Mennonites Put Children in Danger By Refusing to Report Sexual Abuse

By Attorney Patrick Noaker

Mt View Mennonite Church - med(February 11, 2016 – Coeur d’Alene, Idaho)  Today, a national group of sexual abuse attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Kansas-based Church of God in Christ (“Holdeman Mennonites”) for endangering Mennonite children by discouraging local churches and leaders from reporting child sexual abuse to law enforcement.

Clayton Peaster, formerly of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, filed a civil sexual abuse lawsuit (Complaint (filed)) with the Kootenai County District Court in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho against Mt. View Mennonite Church, Inc, and its parent organization, Kansas-based Church of God in Christ (Mennonite), commonly known as the Holdeman Mennonites, as well as is adoptive father David Peaster and mother Cynthia Peaster relating to child sexual abuse by David Peaster.  The sexual abuse occurred from 2000 – 2004.  According to the suit, during that period, Mt. View Mennonite Church leaders were informed about the sexual abuse by David Peaster and did not report the sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities.  Instead, church leaders excommunicated the father for two weeks, requiring him to promise to stop the sexual abuse before readmitting him into the Church.  Nothing was done to protect the boy, and the step-father continued to sexually abuse the boy for over a year thereafter.

Starla Toews, a former member and current supporter for those who have been sexually abused in the Holdeman Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada, believes that because of the religious culture, abuse like this is unfortunately all too common and almost never reported to Police.  “The Holdeman Mennonite culture thrives on privacy, secrecy, and building up walls to keep the members inside and the world on the outside.  Because being separate from the world is such an important part of this religion, when abuse like this happens, everything is handled internally.   Instead of this abuse being treated as a crime, which would involve the outside world, it is treated as a sin.  We see the results of that here.  The perpetrator pleads for forgiveness, the leadership readmits him, and then the perpetrator continues to work his evil, sexually molesting this child under the protection of the Church.  What about protecting the child?”

Pointing to similar incidents nationally, Clayton Peaster’s attorneys claim that putting Mennonite children in peril by refusing to report sexual abuse is common for Holdeman Mennonite Churches. The first incident that is strikingly similar to the current matter involves Kenneth Duncalfe, who was convicted of sexually abusing his daughter Susan Duncalfe in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada.  Both Kenneth and Susan Duncalfe were members of the Abbotsford Mennonite Church of God in Christ in Abbotsford.  During the investigation in the criminal prosecution, investigators learned that the leaders at the Abbotsford Church were aware of the sexual abuse, but never reported it to law enforcement authorities.  At Kenneth Duncalfe’s sentencing, Judge John Lenaghan blasted Abbotsford Mennonite church leaders, stating “They have known about the sexual abuse of this young woman for 18 years and did nothing about it.”  According to Susan Duncalfe, the Abbotsford Church handled the report according to its internal policies and practices.  Instead of reporting the sexual abuse to law enforcement officials,  “My father was excommunicated from the church and then reaccepted a couple weeks later, and it was never talked about.”  The Abbotsford Mennonite Church of God in Christ is a member church of the national Holdeman Mennonite Church.

A second incident involves a minister for the El Campo Mennonite Church in El Campo, Texas, who was arrested for and ultimately convicted of the crime of failing to report child sexual abuse involving a 14-year-old girl who attended his church and who was sexually abused by her father.  According to the police reports relating to the incident, when the minister was asked by police investigators why he refused to report the sexual abuse to police, he stated because he was “Mennonite.”  The El Campo Mennonite Church is a member church of the national Holdeman Mennonite Church.

Nationally recognized Constitutional lawyer and professor, Marci Hamilton, voiced significant legal concerns with the national Holdeman Mennonite’s alleged practices.  According to Hamilton, “While this religion’s emphasis on not conforming to the world, and forgiving those who have repented for their sins is protected by the First Amendment, shielding predators so they can continue to sexually molest children is certainly not constitutionally protected and cannot ever be accepted.  Everyone, including leaders of churches and religious organizations, must abide by child-protection laws that require reporting of childhood sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities.  There is no religious exception to mandatory reporting and criminal laws that require such reporting.  There is no Constitutional right to protect sexual predators”

Patrick Noaker, one of Clayton’s other nationally recognized sex abuse attorneys, said: “It is tragic that the national Holdeman Mennonite Church maintains a practice that puts Mennonite children at risk to be victimized by sexual predators.  Religious churches and schools should be places where children are safe from harm, not places that protect sexual predators.”  Noaker added “What happened in this case is exactly why professionally-trained law enforcement should investigate reports of childhood sexual abuse.  These Church Leaders were woefully uninformed about child predators, apparently believing that internal religious practices would cure the perpetrator.  Unfortunately for the young Clayton Peaster, that is not how sexual predators work.”

“This case is very upsetting,” said Coeur d’Alene attorney Craig Vernon, “the Church could have easily protected Clayton from the ongoing sexual abuse.  However, instead of protecting the child and reporting this abuse to Police, the Church announced to the congregation that this dangerous predator had repented and should be forgiven.  Tragically, after the Church readmitted David Peaster, he continued sexually abusing Clayton for about another year.  The shame is not his; it is theirs.”

Coeur d’Alene attorney Lee James states: “Clayton’s decision to go public with his story is a courageous act that will help other survivors, especially those abused in the Mennonite Church. He’s helping to de-stigmatize the shame that many survivors carry with them.”

“What is scary,” James added, “is this alleged predator has still not faced justice.  We believe he was excommunicated for two weeks, then pronounced by the leadership as repentant, clean and fit to interact with children.  While his victims have suffered, the alleged predator remains in good standing in his Church and has never been criminally prosecuted.”

