-"You may FEEL powerless, but. . ."
By David Clohessy
It may feel that way, but you’re NOT powerless
“I can’t prosecute. I can’t sue. I’m powerless.”
We hear some version of this from a survivor nearly every day.
It’s a horrible feeling: powerlessness.
It’s especially horrible if you’ve felt it before, when you were being abused.
But while most of us who have been sexually victimized may feel powerless, we really AREN’T powerless.
We have the truth. And often, we have determination. That alone can sometimes prevail.
It did for one brave, eloquent and caring survivor. She has “outed” her perpetrator, a Mennonite pastor and former Conference leader named Vernon Leis.
Not through criminal prosecution or civil litigation.
But by being brave and determined and confronting church officials. This didn’t happen overnight. She first went to them 6 years ago. When they became aware of more information, church officials were compelled to go public – even though the perpetrator died 21 years ago.
Below, you can read the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) statement, released this past Sunday to congregations where Leis pastored. In a few ways, it’s disappointing. They talk of Leis’ abuse of this courageous woman as “sin and failure.” (To me, this kind of vague language always feels inadequate to convey the devastating effects of sexual exploitation and abuse.)
And there’s no mention whatsoever of the possibility or probability that current or former Mennonite officials ignored, minimized or concealed Leis’ horrific misconduct.
Still, the “take away” is encouraging: Without legal action, this strong survivor hung in there and eventually she succeeded in getting church officials to “out” her perp.
Let’s hope her success inspires others to step forward, speak up and expose wrongdoers. That’s how we prevent clergy sex crimes and sexual misconduct. And that’s how we deter church cover-ups of clergy sex crimes and sexual misconduct.
Finally, for Mennonites who have been abused by clergy or other Mennonite church leaders at any age, there is now new SNAP chapter to support them in seeking healing and justice. This chapter just formed in July of this year and offers confidential help at Mennonite@SNAPnetwork.org See also: SNAPnetwork.org/Mennonite
I’m proud that because of this survivor’s concern and her persistence, others who were hurt by Leis - or other Mennonite predators – now feel less powerless and less alone than they did before.
NOTE – Leis spent time in the US (Goshen, Indiana and Harrisonburg, Virginia) and Canada (Toronto, Elmira, East Zorra, and Kitchener, ).
MCEC Responds to Allegation of Ministerial Sexual Misconduct
Statement: Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) has received an allegation of sexual and ethical misconduct implicating a former credentialed pastor. In a situation such as this, MCEC typically removes the pastor from ministry until an investigation has been completed. As part of such an investigation, the accused pastor is advised of the specifics of the accusation, and given an opportunity to respond and tell his/her side of the story.
The allegation is against a deceased pastor and therefore it was not possible to follow the usual investigative course, nor to give the pastor an opportunity to respond. MCEC’s Executive Council therefore established a task group to advise on how to respond to this unique situation. After review, MCEC is satisfied that the complainant’s account is sufficiently compelling and credible, despite MCEC’s inability to test it in the usual investigative fashion.
As a result of this review process, MCEC feels compelled to release the name of the pastor. This is an important step in facilitating the process of healing because it allows the affected parties and the wider faith community to confront a hidden truth and bring it into the light for healing. As painful as it may be, we as a faith community are called to support those paths that lead to healing and wholeness.
The former pastor is Vernon Leis. It saddens MCEC immensely to make this announcement about a much loved and respected pastor. It is a painful recognition of human sin and failure. In the midst of this challenging and painful situation, MCEC will do its best to walk alongside all those who are impacted.
MCEC holds all pastors to a high standard of ethical conduct. We want to assure congregations that we have policies, procedures, and training for pastoral leaders that promote safe and ethical interactions between pastors and participants in our faith communities. MCEC commits to ongoing review and strengthening of these safeguards. In addition, MCEC also has a web based resource for understanding, reporting, and responding to sexual misconduct by church leaders.
Our prayer is that God’s grace and compassionate love will support and enfold those most deeply affected. In the same spirit, your prayers are invited for everyone involved.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, Gameo.org
Vernon Roy Leis: pastor; born 23 November 1933 on a farm near Petersburg, Ontario to John S. and Catherine (Wagler) Leis. He was the oldest son and third child in a family of three daughters and two sons. On 2 July 1955 he married Arvilla Anne Schultz. They had four sons and one daughter. Leis died 26 February 1994 in a traffic accident near Baden, Ontario.
In the 1950s a pioneering group of young men from the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference sought seminary-level theological training to prepare for pastoral service. Leis was one of this number—he studied at Eastern Mennonite College (B.A.), and Goshen Biblical Seminary (B.D), graduating from the latter in 1961. In 1983 he completed a D.Min. at the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto School of Theology.
Leis entered his first pastorate in the small Blenheim Mennonite Church (1961-1966). He later served large congregations at Elmira (1966-1980), Stirling Avenue (1980-1988) and East Zorra (1988-1994). He was ordained for pastoral ministry on 26 August 1962 .
Vernon Leis soon became involved in conference leadership. He was appointed as the Mennonite Conference of Ontario's youth sponsor almost immediately, and led the conference's Bible quiz team to the Mennonite Church championship. He also taught at Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute (1961-1965), and edited the monthly Ontario Mennonite Evangel, a predecessor to the Mennonite Reporter. His later service included terms on the conference's Mission Board, Personnel and Executive committees, and he served as its moderator 1978-1980.
Always ecumenical in outlook, Leis served the wider Mennonite community, and became a strong voice for cooperation and the conference integration movement in Ontario. He was the last moderator of the Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario), and the first moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (MCEC). He chaired the board of the Mennonite Reporter in 1978, and had terms on the Mennonite World Conference presidium and the board of Mennonite Central Committee Canada. His ecumenicity also extended to the local community; he always encouraged active inter-church ministerials, and frequently participated as a pacifist in community Remembrance Day services. He also instituted an interpretive program (tours, dinner, film, discussion about Mennonites) at the Elmira Mennonite church for the many tourists who visited the Waterloo Region to see Old Order Mennonites. Up to 5000 persons a year participated in this program.
Leis was a strong leader who did not avoid confrontation when he believed it necessary. A firm believer in the Anabaptist vision as articulated by Harold Bender, Vernon Leis had little use for theological fundamentalism. On occasion this led to conflict with members within his congregations which led to persons withdrawing to form or join new congregations. His passionate personality could also make him a challenging colleague. Once characterized as the "most aggressive pacifist we've ever met," he resigned from the MCC Canada board in the early 1980s because he believed too few women were at the board table. Nonetheless he also inspired and nurtured numerous young leaders through the assistant pastor program at the Elmira church that was initiated because of the expanding tourism program.
Vernon Leis was a progressive voice for active Mennonite engagement in the communities in which they lived. His premature death in 1994 silenced a voice that always challenged his church to a "muscular Christianity."