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.