John Howard Yoder: My untold story after 36 years of silence

By Sharon Detweiler

January 10, 2024

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This essay was originally published on January 9, 2015 on the Our Stories Untold blog and is reposted here with permission.

To Rachel Waltner Goosen, whose historical overview in The Mennonite meticulously recounts John Howard Yoder’s true legacy, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your literary piece is masterful.

But as I read your article on this quiet Sunday morning, I find my hands shaking, my heart beating faster, and I’m unable to read clearly … 36 years later.

My story began in Pennsylvania. I was born into a long line of pious, hard-working and church-going Detweilers, Old Order Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites. I went to the local Mennonite Church 2 to 3 times a week for all of my childhood and young adult life. I was baptized in the church.

So why did reading this particular article about a Mennonite church theologian affect me so profoundly? After all, I have now been a practicing attorney in the State of California for 28 years. I graduated from one of the top law schools in the country. I have a B.A., a J.D. and an L.L.M. I have been the lone prosecuting attorney in 52 jury trials. I have prosecuted murderers, rapists, molesters, kidnappers, elder abusers, and many, many criminal offenders over the years. Why was I shaking and feeling sick to my stomach after reading the article?

Perhaps because 36 years ago I was one of Yoder’s victims.

It was 1979, and I was 22-years-old and employed by the Mennonite Church in a leadership position. When Yoder was in his late 50’s he began a campaign of actively pursuing me as one of his proteges. I was initially flattered, until it turned ugly. Ultimately, after 2 short years of employment, I suddenly resigned from my church position and moved from Pennsylvania to California, largely as a result of Yoder’s outrageous actions directed at me. I have never looked back.

Because of this experience with Yoder, I have chosen over the past 36 years to disassociate myself from the Mennonite church community. At the time, I told no one. Why? I knew well enough that no one, and I mean no one, would respect my story about Yoder. Persons who question why the alleged victims did not report anything are horribly naive about the depth of denial and the cover-up skills within the Mennonite Church. Or perhaps, how incapable Mennonite church leaders can become when having to deal with conflict, confrontation and deviant evil.

You may be reading this and thinking that I need therapy or prayer for my anger so that I can reconcile with the church. This type of observation is quite uninformed; it is an insult to the life that I lead in California. I have been blessed with happiness, compassion, a husband and a son who love and respect me deeply, true friends and professional acquaintances. We have many happy times of fun, appreciation, respect and deep joy. I am also blessed by health and strength to continue to work hard in my profession; I have been employed for 28 years as an attorney with the same organization; a very secular and large organization that seems to appreciate my talents and skills. I have been compensated and promoted beyond my wildest dreams as a small child in Pennsylvania. I can most assuredly say that, after a lifetime of missteps, I have finally found a life filled with genuine love, peace, compassion and grace.

But, and this is a big but, as I just intimated, my life has been filled with missteps all along the way — particularly in this very personal area of romance, intimacy, trust, commitment, and marriage. I have also, coincidentally, never been able to stay committed to any one church for longer than 3 or 4 years over the course of my adult lifetime. I have tried to be an active participant in no less than 10 churches here in California, and ultimately I always leave. A predictable and familiar feeling inevitably emerges: a deep sense of distrust of anyone who is a church leader. I eventually will simply stop attending, take a break, and look for another church.

I have often wondered, as I observe this pattern over the course of my lifetime and as I turn 58 this month, how many of my personal missteps were a result of the reverberations from the massive breach of trust that I experienced as a young woman with Yoder. I personally experienced Yoder’s sick manifestation of his sexual fantasies. Yoder pursuing me was the first abuse; the second abuse occurred when I knew, in my heart of hearts, that if I reported it my home church — the Mennonite church — would never believe me. They would ostracize me, and then engage in denial and cover-up. And indeed, as it turns out, my intuition was absolutely correct — nobody listened.

In 1992, I happened upon an article that reported that Yoder was being investigated for inappropriate sexual activity. After reading the article I contacted Marlin Miller whom I had known personally through my previous work with the Church. I told him what I had experienced with Yoder and he asked me to send the cassette tape to him that I told him I possessed; I had transported the tape with me all the way to California from Pennsylvania in 1981. What was on that tape? Yoder had recorded his unique sexual philosophy for me in no less than 60 minutes, as his deep sonorous voice repeated intellectual-sounding theories about how the Mennonite Church, because it is so limited in its thinking, doesn’t understand sexual intimacy and how it was to be played out in the true community of believers. He sent that tape to me, admonishing me to keep it private, never share it with anyone, and then record over his words with my own thoughts and reactions to what he had said. I was then to send it back to him. As I listened to his recording, I heard what appeared to be an office chair noisily creaking in the background. It was, needless to say, very, very creepy.

So, at Marlin Miller’s urgent request, I agreed to send the cassette tape to him for his committee to confront Yoder with proof of his actions. I waited. Nothing happened. No one contacted me. Nothing, as far as I knew, was being done. I finally concluded that, as it turns out, way back in 1981, my intuition had been correct — no one in the church would listen to my story and respect my experience. Yoder’s position and reputation — and the Mennonite Church’s position and reputation — had seemingly been the paramount concern.

By way of context, by the time of my report to Marlin Miller in 1992 I was an experienced trial attorney. I knew that better evidence could not have been produced in a court of law — a recording of the suspect in his own words talking about what he did to young women he chose as his targets. This evidence may have been truly convincing to a jury in a courtroom, but apparently it was not convincing to the committee because nothing happened. By the way, my tape has disappeared. No one knows where it is. I wonder what Marlin Miller did with the tape? He told me that he played it for Yoder, in the presence of the “investigating committee.” My best guess is that Yoder demanded it back, asserting that it was his property. The tape was most likely given to Yoder and he destroyed it. Once again, the committee was evidently intimidated and out-maneuvered.

