In Polite Company [sarahstankorb.substack.com]
June 9, 2023
By Sarah Stankorb
A long history of abuse at Hesston College demands recognition and answers
In 1930, at a revival meeting, a pastor named Maurice “M.A.” Yoder asked a 27-year-old woman named Ruth Bender to confess her sins. She described what her father D.H. Bender would later admit to as “fornication” with Ruth when she was a teen.
At the time she spoke up, Ruth was teaching French and Latin at Hesston College, a Mennonite school in Kansas. Her father was the founding president of the college.
Yoder went on to make Ruth’s confession public.
D.H. Bender was called before the Mennonite Board of Education, which didn’t buy D.H. Bender’s claim that there was only one rape, “during a Kansas thunderstorm.” The abuse had continued for some time.
In August 1930, Bender lost his ministerial credentials and was excommunicated by Hesston Mennonite Church. But that same day, the congregation heard Bender’s confession and reaccepted him. Ruth was forced to acknowledge her “participation” in the act and to express sorrow and “beg the sympathy and prayers of the brethren.”
There had been a plan for Ruth to keep her teaching job, but the college saw declines in enrolment due to the scandal surrounding Bender’s confession. According to a history of sexually abusive leaders at Hesston compiled by Mennonite Abuse Prevention (MAP), Yoder, the pastor who took Ruth’s initial confession, thought the school should “quietly take Ruth out” to protect the school. Some prominent townspeople objected “with some little vengeance” that Ruth continued teaching. Despite support from the school faculty and Mennonite Board of Education, she was fired.
The college sent a letter to supporters, asking for continued backing for Hesston. Bender and his wife had moved far west, they explained. The source of the problem had moved along. College leaders remaining on campus were left with rumors they wanted to dispel and the responsibility to keep the school going. A committee, including Yoder (also business manager for Hesston), would temporarily be filling in the president’s role.
Ruth moved east and would become an expert in the field of deaf education, earning a PhD at Case Western Reserve University, where she became a clinical professor of speech pathology and audiology. She never married and passed away in 1998.
Almost a century after her story became public, Hesston would still honor Bender on the school’s website as among the “Founders Quartet.” It took roughly a century after Bender’s abuse of Ruth, ongoing pressure from students, and a 2023 external report of modern-day sexual abuse mishandling at Hesston for Bender’s portrait to finally be taken down.
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Weeks ago, I shared a story from Hesston College, a small, Mennonite campus grappling with an external investigation that showed a history of mishandling reports of sexual abuse and gender-based violence. In the final weeks of term, I reported on faculty in the process of resigning, students ready to abandon the college, and advocates frustrated and disbelieving that reforms recommended by external investigators would actually be implemented.
I’ve stayed in touch with advocates, and action on reform since the report has been unclear, but appears to be resulting in a task force. Meanwhile, Hesston College’s Joseph Manickam nudged reporters from Anabaptist World out of a public board meeting, citing a lack of seats (although seats were available). He attempted a similar excuse with faculty at the same meeting, but the faculty refused.
Over this time, MAP has worked to complete a history of sexual abuse at Hesston College.
It’s a wrenching document. For example, MAP describes receiving multiple reports spanning six decades that Lowell Byler, a music professor at Hesston, sexually assaulted and abused young women and children for years. One of his victims, who had been an elementary student when she was first abused, confessed what she understood as her own sin at an evangelistic meeting. She was called into the office of then-Hesston president Roy Roth and was questioned by Roth, Myron Augsburger (who had led the evangelistic meeting) and another man.
Byler moved on, only to return to teach at Hesston for a decade. Once he was ready to move to Eastern Mennonite College in 1973, Augsburger was that college’s president. Byler later went on to teach at three other colleges.
In 2012, Hesston planned to honor Byler at a homecoming event, but a family member of the girl who had reported to Augsburger years prior spoke up to college leaders about Byler’s abuse history. Hesston uninvited Byler, drafting two sets of talking points to explain why (initially citing Byler’s health instead of the allegations). In 2017 and when Byler was 87, according to information gathered by MAP from Byler’s church then, he was credibly accused of assaulting a 16-year-old girl.
Those details alone suggest how predatory behavior can continue on to new locations and new victims if not checked.
MAP’s history similarly details how in the 1990s a Hesston board member learned another faculty member, David Rhodes, had reportedly sexually assaulted multiple former male students. The board member, Carolyn Heggen, happened to be a Mennonite psychotherapist and author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches. Heggen reported the allegations to Hesston’s president Kirk Alliman, who she says assured her Rhodes was being treated by a therapist who had deemed him safe to work with students. Heggen fact-checked this and learned the therapist had “told President Alliman no such thing.” Heggen resigned the board. Rhodes resigned six months later, with praise from the incoming interim president, Jim Mininger. Years later, when Mininger was president of Lithuania Christian College, he hired Rhodes as fine arts coordinator at that college, despite knowing his history of abuse. According to MAP, Rhodes also went on to take high school students on international choir tours.
The year after Rhodes resigned, Hesston formed a Sexual Misconduct Policy Task Force. One member of the task force was Dwight Roth. Years later, in 2021, a Hesston alum reported she’d been taken advantage of sexually by Roth in 1977; Roth insisted he’d had consent and was in love with the woman. When the allegations surfaced in 2021, Roth and his wife claimed the woman sharing her account was committing “elder abuse” by doing so.
Dean of Students Hubert Brown, who had coordinated with the Sexual Misconduct Policy Task Force, later resigned in 1995 due to his abuse of college students earlier that decade.
