A Timeline of What Happened in Harrisonburg in 2016: My View
just when the power of positive thinking had me thinking I had some control i got knocked to my knees by a hot dog wagon. not flattened not thrown not knowing what hit me just knocked to my knees and forced to bow down. – Mama Donna Henes
If lessons are going to be learned from this complex, tragic saga that unfolded in the Harrisonburg Mennonite community in 2016 and is still unfolding today, the detail of the grassroots backstory where sexual abuse survivors and their advocates continue to live and struggle needs to be told.
I don’t speak for every survivor or advocate and I am not an expert on the inner workings of church institutions. I am, however, an expert on the experience of sexual violence. I know the horrible impact it has on the large numbers of lives it interrupts and the souls it shreds in the Anabaptist Mennonite community. I’ve watched as the pain ripples out far beyond the predatory act itself. I am getting a much clearer sense of the particular strategies Mennonite perpetrators use, with the help of their enabling friends, bosses, and colleagues, to keep their deeply harmful and ongoing activities just under the radar and hidden from the best of us.
So I want to tell you what happened in my corner in 2016 and how SNAPMennonite colleagues and Our Stories Untold (which I was editing at the time) scrambled to work with what was happening as it happened. A more succinct timeline and assessment of the year’s revelations was published at IntoAccount.org on February 7, 2016.
I’m writing a detailed record of my view from the ground because you deserve the opportunity to know and see and learn about the macrocosm of church worker sexual abuse from the microcosm of this one small case. I hope it will inspire you to stand up and speak up– first to independent authorities, groups and agencies outside the church —about anything you have seen, suspected or suffered. This could range from gut feelings to first hand knowledge. It’s important to speak up no matter how long ago it happened or whether you think it’s all that serious, because abusers tend toward abusing more than once and and the rumor mill often minimizes rather than exaggerates reality. It’s important for every caring adult to take responsibility for the safety of others in your own corners, in your own home towns, conferences and congregations. We want to make it safer for you to come forward. We want to let you know you are no longer alone.
On January 8, 2016 I woke up to discover the face of Eastern Mennonite University’s Vice President of Enrollment splashed across our local Harrisonburg (VA) media. He had been charged with solicitation of prostitution. I felt sad. I didn’t know him and had never met him, but he was caught up in a local sting operation conducted by the Harrisonburg Police Department and the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department.
I immediately thought about the VP’s family and how hard this must be for them and I thought about how devastated I would feel if this happened to a family member I loved and trusted.
I thought about EMU, an institution to whom I gave my heart and soul over a couple decades and made some of the best memories of my life. I thought about the people I know and care for there who would likely be scrambling to address this bad news.
I also wondered, based on my immersion in the Mennonite church abuse crisis since the early 90’s, what other misdeeds Hartman might be up to.
But mostly I was relieved that this would be one Mennonite sex abuse case I didn’t need to wade into. It was about prostitution after all, with the possibility of racial profiling mixed in.
I went on with my day.
On January 9, 2016, one of my fellow Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP members suggested we write a SNAP press release for Mennonite and local Harrisonburg media/maybe DC/Hyattsville, MD newspapers.
Ugh. Please no. Let me go hide in a cave now, okay? I immediately replied with the following:
Sorry but I’m not at all interested in making this a SNAP media event. There is no statistical connection that I’m aware between seeing prostitutes and being a rapist or sexual predator…My plate is full with ..child molesters and church leaders who prey on the young and vulnerable. There is no evidence whatsoever that Hartman is such a man and to assume so doesn’t seem fair to me.
Then David Clohessy, former Executive Director of SNAP, chimed in. SNAP issues calls for additional information when reports of sexual misconduct of any kind surface in the media, recognizing that victims will often not speak out or report unless they feel safe to report after others have reported the same person. Clohessy sent us the beginnings of a possible press statement:
We hope Menno officials, at this school and across the world, will be similarly forthcoming in cases of sexual crimes and exploitation against innocent kids and vulnerable adults…We have no reason to believe that Hartman hurt any EMU students. We hope that’s not the case. But here’s a quick and easy way to help find out: Univ officials should use mailings, newsletters, websites and other means to seek out any potential victims, witnesses or whistleblowers. There’s a huge difference between prostitution and abuse. A man who does one doesn’t necessarily do the other. But to be prudent, EMU officials should be proactive, not silent. They should actively help police and prosecutors by encouraging anyone who may have seen suspected or suffered any crimes by Hartman to come forward. . .
Hmmm. That’s a completely new and bold idea. What do I know? Maybe I’d best rethink this.
According to Clohessy, SNAP has learned through decades of experience, that repeat offending church workers are rarely if ever stopped from continuing to abuse except through criminal courts, civil courts, or broad media attention–in other words, public exposure. Convicted sex offenders serving time and those repentant ones I’ve met report the same: “I would never have stopped had she not spoken out and reported me.” It’s sad that it takes such extreme measures for those who need help to get it. But it seems that is reality.
I learned other things from Clohessy that week. How a public notice, despite its legal risks, is one of the most effective deterrents available. It sends a message to those who would do harm that their days of hiding are over and if they don’t get help they’ll be exposed; and simultaneously it sends a powerful assurance to those survivors suffering in silence that it is safer now to come forward.
What SNAP has known for decades about Catholics, I’ve also known about Mennonites: Repeat sex offenders holding powerful, respected positions tend to be given opportunity by their faith communities and families to continue offending until they are in the grave. And they do continue to offend. I learned that the risk I have felt is real, not exaggerated or make believe.
“If there is even a chance that there are other victims out there, why not make the effort to reach them,” David asked?
During a phone call a few days later, David explained further about the practice of issuing public invitations for others to come forward when sexual misconduct reports surface. It is inspired by the biblical Parable of the Lost Sheep from Matthew 18. The ‘90 and 9’ will take care of themselves but this may be the last night a ‘lost sheep’, a silent, shamed, survivor of sexual violence, finds the energy to stay alive. How can we let him know we are out here, that we care, that we believe him, and that it wasn’t his fault? Tears came up in me as Clohessy related this biblical guiding metaphor. I myself was one of those lost sheep Jesus left the shelter of the fold to find.
Soon other topics to consider were brought to the table. Lisa Schirch, another founding member of our chapter, shared an NPR program on sex trafficking and prostitution in the Shenandoah Valley. A conversation I had never engaged before came to life across email and over phone lines. What are the problems inherent in making the assumption that sex workers are being abused? What are the links between prostitution and other forms of sexual violence?
Then we struggled with how to move forward given Hartman’s role is an African American leader in the church. The vast majority of our work has focused on white male abusers in Mennonite institutions. We were concerned from the beginning about how the university would respond to accusations against the only Black EMU administrator and how their students of color would be served. We were concerned there would be efforts to focus on the tip of the iceberg (one Black man) and ignore the large numbers of white men who had gotten away with it and were still hiding their misdeeds from public scrutiny.
African American faculty and students at EMU have told us the call for information on Hartman felt racist and unfair. In hindsight, I regret that we did not convene a group of EMU’s African American colleagues to consult on how to proceed given our Mennonite institutional history on both race and sexual violence. Lisa Schirch consulted with her colleagues of color at EMU on how we can continue to address both, without having to chose one over the other. We welcome additional feedback from people with something at stake in this conversation.
In a recent blog series on Our Stories Untold, Director Hilary Scarsella writes about how the racial dynamics of sexualized violence are perpetuated through Western and North American cultures. Regina Shands Stoltzfus explores how racism and sexism are twin oppressions. Janice Batt’s recent untold story on OSU illustrates how the two issues are inextricably tied together, yet too often pitted against one another. We advocate that leaders listen to the voices and needs of all those affected by racism and sexual violence.
We kept listening.
We heard it was ‘well-known’ that Luke had extramarital affairs. We know from first hand reports of those we serve that when the word ‘affair’ is associated with a male church official it is often a codeword for a married man in a position of authority using that authority to groom young, often previously traumatized women, for coercive, abusive sex, with deeply harmful consequences to the young women or men.
Keith Morris, a SNAP Menno chapter founding member and survivor who has received awards for his work with Virginia and Indiana Departments of Health on sexual assault issues, told us of concerns he had about Luke’s treatment of women for years and that he had spoken with EMU President Loren Swartzendruber about them in 2014. He was told they were ‘handling it.’
Now it was clear. It had not been ‘handled.’
Given the complexities of the case, I expected negative fallout if we issued a public SNAP invitation for anyone with more information to come forward. But in the end it seemed we had to at least attempt to reach others who may be out there who could help discover the full truth. I also knew lives could be at stake.
On January 11, 2016, our first SNAP press release went out with my name and private contact information as a SNAP Leader. It offered an invitation for anyone who has seen, suspected, or suffered sexual misdeeds by Hartman to come forward to outside, independent agencies. The invitation was careful to state that the call was not a conclusion that Hartman was guilty, but rather an attempt to reach victims, witnesses or whistleblowers who may be able to shed some light.
