While the Mennonite faith community has sometimes been contentiously consumed over the past two decades with one aspect of sexuality—homosexuality and same-sex marriage—another darker side has quietly escaped our notice: sexual abuse of women and children.
And for good reason. Sexual abuse is usually shrouded in secrecy, most often to hide or obscure the identity and reputation of the abuser. Children, and sometimes vulnerable women, are told by the abuser that this is “our little secret.” And since the abuser often holds greater power, the abused person has no real recourse. The abuse can be hidden for years, until the trauma of the experience results in loss of self-esteem and self-identity as the child reaches adolescence and adulthood.
These destructive dynamics were brought to light in two recent Sunday school discussions in my congregation, when two psychology professionals working with Mennonite Central Committee Ontario’s Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Resource Response Team (SMARRT) took us through the seriousness of the problem and the preventative remedies in which our growing congregation, with many children, could engage.
This is not a new problem. One of our Mennonite writers, Rudy Wiebe, exposed sexual abuse inside families and the church some 50 years ago in his gut-wrenching novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. As the social science profession developed since that time, many of our own practitioners in the field investigated sexual abuse in our homes and congregations, and were perplexed to discover that this darker side was no less prevalent in our own circles than it was in society at large. Statistically, one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some sort of sexual abuse/exploitation by the age of 18, they cite.
I remember well sitting with Carolyn Holderread Heggen, a Mennonite psychotherapist from Albuquerque, N.M., over lunch several years ago on a related issue of the abuse of power by a Mennonite pastor, when she was just launching into an investigation of sexual abuse. “I haven’t even formally begun my study,” she said, “and already I have heard from some 300 persons with stories of sexual abuse.”
Later, when publishing her study, she issued these alarming signs: “A disturbing fact continues to surface in sex-abuse research. The first best predictor of abuse is alcohol or drug addiction in the father. But the second best predictor is conservative religiosity, accompanied by parental belief in traditional male-female roles.”
Our Sunday school discussion helpfully raised an awareness of these dangers and put some preventative handles into place. First, we heard the compelling story of a young mother who has struggled over the years from abuse when she was six. It brought the issue up close and personal.
Most helpful were the tools given by our SMARRT experts to parents to talk openly with their children about the danger signs when it comes to making a choice when confronted by an abuser in sexual activity:
- Participants—children and the adult—must understand what the activity involves and the potential consequences of engaging in the activity.
- There cannot be any reasons for engaging in the activity other than wanting to.
- If there is a power differential between participants, then there is “attributional ambiguity” about the lower-power individual’s freedom of choice.
- It is the responsibility of the person in the role or position of greater power to resist the sexual activity.
The reason sexual abuse can thrive in secrecy, we were told by one of the presenters, is what she referred to as a “safety net,” citing common reasons children do not tell their parents about abuse:
- They believe it is their fault or that they will get into trouble.
- They may believe their parents will be disappointed.
- The offender may have said that he would hurt them or their family.
The reason this instruction and guidance is important is that it makes both parties to the activity responsible, but puts the greater responsibility on the one with the greater power.
It is time we, as a faith community, remove the cloak of secrecy from sexual abuse and deal with it openly, working harder at setting up a safe environment for our children.