Friday, November 20, 2020

Jeff Altaras, "Evil Thrives When Good People Remain Silent": Discussion of Sexual Abuse in the Mennonite Context

I'm pleased to have the opportunity to share with Bilgrimage readers a fine statement by Jeff Altaras, commenting on the response of some members of the Canadian Mennonite community to the recent revokation of credentials for John D. Rempel by the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. Rempel served as chaplain, residence director, and adjunct professor at Conrad Grebel Univcersity in Waterloo, Ontario, from 1973 to 1989. The action taken by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada was in response to multiple allegations of sexual abuse substantiated by the church.

Jeff is responding, in particular, to defenses/excuses of Rempel by some Canadian Mennonites who, as he proposes, reflect old world cronyism and denial as they seek to offer words of days gone by to address a situation in which the balance of justice increasingly falls heavily on the side of victims of sexual abuse and not perpetrators.

Because the kinds of excuses offered for perpetrators against the claims of victims are not confined to the Mennonite context, but can also be found in other contexts including the Catholic one, I find Jeff's statement valuable and want to share it with you. What follows is Jeff Altaras's essay: 
Evil thrives when good people remain silent. I choose not to remain silent in the face of abuses of power (sexual or otherwise). I believe strongly that men must speak out, as the large majority of perpetrators are men. Recently, Conrad-Grebel University College (CGUC), Waterloo, Ontario, and Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) substantiated multiple allegations of sexual abuse by Professor/Theologian/Chaplain, John D. Rempel, and as a result revoked his credentials. Here is a link to the full article discussing this story in Canadian Mennonite.

I find it disturbing to read comments and condemnation calling into question the institution’s commitment to ending abuses of power and its attempt to seek accountability and justice. As a “victim advocate,” it is necessary that I voice my utter disgust with one set of comments in particular, attached to this article. Here is the link to the comment that prompted me to write.

The words of David and Kathy Waltner-Toews that I have just linked are cruel, designed to shame victims, and keep yet another known perpetrator from being brought to justice.

I am certain these people were not part of nor do they have any knowledge of the details discovered in the Grebel/MCEC investigation of Rempel. I am certain they do not have knowledge of Grebel/MCEC investigative processes or who was involved in the discovery of details. In the end, the Waltner-Toews are simply not entitled to any of the factual findings. I believe that anything they say about this matter is filled mere speculation and fantasy.

David Waltner-Toews writes that he is experienced in communicating “complex and serious issues to the general public.” What he does not reveal is how his experience as a Veterinary Epidemiologist relates to abuse of power issues. Kathy Waltner-Toews claims to be a therapist with “many decades” of experience in “sexual and physical misconduct and abuse.”

In their letter to Canadian Mennonite, they state publicly their knowledge of “psychological and counselling evidence” regarding the “malleability” of the minds of victims, while they cleverly fail to mention that perpetrators go to great lengths to undermine processes, shame victims, lie, justify, display as victims themselves, attempt to destroy the credibility of others, gather others to help them bully, and on and on. It is a clear failure of judgment for the Waltner-Toews to deny the documented realities of perpetrator behavior with emphasis only on the side of establishing doubt in what any victim of sexual abuse says. In addition, to attempt to discredit or minimize the seriousness of allegations by victims because they happened “more than 30 years ago,” is yet another victim-shaming tactic. These failures clearly show their intentions, to shame victims and garner support for the perpetrator. It is this point that casts doubt onto the intentions behind everything they wrote in the Canadian Mennonite letter. For me, this writing is an egregious attack on the multiple victims seeking justice (the truth comes out).

I have to ask, what kind of therapist in 2020 does not know that sexual abuse is about abuse of power? What kind of therapist does not know of power differentials and that when one has power over another, there is never consent? Rempel in his capacity, had power over others and abused his power by taking advantage of the vulnerable. I am guessing when I hear “decades” of experience, what is really being said is: “decades” ago. We have turned a corner. We have passed the tipping point of accepting abuses of power in our churches and institutions. Mr. Rempel is suffering the consequences of using his power to cross a boundary with people he had power over. He impacted the lives of innocent people. I have no objection to David and Kathy garnering support for Rempel; however, not at the expense of those who have been traumatized and abused. And please don’t tell me that Rempel was seduced – yet another tactic often used. There is no such thing when one has power over the other. Should this argument be used, then Rempel needed to be released for not being a pillar of strength and not providing spiritual and pastoral guidance. Sex between professors and students or clergy and laity is never ok under any circumstances and our expectations are that it is solely the responsibility of the person in power to rise above, no matter when the events took place.

We have climbed this “sexual abuse” mountain many times before. We are beyond the tipping point of questioning whether or not justice must be served or reputations will be damaged. When a perpetrator goes down the path of abuse of power, when there is a clear power differential and a perpetrator takes advantage of that differential, the institution has the right to take credentials away, terminate employment, and seek what is right for those who suffer from the selfish acts of the perpetrator. It is never the victims fault. Never.

The words of David and Kathy Waltner-Toews, used in their letter to Canadian Mennonite, reflect “old world” cronyism and denial, words of “days gone by” about a disgusting and vile truth. That train has left the station. When we discover abuses of power in our institutions, our schools, in our churches, we must take action to ensure justice (the truth comes out) is served, victims are helped with healing, and the perpetrator is dealt with swiftly.

One can only believe they were attempting to turn Canadian Mennonite readers against students, young adults, who were indeed victims of sexual misconduct by this professor/theologian/chaplain. These words send the clear message to victims of sexual misconduct: “We will not believe you, go away, how dare you smear our beloved….” This is the reason why victims of sexual abuse hold onto their secrets for 20 or 30 or 40 years or more, this is the reason why victims wait until the perpetrator dies. This is the reason many victims never reveal their truth. This is the reason many victims commit suicide.

We’ve heard all of the rhetoric before. We cannot deny truth, no matter when it happened. And when adults whom we have entrusted with our kids, members of our families, are given the power to spiritually guide and teach, you bet we expect freedom from predation, seduction or any abuse of power. These institutions are learning, and they are becoming more and more attuned to the damage done when the vulnerable are preyed upon. We are in a new time, and in this time, there is no room for abuse of power (sexual or otherwise) or victim shaming of any kind.

Jeff would like to append a footnote to the preceding statement, pointing readers to a previous Bilgrimage posting entitled "David Martin, '#MeToo in the Pew Next to You,' with Preface by Cameron Altaras."

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