Urie A. Bender

Ontario Mennonite author and minister suspended, resigned, and then withdrew from church process

In 1992, Urie Bender (1925–2018) was found guilty of ministerial sexual misconduct by what is now Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), part of Mennonite Church Canada. Four women brought official complaints against Bender, and after investigation, Bender’s credentials were suspended for two years. After a three-month investigation, the Leadership Commission of MCEC found that “during the course of friendships and mentoring, [Bender] initiated a level of touch and intimacy that was uncomfortable, confusing, or inappropriate. In several instances this touch was unambiguously sexual in nature.”

MCEC reported that Bender “acknowledged crossing boundaries and indicated remorse for the suffering experienced as a result of these actions. He also sees some of his behavior as having been appropriate and acceptable within the context of the situation.”

In February 1992, four women sent a statement to five Anabaptist publications, explaining, “We feel very strongly that the Leadership Commission’s statement does not tell the whole story on its own; specifically it does not warn and “protect those vulnerable young women like us.”

We met Urie Bender when we were at a vulnerable age, as teenagers or as college students. We were as young as 13 and as old as 24 at our first meeting. This initial contact occurred when our ideas of men and ourselves were still in formation. We all have in common an artistic sensibility. In particular we showed interest in writing or theater and so Urie Bender was a likely mentor. His message to us was: “You are a gift to me. You and I are special people of whom there are very few.” Some of us were vulnerable because of personal crisis and isolated so that he acted as an ordained, caring pastor in our lives. He was older, a person privileged with ministerial credentials, and more widely experienced.

We met Urie Bender in settings that in themselves did not suggest danger. Some of us first came to know him as a friend of our families. Others of us first met him on a Mennonite college campus. Because these were public place — Mennonite families, Mennonite colleges, Mennonite assemblies and conferences, and public restaurants — they served as protective cover for him and made us doubt our truest responses to his behavior. This “public” context suggested the following: “See there is nothing wrong going on here.”

His crossing of boundaries consisted of fondling, French kissing, and sexualized behavior, some of which in relationships between equals could be interpreted as within the gray area, such as hand holding, embraces, kisses, and meaningful eye contact. We were confused by courting behavior from a person who was pastor or mentor. Just as damaging as his touch was the ensuing mental and spiritual anguish we experienced as we tried to understand the message, “Trust me, I am your friend” in the context of invasive behavior.

The women noted that some had been privately warned about Bender, but others were left vulnerable:

Only a few of us have stepped forward with allegations and character sketches, but we represent a network of knowing. We are acquainted with women who were warned over twenty years ago by other women not to come into relationship with Bender. What was covertly helpful then to some we seek to make more broadly known for those still at risk and perhaps isolated from this network of knowing. In this spirit, we publicize the name of a respected Mennonite writer and dramatist.

While steps have been taken to suspend Urie Bender’s ministerial credentials for two years and to outline procedures of supervision and therapy to assist in his transformation, provisions to protect those vulnerable young women like us do not exist at this time.

A year after his credentials were suspended, Bender permanently relinquished his ministerial credentials and withdrew from MCEC’s process for “rehabilitation and healing”, citing “the stress levels caused by the continuing disagreements regarding procedure and the devastating aftermath of publicity as well as the need for emotional space to pursue both education and therapy in an aggressive manner.” The Mennonite Reporter wrote that, “Bender objected specifically to the conference’s request that the therapist report Bender’s progress.”

In a May 1993 article in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Jeanette Gascho spoke of her experiences of abuse by Bender: “The fallout in terms of my spiritual damage is that I am not able to go to church and listen to a male pastor without thinking, ‘what are you hiding and who are you abusing.’ I know that’s unrealistic, but that is the fallout.”

She said the abuse started, subtly, when she was 13 or 14 and the minister was mentoring young women like herself. The minister repeatedly emphasized the “uniqueness” of their relationship to such an extent that it became inappropriate, Gascho said.

“His basic message was: ‘You and I are special people of whom there are very few.’ In that way, he was able to isolate us and separate us and solidify in us a belief that our relationship was so special and so unique, and therefore above and beyond the regular kinds of constraints,” she said.

Eventually, the relationship developed sexual undertones.

“His greeting kisses were much more intimate than they should have been,” Gascho said. “He would put his hand on my chest, right above my left breast, practically with his palm, saying ‘I’m this close; as close as your heartbeat.’

“The result was that I went through many years of feeling like I could not purge this man from my system — that he was literally inside me. It was like an emotional rape.

“He served as a counsellor, mentor, teacher and role model, and he solicited all sorts of intimate details about my relationships in the guise of caring very deeply about me — but it was also very voyeristic.”

She said she at times felt “confused” about the relationship, but she blamed herself, and this was reinforced by the minister’s emphasis on the “specialness” of their relationship, and the message, “How could I doubt that he cared about me?”

Gascho said her abuse was similar to incest. “I resonate with incest survivors because I experienced the same kind of mixed message of being loved while being abused, which is incredibly difficult to assimilate as a child and separate as an adult.”

She did not recognize it as abuse until she finally started to get counselling to deal with the power and control issues she was having difficulties with.

She said beyond the spiritual damage, the abuse has had an impact on her ability to form solid relationships. “After all, I trusted somebody for 20 years who I shouldn’t have trusted,” she said.

In explaining why she chose not to pursue civil or criminal actions against Bender, Gascho said, “Because so much of it was so subtle and so complicated, unless the judge were extremely savvy about the whole issue of abuse of power, it would be a real gamble that the judge would understand the whole concept. … Also, the primary evidence in a case like mine is of my life having been damaged — and so the more examples I produce of my own screwups and failed relationships, the more we would have … that’s not my idea of fun.”

Despite the resignation of the minister, Gascho is still feeling “robbed of the process of justice, at least as far as the church could provide that,” and doesn’t think the church has done enough for the victims.

“I think they should have acknowledged their own accountability and offered their own restitution. We certainly can’t get anything out of him, but the church was responsible for him while he was abusing us and so the church should be willing to work with us on restitution.”

Gascho said there were mistakes and problems with the internal church process. “There was a fundamental lack of understanding as to who can make demands of whom; who is the victim; who should be protected; who should be told to be compliant and comply.”

In a November 1993 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Mennonite abuse, Gascho said,

There are people in the church who knew about his sexual misconduct for 40 years. … I felt the church should have done something. My wish was that his congregation would have been so outraged that it wouldn’t have just let him fade into the woodwork.

Bender died in 2018.

Church-related positions

  • Prominent Mennonite playwright and author
  • Credentialed minister, MCEC
  • Attended Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario
  • Writer-in-residence at Conrad Grebel College, 1974
  • Served in leadership roles at Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute, Mennonite Publishing House, Mennonite Board of Missions, and Ontario Mennonite Mission Board
  • Pastor, Baden Mennonite Church, Baden, Ontario
  • Pastor, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Indiana

First-person accounts

Documentation

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