Pt 1: Are religious leaders (who offend sexually) untouchable?

One of my favourite things about university has been the freedom to guide my own path in the area of research. Returning to studying after years of experience it was critical that it fit with my work with sexual violence in religious communities. For most projects and all research I chose to look at various aspects of religion and crime – mostly sexual abuse – in a variety of contexts, including Latter Day Saints, Orthodox Judaism, and conservative Anabaptists. I grew up in a series of conservative Mennonite churches – thanks to parents who never found peace in any of the ones we tried – so I am not unfamiliar with the terrain of religion. But I was shocked by the similarities in function between other fundamental religious groups and my background. We are not the only ones structured to protect top leaders.

At first I questioned if it was actually structured that way (on purpose) or if it was merely the inadvertent and inevitable outcome of ultimate power given to bishops and leaders. But after a bit of digging and searching for answers, I concluded some are intentionally structured to make leaders untouchable. Why? I am not certain, beyond the need to make the religious culture look perfect and maintain image. (To see how this plays out in the Orthodox Jews, read Michael Lesher’s: Shonda and Concealment). And then there is this notion that those called to ministry are just a bit more sacred and holy than the rest. Here I would propose that the calling itself may be entirely holy, but the human executing that calling is entirely flawed, completely human and particularly vulnerable to corruption when placed at such a level.

Someone said, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, or something close to that. I would echo that. Power that is accountable to no one is absolute power, and it absolutely is corrupt. No human gets to play God, be untouchable by those they lead, and still stay human and flawed in their own mind. That kind of power leads to grandiose thinking, narcissism and idolatry. When people who follow such a leaders start believing they have a special kind of ‘in’ with God, and maybe it’s okay for them to do things others can’t, rather than exposing leaders’ crimes, we have a real problem. And these were the testimonies of some of the women in the studies I read; rather than exposing crime they saw leaders are having ‘special permission’ from God. This matches what I’ve heard from victims I’ve worked with.

Every spiritual leader and person in ministry I’ve known is prone to failure and sin, myself included. We all have to repent. Every last one of us. Knowing many others, and knowing myself, I have concluded we are all the same. All human, just like you. All sinners saved by grace. We, like the Apostle Paul, do the things we don’t want to do and don’t get done what we want to do. But true leaders do not justify sin and crime in their own lives.

Do away with the pedestals. They are not stable and only stay up as long as people are willing to hold them up. On a pedestal repentance is difficult, as is facing consequences for sin and crime. There’s the fear that if people discover how broken and human we are they will be destroyed by our imperfection and lose their faith in God. Even in this we raise ourselves to a God-like-status. But it’s not truth. They’ll be fine, believe it or not, if they see our humanity. And if they aren’t, the perception of perfection is better crushed. It’s their one hope of replacing leaders with God, and giving God His rightful place.

So how do leaders rise to that place in the minds of (their) people? Because, let’s face it, none are ‘all that and a bag of chips’ once you get to know them. They may be wonderful and nice, and all, but they are human. And I’ve not met one that isn’t somehow selfish, no matter who they desire to be. Me included. We are all human; you and I, and on the same level.

I can’t speak to the ‘how’ of every religious community, but it struck me in my readings for the research I did, that it is a taught and controlled path to the top. A path carefully laid out in the constitutions and rule books, including Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews among others. Of course my ‘knowing’ from experience and observation also gave me insights other ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t see. (Regrettably, I cannot use the material from that research publicly at this time, t is also part of my PhD application package.)

Some church constitutions state that charges or allegations can only be brought against a church leader if there are several witnesses. If there is one thing sex offenders and child molesters know, it is to never leave room for witnesses. The lengths to which they go in planning and scheming, or their skill at taking advantage of the vulnerable person at hand, would leave room for little chance of ever having even one witness, let alone two. They are opportunistic, and have an uncanny ability to sniff out the vulnerable ones who have no voice.

Now take those skills, give them to a revered church leader who knows who is who, and what church families struggles with, and who is vulnerable, insecure, abused (by parents, spouse or teacher etc), and you have a perfect storm. When sex offenders and molesters become preachers and bishops, or ministry leaders, and especially if they have that lovable personality, they have access to victims with a reputation that is well fortressed. Offenders in church leadership are often very charismatic leaders who ‘love’ people, and are loved and worshiped by their followers. They have no need to defend themselves, because they have built their empire so that no one will believe the allegations, and the people will rise to their defence so they need only to sit back and watch as their voiceless victims scramble for someone, anyone to hear them.

