Credentials terminated for theologian-academic-pastor

October 22, 2020 | Web First
Canadian Mennonite
John D. Rempel.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada recently terminated the ministerial credentials of John D. Rempel of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., following an investigation into complaints of ministerial sexual misconduct. The complaints were brought to the regional church by Marcus Shantz, president of Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont., after former students brought allegations of sexual misconduct by Rempel to his attention earlier this year.

Rempel served as chaplain, residence director and adjunct professor at Grebel from 1973 to 1989. The complainants were undergraduate resident students at the college at the time when they experienced the alleged sexual misconduct. With the consent of the alumni involved, Shantz made a formal report to MC Eastern Canada and asked for an investigation. The regional church has oversight over the conduct and credentialing of its ministers. Rempel was ordained in 1982.

In response, MC Eastern Canada appointed an independent investigation team to examine the allegations, following a process outlined in the denominational Ministerial Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure manual. After the investigation team reported to the regional church’s Leadership Council, a hearing process took place and the accusations were found to be credible. The council determined that Rempel was guilty of “ministerial sexual misconduct and ministerial misconduct,” and it revoked his ministerial credentials.

In an email to Canadian Mennonite, Rempel said he “unreservedly accepted my wrongdoing,” but he lamented “the absence of empathy for me through the process, and in how the judgment against me has been presented in news releases is a failure of justice and mercy. The rejection of any provision for restorative justice is a failure of justice and mercy.” He added that “the process was set up with only one purpose, that is, passing judgment on the accused, without room for forgiveness, making amends and working toward reconciliation.”

MC Eastern Canada’s Church leadership minister Marilyn Rudy-Froese responded, “MCEC’s Leadership Council, made up of ordained ministers and lay leaders, prayerfully receives investigation findings, hears the perspective of the accused minister, and discerns a way forward, providing concrete steps that the minister can take toward accountability and reconciliation.” She added, “This is one stage of the journey toward wholeness and healing, but it is not the end of the journey. There is much left to be written. We trust that God is always at work, making a way in the wilderness and moving toward shalom for all.”

In its Oct. 20 news release, MC Eastern Canada acknowledged that “John D. Rempel was, and is, for many people, a beloved pastor, professor and theologian. His ministry was wide-ranging and we will have to reconcile the tension that human beings have the capacity to cause much harm and pain even while they have also done much good for the church.”

From 2012 to 2015, Rempel continued his affiliation with Grebel as director of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, a program administered by the college. Later, he became a senior fellow at the centre, a role Grebel has now asked him to step down from.

In a joint news release, MC Canada, MC U.S.A. and Mennonite World Conference (MWC) responded to the news saying, “As church bodies with which Rempel has worked closely over his career . . . we grieve for the victim-survivors harmed by Rempel’s actions and honour their courage in coming forward.” The statement continues, “We uphold [MC Eastern Canada’s] decision to take decisive and public action in this situation and to walk alongside victim-survivors on the path of healing and wholeness.”

Throughout the 1990s, Rempel served as Mennonite Central Committee’s liaison to the United Nations in New York City and served as pastor of the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship there.

From 2003 to 2012, he served as a professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, teaching theology and Anabaptist studies. Representing MWC from 2012 to 2017, Rempel participated in an ecumenical dialogue on baptism with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

Rempel wrote on theological topics for academic and church publications. He was on the editorial committee for Hymnal: A Worship Book and was editor of the Minister’s Manual used by MC Canada and MC U.S.A. Rempel was also among the editors of Take Our Moments and Our Days, an Anabaptist prayer and worship resource.

Because he was involved in writing and editing materials published by MennoMedia, executive director Amy Gingerich acknowledged that this revocation of credentials raises complicated questions: The church has serious concerns about using material written by someone who has perpetrated sexual violence, like disgraced Catholic songwriter David Haas. But how is that concern expressed given that Rempel only worked within a collaborative team in some of those publications? MennoMedia acknowledged that he had “no direct role in making any final decisions about the contents” of the new Voices Together hymnal.

All the church bodies responding to this news expressed grief and concern for the victim-survivors and for the wider church. MC Eastern Canada stated: “We, as a faith community, must support paths that lead to healing and wholeness for all. As a regional church, we will do our best to walk alongside all those who are impacted.”

Both Grebel and MC Eastern Canada encourage any persons who have experienced misconduct of a credentialled leader to contact Marilyn Rudy-Froese, the regional church’s church leadership minister at mrudyfroese@mcec.ca, or Carizon Counselling Services, an agency appointed to receive confidential disclosures related to this matter, at 519-743-6333 or intaketeam@carizon.ca . The MC Eastern Canada website also offers resources on reporting sexual misconduct.

