The recent news release by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada concerning the alleged sexual misconduct of Vernon Leis, an Ontario Mennonite pastor who died in 1994, reminded me of the issue that faces anyone who does serious historical writing. That issue is what to do with the dark stories, or the “marred images” of Mennonites that sometimes surface in the public press or denominational periodicals.
One possibility is simply to ignore the marred images. Many histories sponsored by a congregation or conference or institution take this approach. Another approach is a “tell all” exposé, though religious histories rarely do this. Finding the balance between these extremes is not easy.
In Search of Promised Lands contains a small section on “marred images.” In this section I made reference to the Mennonite-run Poplar Hill residential school in northwest Ontario that closed amidst controversy in 1989. (Read of one experience at Poplar Hill here.)
I also mentioned the Old Colony Mennonite connection to drug smuggling from Mexico that was covered by popular media at various times from the 1980s to the 2000s. (Read of a 2014 arrest here.)
On more individual cases I noted various sexual misconduct cases among Ontario Mennonites. I did not use names in this part, except for John Howard Yoder, whose case is well-known even outside Mennonite circles. Although I did not use names, my endnotes contain references to news articles that provide more detailed information.
Why did I make the decision not to name names? Probably because the incidents were now 20 or more years old, and offenders had already faced accountability, and were at different stages of their lives. But I did provide a trail for those who wished to pursue it.
The other marred images related to difficult job terminations at Mennonite institutions. In terms of explicitly criminal activity, I referenced the conviction of Helmuth Buxbaum for hiring someone to kill his wife in 1984. This widely publicized case had noted he was a prominent lay leader in the Mennonite Brethren church.
How should a historian of church life treat the shadow side of our life together?
To see the endnotes, read In Search of Promised Lands.