Into Account: An Interview with Stephanie Krehbiel

Stephanie Krehbiel joins us today to share about the work of Into Account, the organization that provides resources to survivors of sexual, spiritual, and other kinds of abuse in Christian contexts, especially Anabaptist ones. Rebecca asks her to help us understand why accountability, in particular, is so important, and what characteristics of peace churches might make them especially vulnerable to abuse.

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Rebecca Barrett-Fox: The word accountability sometimes has business connotations (like accounting) and sometimes has religious connotations (like confession). Why do you think that accountability is so important for the work of justice for sexual abuse survivors?

Stephanie Krehbiel: We took up accountability as our central organizing principle very intentionally, because in faith communities it’s the last thing anyone seems to want to talk about in relation to sexual abuse. When churches are talking about this at all, they will talk about healing, and sometimes they will talk about prevention. But the point we’re always trying to make is that prevention and healing can’t be disentangled from accountability. When a church lets known perpetrators get away with abuse while simultaneously talking about healing and prevention, survivors are insulted and alienated. We were seeing that everywhere, and we wanted to do something about it.

Let me get to the heart of what we mean by accountability. This is what we believe at Into Account: If you rape, abuse, harass, or assault somebody, you’ve relinquished your privilege to be in community with that person and with other people who are vulnerable to your abuse. You’ve relinquished the privilege of secrecy: you should not be allowed to demand anyone’s silence about what you’ve done. You’ve relinquished the privilege of remaining nameless. The people you’ve victimized have nothing to be ashamed of. They deserve to speak of what you’ve done, and to speak your name, without fear. They deserve the protection and the support of the community around them. They do not have to forgive you, and no one has the right to make them feel as though they should.

Those are the general principles. The details, of course, are where it gets complicated, and navigating the details is where good advocacy comes in. The legal questions, the ethical concerns around confidentiality, the safety issues related to disclosure, the involvement of law enforcement, the institutional challenges around related to choosing transparency over protection from liability: there’s a huge amount of complexity involved in asking for accountability within all the overlapping systems that create the conditions faced by survivors. These aren’t systems that are built to protect people from sexual abuse; the protections that do exist, broadly speaking, are corrective measures that don’t necessarily change the fundamentals.

There’s no perfect justice in this system. But there are better and worse outcomes. And there are outcomes that make justice more likely for survivors in the future and make abuse less likely to happen again.

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Above, from top to bottom, Hilary Scarsella, Stephanie Krehbiel, and Jennifer Yoder respond to a comment in response to an open letter that Into Account wrote to leaders in Mennonite colleges and that The Mennonite published this past fall. 

RB-F: Is your work equally divided between caring for survivors and working with institutions? What does a “day at the office” look like in this line of work?

SK: It’s so variable that it’s hard to describe a typical day. Sometimes I spend almost the entire day on communicating with survivors, generally through phone, Skype, or email conversations. I wouldn’t call it “caring for,” exactly; that could have a clinical implication that isn’t appropriate to our work. I think it’s more accurate to describe it as offering support, listening, conveying information about options, and then strategizing with survivors how to implement the options that they choose to pursue. There is no stage of that process in which the people who report to us aren’t in the driver’s seat.

When it comes to communicating with institutions, we’re generally part of the conversation mainly as a witness or a buffer between a survivor and an institutional representative. We create an extra layer of accountability and make sure a survivor’s boundaries are respected. Our presence makes it more difficult for survivors to be intimidated or manipulated in off-the-record conversations. (I suppose we have kind of a cantankerous reputation, but actually, my experience is that good administrators aren’t threatened by us. A little on edge, maybe, but not threatened. As long as they have nothing to hide, the transparency is good for them too.) Anyway, there’s usually at least one or two cases at any given moment where that kind of conversation is happening.

We usually have at least five or six ongoing cases, in which we’re working with one or more survivors for accountability within a particular church or church-related institution. We’re also starting to do more consulting work with churches and schools who need help creating better policy; I foresee spending more time on that this year.

Organizational planning also takes a lot of time. When the three of us have the luxury of uninterrupted Skype time, we will do that for hours on end. I don’t think donor money is going to be enough to sustain us, especially if we want to grow, so this year is going to have to be the year of the grants.

At least once a week, I try to spend the entire day writing. I read a lot, too, because there’s never not something I’m trying to learn more about.

I’m the only Into Account staff who is full-time. Jay Yoder, who co-founded it with me, has another job in child abuse prevention, and Hilary Scarsella is also finishing her PhD in theology at Vanderbilt. We dream of all being able to do this full-time, in the same location. We’re taking that one step at a time.

RB-F: In Into Account’s statement of philosophy, you link the fight against sexualized violence to other movements against oppression, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality. How are these forms of oppression related?