—Updated Oct. 28, 2020

John D. Rempel.

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I share deep sadness and grief over John Rempel’s sexual misconduct and the withdrawal of his ministerial credentials. It is a devastatingly costly and painful moment for those who came forward, for John, his family and friends, and the church he has served faithfully for decades. For church leaders and institutions to take a clear stand with those who have been harmed is entirely in keeping with Jesus, who identifies himself with the most vulnerable and who expresses unmitigated outrage at their being abused (Matthew 18:1-9). Following Jesus as disciples demands it.

I am just as convinced, however, that the church and its leaders need to stand with those who have done the harm, who have sinned—not to defend or diminish their behaviours, but to stand with them in patient, loving hope for full acknowledgement and true repentance, for the experience of forgiveness, and for restoration to full fellowship/koinonia. It means not only pledging to offer every assistance to those who have been harmed, but also to do everything possible to recover the offender from the wreckage of sin, shame and brokenness. While that is often viewed as the enemy of true justice, it goes to the very heart of what it means to be followers of the Jesus who incarnated himself in the vulnerable and gave his life for sinners (Romans 5). In the body of Christ we do not cancel each other.

On standing with the victims/survivors, the church and school statements on John Rempel’s discipline are strong and clear. On standing with the one who has offended, they are largely silent. If this concern is there in the hearts of those who have carried the awfully heavy burden of dealing with this tragic case, then I am deeply disheartened that we cannot find words or means to express such yearning for “healing and hope” for the one who has brought harm on others, and to offer the church’s resources and creative imagination to that end. That must be part of our repertoire if we truly wish to be a peace church. Following Jesus as disciples demands it.

Tom Yoder Neufeld
Waterloo, ON

thank-you T. Yoder-Neufeld for interjecting a word of grace. The public shaming of Brother Rempel for something done decades ago seems unnecessary. Does a life of faithful service count for nothing?

It would be helpful for all pastors to hear a definition of what constitutes sexual misconduct and ministerial misconduct. Is a hug misconduct or a swat on the rear? (ie. Sports) What is included and what is not?

Secondly what is helpful about stripping credentials and banning institutional entrance? Are the accusers feeling unsafe? Are the authorities afraid he will misbehave again? Or is this just punishment?

Sexual misconduct is being talked about WIDLY in the world, it should not be difficult for pastors, or anyone for that matter, to find this information and learn about informed consent. A good rule of thumb is to not touch anyone without their consent. Given that the allegations, which have been found to be credible, are regarding not just misconduct, but sexual misconduct, it is safe to assume that the victims felt sexually harassed; what that looks like is going to be individually based, but will be grounded in the fact that consent was not given.

What is helpful about stripping credentials and institutional bans is that it prevents a predator from holding positions of power over people and is a symbolic gesture to show that he has lost any repute within the institutions he is barred from. Of COURSE his victims would feel unsafe, wouldn’t you? Of course there is worry he would do this again, the only reason he has admitted to wrong doing is because people were finally able to come forward after he harmed them! How can he be trusted after that? Not to mention the fact that his statements show no remorse for his actions and instead ask us to feel bad for him. Does that sound like someone who can be trusted to make better decisions or does it sound like someone who will be more clever about hiding their wrong doing in the the future?

John D. Rempel is a dear friend to me and countless others. He has mentored and inspired many. Now is a time for all of us to take stock of the culture we have created — one in which victims of his sexual misconduct have not felt safe to speak out for fear they would not be heard or believed. The pain of holding these experiences within, for all these 30-40 years, must have been almost unbearable. These are the people who need our empathy now, so that justice and mercy may continue to be brought forth. None of us are pure enough to throw the first stone, but all of us can help build a stronger community which can find better ways for accountability to take place and for healing to occur.

It will not be my practice to respond to every published comment that is made about the findings of misconduct against John D. Rempel. Given that Tom Yoder Neufeld is an emeritus faculty member at Conrad Grebel University College, I am obliged to publicly respond to his letter.

Firstly, I have personally received responses to Yoder-Neufeld’s comments from some of the survivors in this case. They unfortunately experienced the letter as shaming them for coming forward, and pressuring them to quickly forgive. I have communicated directly with Yoder-Neufeld about his letter. I believe that he regrets how his words were received, and that he did not intend to communicate these things.

For my part, I will state again that I am deeply grateful that the survivors came forward to share their experiences. They have helped our College and the wider community address painful truths. I know for a fact that some of the survivors continue to pray that God might forgive their offender, even if they cannot take that step personally. I think that is an extraordinary sign of their faith -- and I think it’s more than enough to expect of them.

