Into Account Organizational Statement Regarding Tom Harder clergy Sexual Misconduct
Stephanie Krehbiel, PhD
Pastor Tom Harder Charged with ministerial Sexual Misconduct
As the Executive Director of Into Account, I was disturbed to learn recently that in 2011, Western District Conference (Mennonite Church USA) pastor Tom Harder engaged in clergy sexual misconduct toward a 22-year-old college woman 30 years his junior.
The details of this case were particularly troubling to me, both because Into Account has worked with a number of survivors within Western District Conference (WDC), and because Into Account staff recently consulted for a Mennonite committee of which Tom Harder was a member.
While we never worked with Harder directly, he had an uncomfortable proximity to the projects on which we were consulted. When we found out the details of what he, a credentialed pastor in good standing within Mennonite Church USA, had done, we felt betrayed and disgusted.
My hope is that readers will understand how his behavior was minimized, and how the indicators that his behavior was potentially part of a pattern were systematically ignored.
I’m grateful to our colleagues at Mennonite Abuse Prevention (MAP) for working diligently with the original complainant in this case and uncovering the details of Harder’s behavior. Because of the complainant’s determination to advocate for truth-telling, and because of MAP’s work, I can summarize Harder’s abuse and the institutional response to it here. My hope is that readers will understand how his behavior was minimized, and how the indicators that his behavior was potentially part of a pattern were systematically ignored.
Culture of Silence
The MAP posting on Harder demonstrates how a culture of silence enabled his narcissistic and manipulative tendencies and magnified their impact. Harder was given more power over time, sometimes by people unaware of his past abuse, on the recommendations of people who did know but either stayed silent or dissembled about its severity. One consequence of this, as it concerned my colleagues and me, is that Harder came to be seated on a binational committee and was able to be part of conversations about how Mennonites should faithfully respond to sexualized violence perpetrated by spiritual leaders–without ever disclosing his own history of sexual misconduct.
On February 4, MAP reached out to Into Account with a request for our professional help analyzing documentation of Harder’s sexual misconduct charge, subsequent “accountability” process, and “restoration,” which they obtained from Western District Conference in accordance with the complainant’s request. In the time since then, as part of our consulting agreement with MAP, I have read the entirety of that documentation.
A Recognizable Grooming Pattern
The complainant in Pastor Tom Harder’s misconduct case was a 22-year-old woman college student whom Harder met on a January 2011 church-sponsored group trip to Israel and Palestine, then targeted through a series of increasingly coercive and sexualized Facebook messages and emails in late January-early February 2011, only stopping when she demanded that he cease contact and reported his behavior to WDC officials.
No qualified expert in the mechanics and patterns of grooming and clerical sexual abuse would hesitate to identify Harder’s behavior towards this 22-year-old as sexually predatory.
My simple conclusion after reading the documented correspondence between Harder and his 22-year-old target is this: no qualified expert in the mechanics and patterns of grooming and clerical sexual abuse would hesitate to identify Harder’s behavior towards this 22-year-old as sexually predatory. His messages to her included informing her multiple times that he had a crush on her, ignoring her attempts to redirect the conversation, using persistent innuendo to suggest sexual possibilities without stating them outright, expressing jealousy of her romantic partners, subtly denigrating his wife to her, and repeatedly engaging in the kind of inappropriately intimate oversharing that is a distinguishing characteristic of grooming for clerical sexual abuse.
To me, reading as a scholar of gender-based violence and a victim advocate who has seen scores of such predatory communications over the course of my career, Harder’s correspondence with his intended target clearly demonstrates strategy, forethought, and manipulative intent. Sexually predatory grooming is not a behavior that people fall into by accident, especially not people who are fifty-three years old.
Focusing on Restoration, Choosing to Cover Up
The documentation of Harder’s WDC-led disciplinary process shows that Harder’s behavior was evaluated by friends and fellow pastors who did not seriously consider the possibility of permanently removing his credentials. These documents suggest that Harder’s “restoration” was the desired outcome.
I even learned that one of the individuals who served on Harder’s “accountability group” was himself a pastor who was found responsible for pastoral sexual misconduct and subsequently “restored.”
Harder’s behavior was evaluated by friends and fellow pastors who did not seriously consider the possibility of permanently removing his credentials. These documents suggest that Harder’s “restoration” was the desired outcome.
In August 2012, WDC Leadership Commission, chaired by Eugene Thieszen, voted to “restore” Harder’s credentials, judging that he had “fully engaged a process of accountability.” Functionally speaking, Harder’s “restoration” appears to include the expectation that Harder will be indefinitely protected by church officials from subsequent transparency about his sexually abusive treatment of a very young woman, even in potential employment situations and volunteer positions that would put him into contact with other young women.
Silence is a Choice
For instance: the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee formed in 2016 through a collaboration of MennoMedia, Mennonite Church USA, and Mennonite Church Canada. Amy Gingerich, the Executive Director and representative for MennoMedia, reported to me, “The application process for committee appointment was designed collaboratively by myself representing MennoMedia, Terry Shue representing MC USA, and Karen Martens Zimmerly representing MC Canada.” Gingerich, Shue, and Zimmerly together chose the committee members based on applications and references.
