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Last updated September 09.

Sept. 2, 2013 issue

Abuse victims’ stories told as steps to heal are promised

Website with mission of empowerment contributes to calls for renewed attention to abuse by leading theologian

By Kelli Yoder Mennonite World Review

In 2012 Rachel Halder was in the midst of the worst year of her life, getting therapy for abuse she experienced as a child.



On a plane to San Francisco, she had a vivid dream of starting a blog for survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories. It didn’t feel like something she came up with on her own.

“From that day on I was like, I’m going to do this,” said Halder, a 2010 Goshen (Ind.) College graduate who is currently living in Questa, N.M. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. I just thought, let it happen organically.”

And it did. She launched a website,, and it gained a modest following. Seven survivors’ stories were published. Halder and guest bloggers offered reflections. But she felt many who would appreciate it didn’t know about it.

Then, in July, she posted an essay by Barbra Graber of Harrisonburg, Va., on the need for a change in the handling of discussions about sexual abuse by the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. More than 2,500 people visited the site in a day.

“It just exploded,” Halder said. Hundreds joined the conversation on the website and Facebook.

With Graber’s post, the blog reached what Halder hopes is a tipping point for conversation to open up on sexual abuse in the church — and for long overdue healing to begin.

Wider attention to sexual harassment and abuse of women by Yoder — a leading theologian of the 20th century, best known for his 1972 book, The Politics of Jesus — is something Carolyn Holderread Heggen has sought for years.

A family therapist, speaker and consultant on faith and sexuality for more than 30 years, Heggen wrote Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches in 1993.

Having experienced Yoder’s “unwanted sexual advances and lurid invitations,” she began recognizing similar stories of other women, sometimes seminary students.

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  • As a psychologist practicing for 20 years, the word "healing" in the context of the Church and particularly related to sexual abuse has long grated on my clinical ear. To follow this analogy of healing, when one heals, there is almost always a scar. Scars continue to impair, to stiffen movement, to be a source of pain, to impact on physical function.

    Frequently the word "healing" is used in a context that assumes that once "healing" has occurred, things have returned to some pristine state of wholeness. Allowing this fantasy to persist sets us up for failure, typically another failure by the very people who have experienced the damage.

    But the damage is done to both individual and the church as a whole. The metaphoric scars of sexual abuse litter the Body of Christ. The damage includes a litany of psychological symptoms and compensatory behavior too long to address in a note of this sort. It helps that the political arm of the Mennonite Church is now open to recognize that there have been injuries done. It will be better when those in power acknowledge that these injuries have handicapped not only the individuals who have been victims of abuse, but also the institution of the Mennonite Church itself. An idealized church is a dishonest church. The dishonesty needs to stop.

    - Lamar Freed (sep 3 at 7:02 p.m.)

  • The problem of sexual abuse in the church goes back thousands of years. The "original" Christian Church was actually a political arm of an empire, and aggressively protected and promoted sexual abuse and torture. The Martyr's Mirror book has accounts of sexual torture used on Anabaptist prisoners, but it is hidden, disguised and requires very close reading to discern it. Mennonites and Amish culture has incorporated an re-enactment of that sexual abuse that is unconscious trauma repetition. We need to go deeper into an historical critical analysis of the societal context of sexual abuse.

    - Annie Wenger-Nabigon (sep 4 at 7:44 a.m.)

  • I don't think cases like John Howard Yoder's have anything to do with reinacting the abuse the Anabaptists experienced! When talented, egomaniacs are allowed to lead in the church or its schools, they will use every method at their disposal to assemble a harem. Maybe some of the Old Order groups mix up abuse with their history of marginalization, but I can't imagine that scenario applies to a popular academic.

    - Barbara Brooks (sep 4 at 6:16 p.m.)

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