God is not an abuser: Responding to Daughters of Promise

by Rosemarie Miller and Stephanie Krehbiel

Updated 2/6/2019: In the time since the publication of this interview, the editors of Daughters of Promise have retracted the essay that we discuss here in all platforms where they are able to do so. In a Feb. 6 email to Into Account, they accepted full responsibility for their mistaken judgment in publishing it, adding, “Your interview gave women in our readership the ability to articulate what was disturbing about the article. ” They are preparing their own public statement. Into Account deeply appreciates their acceptance of accountability and their desire to learn.

Rosemarie Miller is a survivor advocate, speaker, and writer who works to raise awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse in faith communities. Raised as a Plain Mennonite, she now works with survivors from a wide range of church backgrounds, including many from conservative and plain-dressing Anabaptist groups.

We published Rosemarie’s personal narrative of abuse on Our Stories Untold last November. Several week ago, I did an interview with her about her anti-abuse advocacy.

Recently, Rosemarie contacted me again, and what she showed me led to the following discussion. –Stephanie Krehbiel

Rosemarie, let’s just start with the tough stuff:  You and I both read an essay that disturbed each of us so much that we decided together that we need to talk about it publicly. It’s in the most recent issue of a conservative Anabaptist women’s magazine called Daughters of Promise, and the author of the piece is writing about her marriage to a man who had what she labelled as an “inappropriate relationship” with a girl who was living in their home.

More accurately, we later learned, her husband had sexually abused a teenage girl for two years before being caught, prosecuted, and convicted of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. (Content warning: the hyperlinked definition contains explicit descriptions of sexual assault. The source is a defense attorney’s website, which may be triggering for some readers.)

We also agreed on the reasons for publishing our conversation: not because we want to shame the author of the essay or cause damage to the magazine, but because we’re seeing and experiencing the suffering that this piece is causing to sexual violence survivors, and we don’t want anyone who is having similar feelings to suffer alone. And also because the essay follows some recognizable and troubling patterns that both of us are committed to fighting.

You received a copy of this piece from a friend who was devastated by it. Talk to me about that. Why did she share it with you? What did she object to in the essay?

Yes, this has been a very tough thing to process. I personally felt physical pain after reading this article, even though it took me some time before I could really begin to articulate well what was disturbing me so much. Of course, it was clear on a fast, first reading that we were dealing with a case of a minor who had been sexually abused. The survivor who shared it with me was so deeply impacted that she was reaching out for support to process the article. She saw the minimization of the abuse of a child in the use of the term “inappropriate relationship”, rather than correctly labeling it “abuse and a crime”. She noted many other things as well, such as the wife seeming to equate unreservedly trusting her husband with trust in God, as well as her evidently allowing him full and free access to their own minor children as fast as she was legally allowed, including him moving back into their home with the children once he was out of jail.

I had a very similar reaction. And one of the things that most disturbed me was the degree to which the author didn’t even seem to see the victim as a person. She was one of the “town girls,” which struck me as a way of making her seem less valuable, less worthy, than the “Godly” people in the author’s family and community. There’s one part in particular where she writes, “God reminded me that, more than my husband had sinned against me, he had sinned against His Heavenly Father.” But if we’re going to use the language of sin, we need to point out that he sinned against the victim. That victim being a young teenager who came into his home to escape another situation in which she was raped and abused.

Right! The “town girl” reference was something that my survivor friend and I had both noticed. Since I grew up in a culture that would have used the phrase “worldly girl”,  it didn’t fully impact me on my first reading as much as it did my friend who had exposure to the phrase in her childhood. She said it well: “Then there’s the phrase town girls. That is code for ‘ lesser in value’. There’s an underlying mentality that the girl is expendable. She’s never mentioned again after he comes clean. What happened to her? She’s the victim. Not the husband.”  Also we both noticed after the wife’s initial reference to the victim, the narrative from then on only focuses on how hard things were for her and her family, and then how ultimately wonderful in the end, with God working all this out for good. I get that the wife was writing this from HER perspective, but at a minimum, it would have been helpful if the editorial process at Daughters of Promise had caught this concern and addressed it somehow.