My heart was beating out of my chest when I pressed Send from the SNAP media email account.
I was grateful that Executive Director of a primary Mennonite news source, The Mennonite, received the press release and immediately posted it as an article titled Mennonite Church urged to do outreach in school case. I was also grateful that Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, Ervin Stutzman and Anna Groff, chair of the newly appointed Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, posted an invitation for others to come forward with more information on the MC USA website. Anna called me for permission to use quotes from our SNAP press release in the article they were writing. We were disappointed that they chose to invite persons with information to go to selected church insiders instead of the outside options we listed.
Here’s why that’s a problem: Holding a position of respect in one’s church does not come with training in sex crime interviews and investigations. Reporting first to church insiders too often creates unexpected conflicts of interest (i.e. turns out your perpetrator was your pastor’s college roommate). Too often reporting to church leaders throws victims into an entrenched perpetrator-friendly system that too often lacks the will to hold the reported perpetrator publicly accountable should that be the discloser’s wishes. The present system too often worries over healing at the expense of seeking justice for the one harmed. It resists taking swift measures to protect the public safety while protecting the anonymity of the victim. And it seems to ignore the plentiful research about the myth of false allegations. Ignoring this empirical research leads to setting up stressful and laborious internal inquiries with untrained lay leaders to attempt to prove what has already been proven within a 2% margin of error. Victims tell the truth. Their perpetrators tend not only to lie, minimize and bend the truth, they are among the best liars on the planet.
Having said that, let me hasten to say that in the case of the MC USA posting, I was not counting losses. This was a new, clear, supportive action and I thanked Anna and Ervin for it.
But then suddenly, mysteriously, the MC USA post vanished from the web. We were later told this was because some Mennonite Church Executive Board members did not feel adequately consulted and there were also strong objections from at least one legal consultant. In the short span of time the invitation was up, however, a friend of Marissa Buck caught a glimpse of it and sent her a text. She knew about what had happened to Marissa’s sister. Marissa went to the site. The notice was gone. But she persisted and eventually found the posted invitation at The Mennonite. The move to remove the notice by MC USA felt like a life raft thrown and then retracted leaving the one drowning flailing in the water.
On February 7, 2016 the following email arrived in our email@example.com confidential email:
"My name is Marissa, and my sister was abused by Luke Hartman. She already came forward and we told our church about the abuse …. I am curious what steps my sister and I haven’t taken that we should take….. I would appreciate any resources or your perspective. Thank you.
So began a journey with two of the most courageous, compassionate and determined young women I have ever met, along with their supportive parents.
By February 15 Marissa, with Lauren, had written out the full story. We learned that Lindale Mennonite Church pastors and a few others in the congregation had been told Lauren’s account of sexual abuse, stalking, and threats of violence by EMU’s then vice president of enrollment back in August of 2014. We learned their pastors told her they believed her, promised they would protect her from Hartman, and that EMU would be informed. She was relieved that her report to Lindale managed to stop the stalking; but as time went by and Hartman remained in his high level church position, she and her family became concerned. Why was he being given continued opportunity to abuse again?
The week was filled with emails, video conferences, texts and phone calls between chapter members as we scrambled to figure out our working relationship, share decision making expectations, and discern a way forward as it appeared this was going to be a much more complex story than we’d imagined.
That same week I consulted with other SNAP leaders and victim-advocates whose experiences surpassed my own. They reaffirmed and further clarified my own beliefs and practices:
Survivors are always in charge, but it’s my duty to encourage them to explore ALL their options before they make any decisions about how to move forward.
My job as an advocate is to help them connect with independent professional experts who can provide guidance in meeting their own personal goals for healing and justice.
SNAP is a self-help support group of survivors. We are not therapists. We are peers. We must not make decisions for or attempt to manipulate our own agendas onto victims who disclose to us.
We assure all who report to us that we believe them, that they have nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by because they did nothing wrong.
We remind them that never before in history has there been such a multitude of support for victims, witnesses and whistleblowers who are ready to step forward and speak their truth.
By February 26 without further solicitation on our part, more reports had come to us in response to our invitation for more information. I took what I had to the Harrisonburg Police Department, being careful to guard the identities of those who had shared confidentially with me, including the Benner family. I met Corporal Phillip Wonderly and learned of his involvement with the HPD’s efforts to stop the sexual exploitation of young girls who are bought and sold and shuttled up and down I-81, a road we travel often just a few miles from our home.
That weekend Dale and I and our new pup Abby headed to DC to take part in a nation wide SNAP action to pressure Catholic officials to release the names of accused predatory priests and nuns whose names were being protected.
On February 29 Steve and Leanne Benner, the parents of Lauren and Marissa, dropped by. It turns out they lived just a few blocks away from Dale and me. My heart went out to these loving parents. Theirs was a familiar story of the heartbreak of secondary victims. They had once again been thrown back into the pain of discovering that trusted authorities in the church of their daughters’ birth had betrayed them.
On March 3, 2016 we issued a second press release. The reports we had received added up to a strong indication that Hartman, according to earlier rumors, had a well-known history of “affairs” along with sexist and verbally aggressive behaviors. Yet, he was reported to be on the short list at both Goshen and EMU for two high level positions. This time our press release let the public know we had received reports from others and asked again for our Mennonite institutions to join us in helping prevent more abuse:
We urge Mennonite church institutions and agencies to use their financial resources and legal protections under the law to seek out and support victims, witnesses and whistleblowers in reporting to a trained law professional or independent agency what they suspect or know about the sexual misconduct of any Mennonite church worker, ordained or lay.
Neither the accused, the violated, nor the public safety is served by protecting the names of church officials who are at risk for doing sexual harm to others. Those anointed with the power of the Church to lead a faith community must… [not be at risk for] criminal or unethical behavior that could cause harm to those under their care…..
On March 4, 2016 Marissa and Lauren sent word they had set up a Skype call with Corporal Wonderly at the Harrisonburg Police Department to file their reports. After filing my own reports, I felt certain Lauren and Marissa’s report would be taken seriously and received with respect.
With both courage and trepidation, knowing their actions could have irreversible personal consequences for them and their families, both the Benner sisters and their parents chose to talk with law enforcement. They also expressed interest in seeking out a civil attorney experienced in victim advocacy to offer further counsel.
It’s important to note that many survivors, especially people of color, have traumatic, demeaning and demoralizing experiences with law enforcement. That’s why we strongly recommend an experienced advocate or advisor be present in making any report concerning sexualized violence, including those made to school and church officials.
In this case, our experience with Harrisonburg Police Department and the Harrisonburg Commonwealth’s attorney’s office turned out to be a very positive one. We called Wonderly Captain America because we kept forgetting his name, and Clohessy joked that he must surely have an associate named Captain Tremendously. Corporal Wonderly was respectful and professional and showed a caring commitment not only towards us, but toward the plight of young victims of abusive prostitution in Harrisonburg.
Finally someone in authority showed they understood the real seriousness of what Hartman had done to Lauren. Lauren remarked how odd and sad it was to realize she felt more kindness and empathy from local civil authorities than she did from her church community or EMU.
When counsel indicated both criminal and civil options for legal actions were off the table, Lauren and Marissa decided to engage publicly with those who may have had similar experiences by writing and publishing their personal accounts on Our Stories Untold.
I remember the day I reviewed with Lauren the many levels of anonymity available to survivors who choose to publish their untold story with us. “I wouldn’t want to bother telling it if I don’t reveal my name and Luke’s name”, she said. And so, with full knowledge of potential legal and personal consequences the writing and editing for this resilient young mother and her sister began.
Lauren and Marissa’s accounts were textbook for what I already knew to have happened to survivors of sexual violence across the church for many generations. These accounts often share the same trajectory. Sexually predatory behavior is mysterious and uncanny. It follows a pattern of trolling, grooming, then abusing. They troll for a child, teenager, woman or man who might be emotionally weakened or otherwise vulnerable. Perhaps by traumatic life experience such as the death of a child, an abusive marriage, or a prior experience with sexual violence. They also troll for those who are especially compassionate, giving, and open hearted, and maybe a bit shy.
The grooming phase involves gaining trust, sometimes by taking on the role of ‘counselor’ or father figure. The sexual abuse can happen either gradually through deeply powerful emotional manipulations and subtle sexual harassments that lead to ongoing abusive sexual activity; or it can be sudden and out of the blue, when they least expect it, a shocking push up against the wall, aggressive kissing and groping, a digital rape. This version only takes seconds, but it can forever altar a life.
