Truth Comes First

From the President's Desk

Years ago, the Mennonite Church announced that a man I knew had committed sexual misconduct. This man was a family friend. Growing up, he was a frequent guest in our home. I liked him. He was a kindly, avuncular figure from my childhood. He was also an influential figure in the church, and had served in various church- related organizations.

The findings against him were hard for me to believe. I regret to admit how I first responded to the news. I called up those who had made the findings and asked them pointed questions, casting doubt on their investigation and their process. I spoke to other friends, and we mutually reinforced our belief that it couldn’t be true—or at least, that it could not have been “that bad.” I privately wondered about the victims’ motives, and whether they were credible.

My response was wrong—awfully wrong. It took me too long to accept the unbelievable truth: that this well-loved family friend had inflicted great harm on people in our community.

The truth about sexual misconduct always hurts. The deepest hurt is borne by the survivors, who can spend decades working to heal. Family and friends bear it together with them.

Then there is the person who caused the harm. More often than not, the offender is all too human—a person who has done good things in life, and who struggles to account for the terrible wrongs they did.

When the truth of the misconduct is publicly revealed, the offender’s friends and family either feel betrayed, or that the process was unfair. Or they may entirely refuse to believe it. More hurt flows as we take sides and positions, and say and write things that are hard to take back.

There is plenty of pain to go around when the truth comes out.

Right now, the Grebel community, along with the wider Mennonite church, is still reeling from the news that John D. Rempel was found to have committed sexual misconduct. For many readers, this is incredibly hard to accept. John is well-known and well-loved among many Grebel alumni from his service at Grebel in the 1970s and ’80s. He’s also had significant influence as a scholar and minister in the wider Mennonite church.

Since this news broke, I’ve received well over 100 email messages from our community. Among these notes have been some recurring questions: “What about forgiveness? Doesn’t the Mennonite church stand for reconciliation? Doesn’t Grebel teach restorative justice?”

My answer is that by starting to face the truth, we have already taken a first step on a restorative path. As I understand it, restorative justice is primarily concerned with healing and wholeness for everyone. (It is not primarily concerned with returning an offender to former positions of status or privilege— that’s not what “restorative” means here.) A restorative approach does not prescribe specific outcomes, but guides us to think about who has been hurt, what they need to heal, and who is responsible to address those needs.

In order to offer healing, we need to understand the harm. To understand the harm, we need to face the truth of what happened. Truth comes first.

For the offender, facing the truth means taking steps to fully grasp the harm they caused. Experts tell me that in cases of sexual misconduct, these steps are often extremely difficult for an offender to take. But they are not impossible. In this case, MCEC has given John specific advice on how he can start down the path towards healing for himself and those harmed by his actions, including recommendations for counselling and other support. It’s my sincere hope that he takes these steps, and that he receives support and affirmation from his friends, the church, and the wider community in doing so.

At Grebel, our first steps have been to listen carefully to survivors. We have asked John Rempel to refrain from coming to the College so that survivors can at last feel comfortable visiting our campus. We are also looking with fresh eyes at our policies, practices, and culture to ensure that Grebel is a safe place for everyone.

Some have urged me to map out a specific plan for reconciliation, with timelines and milestones. I won’t do that, because that’s not how healing from trauma works. We will not push anyone into a process, especially not a process with a predetermined conclusion.

What we can do is take careful steps—one at a time. Every step Grebel takes will be towards the goal of healing and wholeness for all those involved. On behalf of everyone at Grebel, I invite your prayers and support as we begin this long journey.