Thursday, January 11, 2018

Cameron Altaras, "Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins, or #MeToo in the Mennonite World"

I'm honored today to share with you another essay from the Mennonite world, one making powerful connections between the #MeToo movement and the recovery of the voices of Mennonite women who have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders. "One stops one's voice in an effort to preserve one's life," Cameron Altaras writes, summing up the shattering pain women who have experienced sexual abuse in a religious context live with when they are told not to speak out, that they have deserved their abuse, that they are without worth, and on and on. What follows is Cameron Altaras' stellar essay:

Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins, Or #MeToo in the Mennonite World

We have our own Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins. We have our own victims of our Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins. And we have our own silent Mennonites who knew or guessed or heard rumors but chose to stand by, remain faceless and nameless and not forewarn potential victims of our Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins. We also have our own backlashing Mennonites who cry: “Fake News!” and “Harlots!” and spread vicious rumors when any victims reveal the abuses they endured at the hands of our beloved and revered Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins. 

When I was a college student, I was warned by a female professor about a Mennonite Harvey Weinstein. He was a pastor and had a reputation for "befriending" young Mennonite women in the arts. I was one. A few days after this warning, Mr. Mennonite Pastor Harvey Weinstein made a move on me — physically. Because I was prepared, I resisted and was never alone with him again. Shortly thereafter, a friend told me she had gone to Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (MCEC) leadership to lodge an allegation against this pastor. I told her of my experience and agreed to be a witness for her by lodging my own allegation. He lost his pastoral credentials.

When I was a college student, I was not warned, though, by anyone about another Mennonite Harvey Weinstein. He was also a pastor and had a reputation for encouraging women to go into ministry and other leadership positions within the Mennonite Church in Canada and the United States. I have since learned that long before me, women on both sides of the border were sexually intimidated, harassed, stalked, and abused by him. In some cases, this occurred over a short period of time; in other cases, like my own, he took two years to groom and carefully manipulate with one-on-one attention, flattery and alcohol, before slyly engaging in any outright sexual behavior. None of the women he preyed upon prior to me ever spoke up publicly or forewarned me in private. It took me more than twenty years to speak up because I didn’t understand what had happened to me. I took on the shame and blame and thought I was the only one he ever did this to. Besides, he was a beloved and revered Mennonite Harvey Weinstein … who would ever believe he did anything wrong?

The time has come. Correction: the time is way overdue! 

I must speak. I must warn potential victims of any other Mennonite Harvey Weinsteins. I must give voice to the ugly, reprehensible truth I know. If I keep silent any longer, I permit the backlashers unencumbered air-time to spread rumors and vicious lies in a last-ditch desperate attempt to perpetuate a culture where men are men and boys will be boys and girls grow up to be women who are expected to keep their mouths shut, bear the shame, and hide their guilt under prayer coverings (virtual or actual) in submission to a trumped-up theologically-endorsed patriarchal order of things. Too many women's lives have been ruined because too many good people have allowed their fear or their apathy or their addiction to docility, to silence them. 

I am one such woman. I choose now to set aside my pain and my shame and my learned helplessness and I stand up. I am willing to be counted. I am willing to name and to be named.


I am a fifty-four-year-old woman. I have changed my name. I have moved about as far away from the Mennonite world of my youth as I can without crossing an ocean. I have gone through MCEC's clergy misconduct process regarding the Mennonite Harvey Weinstein to whose grooming process I fell victim in my twenties. I gathered a supportive group of family, friends, and former MCEC leaders around me. We plodded through six years of difficult learning and tough discerning. When his name was released to the community, torrential backlash roared publicly while privately, more women came forward — women who thought they had been the only one ensnared by a highly revered Mr. Mennonite Pastor Harvey Weinstein.

But his name was not Harvey Weinstein, it was Vernon Leis. 

And mine was not that of one of the sixty-three Hollywood women who have publicly revealed how Harvey Weinstein sexually intimidated, abused, harassed or raped them — just because he had power over them, just because he was famous, just because he was a man and he could. 

My name was Cheryl Nafziger. Eventually, I became Cheryl Leis, since one of Vernon Leis’s grooming tactics was to use his son as bait. For two years he told me about his son and how much I had in common with him, then ensured we met. I did fall in love with his son. That is not to be minimized or denied in any way. Simultaneously, I tumbled headlong into the middle of a multitude of tentacles so carefully placed around my being. 

It's a long and winding tale through two decades of a marriage doomed from the start and the births of two children. We were brought together under false pretenses by the man who fathered my husband and sanctified our marriage vows under a canopy of his lies built by his hands. His son and I played our roles as pawns in a game set up by someone we both trusted.