Due to his then-position as Denominational Minister of MC USA, we know now that Shue was aware of Harder’s sexual misconduct charge in 2016, but did not share that information with Gingerich, either before or after they selected Harder to serve on the committee. Several of the church professionals who recommended Harder for the committee also had this knowledge, and said nothing.
Multiple credible sources have confirmed to Into Account that WDC Conference Minister Heidi Regier Kreider wrote one of these 2016 recommendations, making no mention of Harder’s sexual misconduct history despite her official knowledge of it.
These silences are choices, and choices like this, made over and over, are the definition of a coverup.
These silences are choices, and choices like this, made over and over, are the definition of a coverup. Silence deceives by omission, and indicates a motive that we’ve observed throughout the official responses to Harder’s sexual misconduct: a consistent unwillingness to entertain the possibility that his sexualized abuse of his ministerial power in the past could have any bearing on how he should be allowed to use that power in the present, and a refusal to consider the human cost should their judgment be in error.
Hiding a History of Sexual Misconduct Has Material Impacts
Gingerich reported to me that she had no knowledge of Pastor Harder’s misconduct history before an email she received on December 14, 2020, from Dr. Carolyn Holderread Heggen, the author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches. Heggen, a psychotherapist specializing in sexual abuse, advised the complainant in 2011. Knowing well that Harder had preyed sexually on a young person, Heggen was taken aback to see him appear in a Voices Together dedication Zoom event.
To Gingerich’s knowledge, no other member of the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee was aware of Harder’s sexual misconduct history, either. The committee members included a number of young women.
In the course of their work on the Voices Together hymnal, the committee had to discern responses to sexual abuse allegations against two relevant individuals: composer David Haas, and Mennonite scholar and author John Rempel. While Harder participated in that discernment alongside his fellow committee members, he did not disclose his own sexual misconduct history, despite its glaring relevance to the subject at hand. Neither, apparently, did any of the church officials who would have been in the position to do so.
After receiving Heggen’s December 14 email, Gingerich immediately reached out to Michael Danner, Associate Executive Director of Church Vitality of Mennonite Church USA, Kreider, and Harder himself. Harder has subsequently resigned from the committee.
Silence Continues as Into Account Consulted
Into Account entered into this story on June 2020, when the general editor of the Voices Together hymnal contacted us to ask about our work with survivors who experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by the composer David Haas. The contact led to a fruitful discussion with the Voices Together editors, who subsequently decided to remove Haas’s songs from their upcoming hymnal, after consulting with the full editorial committee.
Then in fall 2020, Dr. Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Into Account’s Director of Theological Integrity, collaborated with MennoMedia and several members of the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee (not including Harder) to create a resource entitled “Show Strength: How to Respond when Worship Materials are Implicated in Abuse.” Only after that collaboration was completed did we learn that Tom Harder was allowed to serve on the MWS committee without his colleagues being made aware that he had a history of sexually misusing his ministerial power.
Tom Harder was allowed to serve on the MWS committee without his colleagues being made aware that he had a history of sexually misusing his ministerial power.
We learned that Harder had no role in the “Show Strength” resource. In terms of our ability as an organization to recommend that resource without reservations, this news was a relief. However, nothing else that we’ve learned about this case in the time since then has reassured us that Harder should still be a pastor, and that knowledge weighs heavily.
The Harm of WDC’s Administrative Failures is Ongoing
There has still been no formal acknowledgment, by Harder or any Mennonite church official, that putting Harder on a binational denominational committee with no disclosure of his past sexual misconduct was harmful, unethical, and flat-out wrong. The committee’s work became directly relevant to questions of how and when and why abusers should or should not be part of shaping denominational worship practices. The well-intentioned people who took on the complicated project of that discernment deserved better than to be thrown into unknowing collaboration with a perpetrator of clergy sexual misconduct.
Putting Harder on a binational denominational committee with no disclosure of his past sexual misconduct was harmful, unethical, and flat-out wrong.
As the advocate who has worked the most closely with the dozens of reported survivors of David Haas’s horrific sexual violence, learning from MAP that Harder was still programming Haas’s music at his church this past December infuriated me. When I then read Harder’s messages to his young target, my fury turned to an uncanny and nauseating sense of violation, for I’d read many similar communications written by Haas to the women who reported his abuse to me. The circumstances had little to do with me personally, but the intensity of my response was a symptom of a far wider betrayal.
I’ve heard a number of minimizations of Harder’s behavior over the past few months. It was “a misunderstanding,” “not sexual,” “just a Facebook comment.” If you’ve heard or shared these minimizations, I encourage you to read MAP’s entire post on Harder, including all the attached documentation and analysis. Mennonites who value Harder’s ministry deserve to know that his actions were not a “wrinkle” or a “slip.” They were sexually predatory, they were deeply harmful to the young person who reported them before they got even worse, and the choice to conceal and minimize them is an affront to basic principles of abuse prevention.