James L. Dunn

Illinois and Kansas Mennonite minister, college pastor, professor disciplined for abusing service worker

In 1992, James “Jim” Dunn (1941–2023) had his ministerial credentials suspended by the Western District Conference (WDC) of what is now Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). While pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and chair of the church’s voluntary service committee, Dunn abused a woman beginning when she was a 21-year-old resident of the service unit. Initially the woman had become friends with the Dunn family. Dunn then used this friendship and his position as her pastoral counselor to abuse her sexually, telling her that his abuse was a method of therapy to help her heal, and that it was sanctioned by the church council.

The abuse continued off and on over more than a decade (approx. 1974 to 1986), during which time the victim moved to Kansas, settling in Newton. Dunn moved to Newton as well, to work with the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Commission on Education, then as campus pastor at Bethel College, and then as pastor at First Mennonite Church of Newton and moderator of the WDC.

The victim revealed the abuse to three people early on, all of whom confronted Dunn. Not long after the abuse began, she revealed it to the woman who had suggested she seek counseling from Dunn. The second woman said she told Dunn that what he was doing was wrong, but she did not tell anyone else for fear of appearing to be “a woman scorned.” She said Dunn had sexually touched her in counseling as well, and she had thought they were in love. She left the church after finding out she was not the only one this had happened to.

The victim then revealed the abuse to the voluntary service unit co-leaders. The unit leaders said they did not want to believe the things the victim told them, but that it confirmed their suspicion that there was a “dependent relationship” between the victim and Dunn. When they confronted Dunn, he claimed to be using “touch therapy” but admitted “to possibly some inappropriate touch in the past that may have misled” the victim.

Dunn asked the unit leaders for forgiveness, and they forgave him because they “believed he was truly repentant.” They did not address the matter further (they moved away shortly thereafter) until the victim contacted them again years later, at which point they recognized that Dunn had manipulated them in his plea for forgiveness: “Jim manipulated [my husband and me] to believe his story and discredit [the victim’s account of the abuse] as ‘teenage girl sexual fantasies.’ … I feel so sad, that out of our ignorance and inexperience, we bought into the easy remorse, quick forgiveness, ‘cheap grace’ routine in our dealings with Jim.”

Although the sexual abuse ended in 1986, Dunn continued to invite the victim to his home as late as 1990. When the victim began professional therapy in 1991, she came to understand what happened to her was sexual abuse of power, and that Dunn was at high risk of abusing others. After informally urging him to get serious professional help, the victim formally confronted Dunn in July 1992, notifying him that she would inform church authorities of the abuse if he was unwilling to sign a contract agreeing to get clinical and professional help and prove his actions through documentation. The victim took this step with support from both clinical experts and personal advocates.

Dunn first altered the contract by proposing to seek counseling and accountability without documenting those actions. When the victim did not accept those terms, Dunn confessed to church leaders. Prior to his confession, the victim contacted a pastor at Bethel College Mennonite Church to help her notify the conference.

In Dunn’s initial confession to church leaders, he “wrongly reported” the extent of the sexual abuse, claiming there had been no intercourse. The abuse had included multiple instances of intercourse, as well as a wide range of other sexual activity characterized to the victim by a therapist as “pornographic.” When confronted with the victim’s description of the abuse, Dunn claimed to have repressed the memory of intercourse and said he didn’t think sharing such details was appropriate.

In his written confession, Dunn called the abuse a “relationship” and claimed he had “no realization of the power of the pastoral office and how hard it is for a woman to not become willingly involved in such relationships.” He also listed charity he provided for the victim, put blame on the victim, and said he forgave the victim. He announced his “complete forgiveness” by God and his wife, and begged forgiveness from the church. He also compared himself to the Apostle Paul.

Church officials felt from the start of the disciplinary process that Dunn had “given evidence of a repentant spirit, a desire to change, a desire to learn what contributed to the misconduct, and a willingness to do what is necessary for the healing and well-being” of everyone involved.

The church suspended Dunn’s credentials for six months, and following policy adopted by the General Conference Mennonite Church a few months previous, established a course of action toward restoration of his credentials.

Of the victim, church officials stated she was a credible witness and commended her courage. In the face of public criticism of the victim, they accepted her “coming forward at this time because she [had] only recently come to understand the abusive nature of the misconduct and because she [wanted] to ensure that others will not be victimized as she was.”

The victim credited the ministerial committee with treating her well, and she supported its goals early in the process. As the process progressed, however, she observed a discrepancy between the committee’s findings and her understanding of Dunn’s progress.

The victim faced public perception, fueled in part by Dunn’s characterization of her, that she [had been] responsible for the abuse, and that she was now out to destroy his career. One of the voluntary service unit leaders criticized coverage in the Mennonite press: “We have only seen the articles in Gospel Herald and Mennonite Weekly Review, but based on these it sounds like Jim is the victim and we should feel sorry for him because of what ‘that woman did to him.’” The ministerial committee made an attempt to counter this perception in reporting to the conference: “We believe that anger toward her is misplaced and inappropriate and does not work toward restoration.”

Public perception outside the church was shaped by local news coverage that garnered criticism for sensationalizing the story and characterizing the abuse as an affair. Three separate articles all ended with an affirming note about Dunn, quoting him as saying “Our marriage is stronger than it has ever been,” or praising him for teaching the church to restore sinners, or supporting his return to ministry.