I ended that marriage. It was either that, or kill myself —which I almost did many times.

When MCEC made public that an allegation had been brought forward about Vernon Leis, swift unforgiving rage erupted against both MCEC leadership and whoever had dared come forward to tarnish the name of a now-dead-and-still-revered Mennonite Harvey Weinstein. (1)  Good peace-loving Mennonite constituents — male and female — wrote violently scathing letters to the editor. One woman who submitted such a letter, was confronted face-to-face, by someone to whom she is close, with the truth that there are additional victims. Even in light of privately acknowledging her vicious letter was thus out of line, she refuses to publicly retract it. Her withered courage strengthens the backlash and hate-mongering, and feeds the fear imprisoning other victims in their silent shame.

MCEC leadership compassionately supported me and stuck to their promise to keep my name and my story confidential. Parties furious with them and who knew it was I who had gone forward, leaked that it was I who brought it all to light. Callous rumors and ruthless lies were spread that I had been a jilted spouse who sought revenge by smearing the Leis family name, that I had become mentally unstable, or that I had an affair with some strange guy I met at work and took off across the border with my kids. All of this is far from the truth. 

Since my allegation went public, several other women have come forward. One went through MCEC's process in a much shorter time than mine took. Her story, too, was found to be credible. She and I did not know one another and yet our stories had common factors, we used similar language and her account of one day in particular provided corroborating evidence in support of my account of that particular day. 

One of the tactics Vernon Leis used on this particular woman, was to present her with an essay written by another famous, revered, powerful and also-now-dead Mennonite Harvey Weinstein named John Howard Yoder. That essay proposed theologically-based arguments in support of sex between unmarried brothers and sisters in Christ, twisting the God-given gift of human sexuality into an unholy communion for his own personal gain. Resorting to Yoder for validation was no surprise to one of those in my group of supporters who had known Vernon Leis most of his life. As he expressed it: "Vernon had an unhealthy idolization of John Howard Yoder."

Warning signs

I remain eternally grateful to that female professor who warned me about a Mennonite Harvey Weinstein. Her warning meant I was ready and was able to shield myself from danger. 

I accept the baton from her and now take my turn warning others about the life-destroying tactics used by the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. Some of them hide their true identities under their titles as leaders in our churches, in our church schools, or in our church-affiliated organizations. Others are members of our church communities or our families or in some other way use their affiliation with the religion which has shaped our lives and sneak their misdeeds between the pages of their Bible. 

An article in the Oct. 23, 2017 issue of the New Yorker chronicles the methods the actual Harvey Weinstein employed. (2)  I described the manipulative schemes common to clergy sexual abuse in the Canadian Mennonite. (3) In the address I gave at the 2015 annual conference of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), I explain a 10-step scenario. (4) I have lost count of how many women have contacted me after hearing that speech to tell me that the steps I described mirror exactly what happened to them. It is as if there is a script accessed at some subconscious level by sexual predators — whether they are clergy or not.

At the center of this script I found a horrifying paradox. While the abuse is sexual, it is not even about sex. I stated this in my 2015 address noted above. Chris Hedges, a journalist, Presbyterian minister and Harvard professor, concludes the same thing with regards to the current revelations flooding the airwaves. What we are really dealing with are "the solipsistic auto-arousal that the humiliation and physical abuse of women, a staple of porn and prostitution, have conditioned many men to confuse with sex." (5)

Another commonality of this script is the perpetrator's ability to sniff out the vulnerable. Their antennae are tuned to those who are in a weakened period of life or who have been made susceptible by earlier abuse — sexual, verbal, physical, emotional or spiritual. 

The abuse may be hard to spot. If it's not violent, if the particular Harvey Weinstein character does enter the room in a bathrobe and expose himself or aggressively push one up against a wall or down on the floor or savagely grab one's behind, naming what just transpired as "abuse" can be difficult and slippery. Sexual predation is not necessarily obvious or physical or even verbal. The one being victimized may intuit something is not right, but find it impossible to nail the proverbial jelly of the something-slightly-off-in-the-moment on to the wall. 