I’m going to quote the author more extensively here, from the end of the piece, because it sounds like this is the part your friend is talking about: “My favorite verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them that are the called according to his purpose.” I know that we may have a love-hate relationship with this verse. I think when we understand its true meaning – that all things work together for the good of God’s Kingdom, not for our earthly pleasures – this verse truly becomes a comforting verse in the valleys.”

The author seems to be invested in the idea of this as something that happened to her family, not something that her husband actively did to another person. I’m thinking of a number of cases I’m familiar with or have been involved with in which victims are pitted against the perpetrator’s family.

Yes, I too have noticed over the years that the greatest concern is often for the perpetrator and his or her family, not for the victim and their family. I am somewhat at a loss to explain this when it comes to the church and community in general. In this specific situation,  I am going to guess that since the wife evidently was hit by this disclosure out of the blue–having had no inkling, she felt, previously–that her sense of helplessness and events being out of her control–is reflected in this re-telling of events. I can only hope and pray she will receive effective and knowledgeable counseling to help her properly process and heal. While I am a victim’s advocate first and foremost, I am also deeply concerned for the families of perpetrators, and realize they are victims of the crimes and sins, and need much support and help. But in our concern for them, we must NEVER EVER neglect the primary victim. I hope and pray that the support and concern for the young victim in this case was clearly shown by the community and church, even though there is no evidence of it in this article.

At some level, I think this is about symbols, and what Christians claim to hold sacred. The idea of family is sacred. The idea of heterosexual marriage is sacred. But sexual violence victims are rarely seen as sacred; they’re much more likely to be seen as inherently suspect. They’re seen as people who destroy marriages, families, and communities. So of course churches side with the people who represent what is sacred to them.

I would guess that there is a lot of truth to that observation, Stephanie. I also have observed over the years that the idea an adult would molest a child is so reprehensible and unimaginable to some people, that they must always find some way to blame the victim. “They must have wanted sex!” “She must not have dressed modestly!” “Well, we always KNEW she was ‘troubled’!” And in this case, she was a “town girl”. We need to begin accepting the sad reality that there really are ravening wolves among us who actually are so evil that they prey on vulnerable, helpless people, who are absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing. And further, we must fully recognize and accept that the adult is ALWAYS 100% the adult, and the responsible party. NOTHING a child does EVER excuses an adult victimizing them. As long as we justify, excuse or in any way try to minimize the seriousness of sexual abuse crimes against others, we are party to the crimes and sins. We make it harder for the offenders to ever get the help they need, and we make it easier for new crimes to occur against vulnerable people. This is really serious stuff, both from a spiritual and legal perspective.

Let’s talk about the legal perspective for a second. Both you and I know of dozens and dozens of these crimes that never make it to a courtroom, but this one actually did, and the offender–the author’s husband, David Dwight Stoltzfus–was in prison for five years. We read the media coverage of his crimes after reading his wife’s essay. How did you feel when you read that coverage?

I was disturbed when I read the article in Daughters of Promise because I recognized so many areas of concern. But when I read the news coverage of the situation, I was literally staggered. It was extremely hard to read. This man took a child, who had already been victimized sexually, into his home to allegedly provide a safe haven for her, and then sexually violated her nearly every day for two years, while threatening to return her to her home where she had previously been traumatized. My heart broke completely anew for the victim and all she has gone through in life.  I can not stop thinking about her. I pray, oh I pray, that she is now finally truly safe and loved, and surrounded by the support system she needs to heal and function in life. Such a betrayal to a child even ONCE is devastating, let alone to be taken in by people alleging to love Jesus and His Holy ways, and then to be abused again under threats.