These offenders will likely have made certain to have enough trusted relationships with the demographic of their victims who can vouch for them as respectful and safe, to ensure that allegations sound foolish and far-fetched. (For example, students are often shocked when the teacher is caught molesting because the teacher was respectful to most students. The ministry leader or minister who violates the vulnerable wives of the abusive men they help may have the respect of many of the wives of these men, having never made moves or crossed lines, thus making the rest sound ridiculous when they bring forward their allegations. And the leader who molests girls may leave his own daughters untouched, so that the whole family can vouch for him. You get the picture.)

These are skilled criminals, not people who ‘fall’ into affairs in leadership. These are not pastors, bishops and ministry leaders; they are wolves. They are predators. They are power-mongers with lust issues; lust for power and lust for sex. They excommunicate and ostracize those who fail to live up to the constitution, and excuse their own sin. They  have no regard for the sacredness of sex and God’s laws, not to mention the laws of the land. They rape, overpower, molest and lust… and excommunicate victims for not being silent. (In any case, if a leader molests or abuses someone, he/she should be removed and dealt with, even if only a one time offence. They are not safe in positions of power.)

The more these allegations against church and ministry leaders come to light, in various communities and churches, the more certain I am that one of the key sources of the larger problem is the result of corrupt leadership. Be that 20% of the leaders, or 50%, or 5%, it’s too many. And, unfortunately, those leaders who are pure of heart genuinely struggle to grasp that a fellow-leader would/could do such a thing, and they too write things off as false allegations made by a troubled church member. This needs to change.

And that leads me to the the next thing in the constitution… The word of a member in good standing, according to some constitutions, is to be taken over that of those who are not in good standing. It takes little imagination to see that sex abuse victims are often very troubled and don’t do ‘constitution following’ very well, making their testimony easy to write off. And those victims who are faithful constitution followers are silent, because that’s what the constitution sets up. Some state that members are to first attempt resolving issues directly with those who wronged them, before going to leaders, meaning victims must first face their offender before seeking help. They further state that once communion has been observed and peace is expressed, a matter is to be considered forgiven and done.

The way these things are structures make church leaders – especially bishops, but also prominent ministry leaders and lay members of good rapport – almost untouchable. And that perpetuates the crimes both at a leadership level and among the people. Almost untouchable…

But God…

But God is not done. He will expose. He will bring to light. And He will give voice to victims so that these wolves will be stripped of their facades, and they will stand naked in their sins. And more than giving them a voice He will be their voice and He will speak boldly. And then there will be no constitution to manage damage control. There will be no hiding. The truth will be revealed.

What excites me is that God is raising up leaders ‘among them‘ who will not be silent.  Leaders who will not look the other way, and who will hold them accountable and turn them over to the law. These leaders and their wives have reached out to me, internationally, and encouraged me to never quit, never give up… And God is also raising up a network of law enforcement workers across USA who are listening. They are seeing the patterns, the cover-ups and the crime in the name of God.

Reckoning day is coming…

And that doesn’t even begin to account for standing before God with these sins exposed, their covers blown.

Victims have long been brutalized by organized religion, and have been silenced. But God…

(To be continued…)

As always…

Love,
~ T ~

© Trudy Metzger 2018

All Mennonites are Not Sexual Predators…

…any more than all Christians are hypocrites,  all Germans are Nazi’s, all blacks are gangsters and all priests are paedophiles.  Those statements are stereotypical and false.

But it is difficult to write about the crimes and cover ups in a particular people group, and be a voice for the victims, without making the whole lot of them look party to the crime, without naming names, one way or the other. If the telling of every story is required to justify those who are not party to the crimes and cover ups, it is just another way of downplaying the pain of victims, and taking away their voice. And that, in my opinion, is just as corrupt.

I wrote this blog in response to very particular ‘challenges’ I received, privately, from several ministers in conservative Mennonite settings concerned over how I make the Mennonite church look by sharing the stories of Mennonites. Both were respectful, for the most part. And my response was intended to validate their views, that all Mennonites are not Sexual Predators, and the stories I post misrepresent the culture.

My most recent blog post “Mennonite Woman Responds to Recent Column: My abusers are my church leaders” , which received almost 4000 views in just over 24 hours,  was met with a sprinkling of similar criticism while many messages of support, appreciation, compassion, concern and identification poured in. And I say ‘sprinkling’ because, less than a handful of messages expressed frustration at the misrepresentation of the culture also arrived. Even ‘sprinkling’ is exaggerated.

