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Historian credits courageous, creative women for confronting abuse

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For the last two years, historian Rachel Waltner Goossen has been on a journey with the documents and stories surrounding Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and his history of sexual abuse and exploitation within Mennonite institutions and elsewhere.

Goossen was on the Bethel College campus March 8 – interestingly enough, International Women’s Day – to present a Friends of the MLA (Mennonite Library and Archives, located at Bethel) talk on “Mennonite Women Challenge John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse.”

Goossen is a professor of history at Washburn University, Topeka. She has degrees in history from Bethel, the University of California-Santa Barbara (M.A.) and the University of Kansas (Ph.D.).

She gave an earlier version of the talk last October at the University of Winnipeg as part of the academic conference “Mennonites, Medicine and the Body.” It will be published in the 2016 issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies.

Her participation in a conference on medicine and health may reflect what she called in her Friends of the MLA talk “an evolution” of Mennonite institutional attitudes toward sexual misconduct and abuse.

“Mennonite organizations long insensitive to the harms inflicted by sexual abuse now promote policies to address and prevent it,” she said. “Sexualized violence is now considered a public health issue.”

Early in 2014, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board appointed Goossen to conduct research into written material and oral histories surrounding the case of Yoder, internationally known for his speaking and writing on peace theology and Christian ethics.

Yoder taught at what is now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, from the early 1960s until 1984, and at the University of Notre Dame until the time of his death in December 1997.

In her research project for MC USA, Goossen worked with previously unreleased written sources, and interviewed people involved in institutional accountability and discipline processes, as well as with others who had experienced, or knew about, Yoder’s abuse of women.

“[In late 2013], I got a call from Ervin Stutzman,” the executive director of MC USA, Goossen said in her Friends of the MLA presentation. “I was being asked to take on an unusual project using some newly available documents” – most of them from MC USA and AMBS archives.

“I was coming from a stance somewhat removed,” she continued. “I had never met John Howard Yoder. Our paths had never crossed. I didn’t know if I knew anyone he’d abused. And I had never worked on [issues surrounding] sexual abuse or abuse of power, despite being a scholar of peace studies.”

The first “public” result of Goossen’s research was “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” in the January 2015 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review. Abridged versions followed in Mennonite World Review, The Mennonite and Canadian Mennonite.

Goossen’s research, however, has continued to yield enlightening stories, one of which involves “the role of some courageous and creative whistle-blowers. These women were not famous like Yoder was famous.”

Since the early ’90s, Goossen said, “there have been two interrelated, Yoder-centric narratives.”

The first dates from 1992, “when Yoder’s behaviors became widely known and church officials were trying to figure out how to address it.” More than 100 women, on several continents and across decades, experienced unwanted sexual violations by Yoder.

“This had Bethel College right in the center, when Yoder was disinvited to [be a keynote speaker at] a conference on American nonviolence.” It was The Bethel Collegian’s “breaking the story,” she said, that first put it into circulation in the broader U.S. church press.

The more recent narrative, she said, “dates from 2013, and asks why leaders allowed this within Mennonite institutions, especially AMBS, as well as at Notre Dame.

“Both narratives, steeped in historical record, have failed to recognize the women who advocated for victims and who struggled themselves to be heard, believed and understood.”

She recognized in particular Martha Smith Good, a pastor now retired in Canada, and Carolyn Holderread Heggen, a psychotherapist and a staff person for Mennonite Women USA’s Sister Care ministry. Both rebuffed Yoder’s advances decades ago, and both have worked persistently in the ensuing years to make Mennonite church leaders take seriously and respond to the stories of all Yoder’s victims.

Besides being the year Yoder was disinvited to the Bethel conference, 1992 was also when a group of eight women, including Good and Heggen, all of whom had been sexually approached by Yoder, convened for “an intense weekend,” Goossen said. The women then met with a task force appointed to look into the “allegations” against Yoder.

There followed two decades of work to make church leaders and AMBS administrators acknowledge the women’s stories, along with institutional culpability in allowing abuse to go on despite the growing body of complaints against Yoder.

Over the years, there has been, Goossen said, “some healing through truth-telling for some of Yoder’s victims.” But the church has also paid a high price.

“While some women [like Good and Heggen, who did leave the Mennonite church for a time] remained lifelong leaders in Mennonite institutions, others left and took their gifts elsewhere,” Goossen said.

“This has been tied to ‘a missing generation’ of Mennonite women in theology, peace studies and ethics circles. Susie Guenther Loewen [from the Toronto School of Theology] says it affected the Mennonite landscape as ‘a devastating theological loss.’”

Goossen credits Heggen with convincing AMBS President Sara Wenger Shenk, who took office in 2010, to undergo what Shenk called “revisiting the legacy of John Howard Yoder,” beginning in 2012.

This culminated in a fall 2014 statement from the AMBS Board that acknowledged the pain suffered by Yoder’s victims and lamented the institution’s failure to stop it. March 22, 2015, AMBS held a “service of lament, confession and hope.”

MC USA had a similar service during its biennial assembly in Kansas City last July.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2015–16 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2015–16. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.