My other concern is for this perpetrator’s children who he clearly has access to. I pray the perp has people in his life who are truly effective and knowledgeable about child molesters who are helping him be fully honest with God and himself about the desires for power and control that he used as his justification to abuse this precious child. If he does not have that, if he does not have help, we both know that studies show that offenders are highly likely to reoffend at some point again in their lives. Clearly the judge was concerned about this as well, after having reviewed all the facts of the case, including the reports from the psychologist and others, that he sentenced him to be placed on the sex offender registry for life.

And as gentle as I want to be with his wife, due to the extreme pain he caused her, I have to admit that reading she tried to defend the perp in the courtroom was very hard for me as well. Where were her instincts as a Christian to defend and protect the child who had been entrusted into her care, in her home? Reading the news account, in conjunction with her own article, just made me even more concerned for her, and her need for knowledgeable support. There are major things to wrestle with in a situation like this, and it takes a lot of safety and support to be able to do so effectively. I pray she will find that kind of support system.

What do you think a spiritually mature response to this essay would be? What would you do if someone submitted it to you, as an editor?

Stephanie, I hope I would have godly wisdom to respect where this woman is at right now in her journey, while still realizing that publishing an article that has these errors in it helps to perpetuate the cycle of abuse by failing to clearly identify the situation as that, and advocates for blind trust and no boundaries with a sinful, criminal spouse who had not earned the right to have blind trust, let alone with children. Further, the fact that she is lamenting that law enforcement got involved–when a person who is truly repentant should turn themselves in to law enforcement and freely confess their crimes–does readers a disservice. We need to be teaching how to respond appropriately to abuse cases. I know that is our desire in this interview and that because we both DO care and DO want to raise awareness and provide education, we are committed to sending this interview to the publishers of Daughters of Promise.

I think one thing I want these editors and publishers and others like them to understand is that publishing something like this is not actually a kindness to the author. It is enabling. She has been terribly hurt already; she deserves a community that is able to tell her the truth.

I absolutely agree. The truth is hard, but the truth sets us free. And uncompromising honesty is the best course in life to follow. We can not have one type of injury in our physical lives, have it misdiagnosed and mishandled medically, and expect to heal well. The same is true in our spiritual and emotional lives. Injuries must have accurate diagnoses, and treatment, for full healing.

There’s one more thing I want to talk about in relation to this case, and that’s the witness intimidation. The news coverage mentions that the perpetrator’s mother received two years of probation for trying to stop the victim from reporting the rapes to the police. What were your feelings when you read that?

Stephanie, I think my first reaction was grief for the victim who was subjected to that on top of everything else! My second reaction was deep relief that the evil of witness intimidation was caught, called out, and dealt with in a public and legal manner. I pray that it serves as a strong warning and deterrent to others who would be tempted to fall into this sinful and criminal practice!

Yes, it was an unspeakably cruel thing to do to a kid. I was thinking, too, that it was a completely recognizable behavior, in terms of what you and I both see as advocates. Usually it’s too subtle to be criminal witness intimidation, but there’s still an implicit threat. “If you don’t let this go, you’re going to destroy the church.” “Are you really willing to ruin this man’s life?” “You’re going to get a reputation, you know.” “Are you sure you’re not enjoying all this attention?”  At the heart of all of this is an existential shaming that, in our culture, I think works especially well on women and other marginalized people. The message is: “How dare you prioritize your body and your safety? How dare you believe you’re important enough to be worthy of respect?”

And that takes me back to the essay, in which the author–who, again, is married to a rapist–talks about how she used her faith to stop herself from certain kinds of thoughts. She wrote, “God clearly laid on my heart to never be my husband’s policeman or mother. I was called to walk beside him as a loving wife. I didn’t want to be a suspicious, untrusting wife. It is hard to have a happy marriage if a couple can’t trust each other.” And then later, “I often hummed the song ‘Then sings my soul, ‘My Savior God…how great thou art’’, when unforgiving thoughts wanted to come to my mind. I had to remember how great my God is, how much He gave to save me and not let my mind harbor bad things.”

