Between a rock and a hard place

MC Eastern Canada struggles with boundary crossings by credentialed leaders

Dave Rogalsky | Eastern Canada Correspondent

Leaders at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada feel they are caught between a rock and a hard place, as they have had to deal with a number of boundary crossings by church leaders over the past five years. Such work can consume time and energy in immense amounts because the denominational leaders want the victims to be treated with dignity and confidentiality, and they want to move the abuser and congregation toward healing.

Executive minister David Martin says that each case is different and is dealt with in a situational way. Reporting a case to the public depends on the sphere of the abuser’s influence, which can be from local to international. One of the reasons for making a name public is to “open the way for other potential victims to come forward,” he says, and potentially move toward healing. Often victims have already done significant work on that path. The time lag between the abuse and the reporting often includes the victim getting significant help with the violation experienced.

To handle the reporting of such cases, MC Eastern Canada, in collaboration with the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Brethren in Christ Church and Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, formed the Sexual Misconduct and Resource Response Team (SMARRT). MC Eastern Canada also established a web page on its website that provides specific contact information. “Church leaders” can refer to either credentialed pastors or lay leaders with positions of trust in congregations.

Henry Paetkau, area church minister, then prepares a report for MC Eastern Canada’s Leadership Council. The area church’s Executive Council is made aware when boundary crossings of credentialed leaders happen, as Leadership is responsible to the Executive, according to moderator Paul Wideman. Names of abusers are not released for vindictive or shame-producing purposes, but to promote healing in the church, and to attempt to create a climate in which such boundary crossing is seen as unacceptable.

Victims’ names are held in confidence, so as not to inflict any more pain on them or their families. The Executive, says Wideman, errs on the side of being too confidential about victims. Victims sometimes choose to go public themselves, but should only do so after counselling by trained workers, like those who serve on SMARRT.

The web page indicates that confidentiality and the commitment to listen to victims’ stories without judgment are important. However, Martin says that victims’ stories are tested carefully for accountability.

Wideman believes that the web page is an interactive mode for victims to enter into conversation with the church about what has happened to them, since many are no longer active in congregations. The process in the church looks for truth, justice and healing, rather than being an adversarial legal process, says Paetkau.

MC Eastern Canada has not only set up the web page and dealt with boundary crossings, but is actively working on education in congregations and with their leaders. All credentialed leaders are expected to attend a day-long seminar on boundary maintenance every five years, as a way to refresh and extend their self-care. Pastors who fail to take time for themselves and their families, or to have a life beyond their church connections, are more likely to cross boundaries in situations with power differentials. All pastors also sign ethical covenants with their congregations.

Martin says that “story articles” are being prepared to “deepen understanding about misconduct”: what it is and how to both stop it from happening, and to deal with it when it does.

Martin, Wideman and Paetkau are all clear that the purpose of dealing with sexual abuse in private—and, when necessary, in public—is healing, creating a safe place for victims, and ensuring the church is a safe place for everyone.

In the interests of full disclosure, Dave Rogalsky, besides being Canadian Mennonite’s Eastern Canada correspondent, is also the pastor of Wilmot Mennonite Church, an MC Eastern Canada congregation in New Hamburg, Ont.

See also: 

“More transparency please”
Alleged sexual misconduct charge against Vernon Leis, deceased pastor”

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