More transparency please

December 9, 2015 | Editorial | Volume 19 Issue 24

Sexual misconduct cases by our pastors are difficult to process. These stories, numbering three in the last two years in congregations across Canada, are even harder to report in our publication.

They are stories of abusing power, of crossing boundaries, of letting down congregations and trusting congregants, of creating victims all around—not only of accusers, but of the perpetrators’ family and network of friends, destroying reputations and legacies—especially in the recent case of a long-deceased Ontario pastor.

When the news breaks, friends of both the accused and the accuser tend to take sides: the one, along with advocates, feeling relief that the abuse is finally made public; the other, knowing the perpetrator’s good side, at first disbelieving the story, then questioning the accuser’s credibility and finally expressing anger with the church leadership for announcing the abuse. We have seen enough of this pattern in the last two years across Canada to expect these dynamics to take on a life of their own—and not casually.

In the case of the late Vernon Leis, reported in a news release from Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and carried in our Sept. 14 issue, these dynamics were further complicated by the fact that Leis has been dead for 21 years and could not defend himself. And the accuser does not want to be named for fear of recrimination and being wrongly judged in the court of public opinion.

In charging the deceased pastor, MC Eastern Canada says that after review of the complainant’s account of the sexual misconduct, it had “compelling and credible evidence, despite an inability to test it in the usual investigative fashion.” That “inability” raised questions with us and so we inquired with the executive minister just what that meant. What techniques did the area church use to establish “credibility”?

After all, one of the glaring inadequacies in the Leis case investigation is obvious: The one party to the abuse is not here; therefore, any corroboration is difficult if there were no other accusers at the time.

Our questions to MC Eastern Canada about the process of establishing misconduct were met with a default position of confidentiality. We simply wanted a fuller explanation of that process. None was forthcoming.

This brings us to the bigger question of transparency in any sexual misconduct case. Since the landmark John Howard Yoder case, has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? From the Yoder case, embedded in a past era of patriarchy where powerful men were protected and women victims disbelieved, at worst, or intimidated into silence, at best, our wider communion learned an important lesson, hopefully—that sexual misconduct must be confronted and exposed no matter what level of power of the abuser.

In the Leis case, the area church has focussed, rather, on the healing dynamic. In follow-up stories to the original announcement, all three leaders of MC Eastern Canada are clear that the purpose of dealing with sexual abuse in private—and, when necessary, in public—“is healing, creating a safe place for victims, and ensuring the church is a safe place for everyone,” according to a related article by Eastern Canada correspondent Dave Rogalsky, “Between a rock and a hard place,” on page 15 of this issue.

They are absolutely right. Healing is the ultimate goal. But in getting to that place, would these area church leaders not better serve that purpose by describing more fully the process by which they came to their decision, to provide more information to expressly avoid the kind of division and anger that has followed, especially in this difficult case of charging a dead person? It would be sad if the handling of this case diminishes the respect for, and confidence in, the leadership of MC Eastern Canada. We would hate to see this overshadow all the good leadership the area church is offering.

We are in a new era with sexual misconduct by pastors. No one is completely satisfied with outcomes. Yes, church leaders are put in a difficult position. They would help themselves and us better, we think, if they would be more forthcoming about the process. We appeal to them to open the investigative doors a little wider, to give us a glimpse of the struggle and enlist our empathy, rather than risk diminishing our trust in them.

The Vernon Leis story is not the only one we reported in the last two years. There were two cases in Manitoba. In all of them, we appeal for more transparency on the part of our church leaders.

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I am someone who served on area church executive committees in the 1980s and 1990s, when policies on sexual abuse by pastors were being developed and tested. During those years I worked with Vernon Leis on MCEC's executive committee for a couple of years.

I have several thoughts on this case.