Ironically, when the first Mr. Mennonite Pastor Harvey Weinstein made his move on me and I recognized it, I was at that very same time being groomed by Vernon Leis. I even told him about my having been a witness for my friend in the MCEC clergy abuse process. He responded with: "Good for you. Never trust that guy!" His manipulative response had the effect on me he wanted: my na├»ve sense of safety with him just strengthened another notch. I accepted his invitations to coffee and conversations over lunch with wine. I felt special when he volunteered to mentor me as I considered grad school options and my intellect was flattered as he shared books with me. Recently, on the shelf at the home of a friend, I saw one of those books. That black book with yellow, green and blue cartoon-like human figures on the cover evoked a visceral memory: I am with him in his church office as he pulls from his bookshelves a well-worn copy of Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir,  he opens it to a page he seems to know well and points to several paragraphs which make "our relationship okay." (6) I shared this memory with my friend, who knew Satir personally and said Satir would be horrified to know her work was misused in this way. In my early twenties, all of this snuck under my radar and tightened those grooming tentacles about my feet. 

I had never considered myself to be a victim of abuse. I was healthy, sociable, educated, articulate …nothing inside me cried "victim!" Sure, I had left a marriage that I needed to leave, but many marriages end. Only when my now-husband, then new-boyfriend responded to my claim that I'd "had an affair with my father-in-law”"with the remark: "That's not an affair. That's incest and it's an abuse of power!" did I begin to see myself in a new light. Only then did I begin to unravel my awful path of victimization at the hands of a Mennonite pastor. My sense of betrayal was massive. 

Through many hours of therapy, days of weeping, and months of peeling back the layers of who I had become, other pain-filled memories surfaced, memories of my 4-year-old self being sexually molested at the hands of my seventeen-year-old uncle. My tendency to dissociate and abruptly freeze at the slightest hint of male aggression started to make sense. I came to understand that girls who are sexually abused as young children lose all sense of being protected, how to protect themselves, or the belief that they are even worth protecting. Abuse at that age decimates one's personal sense of power, one’s belief in one’s self, and one’s ability to set up boundaries. 

Many childhood victims act out their abuse by attempting to grasp a sense of power and control in the only way they know how by using their own bodies: they become promiscuous. That is the route I took. I hate to admit it. In order to tell the hideous truth, though, I must admit this terribly embarrassing burning reality. As I think back to girls I went to school with or knew from Mennonite youth group gatherings, I can think of several who acted in similar ways. I can only guess that hidden somewhere in the recesses of their suppressed childhood memories are also horrendously unspeakable situations of abuse.

I also thought I was the only one whom my uncle abused. Recently, though, another woman contacted me to reveal I was not alone. He had sexually abused her as an eight-year-old child. My children hate that their family history includes a grandfather who was a sexual predator (luckily, they never knew him), and I despise that my family history includes an uncle who is a pedophile. 

And all that never was

Women sexually or verbally harassed in the workplace often quit their jobs when the harassment becomes intolerable. Many women never achieve their goals because the trauma which resulted from harassment or abuse affects their chances, the choices that were open to them and their ability to pursue them. Women who do manage to climb the ladder to positions of leadership, whether in secular or religious organizations, still find themselves surprised when they encounter insidious odds stacked against them. Each of these and many more similar scenarios are tragic and unacceptable and still occur despite all the strides one might believe have been made or the strides one accuses (depending on one’s view of the world) the feminist movement of having achieved. All of this, just because they are women.

"Every story of sexual harassment contains a story of lost potential," writes Carolyn Framke in her article in Vox. (7) With reference to the victims of Harvey Weinstein, Framke notes that the lives and careers of these women were "changed by their encounters with him, forever attached to his inescapable shadow." And like other women who found themselves at the mercy of a Harvey Weinstein, "the common refrain of these stories is that victims had to rethink their lives, while perpetrators simply moved on."

And what about the women who never even step onto a path of their dreams or into the stream of a career because of abuse that psychologically crushed and completely debilitated them? What contributions to our world might these women have brought forth? What about those women who show potential and manage to push themselves through perfectionism, to overcompensate for their shattered sense of self and finally break down in the privacy of their homes with no idea what is happening to them and just can't go on? How might our lives have been enriched by the solutions or inventions these women could have shared with us? What about those women whose anxiety is colored by a theology which teaches that female submission is next to godliness and so they see no choice but to do as all the women who went before them did: acquiesce to a life of living in the shadow of their husband’s success? We will never know what books these women might have written, what courses they might have taught, what sermons they might have preached, what organizations they might have founded, how many people they might have employed, what injustices they might have righted. 

We really have no idea how much potential has been maimed or paralyzed or even killed and lies buried deep in "a graveyard of potential cut short by careless cruelty." (8) What is it about our culture that resorts to the tactic of wartime, when an invading army rapes the women to shame, humiliate and debilitate them? What is the fear that undergirds the need to keep women powerless? What makes it acceptable for sexual perpetrators to move forward in their careers, while leaving a string of damaged corpses and wounded souls behind them?