When a woman attempts to retreat from such a ‘relationship’, that’s when it can turn even uglier. That’s when stalking and harassment behaviors may set in. That’s when she might report to her pastor and that’s when the pastor, instead of getting her help through a survivors network like SNAP, a local crisis center or by calling civil authorities, makes a decision to go directly to the perpetrator himself. The perpetrator now assures him it was all in her head, that she seduced him, preyed on him, and misunderstood his pastoral intentions, that she is making a mountain out of a molehill, has an axe to grind, cannot be trusted. Or he might immediately confess, cry and beg forgiveness, swear its never happened before and will never happen again. He may turn the attention away from the deeply harmful act just committed onto his own troubled past. He may suicide. And the pastor wants so badly to believe his story–and even more importantly– believe he can be ‘restored’. The pastor believes in second chances. But he’s in over his head. If others become aware of the complaint, the response can be fierce rejection and isolation of the woman for daring to interrupt “God’s holy work” by a good Christian man.
Since there has been no public announcement of the details of what has transpired, the offending church worker is now free to create a furor of underhanded gossip and chastisement against the ‘wayward woman’. Survivors describe this phase of the church’s response to those who break the code of silence as “more difficult to recover from than the abuse itself.”
Lauren and Marissa’s story had some similarity to others I’d heard before.
But this time there was a big difference.
This time the survivor named Lauren Shifflett and her fierce advocate sister Marissa Buck, found the strength and determination to stand fully in the light of truth and tell publicly exactly what they knew to be true because they had experienced it first hand. This level of first person detailed truth telling and naming of a high level church official’s abusive behavior had not happened to this extent, to my knowledge, in the history of our church. Sharon Detweiler’s detailed expose of John Howard Yoder’s abuses in January of 2015 came the closest as far as I know. The 8 women who bypassed church insiders to tell Tom Price at the Elkhart Truth about the sexual assaults John Howard Yoder perpetrated against them would also figure in. There are surely others I don’t know about.
Around this time my friend Abe Clymer, may he rest in peace, told me the word on the street was that “Barbra Graber was writing all that stuff herself and none of it was true—it was all made up.” Hah.
As an editor of Our Stories Untold, I aim to help our writers express in the clearest way possible the truth that is on their hearts and minds to tell. Helping along the untold stories in a way that feels freeing despite the inherent risks public disclosure brings, is one of my life’s most sacred and treasured tasks. I would never put words into a survivor’s mouth, coerce them into speaking about something they were not ready to speak about, or knowingly speak an untruth about the violence they have survived.
On March 23, 2016 it became necessary to issue another press release, this time announcing a news conference:
On Sunday, officials at Lindale Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg gave congregants a letter….[in which] church officials admit that “an abusive relationship . . .was brought to our attention in August 2014” involving a victim “who has been deeply traumatized by Hartman.” They claim they initiated “disciplinary measures” and have been “attempting to hold Luke accountable for his actions.”
Leaders of SNAP believe Lindale pastors and board members “had a civic and moral duty to call police immediately about this report” and “have no business trying to handle alleged crimes quietly and internally.” The group is urging law enforcement to investigate whether church officials broke any laws, especially “their obligation to report suspected violent crimes” to secular officials.
My spouse Dale Metzler and I stood alone outside the Harrisonburg Police Department on a chilly spring day with SNAP banners, prepared to talk to the media. We delivered the press release and the Lindale letter to the HPD. Only one photographer from the Daily News Record showed up. But social media was already proving a key outlet for reaching people directly. We later heard a rumor was circulating that we had staged a protest march around the courthouse!
On March 25, 2016 Abe Clymer showed up to the regular weekly prayer times Dale and I had set up with a group of concerned Harrisonburg Mennonites. I was in over my head and knew I needed to garner the power of ‘two or three gathered’ to pray. Abe shared with us that day that a friend had told him she too had an ugly experience with Hartman. It appeared her’s followed some of the same pattern as Lauren’s. She had suffered greatly as a result of her encounters and was thrust back into the trauma due to all the recent media coverage. It was understandably not safe for her to come forward publicly, but Lauren Shifflett sent word that if and when she is ready, she would be there for her.
If EMU had dismissed Hartman in 2014 and publicized the reasons for dismissal, would this woman’s life been turned upside down?
Around this same time there were indications that Lindale Mennonite Church pastor Duane Yoder was intentionally covering for Hartman. Abe was told by someone who was in the meeting that Yoder got up in a men’s bible study at Park View Mennonite Church soon after Hartman was charged with solicitation of prostitution and told the men gathered that it was all a sham and a frame up. What Yoder did or did not do with the critical information he had received from the Benner family in August of 2014 was still unknown to us.
On March 29, 2016 Dale and I were in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham General District Court on behalf of the Benner family when a judge dismissed Hartman’s solicitation of prostitution charges. The courtroom audio and video recordings showed Hartman had called a prostitute from I-81, arranged to meet her in a hotel room, walked into the room and put his money down on the table. But when the undercover prostitute asked him what service he wanted, his response was “companionship.” For a conviction, Virginia statutes demand that a specific illegal sex act must be audibly requested. Since none was requested, the case was dismissed. The judge said “intentions were clear, but the law is the law.” The charge was later successfully expunged from his record.
By April 10, 2016, Lauren had completed her final edits on her OSU report. Legal risks and unknown outcomes had been reviewed with all concerned. All the husbands (Dale Metzler, Sam Buck, TC Shifflett and Sam Scarsella) had been given opportunity to stop this train if it felt too risky for any one of our families. But each one of them thankfully gave their blessing. We scheduled Lauren’s story to be posted on Our Stories Untold on April 12.
My thoughts turned to Luke and his family. When a trusted and respected man of faith is exposed, the pain ripples out to an ocean of secondary victims. It’s another reason we must stop this plague now. So many lives are affected. I consulted with others concerning how we could, to the best of our ability, publish Lauren’s story with integrity and care for all involved.
On April 11, 2016, Hilary Scarsella and I sent the following note to Loren Swartzendruber, EMU President, and Rodney Alderfer, Chair of Council Ministries at Lindale Mennonite Church:
RE: Action concerning Luke Hartman
Dear Loren and Rodney,
We are writing to you, Loren, as employer of Luke Hartman during the time he stalked Lauren Shifflett; and we are writing to you, Rodney, as a congregational leader at Lindale Mennonite Church where Lauren Shifflett originally reported Luke’s actions.
For the healing and safety of everyone involved, we want to make you aware that we are posting the full detail of Lauren’s abusive experience with Luke Hartman on our blog OurStoriesUntold.com
We hope you will respond prudently, pastorally and appropriately to those others you feel would benefit from this knowledge.
Hilary Scarsella, Director Barbra Graber, Editor OurStoriesUntold OurStoriesUntold
On April 12 Lauren’s story went live. It tells how she communicated her concerns for her physical safety to her pastors at Lindale Mennonite Church in 2014 following yet another stalking event with Hartman. She reports that she became close with Hartman when he was her Sunday School teacher, that he had acknowledged having sexual feelings for her beginning when she was 15, and that the long term sexual abuse involved coercion and manipulations known as grooming, then stalking, sexual and verbal abuse, and threats of violence.
On April 15, EMU released an internal email from EMU President Loren Swartzendruber. The memo was laden with ambiguity and minimization, raising even more questions for us about who knew what when. I wish Loren Swartzendruber had reached out to me or other SNAP or OSU colleagues before publishing the memo to see if his response would help or hinder the cause of stopping sexual violence across the church. I wish he had stopped himself from assuming we were the enemy. I was not a stranger to him. And neither was my work. I had consulted with him before. I had known and respected Loren since our days as students at Iowa Mennonite High School and I appreciated him as my President when I was a member of his faculty. I thought we were on good terms.
On April 19, because of the potentially demoralizing effect EMU’s memo would have on survivors, Hilary and I felt it necessary to post a response. Our Open Letter to EMU caused ire among our closest friends. “Vitriolic”, was how one friend described it to me. How could we dare suggest that survivors of sexual violence are likely not best served by reporting to the EMU employees assigned to take their reports? (See January 11 above for help with the answer.)
On April 20 a former EMU employee who had worked closely with Hartman wrote a heartfelt letter to Lauren describing alarming and troubling experiences of his own. This person’s report meant the world to both Lauren and Marissa. It meant someone else corroborated the understandings they had, but few had taken seriously. Here is an excerpt:
….. Even after several staff had complained about his threatening behavior, intimidation, verbally abusive outbursts, EMU’s administrators and HR office apparently just stood by… [EMU’s] HR and the cabinet had TOO MANY warnings that he….did not share the lifestyle and behavioral standards expected by the wider campus community. The day they announced his appointment on Facebook, someone commented directly on their post [expressing concern about his hiring.]
So EMU knew from day 1 that there were issues. Not long after that they had further warnings that he was verbally abusive towards an EMU employee. If Lauren’s situation was reported in September of 2014, that means, as far as I can tell, Loren Swartzendruber kept him in a position of power knowing of two “affairs” and 3 intimidating, verbally abusive outbursts with staff.”
