Murray E. Phillips

British Columbia Mennonite college instructor and minister confessed to abusing students, credential revoked, paid settlement

In 1991, Murray Phillips (1944–2018) admitted to “several sexual relationships” and stepped down from his role as pastor at Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship, Vancouver, British Columbia. He had recently resigned after seventeen years of teaching at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia. Both the church and college were at the time dually affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren denomination and what is now Mennonite Church British Columbia (MCBC), part of Mennonite Church Canada.

In 1993, ChristianWeek reported:

When the first victim finally became public, in late summer, 1991, after an emotional breakdown and attempted suicide, no one knew of the extent of predations. To this day, not all of women he has identified have been contacted by the denominations or the college. The first announcement about the affair was terse and said little more than that Phillips had admitted to “a number of sexual relationships outside of his marriage.” Phillips’ credentials were withdrawn, he was asked to step down from his pastoral position, was placed under discipline and asked to begin seeing a psychiatrist. An “accountability group” of four and later five people began meeting with him on a monthly or six-week basis.

Phillips eventually confessed to abusing at least eight women, four of whom came forward to the college. The women “produced wrenching descriptions of the extent to which Phillips pursued them to satisfy a consuming sexual appetite.” They asserted that “an uncoordinated response, mixed purposes and an unwillingness within the church and school to accept ownership for their hurt has left them in a desert of despair and Phillips effectively unaccountable.”

ChristianWeek reported that as a seminary student in the early 1960s, Phillips romantically pursued a fellow student and threatened suicide if she refused him. The seminary was said to have quietly removed him from the school. Phillips allegedly later confessed to one of his students, with his wife present, that he had been “involved with an affair with another woman. It was in the past. He was deeply repentant. It wouldn’t happen again. He was entrusting the story to the student.”

Over the years, he repeated such confessions many times: at least twice to fellow faculty members, to two (now former) presidents of the college, to his pastor, to friends outside the province, to a retired missionary and anthropologist.

Sometimes it would be with his wife at his side. At other times he shared the story alone. He either persuaded the people who were his confessors that they must keep it secret between them or could assume that they would not tell anyone because they had heard the confession of a truly repentant man.

Some of the leaders allegedly heard his confessions multiple times over the years and repeatedly decided not to tell anyone else. Phillips confessed to one man at least four times, “usually before Phillips was to preach the following day.”

During much of this time, Phillips was involved in one relationship after the other, and sometimes with more than one person at a time. He was counselling a number of women and attempted to seduce more than he was able eventually to have sex with. The women he victimized were always at a vulnerable place in their lives. Once he had conquered a woman, he would give her gifts, shower attention on her children, invite her and her husband into his home, frequently call, and as often as he could, have sex. If the women resisted, he might threaten suicide, become rough, stalk them, and once stood outside a woman’s window and howled like an animal, recalls one, that he was being abandoned by her. When she let him in, he again violated her. He got the women to believe that they were responsible for his attraction to them. He called them his equals, and with one, said, “You are me.” He violated all boundaries.

One of his victims says, “He created an alternate reality in which he redefined his victims’ values. It was a mental and spiritual seduction first.”

In 1992, the church conferences set up a “mediation recovery team” focused on “recovery, healing, and reconcilation.” The team consisted of “church, college and professional people — at the prodding of the victims — to meet with the victims and with the Phillipses and to try to work toward healing.”

In October 1993, ChristianWeek reported on multiple problems with the church’s efforts:

The women [expressed] utter frustration with the process. One withdrew recently and another [said] it took 10 months after the first public exposure for church and college leadership to approach her. Members of the accountability team [said] they [had] not met with Phillips since early in spring, even though statements made to the two Mennonite conferences in June explicitly said that the accountability team “continues to meet regularly with the Phillipses.” One of the co-chairs of the accountability team, Sven Eriksson, described them as a “support” group to the Phillipses. One of the women stated that when she first met with the group to share her experience, she was told she didn’t have to share everything. Eriksson, who was one of the people to whom Phillips [had] confided his sexual failures before anything ever became public, [had] also been designated the Phillipses’ advocate in the mediation process.

That same month, The Mennonite also reported that at the annual meeting of the Mennonite conference that is now MCBC, “Herb Thiessen, vice president of Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, read a letter of public apology from the school regarding the pain caused by the sexual misconduct of Murray Phillips, a former instructor.”

The next month, in November 1993, a civil suit was filed against Phillips and Columbia Bible College. A year later, the Mennonite Reporter announced that the lawsuit had been settled out of court, with Phillips paying “a fairly large amount,” and the rest of the settlement split among the college and the two church conferences.

One of the victims says that she now has a “sliver of justice. We got exactly what we asked for in financial terms, but the outcome hasn’t been what we had hoped for. … I’ve left the church. I was never after the money, so the outcome was completely different than I thought I would come away with. I guess I hoped that there would be a more widespread vindication of the victims so that we would feel that there would still be a place for us in the church.” She emphasizes that the loss of her church, however, does not mean the loss of her faith in God.

The Mennonite Reporter also interviewed Gary Loewen, vice chair of the college board and chair of the recovery team that worked out the settlement.

Loewen said they have all learned much through this process. He also said that the response to Phillips’ confession of sexual exploitation to his colleagues, prior to the women coming forward, “seemed appropriate for that time. They really didn’t think it went beyond that one event. … And their understanding of confession and forgiveness implied continuing to trust.”

Loewen said that in hindsight the response was “the wrong response. … The information that has come to light now is that people who abuse once continue to abuse and cross boundaries again and again. We need to believe victims when they come forward.”

Phillips died in 2018.

Church-related positions

  • Instructor at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, British Columbia (1974–1991)
  • Minister at Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship, Vancouver, British Columbia (1991)

First-person accounts

Documentation

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