Holdeman Mennonites convicted or sued for abuse and failing to report

August 2, 2022

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The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman) are a plain group mainly located in the U.S. and Canada. Mennonite historian Clarence Hiebert has described the denomination as having “a closed system of church member control,” “an insistence on unity in doctrine and practice; unquestioned following of their ordained leaders; decision making relegated basically to the ordained men; and a rigid doctrine and practice of church discipline [excommunication until repentance], which is coupled with the threat of eternal penalty.”

Mennonite Abuse Prevention (MAP) has documented four cases among the Holdeman Mennonites that show how sexual abuse has been characteristically handled internally, but with external repercussions that are changing community norms. The known abuse in these cases spans from the 1970s to 2011, but the cases came to external authorities between 2008 and 2021.

In the 2008 criminal conviction of Kenneth Duncalfe in British Columbia, a judge characterized church leaders as “doing nothing” for 18 years after learning of the abuse. A victim in the case implored Duncalfe’s family and church to seek external professional help, but they refused.

In Texas in 2010, minister Staven Schmidt signed a plea deal for failing to report the assault of a girl in his care. Schmidt and his wife had been “unwilling to elaborate” to law enforcement after a doctor reported the abuse.

In Idaho, a 2016 lawsuit in the case of David Peaster alleged that the denomination discouraged its members from reporting misconduct to law enforcement. Current and former church members told MAP that as part of the lawsuit settlement in 2017, denominational leaders agreed that every congregation would declare compliance with mandatory reporting laws.

Church leaders in Wisconsin said they learned of sexual abuse by Leslie Toews in 2017, the same year of the Peaster lawsuit settlement, but they did not report it. Those leaders apparently did finally urge Toews to talk to law enforcement, but not until four years later, in 2021, as a condition of Toews’s requested return to fellowship from excommunication.

MAP asked denominational leaders for copies of any abuse prevention and response policies implemented since the 2016 lawsuit, and they provided four documents from March 2017 that detail the church’s “general position and practice on sexual abuse and misconduct.” The documents indicate that congregants are to report abuse to a local minister or deacon, who is then charged with investigating and, “[w]hen the evidence of wrongdoing involves a crime as defined by civil law,” must report to authorities. Leaders stated to MAP that the denomination has a committee operating in both the U.S. and Canada (Christian Peace Ministries) that local ministries are to contact for counsel when abuse becomes known.

Kenneth Duncalfe

Kenneth Duncalfe (b. approx. 1940), a member of Abbotsford (British Columbia) Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, was convicted in 2008 of sexual assault for repeatedly molesting his daughter while she was between 14 and 22 years old, in the 1970s and 1980s.

In approximately 1990, according to news reports, a family member reported the abuse to the church’s minister. Duncalfe was then “summoned before a church assembly and excommunicated for ‘lasciviousness,’ a punishment that lasted for a number of months, at the end of which he was allowed to rejoin the congregation.” Judge John Lenaghan would later say of church leaders, “They have known about the sexual abuse of this young woman for 18 years and did nothing about it.”

The woman reports that she left the church so that the abuse would stop: “I realized once I left, he would stop touching me. Being a member of the church was a very sheltered thing, men were the authority figures, and while I was a member he could touch me with impunity because he knew I wouldn’t complain.”

The victim later wrote a letter to her parents saying the family needed counseling, and that her father needed psychiatric help and therapy. She said the letter resulted in a visit to her home by minister Bev Toews of the Abbotsford church, who stressed reconciliation and discouraged pursuing criminal charges. The victim reports that the minister told her that he would get Duncalfe the help he needed, but she soon discovered that the minister himself, not an outside professional, was the one counseling Duncalfe. In 2006, out of concern for the safety of Duncalfe’s grandchildren, she then contacted the police.

Duncalfe pleaded guilty to two counts and the judge sentenced him to nine months in jail, presumably with accompanying treatment for sex offenders, saying, “[Members of the defendant’s family and church] seem to regard his actions as sins and to be of the opinion that the actions taken by the church should suffice as far as punishment is concerned. … The defendant’s actions were not merely sins which could be expiated by confession to spiritual mentors, but crimes, offenses against the social order which fall to be dealt with by civil society.”

The victim asked the court to lift the standard Canadian publication ban of her name and Duncalfe’s, to allow open reporting of the trial.

Staven Schmidt

In 2010, Staven Schmidt (b. 1966), minister of El Campo (Texas) Mennonite Church, pleaded no contest and was given deferred adjudication for failing to report the 2009 sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl in his care.

Schmidt told law enforcement that he and his wife had volunteered to help a non-Mennonite family in need by taking in the victim and her sisters for about a year. After a visit to their father, one of the girls reported to the Schmidts that her father had sexually assaulted her on the visit. Two days later, a local doctor reported the assault to law enforcement after the Schmidts apparently took the girl for medical care. The girl reportedly told the doctor that her father had also sexually assaulted her for approximately a year several years earlier.

The doctor told law enforcement that the Schmidts were unsure of who they should have contacted, so they came to him first. “The family was very hesitant and unsure of how to explain the incident.” The police report noted that the Schmidts told law enforcement “several times” that they were Mennonite and that they “were unwilling to elaborate on the incident.”

The father of the girls was convicted of 11 counts of sexual assault, and about a month later, Schmidt was charged with failure to report abuse. He later had his case expunged. According to a former church member and available records, Schmidt continues to lead the El Campo congregation and the church appears to have always kept him as a member in good standing.

David Peaster

In 2016, David Peaster (b. 1957), his wife, their Mountain View congregation in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite denomination were defendants in a lawsuit alleging that David Peaster sexually abused his adopted son and another victim, and that the church knew about the abuse and failed to report or prevent it.

The complaint alleged that Peaster abused the victims multiple times over a four-year period, and that one victim told a church leader he was being abused. The victim stated that Peaster was excommunicated from the church for approximately ten days until he repented and was then reaccepted into the congregation. The complaint alleged that Peaster then began to abuse again, but the church still did not report to external authorities.

The victim who initially reported to the church said he was “called a liar.” He also said that when he had run away from home and police picked him up, he had told them he was being molested, but they only returned him to Peaster.

The lawsuit was reportedly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Current and former members of the denomination told MAP that as part of the denomination’s settlement agreement, every congregation read a letter in front of their members declaring that they had explored local laws regarding mandatory reporting, and they would subsequently comply.

In addition to damages, the complaint also requested that church leaders participate in abuse prevention training, implement response policies, and establish an education program for children.

Leslie Toews

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.”

2017 denominational policies

Abbotsford Church of God in Christ Mennonite (BC), El Campo Mennonite Church (TX), Gospel Mennonite Church (WI), Mountain View Church of God in Christ Mennonite (ID)

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