The task force did issue a policy statement defining sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault, along with a procedure for handling reports.Subscribe
In 2016, Hesston convened another task force, this one focused on sexual misconduct and interpersonal safety. The results were presented to incoming president Manickam and included a recommendation for installing a physical memorial, publicly naming offenders, and taking down names and portraits of those offenders. Manickam committed to implementing those recommendations by 2018.
It took until 2021, for faculty receive a message that the memorial was finally under construction with a dedication ceremony planned after completion.
But by 2022, students were frustrated enough with ongoing mishandling of reports of sexual assault on campus—and a sense that they were not safe—that they reached out to advocacy organization Into Account. I wrote previously about their walkout and demands, including the external investigation that has set five pages of new recommendations for Hesston.
Those recommendations include employing restorative approaches to students whose reports were not resolved, prevention and training, publicizing reporting options, a lengthy list of reforms to the Title IX office, and establishing a multi-disciplinary committee to ensure the reforms are made. Manickam and the board committed to taking those steps “without reservation.”
While many faculty have now resigned, MAP reached out to Hesston board president Ken G. Kabria and Manickam only to learn the college was in a holding pattern, waiting for new Title IX guidance. Manickam explained that he hoped to soon announce a leader for yet another task force and an external firm to help guide the college. MAP staff continued pressing for a meeting at which, MAP executive director Jason Miller noted, Manickam took responsibility for the failure to complete some elements of the 2017 task force recommendations.
Although in 2019 the college had announced an effort to establish transparent policies around misconduct and information sharing, according to MAP, “the college still does not seem to have such a policy in place.” Manickam could not give solid answers as to what the college would do to acknowledge past abuse. “We’re an evolving institution,” he said.
Miller, from MAP, met with Manickam and two members of Hesston’s board for an hour and a half. He reflects that “They said a lot, but none of it resembled what I would call a plan. The only thing they seem to have decided is that they’re going to have this group of people who are going to do something.” He adds, “They don’t know what the group is called, they don’t know who is in the group, and they don’t know what the group is going to do. But it’s going to solve all the problems. And that’s the plan that is supposed to reassure the rest of us that they are taking this very seriously.”
The Community Healing Circle, the physical memorial for sexual abuse survivors, still has not been dedicated. After all the delays in completing that sign of care for survivors, MAP pressed what the meaning of it actually is—just a generic, “Mistakes were made?”
According to MAP, Manickam explained “It is for survivors, but it’s also for someone like me… I too have feelings. I too have been hurt… It’s also for me as president. It’s also there for our vice presidents. Because we can’t forget this stuff, we don’t forget this stuff. And this stuff hurts us at a deep level.”
Hesston leaders assured MAP that they would make attempts to rectify the situation, but these are old patterns that are difficult to break. There is still not even a solid plan for dedicating the Community Healing Circle. Manickam assured the board in May that he and the new task force leader, along with an external firm, would identify their tasks and be ready by the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year to “start working on implementation of new policies, practices, and procedures.” Now the leader for the task force has been named, but she is not even on contract with Hesston over the summer, thus making the odds of a successful rollout by fall dubious.
I asked Miller from MAP, given the history at Hesston, what a true process of reconciliation and culture change demands of this moment. “For me, the very first step would require all college leaders to start speaking accurately and honestly. All leaders would need to be willing to speak clearly and stand by their words,” he told me. I’ve heard mounting frustration around Hesston that emails and communication ostensibly from Hesston leadership are actually crafted by Chicago-based Mackey Strategies, which lists Hesston as a client on the firm’s website. Real reconciliation would mean having leaders willing to speak directly and for themselves, Miller explains. “No alternative definitions for what it means to ‘name and acknowledge.’ No PR-crafted statements deceptively sent as if written by individuals. No obfuscation and false claims of transparency,” Miller adds. Without that foundation, he believes “there can’t be an acknowledgment of facts, true listening to survivors, a discussion of responsibility, or any talk of justice or reconciliation.”
Miller sees some desire to move that direction within Hesston’s board, “but I don’t see any way that can happen as long as President Manickam is in charge. The culture of fear, survival, and institutional protection is deeply ingrained at Hesston College.”
How does a person, let alone an institution, heal without great, painful residence in the truth?
Ruth Bender was a woman who deserved help—not rejection and shame. Almost a century on, people are fighting for open, plainspoken acknowledgment of the wrongs done to her and far too many others on Hesston’s campus. Students, faculty, advocates, and now legal experts have tried to help spell out a path that could honor her memory and the truth embedded in allegations hushed or talked around for decades.
In 1926, a few years before Ruth Bender opened up about what her father had done to her, the then-Hesston College student gave a talk on “forgetting.” She won a first-place award for it.
After detailing all this difficult, necessary history, MAP points back to Ruth’s words: “We learned that we forget things either because we never really knew or else we really did not want to remember.”
Hesston College cannot avoid knowing its history now. The coming months will show the college’s true dedication to learning from it or whether again, its leaders will try to forget.Subscribe
NOTE TO READERS: I’ve decided to make this piece free to all, rather than placing it behind a paywall, as I did for the first piece on Hesston College. Paid subscriptions help support the time it takes to research and report for stories like these and others—raising voices that might not get coverage elsewhere. To those of you who are paid subscribers, thank you. And to everyone, thank you for reading and sharing. We all have a part to play here. Please know that you’ve helped some students, faculty, staff, and advocates who felt unheard have an outlet to share their experiences.