Discernment: what to do next

Stephen Colbert on his December 15, 2017 episode of The Late Show, asked actress and director Jodie Foster her take on the current flood of revelations of sexual abuse and abuse of power by men like Harvey Weinstein. Foster spoke of her deep respect and admiration for the courageous women who have come forward and stated that she believes "it's an extraordinary moment in history, it really is. It's a watershed moment and not just affecting the film industry, of course, it's every industry, every work place." (9) Colbert acknowledged that finally we are in a place where the "women are being believed." Foster agreed and asked: "What now? What's the next step? … I want to hear the next step about what we're going to do." Acknowledging the complexity of the issue of sexual abuse she noted that "[y]ou can't just attack a problem by just doing one thing ....[We need to] talk about the dynamics that we've all grown up with."

Within the Mennonite world, we have specific Mennonite dynamics that we've grown up with that will color how we think about and go about the task of addressing abuses of power — sexual and other. We have theology and doctrines and ethical guidelines which have been malevolently twisted by many in whom we've vested the authority to lead us. We have unquestioned traditions and unarticulated community understandings that continue in insidious ways to debilitate many women among us and in other cases, push them back down to "where a woman ought to be." 

In answer to Foster's question: “What’s the next step?” I purport that we begin in our Mennonite arena by removing our blinders and truly allow ourselves to see the damage that has been caused and continues to be caused in the lives of so many women in our church communities. And then, without turning our gaze in the face of the horror, take off our "Stille im Land" mouth guards and permit visceral expressions of outrage at how our traditions and our theology have been tools misused to keep women in positions that are less than men. The AMBS leadership began some of this with the Service of Lament for the John Howard Yoder victims. There are many other John Howard Yoders-Harvey Weinsteins who have devastated and are currently devastating many other lives. While this is not a call for a witch-hunt, we must take steps to ensure our daughters, our granddaughters, our students and our sisters can freely bring their gifts to the world. 

A poem I wrote with reference to the mythical Greek figure of Artemis among the buggies of our ancestors and the more conservative of our Mennonite fold, paints such a picture. I shared it with a friend who grew up Old Order Mennonite and who was victimized by a Mennonite pastor. The poem resonated with her: 

Artemis Patiently Waits

Scriptures shape-shift to
Reign in life and
Direct the horses to
Keep black buggies full of girlhood dreams
to the side of the road.
Artemis patiently waits.
While the world evolves beyond
their blinders and out past the reaches of their reigns,
Artemis patiently waits.

Rules morph and cover 
Never-cut-wound-tight hair
White prayer caps tied just so under chins to
Keep female heads full of questions
out of view and in submission.
Artemis patiently waits.
While answers develop beyond 
their grasp and farther than the reaches of their covering strings,
Artemis patiently waits,
until one of them reaches for her hand.

Longings labeled "sin" drape
Plain capes over shoulders
Growing heavier one generation to the next to
Keep women from giving birth 
to forbidden strengths.
Artemis patiently waits. 
While secret urges manifest new forms beyond
their inbred obedience and the reaches of the last thread of tradition’s cape,
Artemis patiently waits, 
until one of them reaches for her hand and
Takes the arrow that she offers from her silver quiver
Shooting holes in every twisted scripture keeping women down
Wildly cutting every strand of hair bound up by Ordnung (10) and the Bishop
Reclaiming words, rekindling longings, 
Unleashing dreams and urging vibrant life
Teaching women now to
Drop their blinders
Ask their questions
Use their strength
Take their reigns and drive their horses right down the center of the road.
*   *   *  

Yes, there are examples of women who have risen to ranks of Mennonite leadership and yet, when it comes to holding Mennonite men accountable for acts of careless cruelty, far more often than not and in direct contradiction to what Stephen Colbert stated, women in our Mennonite world are not readily believed. It took me six years to work through MCEC's process. In the end, MCEC's current Executive leadership is fully on board with supporting me and can lead by example regarding how to work with angry church constituents, how to navigate bureaucratic and legal hoops and how to respond to blistering attacks by our Mennonite press. 

In the face of the ruined lives among us, those of us willing to discern what to do next and how to go about it, can begin by throwing off the distorted notion which would demonize anger. We can use the power of our intellect and our voice and our fury to shed intense and unfaltering light on the abominable wounding that has been done at the hands of trusted members of our families, our churches and our communities. I propose that one tenet we use to navigate our way through the complexity is the undeniable truth that at the core of the betrayal of sexual abuse is nothing less than the will to destroy the humanity of the one being victimized. 