So this blog, which was originally inspired by several church leaders–appropriately follows the most recent blog exposing abuse in the culture. (Though I challenge readers to take note that, beyond mentioning the victim to whom I am giving a voice, the culture is not mentioned. It was, and still is, intended as a challenge to ‘the church’, not ‘a culture’.)

Reflecting over the past several years of writing, in telling my story, I am keenly and painfully aware of this in my writing, that sharing the stories of Mennonite victims, and giving them a voice, casts a shadow over the entire culture. (And have been aware as I wrote. It is not a new thought.)

I have tried to balance the harsh realities with the good in the culture, and the beauty of certain aspects of it–particularly the sense of community. I have also shared of how my healing began at Countryside Mennonite Fellowship, when Howard and Alice reached out and helped me, and Glen Jantzi, one of the ministers, reached out to my one brother. This care, on behalf of my brother and myself, had a powerful impact on my healing journey.

Furthermore, while I was always ‘different’, and never fit into the cultural mould, I felt loved and accepted by many friends at Countryside, right up until the time we left, and even after.

It was at Countryside where I first felt I had something of value to offer, and that I could make a difference in the Kingdom of God. This was thanks to the bishop’s wife, Florence Martin, who saw something in me, after she and I had a shared incident, in which she encouraged me to reach out to a young girl. She gave me a card with a thank you note. Placed inside was the calendar page from a little inspirational calendar from that day, it read: “November 9  Who knows but that may want to use you this day… ” and I don’t recall the rest. (Though I do have the note stored with memorabilia, because it had such influence in my life.)

Lena Martin, the deacon’s wife sat with me in a  coffee shop and answered hard identity questions, when I first started working through abuse. I can’t think of anything more she could have done. Years later, while watching a video of Lisa Bevere with a handful of other women, she said, “Trudy, I could see you do this one day.”  To which I responded with a laugh, “In a light blue suit?” because that is what Lisa had on at the time.

Countryside was, for me, a very safe place to begin healing. We loved the people, we appreciated and cared for the leaders–all of them. Not once did I feel unkindness, even when Joe and Esther had to ask me to tone it down on the make-up, and Glen and Elly asked me to scale back my heals, and Leighton sat me down, in a most fatherly way, and asked me not to skip service and go cruising with a bunch of rambunctious youth instead of attending special meetings.  In fact, Leighton, the bishop, spoke with such understanding and gentleness, even when chiding me, that my heart-felt completely safe.

Yes, some tragic events took place, rocking the church we knew. And we all grieved. Many of us, if not all of us, went through inner chaos and confusion. Why did God let the accident happen, and allow three children to be orphaned? Why did it seem no one knew how to handle the tragedy and grief left in its wake? There were no answers. Only pain, turmoil and disappointment.

Still our love for Countryside, and all the people we knew there, never faded. It lives on to this day, and always will. Because it was the place God took me, in a culture that had deeply wounded me–though a very different ‘brand’ of Mennonites within that culture–and began to reveal himself to me. I sat in that church, in God’s presence and shed many a healing tear, as I discovered a God of grace. And it was only the beginning of that discovery of God’s love and grace.

I didn’t get to know many of the other churches much in the Midwest setting. Only a few, and only a little.  Tim’s aunt and uncle served as leaders at Woodlawn, Abner and Almeda Martin and, to this day, are among the Mennonites I respect most for their genuine faith.

None of these realities have escaped me, or lost appreciation in my heart during this past two-year stretch of addressing sexual abuse in Mennonite and plain cultures.  And  those who have taken time to read the blogs I wrote before focusing on exposing the corruption, will know that I have said many, if not all of these things in the past. Hopefully you have not lost sight of them. I could not, however, go back to constantly reaffirming these things, while speaking the truth about the corruption.

And then there is the small matter of knowing people I respect would not necessarily wish to have me applaud them here. It creates a tie to me, and establishes in the mind of the reader, a relationship with them, and they may not wish to be identified in any way back to me. (There are those whom I admire and respect from my time in the Mennonite church, who would as soon not be associated with me, and I try to honour that, though I may have crossed that line in this post.)

I am not sorry for exposing the things I exposed. I’m mostly not sorry for how I said them, most of the time. (There’s a time or two, when a deep breath and a long pause would have served me well, when leaders refused to face truth. I regret not taking a deep breath and a long pause first, but also trust God to redeem my humanity. Therefore I will not live in regret.)

I am sorry that some wonderful people in the culture, who sincerely love God and fight for truth, were hurt in the process and feel their name and identity have been tarnished with my telling the truth of victims, and being their voice.