1) As conference leaders we made some mistakes in the early years as policy was developed. Looking back on those initial cases, I now believe it's very hard to achieve justice for all involved -- both the victims and accused..
2) I had reservations about MCEC's handling of the recent Vernon Leis case until I was reminded by someone outside the system that one reason to name accusers is to ascertain whether there might be multiple victims. In reflecting on this basic point, I came to agree with MCEC's decision to identify Leis, even though he was long deceased.
3) The question of publicly identifying victims and the nature of their allegations has enormous potential for collateral damage to the extended families of everyone involved. I recall this debate from those initial cases.
4) How much information about allegations is enough? There is never enough detail to answer all the questions that can be raised. While I may have wished for more background from MCEC, I recognize the difficulty they face in determining how much to say. There is already much gossip about this case circulating within MCEC that is not healthy. But I wonder if more details would only extend the damage.
5) We know the usual process could not be followed since Vernon Leis is deceased. How much more information about process would be enough?

“This brings us to the bigger question of transparency in any sexual misconduct case. Since the landmark John Howard Yoder case, has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?”

How could anybody any knowledge of the scope of the problem with sexual violence in Mennonite churches believe that “the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction” in terms of believing and protecting victims of sexual abuse and assault? Is this really what you think? Here’s what I wish you could understand, as truly and viscerally as victims and their advocates: Vernon Leis is the tip of an enormous iceberg. Most of these names never make it into the pages of any newspaper or Mennonite publication. No, things have not changed that much since the years in which John Howard Yoder got away with rampant harassment and assault of over one hundred women. What you don’t see or acknowledge here is that every time a survivor or survivors’ advocacy group comes forward with the name of a church leader who has been credibly accused of sexual violence, that revelation reflects a long process of excruciating deliberation. What will the consequences be? Will the victim(s) be put in danger? Will the victim(s) be revictimized by the public responses? Will the victim(s) be accused of being crazy, delusional, mentally unstable, unreliable, vengeful, inadequately forgiving, or generally asking for it, and what effect will such accusations have on them? (All of these are standard responses.) Will church and community leaders attack them? Will their families turn against them? Will their sense of safety in the world be even further eroded by the consequences of revealing the name of their perpetrator? Before we even consider the legal ramifications of revealing a predator’s name, we are thinking about all these questions.

As someone who holds the names of many Mennonite predators, most of whom I’ll probably never be able to reveal for just some of the reasons listed above, I want to assure you, Mr. Benner: No, the pendulum has not swung too far in the other direction. The scope of sexual violence in Mennonite churches is still unbelievable. And so it’s much easier not to believe it, and to shoot the messengers. The kinds of misconduct that Leis perpetuated remain vastly underreported. And most church leaders who sexually harass and abuse have multiple victims. Many, if not most, will never be able to say what happened, as hard as we work to make it otherwise. Please think about this when you weigh the effect of your public words.

Stephanie is right on.
What we must remember is that it is NOT the truthtelling that hurts families of victims and abusers.
It is the original violent behavior of the abusers that causes the hurt. It is not the truthtelling. The truthtelling is part of the healing process.
The pendulum has not swung far enough until there are no more victims.

Truth-telling is part of the healing process for everyone directly or even remotely connected to these stories of sexual violence and sexual abuse inside religious communities. However we individually come to understand these issues created by sexual violations inside power-imbalanced professional relationships - and Psychoanalyst Peter Rutter [Sex in the Forbidden Zone] estimates 10% of all professionals in all professions cross these ethical boundaries of morality and common sense - it is clear that a major way for healing to unfold itself in individual lives, in family lives, and in the lives of entire communities is to get as accurate a narrative as possible - even if that narrative remains incomplete in places. Everyone whose life touches upon these narratives of abuse and violation has to make decisions about truth-telling, necessary discretion, gossip, and secrecy. How we decide these issues for ourselves and for others tells us about who we are - as individuals and as a people in community.

What Roman Catholic clinicians, priest-sociologists, religious scholars and sexual violence victim advocates - such as Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, Andrew Greeley, Richard Sipe and Thomas Doyle - are teaching us about sexual abuse inside a particular religious denomination is complex and multi-faceted but it includes the reality that until victims are believed and perpetrators held accountable, healing of the community cannot happen. That healing must be profoundly theological, profoundly sociological and profoundly emotional. I believe - along with these authors, most particularly, Sipe and Doyle - that the religious and spiritual damages are the hardest damages to heal.

Until sexual predators are held accountable for their self-chosen behaviors, there can be no realistic and permanent and healing resolution.