Secondly, Yoder-Neufeld’s letter states that the Church and the College have been “largely silent” in expressing concern for the offender in our public statements, and suggests that we have neglected values of mercy and forgiveness. This is untrue. The suggestion that we wish to “cancel” the offender is mere rhetoric that ignores what we actually said. The implication that we have not adequately applied “the church’s resources and creative imagination” towards forgiveness is uninformed by any direct knowledge of our lengthy experience in working on this painful matter to date.

My official statement calls on John’s community to continue supporting him, not to abandon or to shun him. I also invite prayers for “everyone involved.”

MCEC’s press release notes John’s service to the church, that he has done good things, and that he “was, and is, a… beloved pastor, professor and theologian.” It notes that “human beings have the capacity to cause much harm and pain even while they have also done much good…” It commits the church to “walk alongside all those who are impacted.”

Leah Reesor-Keller’s excellent companion piece, Waging Peace Against Ministerial Misconduct and Abuse (https://mcec.ca/article/10843-waging-peace-on-ministerial-misconduct-and...), goes further. It states: “For you who have caused harm, whether intentionally or unintentionally, know that you are also a beloved child of God. We believe in a God of repentance and redemption.”

I share that belief. But belief in a forgiving God does not mean that we should rush to offer forgiveness instantly – much less pressure survivors to forgive. As our community begins the long process of coming to grips with this trauma, I recommend reading Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season.” There is a time and a place for everything. The day may come when we can talk of forgiveness, but now is not that time. Now is the time to confront painful truths. And while I respect everyone’s right to speak out, this might also be a time to more carefully consider the impact of our words, and to listen well.

Marcus Shantz
President, Conrad Grebel University College

—Updated Oct. 26, 2020

I SO appreciate the last paragraph of your response. There is a time for forgiveness but we cannot force it on victims/survivors, nor is it our place to offer forgiveness on their behalf as a “community.” I believe all people who have committed harm deserve to be cared for, I have cared for many myself, but that care can be private and is not the job of victims/survivors nor the wider community that support them out of empathy for shared experience.

The Church and faith based spaces have so often made “forgiveness” obligatory and through that action further silenced and harmed victims/survivors. I am truly so impressed by and thankful for this victim/survivor centred response from yourself and your institution!

Marcus,
your clarity and carefulness give me much reason to be grateful. You are carrying a heavy load. God bless you.

I find it interesting that it is mostly men who are perpetrators, mostly men who speak out in defense of perpetrators and/or mostly men who remain silent when perpetrators are rooted out.

Both the Neufeld and Bergen comments are offensive and uninformed. Jesus was a practicing Jew who believed in justice -- simply said: “the truth comes out.”

As a retired Ethics executive for the largest exporter in the world, I detect that the comments of both men come from a lack of understanding that when one joins an institution and is being paid, one is bound and subject to the ethics, values and by-laws of “the institution”. Conversely, the institution which receives cash for a product or service, has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all under its care.

Both Conrad Grebel and MCEC accept money from constituents, who are assured they and their families are safe and can grow intellectually and spiritually under the auspices of those institutions. Those institutions rely on the public and public trust to stay solvent, and are obligated to “act” when anyone violates the responsibilities of the institution, no matter when it happened. To not act, or to act and not disclose, leaves those who know what occurred or were victimized, with the impression that the institution does not care and did nothing. The institution is obligated to alert those who rely on them, that they take indiscretions seriously, and that they are doing their part to ensure the keeping of their promises of upholding the institution’s values. In addition, pastoral credentials are owned by the issuing institution, not the individual, and are subject to revocation when indiscretions are discovered.

Whether Rempel receives forgiveness is a private matter, not the responsibility of any institution he was part of.

Mr. Bergen’s comment about the institution’s “public shaming of brother Rempel”, exemplifies the problems that perpetuate such abuses. To say, “brother Rempel”, smells like a men’s club. It’s precisely the men’s club that has enabled abuse. Comments such as this show a complete lack of understanding of the issues of abuse of power and serve to ensure the club remains alive and well. In addition, the impact of sexual abuse has no time clock. Victims of sexual abuse suffer for their entire lives. When a pastor, church leader, theologian, or professor enters into the realm of committing sexual abuse, they do so at their own peril, they will be discovered, and their lives of “faithful service” will be forever tarnished.

Thank you MCEC and Conrad Grebel for seeking the right thing to do and taking action. Your actions build confidence in your institutions.

Jeff Altaras

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