SK: Sexualized violence isn’t a cause that we can take out of the broader context of social inequity and systemic oppression. Just to pull us back to the individual/community binary for a second—who is allowed to be an individual, in this society? Whose body, and whose freedom, do we deem worthy of protection? Whose communities do we value? What kind of collective do we really serve? And how does our history—of settler colonialism, aggressive Christian missionizing, genocide, chattel slavery, economic exploitation of women and children—play into how we value certain individuals and communities over others? The answers to those questions tell us a lot about what sexualized violence looks like in our society. Almost every movement for the freedom of marginalized people has concerned itself with sexualized violence to some degree, even if that concern has been suppressed or kept under the radar.

“Almost every movement for the freedom of marginalized people has concerned itself with sexualized violence to some degree, even if that concern has been suppressed or kept under the radar.”

RB-F: Mennonites often think of community as key to their identity and one of their core strengths. How can the concept of community hurt people?

SK: In the Mennonite circles I’m familiar with, I see a lot of unreflective disdain of something that people call “individualism.” It’s the way a lot of people construct themselves as counter-cultural: there’s a “wider U.S. culture” that values the individual above the collective, and this is how we resist it, by rooting our spiritual identity in something else, which we frequently call “community.”

But it’s not actually that Mennonites, or Christians with similar values, place the “community” over the “individual.” It’s that some individuals are deemed to be more valuable to the community than others are. Within our communities, we protect some individuals and treat others as disposable. We view the protection of certain individuals as analogous to the protection of our communities. To accuse those individuals of wrongdoing, then, becomes an assault on the community.

“Within our communities, we protect some individuals and treat others as disposable. We view the protection of certain individuals as analogous to the protection of our communities. To accuse those individuals of wrongdoing, then, becomes an assault on the community.”

Perpetrators of sexual violence tend to target people who are easily disposed of, so to speak. So I invite people to look at their churches and ask themselves, within this community, who is dealing with social conditions that already tell them they are less than, or that they are the property of another person, or that they are just trash? Those are the people in your community who are most vulnerable to sexual violence. People with physical or intellectual disabilities. Foster kids. Recent immigrants. Undocumented people. The two or three black and brown children in a majority-white congregation. Gender non-conforming kids. LGBTQ folks in general, especially young ones. People living in poverty. Adults who were abused as children. Look for the people who can’t speak for themselves, or who aren’t legally protected in any way, or who are relationships shaped by financial dependency or the expectation of gratitude. Those are the people in your community who are most likely to be sexually victimized, because no matter how much your community claims to center the marginalized, there are other social scripts at work, and perpetrators usually know those scripts. They know who is the least likely to be believed. And if they get caught, they know how to use those scripts to create a narrative in which they are the “real” victims.

Mennonites, unfortunately, have a whole passive-aggressive vocabulary for shaming people whose requests for accountability are seen as a drain on communal resources. Most of the Mennonite survivors we’ve worked with have, at some point, been accused of being selfish and demanding too much attention for themselves, whether directly or, just as often, through subtext. I’ve noticed that church leaders really love telling sexual violence survivors how much of their professional time has been devoted to “dealing with” the survivor’s case, and how stressful it has been. The implication is always that there are more important things they could be doing, things that really serve the community, and their attention is a gift that they’re generously giving to a person with an exaggerated sense of their own individual importance.

Much of the time, when Mennonites speak about the importance of “community,” what they’re really saying is, “we protect the individuals who tell us the most attractive story about who we want to believe we are.”

RB-F: While religion isn’t the only social force that fuels sexualized violence, it is one that too frequently does. What are the ways that the Mennonite tradition, in particular, contributes to a culture in which sexual violence occurs?

SK: I’ll put it like this: Mennonites are bad at boundaries. And by that I don’t exclusively mean sexual boundaries. I also mean relational, emotional, and professional boundaries. Truly, I don’t think a lot of Mennonites even understand that boundaries are a thing worth paying attention to. It’s as if we think that boundaries are a concept that need not be relevant to us because of our peace theology. It’s probably linked to the individualism thing; boundaries are a way of preserving individual safety and autonomy, and those are things that our theology devalues. We idealize a church in which everyone is given implicit trust by virtue of membership, and in which broken trust can always be repaired. It isn’t a model that is prepared for the challenge presented by abusive individuals. If anything, it’s a system that is tailor-made for abusers to exploit.

Much of the time, when Mennonites speak about the importance of “community,” what they’re really saying is, “we protect the individuals who tell us the most attractive story about who we want to believe we are.”

I’ll elaborate: one of the most difficult things about surviving trauma is that it can be hard to recognize when we’re being drawn into trauma reenactment. Clinicians and social workers often use the concept of the “trauma reenactment triangle” or “drama triangle.” When you’re working with someone who is caught in those relational patterns, they see every situation as having a victim, a villain, and a rescuer. I remember a relevant conversation that I had with my colleagues Jay and Hilary a while ago: We were despairing over a particular situation, and Jay was pointing out the ways that the people involved were caught in trauma reenactment. I said, “It doesn’t seem like Mennonite theology really gives people the tools to get any distance from the triangle.” And then our resident theologian Hilary laughed and said, “Mennonite theology IS the triangle.”