I propose that part of the complexity we must examine is how sexual predation has played into warped religious thinking which paints the body as evil — especially the female body. Abusive invasion and molestation of the body heaps further scorn of the body on the victimized, whose "sinful body" was the stage upon which secret vile acts took place. The horror seeps beneath the level of the body and the trauma deeply wounds the soul. To pretend one's life is "normal" becomes a daily burden. One stops one's voice in an effort to preserve one's life. Some find life completely intolerable after the humiliation they've suffered. They lose their will to live and give in to the seduction of suicide looming in the darkness of their wounded psyche. 

It is time to dip into the energy of our outrage for the clarity and strength it can provide to bolster our courage so that we might overturn the tables in the temples of the status quo which would shame us into by-stander-fear-filled silence. With the fierceness of a prophet, we must unflinchingly confront those who would strip us of the power to give voice to the appallingly dreadful truth we know. 

Too often our self-interested need for protection paralyzes our vocal chords. How many times have we refrained from naming the evil perpetrated by our beloved, revered, and honored Harvey Weinsteins because we have intuited that to do so would shake the very foundations of the world as we know it? To admit that one so admired and held in high esteem could commit such heinous acts, means we must ignore our fear, transcend our personal needs and with humble and sincere discernment reevaluate our perceptions of our world. 

On behalf of those who have had their power, their self-worth, their dreams ripped from them, we must be willing to expose secretive misdeeds and forewarn those who might unwittingly become ensnared. I wonder how many lives we might save from ruin if we were to expose what we know. What would it take for us to consider opening the conversation in our families, with our friends? How about asking a friend, or a sister, or a nephew: "Have you ever been molested?" or "Have you ever given into someone sexually because you felt you couldn't say NO?" or "Have you ever felt paralyzed, frozen or in shock because of the actions of someone you trusted?"

How might we begin to make it safe for someone to take us into their confidence and ever so slightly permit us to peer upon the horrors hidden in their memories? What would it mean for us to take the risk that our perceptions of our world might be shattered if we dared sit with them and listen to their awful truth without judging? What compassion might be evoked within us? What passion for justice might we awaken if we were to support them in their healing? 

We must not allow others to be destroyed by our apathy. We must reveal what we know, whether it is our hard-won wisdom gleaned from traumas we've lived through, or knowledge we've gained as we've stood in support of others. To avert further potential abuses, we must teach recognition of early warning signs of the script to which predators who would abuse their power avail themselves. And we must be willing to articulate the difficult-to-articulate insidious ways of thinking that have aborted a sense of personal self-worth based on centuries of assumed theologically-erroneous-supported gender imbalance of power. 

Joseph Campbell exhorts us to consider that "to change the world, [we] must change the metaphor." The metaphor at issue here is that of an assumed gender-based power differential. For too long we have allowed the narrative that would ensure we are divided one from the other on the basis of gender to disempower women just because they are women and to empower men just because they are men. When we add to that theological tenets steeped in a patriarchal worldview, we allow ourselves to be swayed into assuming that it is acceptable for men in positions of power and authority to use and abuse their power and authority for their own gain even at the expense of others, especially if those others are women. To succumb as a slave to such a narrative further ensconces conventions of our comfortable couches and pews, while those with power over others destroy life after life after life …

- Cameron Altaras, PhD
   Dec. 19, 2017

(1) Canadian Mennonite Staff Report, "Alleged sexual misconduct charge against Vernon Leis, deceased pastor," Canadian Mennonite, 8 September 2015.

(2) Ronan Farrow, "Abuses of Power," New Yorker,  23 October 2017, pp. 42-49.

(3) Cameron Altaras, "Can sex with a pastor be an affair? When pastors overstep professional boundaries," Canadian Mennonite, 26 August 2015. My article was listed as one of the top ten articles of 2015 in the Canadian Mennonite: Virginia A. Hostetler, "Top 10 online stories of 2015," Canadian Mennonite, 7 January 2016.

(4) Cameron Altaras, "Sex with a Pastor is never an affair," 2015 SNAP Conference (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), Alexandria, Virginia.

(5) Chris Hedges, "A Women's Revolt That Targets Far More Than Sexual Abuse," Truthdig, 3 December 2017.

(6) Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking. Science and Behavior Books, (1972).

(8) Ibid.

(9) Jodie Foster, "We Need A 'Next Step' In The Sexual Harassment Movement," The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 16 December 2017.

(10) Ordnung — A German word meaning: order, rules. In the language of the Amish, the Old Order Mennonite and other Swiss-German Mennonite communities, this word has the added weight of theological and church-sanctioned rules and traditions, with which one must abide if one is to remain a member of the church and community.

The photo is a still shot from the videotaped address Cameron Altaras gave at the 2015 SNAP Conference cited and linked in footnote 4 above.

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