For me, this was the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing. Because the language she’s directing at herself is the language of spiritual abuse. Her personal spirituality is her business, but publishing her essay promotes the kind of denial that endangers other people, including children. God is not a gaslighting narcissist who demands that we ignore reality.

As you said earlier, the statistical reality is that this man has probably abused more than one victim and will probably abuse again. No one in their right mind should be trusting him with kids or teenagers. And yet his wife isn’t alone in convincing herself that trusting an abusive person or an abusive system is somehow analogous to trusting God. That’s the most effective form of witness intimidation, right there: a theology that teaches victims to trust abusers.

You summed that up well, Stephanie! “That’s the most effective form of witness intimidation, right there: a theology that teaches victims to trust abusers!” I have certainly seen that over and over in my work as an advocate as well. People feel that because the abuser has offered a verbal statement of repentance that it must be accepted fully, at face value, whether or not the offender goes on to show any effective fruits of repentance. These would include things such as removing themselves voluntarily from access to vulnerable minors, accepting without complaint all logical consequences, getting themselves into professional counseling with someone who is highly trained in child abuse cases, reporting themselves to law enforcement, and so on. I have heard expressions such as, “I feel so sorry for him–he’s really hurting!” and “We shouldn’t throw stones–we are all just a step away from doing like he did but for the grace of God!” I’m sure as an advocate, you have heard similar statements.

I have, although to be honest, I think you hear them more often, because the communities you relate to on a regular basis are more fundamentalist. Certainly, I hear a lot of empathy for perpetrators expressed at the expense of victims. But this notion that everybody is just a stone’s throw away from committing sexual violence seems to be particularly powerful in plain Anabaptism and other fundamentalist traditions. And it’s used as a means of minimizing and normalizing sexual abuse when it happens.

I have a thought that I’d like to share about the belief that we are all just a step away from molesting a child, except for God’s grace. Because that statement can be confusing if we don’t use godly discernment on it–it sounds kind of humble, kind of Biblical–and I’m sure that is the reason it gets used! But we need to stop and really think through the fact that portraying sexual abuse of a child as something we can just sort of tip and fall into,  without much warning, is dangerous territory and false teaching. Because the truth is–we FALL close to where we STAND. If I choose to stand within mere inches of the edge of the Grand Canyon, I will almost certainly fall over the edge, and likely to my death, were I to have a sudden bit of vertigo or a slip or fall. But if I choose to stand well back from the edge of the Canyon, I will still fall, but not plunge into the Canyon to my death. I think it’s important to realize that if we are not standing right up at the edge of child abuse, we aren’t going to just “fall” into it. It is a series of choices, a series of decisions, and steps, that leads someone right to the edge of the Abuse Canyon. They didn’t just wake up one morning, and just step or fall right into abusing a child.

That’s true. I think it also reveals a really deep confusion about the difference between consensual sex and sexual abuse. Like, you don’t fall into Abuse Canyon unless you enjoy using sex as a weapon of power and control against other people. You can be completely interested in consensual sex, enjoy it regularly, and never have the slightest temptation to be sexually violent or wield sex for power and control. The problem isn’t sexual desire. The problem is a desire to manipulate and dominate other people. And there is no cheap form of grace to make that go away.

You are so right, Stephanie! While I absolutely believe in the power of God to redeem the worst sinner who comes to Him in full and complete repentance, the sad truth is that way too many abusers never get to that point. Even if they stop abusing children sexually, they often continue to relate to others with power and control in dysfunctional, abusive ways. This is something I have seen first hand, and it just creates a strong desire in me to see pastors, churches, community leaders, spouses and really, everyone, educated on how to respond with wisdom and great discernment to abuse cases. The victims need help to recover and find healing, the secondary victims need help, and the predator certainly needs help. We can’t ignore anyone in an abuse situation and think we are doing things right. This is too serious of a matter to continue stumbling around as has historically happened!

Rosemarie, thank you for bringing this essay to our attention, and for this discussion. Somehow, I don’t think this is going to be our last interview.