On April 21, 2016 two compassionate, creative recent EMU alumni, Emily Harnish and Erika Bobikow read Lauren’s account and were concerned about what was happening. They issued their own Open Letter to EMU alumni, asking EMU to listen to survivors and act in their best interests. Over 300 alumni signed their names publicly in support.
On the same day, Marissa Buck posted her account about her sister’s experience with Lindale Mennonite Church starting in August of 2014. It seemed that as long as Lauren and Marissa were willing to remain quiet, accept the kindness and support exactly as it was offered them by church folks –which meant listening to their feelings and talking with them about their healing– everything was just fine. When Hartman was arrested for soliciting prostitution, a full year and a half after they had reported him to the church, their nightmare as a family came roaring back.
When the Benners began to express nagging concerns about the lack of accountability and contacted SNAP, they quickly became not fine in the eyes of many. By contacting our independent survivor’s network which maintains independence from church structures of any kind, a deeply entrenched code of silence was broken.
It’s a code we learn from birth: Never tell outsiders about the sexual misdeeds committed against you by insiders.
When Marissa chose to publicly reveal the actions and reactions of not only Lindale Church, but EMU and the larger Virginia Mennonite Conference, the Benners and OSU along with SNAP were shut out.
Meanwhile readers found their way to Lauren Shifflett’s and Marissa Buck’s untold story. In the first few days, the hits for Lauren’s story reached over 10,000. In totals, it has received nearly 35,000 hits. Hundreds of supportive emails came in and many public comments were left on the blog. Lauren told me how much she appreciated those left by Mennonite pastors who were willing to identify themselves as such. There were few such public comments, but those pastors who spoke out, spoke with the greatest care.
Only a few Lindale Mennonite Church members, many who have known the Benner sisters since they were children, have offered public support of them. Instead, efforts to protect and defend the reputations of the various institutions and their leaders who were affected by the sisters’ exposé went into full force and continue to a large extent today.
On April 22 EMU published another statement responding to the concerns raised by Erika and Emily and those alumni who signed on to their letter. It was an effort to repair the breach. They expressed regret for the harm suffered “as a result of Luke Hartman’s actions”, but no regret for their own actions. It included a generalized request for “forgiveness where they have fallen short.” But the statement offered no evidence that they understand the specific ways they fell short.
On April 24 Erika and Emily sent out another email to the EMU alumni in response to the April 22 memo. In this email they said they were happy that the newest response from EMU shows improvement. They go on to say:
….as important as these first steps are, we want to emphasize that we still find the University’s response inadequate…..We need accountability and progress….. We want an investigative committee that includes multiple stakeholders on campus as well as neutral third parties. We need people outside of EMU to be involved in this investigation as they can provide an unbiased perspective, voice thoughts, and push for actions without fear of reprisal. We hope that this committee work will be restorative and responsive to people who have felt unsafe and unheard. We have been impressed by how the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) has documented and reflected on their complicity in the abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder and we desire that our university do similarly.
They closed by encouraging more persons to sign on to “let the university know that alumni are paying close attention to their treatment of victims of sexual assault” and they announced their plan to present the signatures to the Board of Trustees at their June meeting.
On April 26 Lauren and Marissa sent a letter of thanks to the Panel On Sexual Abuse Prevention which was tasked with making a recommendation to MC USA about how to respond to their public testimony. The Panel had posted an article on March 4 in which they publicly commit to give priority to the “rights and experience of victims” as they “develop processes to respond justly… to any complaints brought forward.” Lauren and Marissa also responded to an invitation extended to them by the Panel when they visited Harrisonburg, May 14, 2016. In this communication the sisters talk about why it is difficult to trust church appointed officials.
We want to trust you but every Mennonite group we’ve encountered has let us down. You have not yet earned our trust. There is a very real possibility your decision on how to handle the harm we experienced at the hands of Lindale and EMU will break our hearts, which is the very reason I (Lauren) am refusing to speak for myself in front of the panel. My heart cannot bear to be let down by another group of Mennonites. Frankly, we are anticipating more secrecy and silence so that we won’t have to grieve when that is exactly what comes of the panel gathering together in May. That is why I’ve asked Barbra Graber to be my representative/advocate during that panel and why I’ve asked that she be given time to speak. We’ve learned to protect ourselves and until you prove that you can rise above the sugary sweet lawyer speak that we’ve been fed by these institutions that have left us sick to our stomachs for the past few months.. we just can’t find the energy to put confidence or trust in your ability to handle this situation. Please prove us wrong. Please prove all of us wrong.
…….My case (where there has been very clear wrong done) should warrant progressive, visible action and a public statement on the MC USA website calling out people/institutions whose inaction put people at risk. If the panel doesn’t take action and your findings or conclusions are kept confidential, then in my opinion the sex abuse panel amounts to nothing more than a disapproving teacher who will give these intimidating, smooth-talking men a quick slap on the wrist and allow them to breathe a sigh of relief, go home, and continue where they left off the next day. When do victims get their turn to breathe a sigh of relief? I sure have not felt such relief for as long as I can remember.
My story is sacred to me. I’m scared to be a halfhearted, hesitant first attempt that is referred back to as the way the panel shouldn’t handle a sex abuse case going forward. My story deserves to be handled correctly – THIS time. I poured pain, tears, fear, vulnerability and grief into those words.
Let us express to you our fears. We fear you will not find the truth at Lindale or at EMU. Are you prepared to face the fact that they will most likely choose self preservation over truth? You already have so much information to draw from. You have my story. You have my sister’s story. You have open letters from OSU to EMU. You have open letters from EMU Alumni to EMU. You have EMU’s inadequate responses to the increasing discontent and anger felt in the community about this situation, responses that sound like they are being influenced by lawyers or higher-ups because they know they need protection. ….We are skeptical. We don’t really care how pretty Duane’s explanations are or how perfect Loren phrases his ignorance of the entire situation. Being a good speaker doesn’t imply innocence……
Thank you for taking on such a difficult assignment. We want to trust you, and we express all of this to you in friendship and hope. Our blessings and best wishes go with you all.
Carry on, Warriors,
Lauren Benner Shifflett and Marissa Benner Buck
On April 27 an email came in to Lauren and me from a woman who said she was “angry, disgusted and fed up with church leaders covering up abuse.” She went on to ask “has anyone looked into Duane Yoder’s past?…Someone needs to stop him and others before they hurt someone else…I am fed up with Mennonites trying to fix things but not really. It feels like the leaders are protected and the victims aren’t believed.” She told of a terrible experience a friend of hers had had with Duane Yoder and a mishandled, eviscerating church response.
On April 28 a call from an EMU alumnus came in with report of yet another young woman Luke had targeted. Now there were three, in addition to (or including?) the ones Keith Morris had heard from. This person had written the FB message on EMU’s page the day Luke was hired as a VP in 2011 (April 20). It was taken down immediately but he then received phone calls from both Loren Swartzendruber and Duane Yoder. I asked him if he would write up his account of what happened. Here is an excerpt I have permission to share:
What I do know is [Duane] Yoder tried to run as much damage control as he could once it was known I had contacted a variety of people [about Hartman]…. From the beginning of this whole thing it was them protecting one of their own, no matter what they had done or the evidence presented against them. Key points: I notified Loren [Swartzendruber] to warn against this hiring and as an alumni and HR professional, it would be a terrible move to have someone of this character and history representing EMU in this position. I had several conversations with Loren and as a result of the conversations, I never felt he was going to take any real action on the matter. I had several conversations with [Duane] Yoder, one of the first was when the comment was made “ I’m a big guy. I’m 6 ft, 300 pounds”, which was humorous to me that a pastor was trying to intimidate me. When he realized I wasn’t going to back down from anything this is when he began with the rhetoric [that I was]… becoming close to being litigious. I knew in my heart they would sweep this under the rug and that is why I tried to make aware as many people within EMU as I could, with the hope of holding EMU leadership accountable. 2011, Loren knew, I don’t know who else on the leadership team knew but I assume some had to hear, as I also contacted friends in the Financial aid office to let them know, the HR team knew… Athletic coaches knew, but to no avail.
This whistleblower alumnus said he was taken aback by the lack of respect he received from Swartzendruber and Yoder in 2011. His only intentions were to save others from harm. So when he was asked to an interview with D. Stafford and Associates (DSA), the firm later hired by EMU to conduct an inquiry, he declined. With his permission I included his statement in my Affidavit to DSA. As we both predicted, its relevance was dismissed, evidently because no laws had been broken. This is part of the broader pattern in the DSA report on EMU in which they focus on the law rather than protection of survivors and prevention of future abuse.