Take that earlier example I gave—the church leader who responds to a sexual violence survivor’s requests for accountability by talking about how difficult it has made their job. At minimum, I’d call this unprofessional behavior. But in many instances it goes beyond that; it’s a way of insinuating that the person who has come to you for accountability should pay you back with emotional care for your situation. Rather than taking responsibility for appropriately seeking the care that you need, you create a subtly manipulative dynamic of indebtedness. That’s pushing a boundary.

When you do this, as someone who has accepted the responsibilities of leadership, you’ve supplanted your professional ethical obligations with a victim narrative starring yourself, and you’ve cast the person who is asking you to do your job, the survivor of sexual violence that happened under your watch, as the new perpetrator.

It’s a move that sets everyone up to compete for the title of Most Worthy Victim. Mennonites are taught to identify with victimhood, and we’re also taught that the best way to “do” victimhood is through spiritual submission to victimhood as a state of being. It’s bad theology. It teaches us to place implicit trust in authority, and to be automatically offended when we’re in authority and the implicit trust isn’t forthcoming.

And conversely, it also feeds our desire to be heroes and saviors, and to turn our lives inside out in service of the worthy victims. Unfortunately, despite the obvious Biblical example, there aren’t a lot of ethical accountability checks built into the savior business.

I’m not saying Mennonites are the only ones who violate boundaries. I mean, predators always violate boundaries—that’s part of what makes them predatory. But Mennonites do perhaps have a cutting edge in espousing a communal ideology that disdains boundaries. Honestly, I think some Mennonites perceive boundary-setting as more violent than rape.

We could also talk about how the historical legacy of shunning plays into all this, but I don’t want to go on for hours!

RB-F: What are the scriptural passages or Christian traditions that you wish people would understand differently, de-emphasize, put to the side, or just shut up about?

SK: I’m pretty sick of Matthew 18, except for the part about millstones.

SK: Many of our readers grew up hearing messages about sexuality, sexual behavior, and “purity” that had long-lasting negative effects on them. What are better models that parents, youth ministers, and others who care for young people can look to for help in preparing their children to care for their own and their partners’ bodies safely and respectfully? 

This is the hardest question for me, even though people ask me this question a lot. The heterocentric focus on sexual purity has done so much lasting damage to most of us who grew in Christian environments that even as we’re teaching our children about this stuff, we have to as honest as possible with ourselves about the trauma that we carry, so that we don’t inadvertently pass it on to our kids. The power of shame is so silencing.

I could rattle off a list of resources, but honestly, I’d rather encourage people to begin by asking themselves the hardest questions about what they truly believe in relation to sex, bodies, relationships, reproduction, and obligation. The Bible is frankly a pretty messed-up source when it comes to sexuality; if that’s the basis for your sexual ethic, it’s going to be a sexual ethic that devalues some people’s rights to be in charge of the boundaries of their own bodies. It will be a sexual ethic that is at the very least haunted by the notion that some people are the possessions of other people. It will be an ethic without clarity about the difference between consensual sex and rape. I realize that these are controversial assertions for a primarily Christian audience, but sexual justice is controversial.

The first sentence of Into Account’s philosophy statement is, “We believe that no institution, family, or community is more important than our right to autonomy over our own bodies.” We got immediate pushback for that: one person told us, essentially, “This statement is not true for Christians.” And to that I say, well, if that statement is an affront to your definition of Christianity and the values of your congregation, then expect your children to be raped. I don’t really care to make it sound any nicer than that. It isn’t.

Or, to again quote Hilary, our Director of Theological Integrity: “Put down your Sunday School materials and read Teen Vogue.” She’s not kidding.

RB-F: Do you see signs of hope? What is going well in the fight for accountability and justice? What is going well in the work of caring for survivors?

SK: Actually, yes, I see a lot of hope, despite all the obvious disasters. A lot that has been previously hidden is coming into visibility. I realize that the steady stream of survivors coming forward with abuse stories about prominent men is unnerving and destabilizing for many people, but for me, there’s a kind of catharsis in seeing people talk about this publicly. The reality is unnerving. The truth-telling about that reality, that feels like hope. Part of me feels like I need to talk about the things that aren’t happening, all the work that still needs to be done, all the ways things could go wrong, all the backlash that we’re fighting, the horror that is that narcissistic abuser in the White House. But the hope is real. And I don’t know if it’s correlated or not, but at Into Account, we’ve never been busier.

Thank you, Stephanie, Jay, and Hilary, for your leadership. 

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