Leslie Toews

Holdeman Mennonite man convicted of sexually assaulting child, church leaders knew but didn’t report

In 2022, Leslie Toews (b. 1976), a member of Gospel Mennonite Church, Almena, Wisconsin, pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child and was sentenced to one and a half years in prison. According to court documents, Toews sexually abused a 13-year-old girl for nearly a year in 2011. Judge J. M. Bitney said during the sentencing hearing:

This was classic grooming. … This began with [the victim] being lavished with attention, special treatment, progressing to either lewd comments or lewd jokes to test the waters to see how she would react, how far he could get her to go. And then it progressed from there to hugging, and very shortly thereafter, inappropriate sexual contact or sexual touching. [H]is conduct wasn’t limited to just the sexual touching, it included humiliation, degradation… This would not have been possible, but for the fact of the trust position that the defendant was in, and in this Court’s opinion, in this particular faith community, the undying emphasis that children are to respect adults unquestioned.

In her statement to the court, the victim mentioned an assortment of medical problems in the following years, and in 2014, when she was 17, her doctor asked if she had ever been abused. She recounted:

I was in denial and didn’t really understand what abuse was at that point. It shook me up so badly that I spent the next day in turmoil. Finally it was bothering me so much that I told my mom. … All of a sudden my whole world was turned upside down. I went into shock. I spent most of the next few days almost immobile. I didn’t eat, spent most of my time sleeping, and couldn’t get warm enough. As a result of that, I cannot stand being cold to this day.

At almost 18, I felt like I restarted my life. I had to learn the difference between what I thought was real and what actually was real. I learned that what happened to me was not okay, and yet it was so ingrained in me to protect Mr. Toews even though what happened to me was horrible, I still thought I was the one [responsible].

Court records indicate that during the 2021 investigation, two ministers from Gospel Mennonite Church told law enforcement that they had heard from the victim about the abuse approximately four years earlier, in 2017. They said they confirmed the details with Toews and excommunicated him, but they did not report it to authorities. The victim’s mother’s statements to law enforcement suggest that she may have notified the ministers as early as 2015.

Court records also indicate that Toews claimed the victim was 17-½ years old and that it was “basically a one-time deal” with very limited contact. The judge said, “His descriptions were outright lies. He downplayed this to where it bore very little resemblance to what actually occurred here.” The judge described Toews’s “lack of insight, minimizing and lying about the extent of his behaviors, blaming the victim” and noted that “this defendant has shown very little, if any remorse toward the victim. … I didn’t hear any concerns from him or his family concerning the welfare of this young lady or her family.” The judge noted how relatives had also blamed the victim for the abuse.

The victim said, “When Detective Mary Dexter contacted me in February of 2021, I was relieved. For the first time in a long time I began to feel safe again. I felt like somebody finally truly believed me enough to help reach a resolution. There will never be enough words to describe the last 11 years of my life. I have been to rock bottom. There have been times I didn’t want to live or die; I just didn’t even want to exist. … I have felt unlovable, dirty, used, objectified.”

At the end of her statement, she said, “Your Honor, my only request is that you do everything in your power to keep this from happening to anyone else. That has worried me often, as I wonder who is next.”

Church-related positions

  • Member, Gospel Mennonite Church, Almena, Wisconsin

Documentation

Related Report

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