So please, let this sink in: A vice president of enrollment at a Christian Mennonite university, because of his high position, is in a prime position to troll for, groom, sexually abuse and harass any number of teenaged students his department is in charge of recruiting. He is also in charge of hiring those who will be tasked with travelling around the country and meeting with teenagers, a perfect opportunity for trolling and grooming. This vice president is either not exhaustively vetted for past sexual misconduct or tendencies toward it; or if he is vetted, the findings are ignored. And when a respected, credible, professional individual goes out of his way to voice serious concern, he is reportedly dismissed by the university president and physically and legally threatened by a local Mennonite pastor.
This is a prime example of the conflicts of interest, the deceptions, and the lack of ethical integrity that runs amok among Mennonite leaders. This case and these kinds of players are not unique. I wonder if Swartzendruber shared the strongly felt concerns of this alumnus with anyone in 2011? I wonder if either Swartzendruber or Yoder brought others into a conversation in 2011. If so, who? And what was their response? Did they all agree to take the chance on EMU’s student and staff safety?
Here’s what they should have done: immediately shared the information with other colleagues, the entire board of trustees, recused themselves from the process entirely, and sent EMU back to the drawing board on the hiring decision. Leaders with this kind of power in these kinds of critical roles that give them access to the most vulnerable, should not under any circumstances have prior reports or even rumored prior reports of sexual misconduct.
Because such offenses are still the best kept secrets in the world, and those who commit one offense tend to commit more, sometimes years apart, even one report connotes a risk that is too great considering the power, authority and easy access to unsuspecting potential future targets.
In the end, SNAP’s simple invitation for others to come forward led to the following additional reports. Some are substantiated, some are not and the full truth is waiting to be discovered and made known:
Report of at least two additional local female targets of Hartman, one before and one after Lauren Shifflett
Report of bullying, sexist behavior, and verbal abuses reported to EMU’s President and HR in 2011 yet a denial of any record of it
Report of Keith Morris’s concerns shared with Loren S. in 2014
Report indicating Duane Yoder and Loren Swartzendruber each acted to keep their friend’s reported misdeeds hidden from others
Report of Duane Yoder’s own record of complaints of sexual misconduct in pastoral counseling relationships from two prior congregations in which he served.*
Report indicating officials in MC USA and Virginia Mennonite Conference and Southeast Mennonite Conference knew of at least one complaint filed against Duane but the full search committee at LMC who hired Yoder was never allowed to see them*
Report indicating MCUSA and its conferences, as a common practice, keep the knowledge of sexual misconduct complaints against ordained pastors and lay leaders a secret from those who may also be in harm’s way*
Report indicating EMU has had a past practice of either failing to write up sexual misconduct complaints reported to them or to discard the files, and to rarely file reports with police. *
*more details on these reports will be forthcoming in later posts
Our desire is not to pronounce certain judgment, but to use every effort to discover the full truth and make it safer for others who have been harmed to come forward. Our confidence in this practice is built upon substantial empirical (not anecdotal) evidence that indicates a 98% likelihood that persons reporting are telling the truth, and that those reporting sexual violence tend to minimize, not exaggerate their experience.
Without SNAP’s public invitational call, it is unlikely that EMU or the wider community would have the information it has today. The strategy of alerting the public and inviting victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to come forward is an effective strategy if one believes that in the end it is the truth, and not further silence and cover up, that ultimately sets us free.
On April 29, we heard reports that EMU was buzzing with discussion of the case. Lauren Shifflett was troubled –and rightly so– that so many people were talking about her and no one was talking to her. She wrote this private email directly to Loren Swartzendruber:
I was made aware that you [recently] had a private Q&A session for students in an attempt to be transparent. I’ve also been made aware that another private meeting will be taking place this upcoming week for faculty and staff. I will not pretend to be okay with the fact that I was denied an invitation to either of these meetings. Simply to help with closure and healing, I have more questions than anyone. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t invited? Had you given me any indication or warning that these events were taking place, I would have made arrangements to be present. Due to your silence I am no longer able to attend myself. My hope is that you will invite my advocate, Barbra Graber, to attend the faculty/staff forum on my behalf, as well as Erika Babikow and Emily Harnish, who represent the voices of those many passionate EMU Alumni you expressed gratitude for in your email. If they are not welcome, then I truly hope you will hold a separate open forum in the next few weeks to answer questions for the general public, including EMU Alumni and those in the community who put time, money, passion and energy into supporting your institution.
Shifflett never received an email response back from Loren Swartzendruber. He did, however, attempt to reach her in a way that served to further alienate her. In her blog posting, Lauren had made an explicit request for all communication to go through firstname.lastname@example.org. Instead of respecting that request, Swartzendruber asked one of his employees, a family friend to the Benners, for Shifflett’s personal cell phone number so that he could make ‘a pastoral call.’ Lauren was contacted by the friend and seeing that her friend was being put in an awkward position, gave her permission to give Loren her number although she had no intention of answering a call from Loren.
Swartzendruber never called or left a message for Shifflett. This caused her to wonder why he had sought out her private cell phone number in the first place. Lauren Shifflett documented in her OSU account that she had been stalked by phone for months by Luke Hartman, even after she changed numbers and replaced her phone. Swartzendruber was a stranger to her, a very powerful stranger. She panicked at the thought that since he and Hartman were close, her number might be shared. As unlikely a thought as this may be for many of us, if you have ever been stalked, it would likely not surprise you at all.
In the fall of 2016, Interim EMU President Lee Snyder attempted a similarly private phone call to an anonymous survivor (MG) who had posted a mishandling of her reported rape at EMU on OSU’s Untold Stories blog, We Can Do Better: how my report of rape at a Christian school made things worse, and in her spoken word video. (The accused rapist was never expelled or barred from campus and he was later hired by EMU.) MG had also asked anyone who wanted to contact her to do so through her advocate Hilary Scarsella. She panicked when a call come in on her private phone from the EMU President’s office. When Hilary contacted Snyder to set up a three-way conversation with MG, she was told President Snyder was not interested. Later, at MG’s request, efforts were made by Hilary to negotiate arrangements to connect her with EMU’s president. That effort has yet to come to fruition and is ongoing more than 6 months later. Like Lauren Shifflett, MG wants a chance to communicate directly with EMU in a way that respects her warranted boundaries and honors her wishes.
Mennonite institutional leaders repeatedly claim they desire to create a safe campus and want us to believe increased activity and task forces and special programs will accomplish that. These will certainly contribute toward a safer campus. But until we dismantle predator friendly environments that make it nearly impossible for victims to feel safe in coming forward, the bedrock problem will not change.
A predator friendly environment is one in which employee perpetrators are allowed to quietly resign or resign with minimal and minimized forthcoming information; or in which student perpetrators are allowed to stay on campus and are given opportunity to move on to their next target. Meanwhile the victim, if she’s uncomfortable with the thought of running into the assailant on campus, is the one who is expected to leave. Meanwhile the assailant, just like the church worker, is free to start smear campaigns against her. This practice of protecting the identities of those accused sends a clear message to survivors who may be considering reporting abuse that their efforts will be more trouble and pain than they are worth.
Thus, it is unreasonable for leaders to expect survivors who have been so demoralized and dismissed by institutional processes to, without strong advocacy, walk back into the setting where they were violated and proceed as though nothing happened. “Just come to us, trust us, we’ll handle it for you.” continues to be the irrational expectation. It is heartbreaking for survivors to be made the enemy for bringing to light what those who lead should be relieved to have brought to light. It is discouraging to realize those of us prepared to advocate for victims through an intimidating institutional process are viewed with suspicion instead of gratitude.
It will take many more voices than ours to stop these harmful attitudes and practices.
On May 3, when Lauren’s request for participation in EMU’s process was ignored, Lisa Schirch and I reached out to selected EMU board, administrators, faculty and staff, many of whom we knew personally and knew to be people of integrity. We included the President, selected peace and justice faculty, the cabinet, and others. We knew they were likely not privy to the information we had. Surely if they understood some of the background and knew what we knew, these EMU insiders would be as concerned as we were. We got permission from the EMU alumnus (who gave the April 20 report) and the former EMU employee (who gave the April 28 report) to pass on their full reports to this selected group of EMU leaders. We composed this list of questions and concerns and sent it off.
We believed that if EMU would answer these questions, honestly and humbly, with sincere apology for the missteps and confusion they had caused, it would go a long way toward clarifying misperceptions and attending to the series of slights experienced by survivors across the community up to that point. “On behalf of those harmed….and in the interest of prevention of further harm,” our memo said, “will you please help us find answers to these remaining critical questions? These persons, including Lauren, her family, and the large group of concerned EMU alumni and friends we represent deserve answers. As independent advocates calling for reform of systems that allow such abuse by church officials to continue unchecked, we are concerned about EMU, a place and a people we care deeply about.”
I was baffled when neither of us received a single response to our email. Had EMU employees been forbidden to speak with us? Had our email ended up in their spam or trash folders? Had it been blocked somehow? I’m still scratching my head over that one and if someone out there has the answer, it would certainly be nice to know.