I am neither a Canadian nor a member of the Mennonite Church in Eastern Canada but from what I can ascertain at a distance the executive officers of this conference did the right thing and I am appreciative to them for the angst they endured while making the decision and for their courage in facing down the inevitable criticism from outside. I believe they can help the North American Mennonite churches to develop better protocols for managing sexual predators inside the ordained ministry and inside the various institutions which the church manages such as colleges, relief and service agencies, mission boards, elementary and secondary schools, etc.

My gratitude to MCEC is great for their leadership in this matter.

Ruth Krall
Professor Emeritus, Goshen College

PS: Everyone who can should see the movie "Spotlight" about these issues inside the Roman Catholic Church in Boston in 2002.

The question posed here, "has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?" no doubt reflects the thinking of many faithful Mennonites. It also gives us a clear picture of the job we face in turning this ship around because it implies that the victims of church leader offenses may be getting too much attention and may now be given too much credibility. Thankfully, Stephanie Krehbiel offers a clarion clear response in her online comment. I have more to add.

It is so very, very important this ship gets turned around. Too many lives continue to be destroyed by the compulsive, undisciplined sexually violating behavior of Mennonite church leaders in relation to persons under their care who are placing their trust in them. Too many leaders and lay persons alike stand silently by. These sexual violations of trust too often cause untold suffering and illness much later in life. Vernon Leis is the tip of the iceberg and Stephanie and I are most certainly not the only ones that know that. We just happen to be among the very few who are willing to talk about it in public. I'm grateful to those who stand with us. Why aren't there more?

I believe we turn this ship around by starting to dispel some harmful myths and false beliefs that surround this issue. Here are the first ones that come to my mind. I invite you to add your own:

1) False belief: victims tend to lie about these matters. They don't tend to lie. If and when they do, law enforcement professionals and experienced survivors' organizations like SNAP (and others they could recommend) can help detect it. No matter how sincere and committed to this cause, church insiders who have known the perp as a respected leader or close personal friend cannot possibly be objective or even helpful. And seminary or counseling degrees certainly do not cover the required investigative training. I would encourage lay people to refuse to serve on these soul-draining and heart-wrenching internal committees.

2) False belief: offending church leaders can become a victim themselves of the sexual advances of a person under their care or authority. They cannot. Peter Rutter's "Sex in the Forbidden Zone" dispels this highly damaging and destructive myth so I won't attempt to address it here. If you care to weigh in about this issue at all, please consider reading this short book before you do.

3) False belief: we will stop this plague by treating a reported church leader as innocent until proven guilty or claim that because a leader is dead and cannot defend himself, it is unfair to report him publicly; and we'll address this troubling report by assigning an investigative church panel made up of insiders who will be able to discern the truth. For the reporting victim, who is often around the age of 40 or 50 just starting to deal with the serious impact of what happened years earlier, this attitude speaks volumes: "Your report as a victim will be assumed false until proven true. Since he's dead you are out of luck. Your report will go nowhere and his other victims will never be notified. The impact on your life means nothing to us. Don't bother reporting, just get over it, forgive him, and get on with your life. Can't you do that for the good of the church and God's mission in the world? You are quite justifiably destined to suffer in silence or be damned by your beloved community, a community to whom you have given your life and your soul. Is it really worth all that?" And there are still those who wonder why a victim of sexualized violence in the Mennonite Church would remain silent?

When will Mennonite leaders realize they are in over their heads when it comes to the reporting of sexual predators? When will they own that they are not equipped? When will they stop hiring Mennonite lawyers to protect the institution instead of the body of believers they serve? (MCEC deserves thanks, not criticism, for taking the opposite approach) When will Mennonite leaders come clean and pass this viper's tangle of offenses they know about on to more objective outsiders who are professionally trained and experienced in sexual violation? When will they act in ways that truly help stop this behavior and turn this ship around? When will they speak for the many who cannot. When will they publicly warn the broader membership, the parishioners they serve, of those perpetrators reported to them over the years who are still alive and possibly serving vulnerable populations?

If I'm making false assumptions of my own, I would be most grateful to hear otherwise.

Barbra Graber, Associate Editor,
Leader, Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP 540-214-8874

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