It is the thing with ‘carrying a name’, that becomes the price tag for that name. We hold it dear, even idolize it, until the image crumbles because too much corruption lies buried by those whose hearts are evil. And then we struggle to deal with the consequence of that name. That is true whether the name is Menno Simons, or Jesus Christ. Whichever name we carry close in our hearts, that is the name that will cause us the greater anguish, when not held up to the extent that we revere it. 

Even Jesus generalized and spoke out against the Scribes and Pharisees for their corruption as leaders. He didn’t go about saying things like, “a few of you… or ‘some of you’ or some other softening of the blow. No, He said it boldly, “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees!”  And then each one had to decide in his own heart if he was guilty.

Amazingly, some of them were His inner circle. How could Jesus do this so boldly, and not risk losing the hearts of these men? Or were they so lost in Him, that the truth of the evil attached to their ‘other identity’ no longer frightened them? Even when it came so close to home that it could have been interpreted as an attack on their own identity? Had the name and title lost its meaning, with no idolatry left in their hearts, so that they no longer worshipped that identity? 

Is this the biggest problem many in the culture have with me?  That the painful truth of buried sexual abuse and sin, connected with my cultural background, is too personal because too much faith has been placed in a name–the name of a man, Menno, who would be mortified at that idolatry–and that identity has been a source of great pride, but is now a source of shame? (And this could also be said of Baptist, Pentecostal, Christian Fellowship, Non-denominational, Inter-denominations, and every other religious identity where corruption lies hidden, and the name is protected.)

Is it possible that God wants to unravel that cultural pride, and bring us all back to one identity–Jesus Christ?

If we were to embrace His identity as the only one that matters, and openly acknowledged the wickedness within, would that not open the door for healing, restoration and allow the Body of Christ to thrive? I would no longer be a threat with my truth-telling, but an opportunity to rise up. And only if I defamed the name of Christ would there be any need for personal offences, hurt feelings and emails challenging my message.

The truth is that the name of Jesus is the answer to this problem. Many a Christian has left me wanting for another name to identify myself by, because of the damage they have done to the name of Christ, and still, I carry the name of Jesus Christ with honour, boldness, and without apology. Because His is one name that, no matter how close I carry it to my heart or how wrongly people use it, does not bring shame to me. Christians shame Him. Religion does also. But not Jesus. He restores my honour, just by embracing His name, regardless of how He is misrepresented.

That is a name worth holding on to. 

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© Trudy Metzger

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If God be For Us… & Mennonite Friends Encourage Us…

I sat in my chair, Tuesday morning, with a quiet ‘questioning’ in my heart. “What if I’m not equipped?… What if God doesn’t want me to move into this ‘abuse in the church’ territory?… What if… What if… What if? … And what if I’m not all He wants me to be and I’m ‘in the way’ for Him to do what He really wants to do in breaking the silence, and bringing freedom to my people from sexual abuse?…

The thoughts tumbled, emotionless, through my mind. They were very calm, reasonable thoughts, bringing no sense of alarm or distress. And then the thoughts escalated… “What if I’m not even ‘acceptable’ to God?”

Strange… these are not things I have struggled with or even thought about in, well, a very, very long time. Why now? Just before a conference?

As I contemplated the unbidden mental ramblings, I had a little conversation with my Almighty Friend. There are things I know, and those things are not up for grabs or question just because the enemy is on my case. They are what I stand on when the haunting begins. And to remind myself of them, I talk to God about them, because I’m not interested in engaging in conversation with the enemy. (Though I do remind him, from time to time, of my place in God’s heart.)

I thanked God that He uses my broken efforts and, even if every ‘questioning’ in my mind has a point–that I am not perfectly equipped, that I am not hearing right in every situation, and so on–that He is still God, and accepts what I give, and uses me for His Kingdom.

At that very moment I received a text message from a Mennonite friend, saying she is praying for me, praying that I will be protected from every attack of the enemy. She guessed it must be really bad, just before a conference like that.

I thought for a moment before I realized the questions in my mind had been just that. An attack to disarm me, to remove my God-confidence, to shake me up and look to my own ability, rather than simply falling hard on God.

I slipped to the local hardware store, not long after, and immediately, as I entered, my eyes caught a friend from my former church, when I was still Mennonite. She waved enthusiastically, wrapped up her conversation and came over. We stood and chatted for almost half an hour. She encouraged me to not quit, to not give up on a much needed ministry. Her home life was idyllic, as far as family environment goes. Loving parents. Wealthy. Generous. Kind. Sweet, sweet home. Her mom died when she was a newly wed, but apart from that, life was good. Easy.

“You must look at someone like me and think ‘they just don’t get it’, don’t you?” she said.