The editor of The Newton Kansan defended their coverage, which did not include the victim’s perspective. She expressed reluctance to give the victim more than a “small window” for responding to the paper’s request for an interview. Further, she said she “could not permit Jim Dunn to stand on the edge and later allow [the victim] to make response to his comments.” The editor also expressed reluctance to grant the victim anonymity.

In addition to the therapeutic and restitutionary processes put in motion by the church, Conference Minister Marvin Zehr undertook an investigation of additional reports of misconduct by Dunn given to him by the victim and her advocates.

Zehr’s investigation revealed (1) another “inappropriate counseling relationship” in which Dunn had sexually touched a woman who had come to believe they were in love, telling her he could “fulfill some of [her] emotional and sexual needs,” (2) another woman’s report that Dunn had forced her onto his lap during a counseling session, and (3) another woman’s report that she had become very close emotionally to Dunn during counseling.

Zehr’s inquiries further revealed that “several persons [had] stopped going to First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana because of relationships between Jim and themselves or with his relationships with others which made them very uncomfortable,” and that another person at the church had expressed concern about Dunn’s counseling, “without mention of abuse or inappropriate behavior.”

At the end of the initial six-month suspension of Dunn’s credentials, the committee extended Dunn’s suspension for another six months. At that time, Zehr had not yet concluded his investigation of Carlock (Illinois) Mennonite Church, where there was a report of possible misconduct by Dunn.

After speaking to a number of people at the Carlock church, Zehr found one person with a vague recollection of an inappropriate relationship between Dunn and a divorced woman, but no one else he spoke to could confirm that information.

At the end of the second six-month suspension, one of the former voluntary service leaders wrote to the conference minister recommending a full additional year of suspension. She enclosed another letter she had sent months earlier, in which she had expressed concern about the internal nature of the investigation: “I urge you to be very, very cautious in restoring Jim’s ministerial credentials. Professional treatment and evaluation is needed by an objective, skilled outsider.”

In September 1993, the ministerial committee restored Dunn’s credentials (effective January 1, 1994), imposing one additional year of payments toward the victim’s counseling, and continuing therapy and supervision for himself. The committee also recommended Dunn address the public perception that he was a victim.

In January 1994, three months after having his suspension lifted, Dunn lapsed in his payments toward the victim’s therapy.

In April, he outlined to the ministerial committee his efforts to correct public perception that he was a victim. He provided the committee a statement to use “with discretion” in which he stated: “I used my power as a pastor, under the guise of helping her, to use her for my own self-desire to be her ‘savior.’”

He said he was also “seriously considering writing a letter of clarification to the editors of newspapers as well as our church organizations,” but that he was “choosing to heed both personal and legal counsel not to go that route.”

At some point before September 19, Dunn made back payments to cover his lapse, and was then released from his payment agreement.

Dunn’s “restoration process” lasted 16 months (with an additional 1–2 years of conditions), and he subsequently resumed the full status of his profession. He went on to pastor at two more churches and to work as an adjunct professor at Hesston College, teaching inmates at a nearby prison and bringing Hesston pastoral students to his church to preach. Further, Dunn characterized his marriage and his faith as stronger than ever.

The victim, however, “lost 20 years of [her] life.” As relayed by her therapist: “[The abuse] has made it difficult for [her] to trust people. … In addition to interfering with [her] ability to identify and follow through with her religious beliefs, being abused by a minister has heightened the psychological difficulties that originally led to [her] being victimized … It should be emphasized that while these problems existed before being abused by Mr. Dunn, their presence was used to manipulate [her].”

In December 2014, after the church where Dunn was pastoring (Burrton Mennonite) closed, WDC ran an article in Mennonite World Review profiling Dunn’s “lifelong ministry.” The article framed Dunn’s abuse with his confession and resignation, and a resulting process of “redemptive suffering” for him. It quoted Dunn as saying, “It was a terrible and an extremely lonely and hard experience”… “But I can almost say now that I am glad it happened because I am a better person because of it.”

In the files received by MAP, there was no evidence that anyone investigated possible misconduct by Dunn at Bethel College, where Dunn was campus pastor from 1987 to 1989.

As the editor of The Newton Kansan noted, part of what made this case difficult is that the people responsible for standing in judgment of Dunn were his friends and associates.

Dunn died in 2023.

Church-related positions

  • Pastor of Carlock Mennonite Church in Carlock, Illinois, 1966–1969
  • Pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, 1970–1979
  • Member of the Commission on Education of the General Conference Mennonite Church
  • Director of church relations and campus pastor at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, 1987–1989
  • Pastor of First Mennonite Church of Newton, Kansas, 1989–1992 (resigned)
  • Western District Conference moderator, 1989–1992 (resigned)
  • Interim pastor of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, 1996
  • Pastor of Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kansas, 1997–2004
  • Pastor of Burrton Mennonite Church in Burrton, Kansas, 2004–2014
  • Adjunct professor at Hesston College, teaching at Ellsworth Correctional Facility, approx. 2006–2012

First-person accounts

Documentation

To guide readers through the 92 pages of documentation below, MAP has compiled a timeline and excerpted overview, available here.

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