I really don’t even know why I am posting this story on the worldwide web. Some Mennonite intellectuals will likely speculate why I posted it and what is wrong with my posting, what is wrong with me, and how forgiveness is the order of the day, a seemingly Biblical concept. (However, horribly ineffectual when the victim “forgives” an offender who sees absolutely nothing wrong with what he did). These same individuals may go on to piously defend the great John Howard Yoder. I’ve heard it all before, intellectuals talking without feelings, particularly in law school. My personal story is simply a story — my story. Every one of us on this earth has personal stories that are unique to us; a story cannot be intellectually dissected.

My favorite trial story happened over 20 years ago when I believed a young girl who reported her stepfather had molested her. Her mother did not want to believe her. The police believed her, but didn’t know if the case was prosecutable. The California criminal justice system allows for “vertical units” wherein sometimes, when serious allegations are made, prosecutors get immediately involved and work with the cops. In this case, given the seriousness of the allegations, I was called in to work with the cops. I interviewed the little girl a long time. I believed her. We proceeded with the prosecution. At the close of the trial, when the 12 jurors were unanimously and individually polled and each said, “Guilty,” the look in that little girl’s eyes was worth all the hard work and desperate moments we shared. Her life had been changed; her story had been believed.

Some may also ponder that my story here is compromised by the lack of specific detail. My answer to these individuals is this: why would I compromise my privacy and share these details, when no matter how many details I provide, you would not believe my story anyway? If the reader cannot trust my report, based upon my personal experiences with Yoder, that he was acting as a sexual predator, then I would suggest no amount of prurient details will be sufficient evidence.

Yoder, his family who knew, and the church leaders who knew have responsibility for their part in this miserable chapter of Mennonite Church history. Was it really worth all that effort to cover up Yoder’s bad behavior? Wouldn’t it have been better to “out him” and clean house? Who paid the price really? Apparently not the church or Yoder. The persons who suffered and paid the price were the young women who were blindsided by a man who unbeknownst to us, had major sexual illnesses and known predatory behavior. Did anyone care about us? The church continued to cover up his known deviance’s and paid Yoder to travel all over the world. In doing so they knowingly exposed him to countless young women who over and over again, had to learn, on their own, in private and alone with Yoder, how to deal with his aggressive sexual behavior. I remember while this was happening I would look over and over again at the picture of Yoder and his wife in the Gospel Herald, and wonder to myself, what the hell is going on here? Why wasn’t anyone stating truth about this horribly deceitful man?

My hope is that these innumerable young women who have suffered from Yoder’s behavior will, by my story, realize and perhaps take comfort in the fact that there are others out there who have suffered as they have suffered.

As an attorney, the spoken and written word is a large part of my profession. I deliver opening statements and closing arguments with ease, and yet, today, I am without words to describe the suffering I have experienced as a result of this massive breach of trust. I really have very little to say about the matter, and after this story, I will once again fade into obscurity, living out my life in a very private way. Today, in 2015, I have become a very different woman than the one Yoder approached in 1981.

After this long, long period of silence and relative obscurity I cannot close without some comments about the Mennonite Church. It is just an opinion, but in my view the Mennonite Church is way off track. The Church will either have to morph into a new church that is far more accountable, open and accepting of all persons, or continue to die. I observe a dying Mennonite Church here in North America, because extremely talented people have lost patience with the Church and left. If you have to ask why then you need to ask some more hard questions and do a little bit more critical thinking about pacifism and whether the Mennonite Church is truly a pacifist church. Is it possible that it is just a passive church? What a humbling thought to those who have devoted their lives to the Mennonite Church. The Mennonites may no longer be the experts in pacifism, but merely experts in passivity. Confusing pacifism with passivity is a big mistake.

The Mennonite Church has been irrelevant to my life for a very long time. I have a rich and full spiritual life that does not include Mennonite beliefs or practice. I view my young life in the Mennonite tradition as one of many from around the world. I can say that my upbringing taught me strict disciplines of hard work, but did very little to prepare me for modern life in North America — and as it turned out, did not prepare me at all to handle unwanted sexual advances by one of its own.

My personal opinion is that Yoder was a very sick man who was coddled by the Mennonite Church and feared by many. He was not held accountable by church leaders who, by not exposing his behavior, were complicitous with his behavior. By not doing anything, these church members repeatedly and knowingly exposed Yoder’s predatory sexual behavior to young Mennonite women. The leaders were not only naive, they were proud, self-righteous men who could not, and would not admit defeat. They would never confess to themselves, or the church, that they had no ability to lead. Simply put, these church leaders had been out-manipulated by a man who wore the mask of a respected intellectual but was really just a very sick man mired in his own deceit.

For the women who suffered at the hands of Yoder I feel deep compassion. I personally experienced what it was like: creepy, awful, shameful, disgusting, shocking. I also know that the deepest suffering comes in the years long after the abuse. The initial shame, followed by deep feelings of complete and total abandonment by one’s church of origin is simply not something that can adequately be put into words. It can certainly not be shared with anyone who would possibly misunderstand. For these women, I tell my story. I understand. I get it. If you are in the Mennonite Church and suffering, for whatever reason, as result of self-righteous, ponderous leaders who will not listen to your humanity, your story, I would suggest that you consider exploring the depths of your faith elsewhere. Perhaps in that “elsewhere”, wherever it may be, and with whomever it may be, know that ultimately, and most assuredly, truth and love will prevail. You are loved by God. Nothing is more important than that.

As a postscript, Sharon Detweiler is my true birth name. My legal name has been changed, and I will leave it unpublished.

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