Michael J. Combs

Kansas Mennonite lay leader convicted of raping child, minister disciplined for mishandling congregational response

In 2015, Michael “Mike” Combs (b. 1945) was arrested and charged with four felony counts of sexual crimes: two counts of rape and two counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child under the age of 14. In 2016, Combs pleaded no contest to one count of felony rape of a child in exchange for dropping the other charges and with an agreement that the state would not file charges related to an investigation and reports involving additional victims. He was sentenced to almost eight years in prison.

The resulting congregational process at Combs’ church, First Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, occurred under the leadership of pastor Anita Kehr and church board chair James Schrag, a former executive director of Mennonite Church USA.

After four and a half months passed without church leaders making a public statement to address the arrest of a lay leader on charges of raping a child, two church members, one of whom was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, contacted several committees, the church board chair, and the pastors. They asked leaders to publicly acknowledge Combs’ arrest and begin to process it openly with the congregation. After more than five months, pastor Kehr made a public announcement that did not include the rape charges, stating, “As you may have seen in the newspaper or heard from other people, Michael Combs was arrested in November for aggravated indecency with a child.”

In the following months there were a variety of communications among church members, church leaders, and Combs’ wife Cindy. Almost a year after the congregation learned of the arrest, they hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to provide analysis, feedback, and recommendations.

According to the GRACE report, Cindy Combs “was fully aware that her husband had sexually abused two [other] teenage girls [in the 1980s] and yet she failed to warn a number of different individuals and entities,” including the victims’ parents. Cindy was chair of the Nurture Commission, which oversees the Safe Sanctuaries Committee, and “she had the obligation to inform church leaders of this highly pertinent information before permitting a known sexual offender to be certified as a Safe Sanctuaries caregiver” and allowing him to have access to children at First Mennonite Church.

First Mennonite Church continued to allow Cindy Combs to lead Vacation Bible School for two more years, and members re-elected her to a position on the Nurture Commission. She continued in church leadership roles until GRACE recommended that she resign from leading or engaging in any children’s activities and withdraw her name from the Safe Sanctuaries list.

Following the GRACE report, the concerned members at First Mennonite called for Western District Conference (WDC) of Mennonite Church USA to investigate possible policy violations by pastor Kehr, who was also serving as moderator of the conference at the time. In response, Kehr resigned her position as moderator and the conference employed a committee to assess four claims of ministerial misconduct.

On July 13, 2018, the conference publicly accepted the conclusion of the committee that misconduct “more likely than not” occurred in three of the four areas: (1) violation of the congregation’s Safe Sanctuary Policy, (2) pastoral neglect of survivors of sexual abuse, and (3) pastoral neglect of the entire congregation: delayed initiative for child safety, inadequate congregational education and proper modeling of response to survivors of sexualized violence, significantly delayed grief work, and delayed church culture transformation through lack of full public accountability.

The committee also found that various congregational committees and the church board failed to hold Kehr accountable, instead actively supporting violation of policy and leaving conflicts of interest unresolved. They also noted that WDC knew of Combs’ arrest and membership at First Mennonite, but it has no recollection or documentation of reaching out to the church until a year after the arrest, at which point it supported the GRACE investigation.

As sanction, Kehr was required to complete the GRACE report recommendations for the pastor by January 1, 2019. WDC then reviewed Kehr’s credentials.

Kehr publicly apologized for mistakes, including that (1) she prioritized the Combs’ legal concerns, allowing Combs’ lawyer to have undue influence on her and (2) she did not seek outside counsel or other relevant resources, including appropriate internal church resources such as the Safe Sanctuaries Policy.

Combs was released from prison in 2023.

Church-related positions

  • Lay leader and active member at First Mennonite Church of Newton, Kansas, for more than 20 years
  • Certified by First Mennonite Church as receiving Safe Sanctuaries training, a child abuse prevention class required for working with children in the congregation
  • Church organist
  • Served on the Worship Commission 2007–2012
  • Served on the leadership team of Life Sharing Sunday School Class for adults and taught other adult Sunday School classes
  • Preached a sermon Sept. 6, 2015, shortly before he was arrested on Nov. 19, 2015

First-person accounts

Documentation

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