Capping a month-long series of events around the topic of healthy sexuality and sexual violence, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) welcomed Father Tom Doyle, a Roman Catholic sexual abuse victim advocate, to campus Monday, Nov. 7. Doyle, a priest who has worked with abuse victims for more than three decades, was the keynote speaker and panel presenter for a symposium for EMU faculty and staff on institutional harms and healing in response to sexual violence. He also gave an evening lecture, open to the public, on the spiritual impact of sexual abuse in religious contexts, and gave a sermon at an Eastern Mennonite Seminary worship service.
The symposium and public lecture were organized and facilitated by Professor Carolyn Stauffer as part of her multi-year “Silent Violence” project. Her research, which began in 2015 with a grant from The JustPax Fund, has focused on how abused individuals in marginalized communities employ resilient strategies to survive, endure and sometimes escape their situations.
While the first year of the project focused on surfacing individual stories and the second year on community services, the third year has emphasized the role of institutions. In March 2016, Stauffer organized a community education forum with both preventative goals and healing through arts-based approaches. One of Stauffer’s research questions, which widened the investigative scope to communities and institutions, was “How are our ideologies or institutions complicit?”
“Institutions frequently perpetuate injury to survivors by means of denial and silence,” says Stauffer. “My hope is that institutions such as EMU can become models of accountability and support in instances of sexual harms. This would substantiate our commitment to non-violence in the most core parts of our life as a community.”
Other campus events in October and November included the chapel Sexuality Series and Take Back the Night events (coverage forthcoming). The campus-wide collaborative effort, said Interim President Lee Snyder, was prepared to “help us as a community and as individuals ‘grow our capacity to respond to sexual violence in just and transformative ways’” [as articulated by the planners].
‘Learn from our mistakes’
In both presentations, Doyle urged listeners “to learn from the horrific mistakes other denominations have made, especially the ones the Catholic Church has made.” He has been involved in the issue since it first surfaced to the public in 1984. While a diplomatic officer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington D.C., he was assigned administrative duties to handle the case involving a Louisiana priest.
His experience of meeting a young victim began a 32-year journey of victim advocacy that has called his religious beliefs into question at times and caused him to reinvent his own spirituality. Because of his experiences, Doyle prefers not to use a priestly title or wear clerical clothing. He has been a frequent speaker at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) functions, and in his lecture, referenced the Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter, SNAP Menno.
The biggest mistake of the leadership of the Catholic Church, Doyle said, was the attempt to cover up and contain the issue, and to “refuse to treat the victims as Christ would have treated them,” Doyle said. The church is not a building or a faceless entity, but rather, “the people, the people of God,” and because of this importance, leaders must prioritize the welfare of the victims over the image and preservation of the institution. “Take the risk. We’re Christians. Do what you think Christ might do.”
Panel addresses aspects of institutional involvement
In the three-hour morning session for faculty and staff, Doyle’s keynote address was followed by a panel presentation facilitated by Stauffer and Professor David Brubaker and including:
- Abigail Bush, alumna and former co-president of EMU’s student-led Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention;
- Jackie Hieber, prevention coordinator at The Collins Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which provides crisis, treatment and prevention services as well as annual training to EMU students;
- Jonathan Swartz, EMU restorative justice coordinator and a member of the international Campus PRISM Project, which focuses on restorative initiatives for sexual misconduct on college campuses;
- David Miller, professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, and a member of Mennonite Church USA’s Sexual Abuse Prevention Panel;
- Lisa Schirch, research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and advocate for just and healthy responses to sexual violence in Mennonite institutions who helped facilitate Doyle’s presence on campus;
- Melody Pannell, professor in applied social sciences at EMU, race and diversity facilitator and founder of Destiny’s Daughters Empowerment Ministry.
Panel members addressed various issues around institutional involvement in cases of sexual abuse: victims’ needs, walking with survivors, increasing accountability and transparency, institutional responses to offenders and others affected, issues of race and identity, and best practices. Following the panel, participants were invited to reflect in table groups and write suggestions for how EMU can continue to improve response to sexual harms.
Doyle’s evening lecture, which drew community members and also faculty and staff who had participated in the earlier event, was followed by similar opportunities to reflect, process and provide recommendations to improve processes and responses.
The “expression stations”—which included facilitated discussion, a reflection corner, candle lighting and a prayer vigil, and a word mural— were coordinated by two student-run groups, the Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Take Back the Night. Participants were also encouraged to express themselves through letters, which would be delivered to leadership for review and processing.
Sonya Shaver contributed to this article.