I shook my head. “No. I look at someone like you and I think, ‘you’re so blessed to not have experienced abuse.”

“But your ministry is needed,” she said. “I talk to enough women, and listen to their pain, that I know. I know how bad it is.”

Tears welled up in her eyes numerous times as she spoke. Her heart is beautiful, filled with compassion in spite of her idyllic home. That’s the best case scenario, to be protected and sheltered, yet compassionate and wanting to help. She encouraged me, before we parted, to keep on even if there’s resistance. Just keep on.

I left the hardware store with my few purchases, as if on eagle wings. It amazes me, always, how some people have a way of lifting you up, encouraging, and leaving you better than when you came.

I did a few more tasks before slipping out to see an Mennonite woman, whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know in the past few years. She’s not young any more, and the wisdom of her years comes through in conversation.

As I pulled in the lane, she dropped her yard work, and scurried over to my car, clapping her hands in delight. Her eyes sparkled, as if hardly able to contain what she wanted to say. When I stepped out of my vehicle, she greeted me enthusiastically, “Good for you, Trudy, good for you! I’m so happy you haven’t given up! So happy you’re doing this conference! Come! Come!”

She whisked me into her house and found a quiet spot, away from others who might listen. She put her finger over her lips, “Shhhhh… They might be listening…”

We talked for about 40 minutes. She shared with great excitement some things that are happening, every now and then declaring, “Good things are happening!”

When the time came to leave, she whispered after me, “You go Trudy! You go!”

Two in one day! What more can a person ask for? A text had come in just before I pulled in her lane-way, but I had not taken time to read it, distracted immediately by my friend’s enthusiasm. I opened it.

“I see an anointing being poured out thsi weekend. Oh Trudy, your obedience is providing a place for God’s Spirit to fall. I’m standing her crying at the kitchen sink. To think I have been allowed to see waht my heart has been groaning for. My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. He is going ahead of the weekend. Hearts are being softened. Ears are being opened. What you say will go into the territory that has never heard. How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the gospel. You have beautiful feet…”

Overwhelmed, the tears fell from my eyes. Last evening I sat in my chair, preparing for the conference when a friend texted about another suicidal woman who needs someone to walk her through her pain. The tears had fallen then too, as I realized the magnitude of what God is doing, and the extent of the need. “Oh God have mercy!”

But tonight the tears were overwhelming relief that God has not forgotten. That it is about Him and up to Him and He has warriors all around, rising up for His Kingdom, and inviting God to rise up and take His rightful place in their lives, their homes and their churches.

My heart was full. I returned home to task waiting for me, checked my emails for anything urgent and was further overwhelmed by another message. It read:

“Hi Trudy!

Just wanted to assure you of my prayers this weekend as you go through this very important conference.  May God speak through you more powerfully than ever before and may every heart present soak it up to the nth degree!  May an army rise up to defend the victims and may there be resources and powerful answers to help the perpetrators overcome their addictions!  God bless you with the right thoughts and words and above all, may the Holy Spirit fill your heart and mind and being in every way, that all attending would be so overcome by God’s love and Presence!  May hurting and wounded hearts find their healing in Jesus Christ and in loving and caring people around them!!  You go, Trudy!!  There is a multitude of people behind you cheering — “go, go, go, Trudy!!!!!!”  We/I will be eager to hear reports next week or whenever you get around to blogging or putting something on facebook.  =)

Grateful to God for women who are like lionesses, reaching the “masses”!!

~ B~

PS     I’m referring to the book, Lioness Arising, written by Lisa Bevere… I see you as one of “those”!!”

Never before have I had such an overwhelming series of encouragements, with such powerful messages cheering me on, as I did on that one day. And all except one of them came from people who are within the Mennonite culture, as pre-conference support.

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And the texts, emails, phone calls and conversations at grocery stores have continued to trickle in from my team, mostly from conservative churches, letting me know they are standing with me, and fighting for the people.

I am humbled, amazed, blessed, encouraged, challenged and thankful! So very thankful that God goes before us, and takes care of our needs. So thankful that He reminds us, through His children, that He has not forgotten us, and that He blesses our work.

Thank you to so many of you for standing with me, in faith, in prayer, in confidence that God has a good plan in all of this. He is moving… healing… restoring.

Please continue to pray for this weekend, that the Holy Spirit will have free reign, and chains will be broken.

And, though I seldom ask for personal prayer, if you have a moment and I come to mind, I’d appreciate prayers on my behalf as well. It is no small thing to enter this hidden place, and reclaim what the enemy has stolen.

© Trudy Metzger

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