On May 4 Lisa Schirch was invited to a facilitated mediation with EMU president Loren Swartzendruber. When she refused to participate without me, I was also invited to come.
We asked Loren to please meet with Lauren Shifflett, listen to and acknowledge her story, and apologize. At the very least, EMU should, while protecting her privacy, publicly admit their error in failing to pursue her side of the story in 2014 when they learned Hartman had been “having an affair” with a student-aged woman.
I remember the first words shared by Swartzendruber concerned how terribly difficult this has been for him. For him? This response from leaders is familiar to me and always hits me in the gut. When any sort of critical pressure is applied, why do leaders feel the need to portray themselves as victims to be pitied? Instead of owning mistakes, human mistakes, mistakes that need not carry shame or blame, they cry about how we, their truth-telling detractors, are being difficult, antagonistic, and mean.
I spoke through heartfelt angry tears how hurt I felt by EMU’s treatment of Lauren and EMU’s baffling unwillingness to answer some simple basic questions for the good of all involved. I spoke to the trust I had for Loren, our shared history at EMU, and how that trust felt broken now by his lack of response. He continually claimed he had nothing to apologize for because he did nothing wrong.
“I’m not saying you did anything wrong,” I said, “but something very wrong happened on your watch.”
We left the meeting with no indication Swartzendruber understood the advantages to himself or his institution of offering Lauren Shifflett and the community public recognition of regret and repentance for the harm caused by their own failings.
On May 5 Swartzendruber gave the EMU faculty and staff a report during a private campus meeting. This is the meeting Lauren Shifflett had asked to attend or have me attend on her behalf and received no response. With her EMU affiliation, Lisa Schirch was able to be in attendance. She reported that the President’s report included details EMU had not made available to Lauren. She reported that Swartzendruber did not apologize or take responsibility for his decisions related to Hartman, but again emphasized the betrayal he felt, and the harms he felt Hartman had done to him, as President, and to the wider community. He provided details on EMU’s handling of the case. But why were the 300+ faculty and staff at EMU entitled to have information Lauren Shifflett and those of us supporting her were not given, despite our requests?
Most devastating to Shifflett was a statement made from the podium that day by Vice President of Student Life, Kenneth L. Nafziger, “If only Lauren had come to us,” he said with sincerity. Come to you? Lauren had already reported to her pastors at Lindale and trusted them to “handle it.” She also feared retaliation from Hartman. Many stalking victims do not report for this reason alone, which is understandable to anyone who has ever been stalked. This “if only you had come to us” response is a common form of victim blaming. If survivors don’t immediately understand the seriousness of what happened to them (while our own brand of Mennonite rape culture contributes to keeping them ignorant of that fact), if they don’t report when we think they should, and to the persons we think they should, then the criminal actions perpetrated against them become their fault?
On May 13 the MC USA appointed Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention chaired by Anna Groff made a public call for an investigation of the goings on in Harrisonburg. SNAP did not initially recommend an investigation. From the very beginning, we were concerned that if investigated, EMU would paint Hartman as the scapegoat rather than look more widely at institutional failures.
But when we discovered that the Panel had vetted, chosen, and publicly recommended the well reputed Christian organization called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), we saw a glimmer of hope. We knew GRACE was committed to helping faith communities that are plagued with abuse to find the truth and begin to heal. So when Harrisonburg news media contacted us, with Jay Yoder as spokesperson, we put our public support behind the Panel’s recommendation and reiterated our concern that the firm chosen be fully independent.
I was encouraged by the possibility that one Mennonite community– Virginia Mennonite Conference and EMU– would get outside, independent, highly skilled professional help with what we know to be a major problem across the church. I can’t think of a more hopeful, uplifting moment in this saga than when I got word of this unexpected public announcement in which church appointed leaders took a clear public stand for survivors. May 13 was a day for rejoicing.
But the rejoicing was short lived.
Suddenly it seemed the windows and the doors were shut to us. I cannot know for certain what happened in the days that followed. I’ll be happy to have my assumptions corrected. It was reported to us that Clyde Kratz, Duane Yoder and Ervin Stutzman had already begun to plan their own version of an ‘independent, outside’ review with their own chosen alliances from ‘sister conferences’ outside Virginia Mennonite conference. We later received some evidence of that.
Please, let this sink in: When Luke Hartman’s misdemeanor criminal activity of stalking and threats of violence as well as grooming of a teenage girl for sexually abusive activity was exposed by Lauren Shifflett on Our Stories Untold, the first response of the implicated enabling male Mennonite church leaders was to plan their own investigation with their friends from other conferences to look into ‘Luke’s inappropriate behavior.’ There’s that ‘inappropriate’ word again. A sexist joke is inappropriate. That’s hardly synonymous with the facts of this case.
On May 14 my husband, Dale, accompanied me to meet with the Panel on Sexual Abuse. I’d been invited to talk about SNAP and OSU’s mission and also to represent Lauren’s and Marissa’s voices.
Just hours before the meeting I had a regressive sort of panic attack (familiar to those of us who have experienced trauma). Lisa Schirch was lovingly there for me over the phone. Dale was there in person. I let it flow on through and release itself. It’s impossible to understand these irrational emotive, body-based experiences cognitively, and I’ve stopped trying; but I’m quite sure this one had to do with my childhood sexual trauma at the hands of church leaders as well as the strong childhood teaching to never ever break the code of silence. I had broken it. I was going before church authorities. Was I bad? Would I now be punished?
Thanks to Lisa and Dale, by the time of the meeting I was back— calm, strong, and unafraid. It was an intense and emotionally exhausting meeting, but a positive one. I did not attempt to stifle the strong feelings and urgency I felt. It was courageous and important for this group to come to town and hear from all involved who wanted to be heard. I was grateful to be included. I was honored to attempt to represent Lauren, to the best of my ability. I’ll not forget the sincere openness and willingness to learn that I saw and felt in the eyes of those around the table as we talked.
On May 24 I got back into therapy to both process and release all that seemed to be coming at me. Thank God for the good health-maintenance that body workers, energy workers and therapists provide us.
On May 24 I was contacted by some concerned Virginia Mennonite Conference members who had read Lauren and Marissa’s accounts and wanted to explore working with them to file a formal complaint with Virginia Mennonite Conference against Duane Yoder. Their complaint process was adapted from a 2005 VMC ministerial sexual misconduct policy manual available on VMC’s website. Some of them joined our weekly prayer meetings.
On June 7 this group sent off their formal request to Virginia Mennonite Conference officials for a review of Duane Yoder’s credentials. It included a list of a dozen ‘breaches of trust by a credentialed person that could trigger a review process’. I was heartened by this small group of Virginia Conference Mennonites willing to take a public stand with Lauren and Marissa out of a sincere concern for their church.
On June 9, The MC USA Executive Board pledged to work with the Panel on Sexual Abuse to find an outside investigator.
On June 14, Ervin Stutzman announced he was now forming a new committee of top level administrators to decide on the investigating agency. This decision effectively took authority over the investigative process away from the Panel, which recommended the investigation in the first place, and put it in the hands of the church administrators being investigated. Stutzman’s announcement noted that the Panel would now only ‘affirm’ the final choice prior to board approval, tacitly indicating the Panel had no authority to approve or disapprove of the administrators’ choice.
Please, let this sink in: These heads of MEA, MCUSA, and EMU, whose integrity was under scrutiny, with close personal ties to Luke Hartman, announced that they and not the Panel of experts MC USA appointed, would commence to find and hire their own ‘independent’ investigators.
Anna Groff sat as the lone original Panel member on the newly formed committee. She was reportedly not allowed to take information from the committee of administrators back to her Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention for their advisement.
Thus, while Lauren and Marissa and SNAP were being systematically shut out of EMU proceedings, the periodic engagement we had been having with Panel chair Anna Groff also came to what felt like a sudden halt. A pall of silence settled over our earlier ease of communication.
Also on June 14, Emily Harnish and Erika Babikow told me they had been invited to a day of meetings with EMU officials and lunch with the President to discuss the concerns articulated in their open letter.
Please let this sink in: Lauren and Marissa’s brave actions had finally, thankfully, revealed critical truths the public deserved to know. We survivors and advocates at OSU and SNAP Menno had taken significant personal risk to publish that truth. Between us we had decades of experience and knowledge about sexual violence in Mennonite settings. We were now ignored and locked out of all institutional processing of the case we had brought to light. And we wonder why victims are afraid to come forward?
Meanwhile, two recent EMU graduates with no background or experience in the Mennonite church sexual abuse crisis, used their sense of justice, courage and intelligence to post an open letter to other alumni asking for signatures. This letter struck a chord and over 300 alumni signed on, agreeing with the concerns Emily and Erika described.
These two young alums, whose efforts had successfully garnered broad support for Lauren, were now themselves given preferential treatment and audience? This was Lauren’s case and Lauren’s complaint. She had politely reached out to the President. But she was ignored. She was not invited to lunch with the President or anyone else at EMU.