Attorney Craig Vernon added “Readmitting a predator after only two weeks, tells us that the focus on forgiving the predator over protecting the child was misguided. This is why our complaint includes a list of non-monetary demands that focus on requiring the Church to have policies and procedures that protect children and not predators.  We not only want justice for Clayton, we want basic protections for all children.”

CLICK BELOW FOR:

Complaint

Photograph of Mt. View Mennonite Church [Size: 1.8 M  ]

Photograph of the Mt. View Mennonite School [Size: 1.7 M ]

Photograph of the Peaster Home [Size: 3 M ]

All photographs are original and taken by James, Vernon & Weeks, P.A. James, Vernon & Weeks grants permission to any media outlet or social media to reprint or otherwise use these photographs.

PRESS CONFERENCE INFORMATION:

WHAT:           Press Conference where Clayton Peaster, formerly of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and his attorneys will discuss a civil sexual abuse lawsuit filed with the Kootenai County District Court on Thursday, February 11, 2016, against Mt. View Mennonite Church, Inc, and its parent organization, Kansas-based Church of God in Christ (Mennonite) commonly known as the Holdeman Mennonites, adoptive father David Peaster and mother Cynthia Peaster relating to child sexual abuse by David Peaster, from 2000 – 2004.

WHEN:           Thursday, February 11, 2016 at 3:00 pm Pacific

WHERE:         Law Firm of James, Vernon & Weeks P.A.

1626 Lincoln Way

Coeur d’Alene, ID  83814

WHO:             Plaintiff Clayton Peaster and attorneys Leander James, Craig Vernon and Minneapolis-based attorney Patrick Noaker

NOTE:           Telephone interviews of Clayton Peaster or any of the attorneys can be arranged by calling Craig Vernon, Cell:  (208) 691-2768, cvernon@jvwlaw.net

About Hamilton James:

Hamilton James is a national team of the nation’s leading lawyers in the field of child sex abuse.

Photo_Hamilton_Aqua_5_1_14Professor Marci A. Hamilton is one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars and holds the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, where she specializes in church/state issues and the dynamics of child sex abuse in institutional settings.  Professor Hamilton is an author and lecturer on the protection of vulnerable children from institutions and a national leader and advocate for legislative reform – particularly statutes of limitation reform through her website, www.sol-reform.com – for the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Professor Hamilton is the author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge University Press 2008, 2012); God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005, 2007); and the co-editor of Fundamentalism, Politics, and the Law (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).  She is currently a bi-monthly columnist for www.justia.com and was a bi-monthly columnist for www.findlaw.com for ten years.  She has been a visiting professor at Princeton University, New York University School of Law, Emory University School of Law, and the Princeton Theological Seminary.Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, where she specializes in church/state issues and the dynamics of child sex abuse in institutional settings.  Professor Hamilton is an author and lecturer on the protection of vulnerable children from institutions and a national leader and advocate for legislative reform – particularly statutes of limitation reform through her website, www.sol-reform.com – for the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Professor Hamilton clerked for Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the United States Supreme Court after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School; the Graduate School of Pennsylvania State University; and Vanderbilt University.  She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Order of the Coif.

She is on the Advisory Boards of numerous organizations, including the National Crime Victims Center, MaleSurvivor, and justice4pakids.  She has been honored as one of Pennsylvania’s Women of the Year; received the National Crime Victim Bar Association’s Frank Carrington Champion of Civil Justice Award; the E. Nathaniel Gates Award for outstanding public advocacy and scholarship; and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Pro Bono Legal Service to veterans groups, presented by the Air Force Association, the National Association of Uniformed Services, and CORMV.

Leander James PhotoAttorney Leander James IV   is a founding shareholder of James, Vernon & Weeks, P.A. He has extensive experience in civil trial work, achieving large settlements and verdicts. He represents sexual abuse survivors, the catastrophically injured and business and property owners in serious disputes. Mr. James was a principal architect of the $166 million dollar Northwest Jesuit settlement and his cases have established appellate law. His practice is state, regional and national in scope.  Mr. James is the past President of the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association, and is currently President of the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association Foundation, Inc. He is an appointed Chair on the Idaho State Bar Professional Conduct Board. In 2011 the Bar awarded Mr. James the prestigious Service Award for his public service.

craig_vernon PhotoAttorney Craig Vernon has extensive experience in civil litigation, obtaining high-end settlements and verdicts in cases ranging from defective products/dangerous drugs, medical malpractice and sex abuse cases.  Mr. Vernon was raised and educated in Idaho, obtaining his law degree from the University of Idaho in 1996.  Mr. Vernon was a Langroise Scholarship recipient and selected as a National Moot Court Competitor.   Mr. Vernon has proudly represented hundreds of sexual abuse survivors in state and federal courts in Idaho, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington and Hawaii.  These cases have mostly involved claims against powerful religious and other organizations that failed to protect children from sexual abuse by their leaders or members.

Noaker-Patrick - medFor 25 years, Attorney Patrick Noaker has represented clients in courtrooms and arbitrations across the country.  Patrick loves to go to court.  Patrick has represented hundreds of sexual abuse survivors in cases across the United States.  Patrick is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum for winning multiple jury trial verdicts exceeding $1M and for winning millions more in settlements (Diocese of Kansas City $10M settlement, Diocese of Davenport Bankruptcy settlement $37M). Patrick has also been selected by his peers as a Minnesota SuperLawyer. Patrick is  a former Death Penalty Attorney who conducted a number of trials involving charges of first-degree murder.  No matter what, Patrick will aggressively fight for you to achieve justice.

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