Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘Carolyn Holderread Heggen’

Mennonite Seminary Offers Justice and Healing

Earlier this year I wrote about the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Yoder spent decades sexually abusing women at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He had enough power to effectively shut down the seminary’s investigation of his victims’ complaints. One of his victims, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, worked tirelessly to overcome the official silence and organize a victims’ movement. Last year, the women created a liturgy of truth and reconciliation that culminated in a eucharistic meal served by seminary leaders. It was a lovely symbol, but it was not the justice that the victims were rightly demanding.

Now, finally, justice has come. This is what I’m talking about:

The Mennonite Quarterly Review will devote its January 2015 issue to the topic of sexual abuse within the Mennonite Church, with a focus on the events surrounding John Howard Yoder. The church is releasing an e-book along with the print edition. Interested readers will be able to order it through the church’s online store as well as Amazon and other mainstream outlets.

The AMBS board met in October and approved this statement.
      As an AMBS Board, we lament the terrible abuse many women suffered from John Howard Yoder. We also lament that there has not been transparency about how the seminary’s leadership responded at that time or any institutional public acknowledgement of regret for what went so horribly wrong. We commit to an ongoing, transparent process of institutional accountability which the president along with the board chair initiated, including work with the historian who will provide a scholarly analysis of what transpired. We will respond more fully once the historical account is published. We also support the planning of an AMBS-based service of lament, acknowledgement and hope in March 2015.

Finally, and most importantly, AMBS leaders are planning a weekend of healing events for the primary victims and the community on March 21-22, 2015. The schedule will include “an intimate gathering of truth-telling, reflection and prayer for those who were victimized and those who are bearing witness to the experience of others” and a service of “Lament, Confession, and Hope” for Yoder’s victims, members of the AMBS community, and their families. The AMBS board is committed to cover costs for travel and lodging for anyone victimized by Yoder.

For full details from the Mennonite Church, read the original press release.

For updates on this important story, please visit (and subscribe to) the blog “Our Stories Untold.”

Theology, Schmeology. What About Christianity?

The Christian Century is getting serious about clergy sexual misconduct, or so it would seem from their current cover article, “Theology and misconduct.” It covers the story of John Howard Yoder, the legendary Mennonite theologian and sexual abuser. He was investigated for abuses he committed in the 1980s and 1990s; he died in 1997. Fifteen years later, two academic authors (Ruth Krall of Goshen College and Barbra Graber of Eastern Mennonite University) published articles about Yoder’s abuse. Finally last year, the Mennonite Church USA formed a committee to study Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response.

John Howard Yoder is best known for his writings on Christian pacifism. He opposed not only physical violence but anything that violates “the dignity or integrity of some being.” He wrote, “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent.” Yet he spent years violating the dignity of his victims at a Mennonite seminary, then twisting his own writings to keep leaders from holding him accountable.

The authors ask, “Do Yoder’s violations of his own theological claims undermine the content of his theology? Do his sins disqualify him from the major role he has played in modern Christian thought?” A few paragraphs later they answer their own question. No, they say: “Because God providentially uses the fallen for good.”

So what? I don’t care whether Christians still read Yoder’s work; I want to know the church did for his victims.

In the 1980s, many of Yoder’s victims told their stories to Marlin Miller, the president of the seminary where the abuse took place. Eventually Miller had a “substantial collection of files,” but Yoder managed to drag the proceedings on for years. One victim, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, tried to organize a victims’ movement, but Miller refused to put her in contact with the others, citing “confidentiality.” (See Marie Fortune’s insightful distinction between confidentiality and secrecy). Heggen eventually prevailed with the support of another Mennonite leader, and her “Dear Sisters” letter brought the group together. They gathered for two days, created a composite story, and outlined eight steps they wanted the church to take. Together they read their story aloud to a group of Mennonite leaders, asked them “Do you believe us?” and requested their eight reforms.

What eight steps did Yoder’s victims request? How did the leaders respond? Unfortunately, we will never know. The CC article ends with the leaders offering a eucharist-like dinner of soup and bread to the gathered survivors. The final sentence, from Heggen’s testimony: “They served us, and it felt like a holy time of communion together.”

That’s very touching and sweet. It’s a lovely liturgy. But again, so what? Theology, schmeology; liturgy, schmiturgy. What about the practice of Christianity? If we aren’t working to create justice and wholeness for the real people the church has harmed, what good are our ideas and symbols?

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