In what felt like a slap in Lauren’s and my faces, EMU chose to attempt to win the hearts and minds of two alumni with no personal stake in the case and–to their humble admittance– no training or experience in best practices for sexual violence. If EMU truly wanted to improve their practices and make them more victim friendly, would they not have invited more experienced survivor voices to join them in the discussion? Would the president not have responded to Lauren’s requests to meet?
To their credit, Emily and Erika came to us and asked for counsel in how they could best represent Lauren and Marissa. We asked that they take hard copies of the still unanswered list of questions Lisa Schirch and I had sent out to EMU leaders on May 3 and gotten no reply. When Loren Swartzendruber received his copy he reportedly remarked that he’d not seen it before.
Today, in hindsight, I realize I might have suggested that Erika and Emily consider declining the invitation for a day of meetings with EMU leaders and tell them to offer it to Lauren instead. But such a request felt unreasonable at the time, even embarrassing. I didn’t want to be accused of elbowing in. Emily and Erika made it abundantly clear their first concern was to serve Lauren, so I do not harbor any ill will toward them. But these months later I now see such a request for Lauren to take their place, had she wanted to take it, would certainly have been appropriate, not unreasonable or embarrassing at all.
This is what white people must do for people of color, what men must do for women, what straight people must do for queer people, what abled bodies folks must do for the disabled, etc. and yes, what advocates must do for sexual violence survivors: Refuse to take a seat at the table where an oppressed person’s injustice is at stake and their case is being discussed while they are simultaneously barred from the table. Refuse to take on a task of discernment about things you have no direct knowledge of while someone who does have first hand knowledge is purposely cut out. Look around the room and make sure those who have the greatest stake in the matter have at least been invited to the conversation. They may not choose to accept, but the invitation will speak volumes. Even though the involvement of a privileged party to stand along side helps legitimate the process, if those who are speaking up for themselves remain cut out or silenced for being too ‘polarizing’ or for using the wrong ‘tone’ or for being ‘too antagonistic’, then harm, division, and mistrust is perpetuated, whether intentional or not.
EMU continues to be highly selective in its choice of who to invite to their tables and with whom they are willing to engage. They consistently make these choices based on their short term institutional interests rather than on the long term health of their community. Those invited to engage with powerful leaders need to keep in mind their collusion in the continuing exclusion of survivors and their chosen advocates. All of us need to stay alert to institutional strategies that seek to control the narrative for their own benefit by freezing out those with the most important knowledge: experiential, firsthand knowledge. Survivors and advocates may well not have the desire or energy to take part, or consider it in their best interests to take part, but an invitation or consultation is a meaningful action.
I was deeply discouraged that so few of Lauren’s expressed wishes had positive outcomes. As always, her resilience and good attitude prevailed. Although we never really talked about it, I think we were both terribly hurt by what felt like outright rejection of Lauren’s repeated requests for contact. Compounding it was EMU’s gracious extension of overt hospitality to the two alumni who sought to stand publicly with her, in an apparent effort to dissuade any loyalties they may feel toward Lauren and assure them EMU was handling it.
Lauren had by this time moved on with her life. As summer rolled around I asked her if there was any further action she wanted to take and if so I’d support her in taking it. She said she no longer wanted an apology or anything else from the Mennonite Church. She was done. But she still really wanted the opportunity to “just sit down in a room, face to face, across the table from Loren Swartzendruber”, to ask him some lingering questions that he alone could answer for her.
On June 18, 2016 Lauren again wrote a personal email directly and privately to Swartzendruber, referencing his meeting with Erika and Emily.
Dear President Swartzendruber,
Emily Harnish told me that she and Erika had a meeting with you and she mentioned that I should set up a meeting with you as well. I was hoping you’d be available to meet with me, Lisa Schirch, and Barbra Graber on June 27 or June 28, at your convenience on one of those two days. Please let me know as soon as possible if we can make that happen while I’m back in town.
Thank you as always for your time.
Lauren Benner Shifflett
This time he responded. He requested that two of his chosen EMU staff join the meeting and that there be no public statement about the meeting until after the institutionally designed inquiry was completed. Lauren was fine with that and so was I. After working out a series of scheduling difficulties, in an email of June 21, a meeting was set for July 25.
On June 21, in response to the update from Ervin Stutzman announcing the formation of a new committee to replace the church’s Panel of experts (referenced above on June 14) OSU’s Hilary Scarsella published a Call to Action.
On first glance, the Mennonite Church USA’s press release might read as a reasonable and unremarkable update, but Our Stories Untold cannot stress enough that this plan, as it is written, will undermine all current efforts to address sexual abuse in Mennonite institutions and have a devastating impact on current and future survivors of abuse and their communities. It reveals that such undermining action is already underway….
- It is unacceptable for the organizations under investigation to set the terms of their own investigation. It is sneaky and dishonest and wrong for leaders of institutions to have met together and held this conversation amongst themselves privately, without Lauren Shifflett or her advocate or any survivor’s group representative, and without the oversight of an outside, expert organization.
- The stated plan reveals that the authority of the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention is being dangerously undermined by the same institutional executives.
On July 18 a woman who had read Lauren/Marissa’s stories called to report that Duane Yoder had left the Bayshore Mennonite Church in Sarasota, his prior pastoral appointment, after a young woman in the congregation submitted a sexual misconduct complaint against him in the early 2000’s. She figured about 70% of those who knew about it supported Duane. She and her husband were friendly with the Yoders as couples. They believed him when he claimed he was innocent and that the ’emotionally unstable’ young woman had misinterpreted his intentions. But now after learning more, she wanted me to know that she and her husband believed the young woman. She went on to talk about how during their friendship, Duane had subtly tried to alienate her from her husband. It was during a very difficult and stressful time in their lives. He seemed to want to start something sexual with her. “Nothing overt ever happened”, she said. “It was just a feeling I had.”
At the close of the conversation I asked her if she felt comfortable reaching out to this woman who filed the Bayshore complaint and provide my contact information in case she would like to talk further. She said she would do what she could. “I want this to stop because it happened to people in my family too,” she said.
On July 20, five days before a meeting that had been set a month earlier, Lauren received this email from the EMU President’s office:
Loren Swartzendruber, now retired, asked that I contact you about the meeting you requested for which we were tentatively considering July 25.
As you know, the EMU Board of Trustees is currently considering organizations to conduct an independent review of the Luke Hartman situation. In checking with the EMU Board representative yesterday about the status of that review, Loren learned that a recommendation of an organization has been made to the Board which it is currently considering. A final decision on that organization is expected in a week or less. In conferring with the finalist for the review, it was their recommendation that you and Loren wait to meet until after they have completed their inquiry. Loren believes that he should follow their recommendation. He would very much like to meet with you soon after that so that he can hear more about your story and is sorry that we have to postpone the meeting.
Without any opening words of apology or regret, the meeting was postponed, just days before it was to take place. This after vacation schedules had been rearranged, and Lauren had made plans to be in Harrisonburg.
On July 20, with Lauren’s blessing, I responded:
We are again disappointed. As the outside investigation (now being called a “review”) is not a legal matter of any kind, we are puzzled that a former university president with no formal obligations to EMU finds it necessary to postpone a meeting with a local survivor of sexual abuse who has been requesting a simple face-to-face conversation (which he promoted in his last commencement address) for nearly four months. By going ahead and meeting with Lauren as planned, a clear message could be sent that she and all survivors of sexual violence at EMU matter more to him than boards, lawyers, and advisors. EMU leaders could very quickly even now change their tactics and benefit their public relations greatly.
At the end of the memo, Swartzendruber had mentioned he would ‘like very much’ to meet with Lauren and is ‘sorry they have to postpone.’ This again left lingering hope that perhaps he would be in touch later. But despite Lauren’s cooperation and compromise, agreeing to Loren’s wishes for confidentiality and the presence of additional EMU personnel, she never heard back from him.
The message to would-be victims, witnesses and whistleblowers at EMU who might consider following in Lauren’s truth-telling footsteps remains intact: Expose one of ours and we will make you pay for it.
On July 24 I heard back from the woman from Florida who had called me on July 18. She had reached the woman from Bayshore who filed a complaint against Duane Yoder and the Bayshore woman wanted to connect with me. I called her that evening. She had indeed filed a formal complaint with Southeast Conference and Duane was found guilty but allowed to continue pastoring. He then had opportunity, from his position of continued authority, to launch a successful smear campaign against her. She left the congregation of her childhood deeply broken. She was promised by Southeast Conference officials that everything from her report “would go on his permanent record and would remain in his file and he would not go to another job without that conference knowing it.”
We learned later from another source that Duane was said to have been simultaneously promised by Southeast Conference officials that his file would be sealed and never used against him because he had been ‘restored’.
