Some years ago an advert in the Elmira Independent announced a one-day seminar about abuse, with a special focus on plain cultures. It was put on by a licensed counselor, who is also a Born Again Christian, and works closely with Amish, Old Order and various ‘brands’ of Mennonites across Ontario, as well as parts of United States. I decided to attend.
The counselor kindly but forthrightly addressed the ‘higher than average’ rates of sexual abuse in the plain cultures, and stated that the more ‘closed’ a culture, the higher the rates of sexual abuse. With sin and abuse covered and hidden in silence to protect image, it is the perfect hideout for a perpetrator, he explained. What was more, in many of the cases he was involved with the victims suffered severe discipline at the hands of the church, when they exposed the abuse. They were accused of anything from ‘causing discord’, to lying, to receiving the blame for the immorality of the perpetrator. To silence the victims, churches excommunicated them or put them on probation.
Having heard this, a Mennonite preacher stood to his feet during the Q & A session, to contest the ‘misrepresentation’ of the severity of the problem. Wearing plain suit and all, he defended the Mennonite church, calling it an ‘unjust accusation’.
The counselor calmly stood his ground, saying he could only present the facts as he knows and sees them, and that it is not intended to harm or hurt the culture. He was there to offer help.
The preacher proceeded to ask the counselor to change his statistics, and say that, “they are as bad as other cultures” and drop the ‘higher than average’ statement.
The counselor was gracious and said, “Ok, for the sake of argument, we’ll say they are as bad, and we won’t say they are worse.”
With it being an open forum, I rose to my feet and shared my story, the 3-minute version. I was abused, first at home in early childhood, and again, later, in the Mennonite church by a leader’s son. The same young man also violated other young people. This too was covered up. I told how, after I opened up about my story, about sixty of my friends in the Mennonite church admitted they were sexually abused or raped from within the church. I shared, without graphic detail, this tragic reality and the frustration we, as victims experience at not being able to find help easily. I was not harsh or accusing, but I was honest.
When it was over, I walked over to the Mennonite preacher—who happens to be an acquaintance of mine—and sat down beside him. I told him that my intent was not to hurt him or his church, and I pled with him to stop living in denial about what is covered up in the church.
The preacher sat there quietly for a while. I presumed he was loading his spiritual gun to attack me and put me in my place. I had, after all, abandoned their denomination and was viewed, by some, as someone who had abandoned my faith.
Instead, when he finally looked at me, his eyes were filled with shame and sadness. “I am a perpetrator,” he said.
Shell-shocked is the best way to describe what I felt at that moment. He, a perpetrator, was openly defending the culture. And I knew that his wife was one of the many victims in the culture, who had struggled for many years, never quite able to find freedom.
In an instant my role transitioned from ‘the exposer’ to ‘the mentor’. It was the first time I engaged with a perpetrator of abuse for any other reason than to confront and offer forgiveness. This was new and, that it would be a Mennonite preacher from my background, was ironic. Maybe it was God’s grace, because I felt only compassion for him. It was within a closed culture that I had been most violated, first at home and then someone from church, and to be able to care for this man in that moment taught me something. We are all human beings with stories, secrets, and sins. We all need grace and forgiveness.
Seeing his grief, and still shocked that he would share this with me, I asked him, “Have you gone back and made things right? Have you confessed it?”
He said that he had, and went on to share how he was privately trying to help other men in the area of sexuality and accountability.
When that preacher stood to his feet and defended the culture, I thought he did it out of sheer ignorance and the genuine belief that abuse is virtually non-existent in the culture. I quickly discovered that it was a desperate attempt to protect what he wanted sincerely to believe about the culture, against better knowledge. He was overwhelmed at the thought that countless others like him, carried this secret, that countless other victims carried the damaging impact for life. He didn’t want to believe it could happen. Willed himself to believe it.
If he was the only one, he could ‘manage’ the problem. If there were a few others, he could make an impact. But if countless perpetrators filled the seats of churches, and countless victims sat interspersed with the perpetrators, it changed things dramatically.
We parted ways, blessing one another, each determined to make a difference in our sphere of influence. I’ve only run into him a few times since then, but usually at funeral visitations and never in an environment where it would be appropriate to ask how that ministry is going.
At the end of that meeting, I met a group of women from the community, representing a variety of Mennonite churches, and spent some time with them. Those connections opened doors for the future.
© Trudy Metzger 2012
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