By Sara Wenger Shenk, President
As AMBS President, I speak on behalf of the Sexual Misconduct Response Team (SMRT) and the AMBS Board Chair to affirm Hilary Scarsella in her decision to publish her account of a sexual assault she experienced in 2009 while a student at AMBS and of AMBS’s administrative response. Further, while this incident happened before my time at AMBS, I speak now on behalf of AMBS as an institution and the administrators who were directly involved at the time of the assault. Thank you, Hilary, for daring to disclose the truth of your experience at great personal risk. And thank you for inviting AMBS to provide an official response.
In March 2018, Hilary contacted me and asked that AMBS revisit our administrative response to the assault by another student that she experienced in 2009. She stated that what followed her reporting of the assault “was problematic and contributed considerably to the immediate and long term trauma [she] experienced as a result of the assault.” She didn’t ask AMBS to review the original assault but rather to review our institutional administrative response. She and I negotiated a process, and I formed the SMRT to work with me internally over the past year.
When Hilary shared her narrative report of the assault and AMBS’s administrative response with the SMRT in December 2018, we responded to her to say: “We are humbled and sobered that you entrusted us with the raw story of your violation. Thank you for your transparent vulnerability, precise attention to detail and thoughtful self-examination throughout. Your remarkable care to provide a fair, self-aware and empathetic account shows up over and over. While we expect that others may offer perspectives from their experience that provide a somewhat different picture of what transpired, all three members of our team find your account credible. We believe you. We believe that a friend you trusted violated your trust and your body in a way that could appropriately be called rape.”
After receiving Hilary’s report, the SMRT interviewed the two administrators mentioned in the narrative and provided reports back to Hilary. While only one administrator had direct conversations with Hilary about the assault, both administrators apologized in person to Hilary in early June 2019, expressing their deep sorrow and regret that they didn’t recognize that she was a victim of sexual assault, encourage her to file a formal report, assure her that she wasn’t at fault, and help her understand her legal options.
When this sexual assault happened in 2009, we as an institution were not adequately prepared to helpfully respond to incidents of sexual harassment or assault. We had not equipped or adequately prepared persons in leadership to recognize the signs of trauma in victims of sexual assault. We didn’t provide clear, accessible channels or mechanisms to administrators or to students for officially reporting an assault or for victim and assailant to receive a fair and timely review of what occurred. Nor did we have in place a clear process for holding an assailant accountable or to bring into question the appropriateness of an assailant’s continuing as an AMBS student.
We acknowledge now, with profound sorrow, that our lack of preparedness as an institution significantly exacerbated Hilary’s trauma. We also acknowledge with sharp regret that our lack of understanding of what occurred meant the perpetrator was allowed to graduate, never having had to acknowledge the depth of the harm he had done or be held accountable.
We again thank Hilary for her bravery in sharing her experience and for her courage in inviting AMBS to review the ways we as an institution do and don’t provide a safe environment for our students. As we shared with Hilary during this process, our AMBS learning community has done serious institutional work over the last eight years to enhance our preparedness and vigilance for detecting and guarding against sexual misconduct and abuse. Key administrators and faculty significantly rewrote our sexual misconduct and grievance policies and received substantial training. We provide annual, mandatory educational events for all employees and students regarding sexual misconduct and drug and alcohol abuse prevention. We still have considerable work to do, however, to further revise our policies so they become more accessible and appropriate for victims of sexual harassment and violence in particular, which we are committed to do.
As AMBS’s current President, and on behalf of this both wonderful and flawed institution, I apologize that this seminary failed in our use of the power entrusted to us.
I express my profound remorse to you, Hilary, for how we as the AMBS community exacerbated your pain by failing to recognize your pleas for help.
I am sorry that trusted leaders were not adequately equipped to respond in ways that you as a victim of sexual assault needed.
I am sorry that we failed to read the signs of your trauma and to intervene on your behalf in ways that would have provided some measure of comfort and restoration for you.
I am sorry that we failed to hold the assailant accountable for his sexually violent behavior.
I’m sorry that through our lack of attentiveness, our lack of adequate policies and procedures, and our ignorance, we betrayed you and increased your isolation.
We failed to exercise the moral authority that was our sacred responsibility on your behalf—and on behalf of other members of our learning community.
What wounded you, whether intentionally as a sexual assault or unintentionally as neglect of administrative vigilance, was grievously wrong. It should never have happened. We failed you. We failed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Kyrie eleison.
Hilary Scarsella’s initial account is posted at www.ourstoriesuntold.com/and-then-i-died/
Her follow-up piece is available at www.ourstoriesuntold.com/hope-and-the-work-that-gets-us-there/
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