The still developing and much larger story here is not mine to tell. One day, it will also hopefully be told.
On July 27 an anonymous woman called to tell me Duane Yoder told a Sunday School class at Lindale that Barbra Graber is a crazy woman, unbalanced, and a victim of child sexual abuse which is why she is trying to kick him out of his job. That I had the gall to call and berate him on the golf course. He reportedly went on tell the class that he’d be happy to take questions but then ‘doesn’t want to hear anymore about it!’ I never met Yoder, have never spoken with him, and certainly don’t have his cell phone number. The woman from Bayshore who complained told me he used the same terms crazy and unbalanced to describe and discredit her when she decided to speak up about his misconduct.
On August 1 Lauren received an email from EMU trustee Herman Bontrager giving Lauren the news of the choice of consulting firm to carry out the inquiry. He told Lauren “it is critically important” that she meet with D. Stafford and Associates and that “someone will be contacting her.” The tone was matter of fact, not invitational. She was apparently fully expected to ignore everything that had happened up to that point and just show up because this man she had never met told her to. In the last paragraph he referenced his awareness (no regrets) that her requested meeting with Loren Swartzendruber was postponed. He went on to say, “Speaking for the Board and leadership of EMU we want you to know that we still want to hear from you directly and will want to arrange another time soon to hear your story and concerns.” She had never asked for EMU leadership to hear her story. She had already published it for the whole world to see. She just had a few questions she wanted to ask Loren S. face to face.
On August 2 the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) Board of Trustees published their intentions to engage the consulting firm of D. Stafford & Associates (DSA) to complete a comprehensive administrative inquiry….”
I noticed the public language used to describe the process had changed from “investigation” to “inquiry.” I asked a licensed private forensic investigator to explain the difference to me. An investigation requires licensed forensic investigators on staff. An inquiry, on the other hand, does not require true forensic trained investigators. It can be done with persons who have little training or experience and no licensing in forensic sex crime investigation. Inquiries also don’t assure a fiduciary duty to the truth. The fiduciary duty can merely be to fulfill the requirements of a contract defined by the client.
Lisa Schirch sent an email to EMU leaders, summarizing our opposition to choosing DSA:
The independent agency needs to be truly independent. It cannot be beholden to institutional interests or the interests of leaders’ in proving their innocence.
The independent agency needs to survey the community to determine if there are other victims and to listen to harms the community experienced during the crisis, particularly the African American community.
The independent agency needs to have a history of identifying and exposing predators, indicating its willingness to unsettle institutional patterns of cover up.
The independent agency needs to be approved by victims and victim advocates, who should be included in decision making about the entire process of investigation.
D. Stafford and Associates (DSA) did not meet any of these characteristics.
Even before D. Stafford and Associates was chosen (as soon as it became clear that this organization was the preferred choice of the administrative committee given the authority to make the decision), SNAP Menno founding member and director of Our Stories Untold, Hilary Scarsella, immediately reached out to Dolores Stafford of D. Stafford and Associates (DSA) in the interest of discovering more about her firm so that Lauren, OSU and SNAP would be in a better position to evaluate whether or not this organization could be trusted and why. DSA originally ignored Hilary’s calls and emails, instead reporting her attempts to contact them to Ervin Stutzman. After Stutzman gave the go ahead, DSA agreed to answer Hilary’s questions.
Hilary Scarsella says more:
From the beginning, DSA’s communication gave me cause for concern. I experienced them to be standoffish and skeptical of me. In my experience, they did not show interest in building trust with me, a representative of survivors’ interests in the community in which they would be working, and they didn’t show interest in building trust with Lauren either. That was a red flag. I asked detailed questions about the qualifications and commitments of DSA’s staff and about the processes by which they conduct their inquiries. I gave them every chance I could think of to show me that my instincts were wrong and that they would be a good pick after all, but the answers I received from DSA confirmed my sense that DSA would not prioritize Lauren’s best interests or the best interests of survivors as I saw them. For example – and this is just one of many – when I asked how DSA would handle the tension between what is in Lauren’s best interest and what is in the best interest of the institutions hiring them when the two came into conflict, I was assured that the institutions that hire DSA have the best interests of survivors at heart and that there is, therefore, no conflict of interest to negotiate. I was actually shocked. I don’t know anyone who has spent concerted effort advocating for survivors in institutional contexts who could say that with a straight face. It suggested to me that DSA was not equipped for this job and was going to do more harm than good. After I learned as much as I could from DSA, I could not avoid coming to the conclusion that the choice of DSA for this job would be a heavy blow. I shared DSA’s responses to my questions with SNAP and OSU and Lauren and Marissa. We were all dismayed.
I communicated to Mennonite Church USA that I, Lauren, SNAP and OSU would find the choice of DSA deeply harmful. They disagreed with us and remained confident (or at least hopeful enough to move forward) that DSA would prioritize the best interests of survivors.
Meanwhile I called other victim-advocate mentors and advisors. They confirmed Hilary’s sense and SNAP Menno members’ developing conclusion that this was a “defense firm” hired to protect institutional interests, that the process lacked legitimacy, was by no means ‘independent,’ and that our participation in it would lend credibility and approval to what was deemed to be a very flawed process.
Several of us turned to the Panel for Sexual Abuse Prevention to explain our concern and bring to them Lauren’s deep disapproval of the unfolding process. Eventually, they heard us.
On August 8 the Panel for Sexual Abuse Prevention released a statement saying they were withdrawing from the inquiry process. They challenged EMU for requiring confidentiality in the selection process.
Panel chair Anna Groff was limited from sharing certain information with the panel and Lauren Shifflett, who brought the complaints against Hartman…..The process undertaken, and in which we participated to this point, has focused too much on the needs of the institutions involved, and too little on the needs of the victim. Keeping information from Lauren and excluding her from the process has created more mistrust and has betrayed the church’s commitment to victim-centered responses to sexual abuse.
Lauren Shifflet and Marissa Buck explained their decisions to decline any involvement with DSA in these emails to MCUSA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman. We knew the choice of consulting firm was made for EMU, but MC USA’s choice had not yet been announced. There was still hope.
On August 4 Lauren and Marissa, along with Stephanie Krehbiel and Jennifer Yoder, launched a Twitter campaign at Into Account called #LetSurvivorsLead.
This is the wrong firm chosen by the wrong panel in the wrong process.
The way forward is simple: submit to the recommendation of the expert panel and submit to an investigation by G.R.A.C.E., the organization strongly preferred by survivors groups and the expert panel. It’s not hard, MC USA. To center victims and survivors, you #LetSurvivorsLead.
On August 10, Emily Harnish and Erika Babakow supported the effort by sending an email to their alumni address list. They provided an update and encouraged the signers of their Open Letter to also sign on to the #LetSurivivorsLead campaign. By August 31 the campaign had 526 signatures. 25% were self identified survivors of sexual violence. Only 7% were pastors. 60% identified as current or former Mennonites.
On August 11 an email from EMU Director of Counseling Pam Reese, who had reached out earlier for conversation, invited me to join a task force approved by EMU President Lee Snyder. The task force was assigned to organize best practice knowledge and recommend a list of actions to address campus sexual violence. Lisa Schirch and I participated in the task force meetings between September 9-November 11. I was aware that EMU’s present policy allows reported rapists to remain on campus while they are under investigation. I expressed repeated concern for the chilling effect this has on victims who may want to report, knowing the person they report would not only know immediately who had reported them, but show up in class the next day– or worse, assault another unsuspecting student. At the final meeting, Lisa and I talked about an exciting and powerful new reporting tool for colleges and other groups called Callisto.
On August 16 Lauren Shifflett posted an open letter to her supporters titled The Panel is Walking Away and So Am I” explaining her reasons for noncompliance with Herman Bontrager’s expectation that she show up for DSA.
On August 31, Marissa Buck published her article The Church Continues to Break Our Trust describing her support of Lauren’s decision and her own internal process regarding participation in the inquiry.
Despite our misgivings about the integrity of the process, Lisa Schirch and I were, in the end, prepared to cooperate and be interviewed by DSA. When the invitation came we asked for a list of the initial questions we’d be asked in advance. DSA denied our request. We asked to bring along a witness/support person. This was also not allowed. Both are common courtesies allowed in similar processes. We were advised by an attorney and by other sexual violence experts that DSA’s tactics signaled hostility. We declined the meetings.
Keith Morris, however did not decline. He was interviewed by DSA and passed on to them a conversation he’d had with Loren Swartzendruber on October 11, 2014 (after Lauren Shifflett had gone to Lindale Mennonite in August and Duane Yoder and Luke had reported to EMU administrators in September) that he was concerned about Luke Hartman’s abusive treatment of women based on several first person reports he had received and was told they were handling it. Keith was well known in the Mennonite community as an outspoken survivor and a respected advocate. He served for many years on the board of The Collins Center, Harrisonburg’s local crisis center.