Instead it’s been a fight.”

Metzger believes ASAA leaders have a genuine concern for the well-being of those who have been sexually abused. Yet she observes tension in conservative Anabaptist communities over how to deal with the problem.

The tension comes from confusion about how to respond to emotional expressions of pain. Some culturally conservative churches resist hearing such expressions.

“We’ve got to find some way forward, because I’m convinced both sides want to stop the offenders,” she said. “I’m convinced the victims want to be heard, and I’m convinced the other side doesn’t know how to handle it. The victims are seen as adversarial.”

Metzger said the church leaders, all men, often feel threatened by the emotional expressions of abuse victims, mostly women.

“Victims who are not forced into silence are victims who heal,” she said. “Until we, men included, welcome that messy journey of grief, we will not heal. . . . Victims want a voice, and they want the abuse to stop. Leaders want the abuse to stop, and they want forgiveness and peace.”

Word of repentance

Metzger believes the ASAA board welcomes women’s voices, though there is only one woman among the 17 board members.

“What’s complicated is this is a group of men from within trying to speak to leaders within [conservative communities],” she said. “If there was a strong formal representation of women on the board at this point, it would drive away the people they’re trying to reach.”

ASAA has scheduled an Anabaptist Symposium on Sexual Abuse Awareness on Nov. 16-17 in Ephrata, Pa.

Metzger said it’s important all voices are heard.

“There’s a reason Satan wants to silence women’s voices,” she said. “There’s something we bring to the table that gentlemen don’t, and there’s something they bring that we don’t. When you take away one of those voices, you take away something of God.”

A July 2 statement on ASAA’s Facebook page read: “The Facebook response of the victims who spoke from mistrust, suspicion and pain is completely understandable because we personally and as a Christian community have not done well with victims. Will you allow us who have failed you to now repent and now fight for you?”


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