VA--Group wants investigation into church/college abuse case

For immediate release: Friday, June 3, 2016

For more information: Barbra Graber 540-214-8874[email protected], David Clohessy 314 566 9790,[email protected]

Group wants investigation into church/college abuse case

“But it must be independent, not internal,” survivors insist

They challenge Mennonite officials to publicly pledge full cooperation

“And they should publicly oppose even discussion of an in-house probe,” group says

A support group for abuse victims is urging Mennonite Church officials to hire independent investigators to look into an abuse case at a Virginia church and university. The group also wants church leaders to pledge, in advance, their full cooperation with such an effort and their “vigorous opposition” to any proposed internal investigation.

The case involves Luke Hartman, well known church leader who was arrested on solicitation of prostitution charges while he was a vice president at Eastern Mennonite University and a member of Lindale Mennonite Church, both in Harrisonburg, VA. He is also accused of sexual abuse, stalking, verbal abuses, threats of violence and was allowed to remain in his position, the group says, long after credible accusations were made.

Leaders of SNAP Mennonite (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) are prodding staff at the national Mennonite headquarters, the Virginia Mennonite Conference, Eastern Mennonite University, and Lindale Mennonite Church to act on the church-appointed Sexual Abuse Prevention Panel’s recent recommendation of an independent investigation.

“Specifically, we call on MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman, MC USA Moderator Patricia Shelly, Mennonite Education Agency Executive Director Carlos Romero, and Virginia Mennonite Conference Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz to publicly join with the Sexual Abuse Panel’s push for an outside investigation,” said Stephanie Krehbiel, researcher for the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List. “And these officials should publicly and vigorously fight any move towards an internal probe.”

Stutzman and Shelly recently wrote, “We wholeheartedly support the work of the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention. Our staff called for the formation of the panel, and we have asked them to develop policies and procedures for congregations and church organizations to follow when there are complaints of abuse.”

“We urge all church leaders, pastors, and Mennonite congregants to hold these leaders accountable for their statements of trust in their own Sexual Abuse Prevention Panel, to go beyond smooth words and take tangible action,” said Krehbiel.  

“Mennonites have a history of attempting to handpick their own investigators in sexual abuse cases, from within their own circles of friends, acquaintances, and trusted institutional allies,” said Jeremy Yoder, Mennonite pastor in La Junta, CO and graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. “When abusers and enablers are powerful and popular leaders, these internal processes leave survivors marginalized and voiceless.” 

Unless a reputable external organization conducts the investigation, the Mennonite institutions in question will always be plagued by questions about whose secrets have been protected at the expense of whom. An external investigation is in the best interests both of survivors and of the institutions in question. “We are not the right experts for our own context”, said SNAP Mennonite member Jay Yoder in a recent article in The Mennonite.

In the same article, Kratz says VMC is in the process of assembling an “independent panel to review leadership and pastoral responses to allegations of abuse in congregational life.”  SNAP Mennonite is calling on all church leaders, pastors, and members of the body of the Mennonite Church to oppose any proposed internal investigation by publicly denouncing it. “Any attempt to organize an internal investigation suggests that leaders have something to hide,” said SNAP Leader Barbra Graber. “In our experience it virtually never works because the public is not warned, the vulnerable are not protected, and further abuse is not deterred." 

Barbra Graber's contact info: 540-214-8874[email protected]

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