Below is a letter from Jean Barbara, president of the Sword of the Spirit:
To my brothers and sisters in the Sword of the Spirit,
I ask the Holy Spirit to lead me as I write to you today, and as I do my best to keep you up-todate following my letter of June 5. In that letter, I told you that the International Assembly openly discussed at its May meetings the turmoil taking place in some of our communities in North America and Europe resulting from the allegations of serious sexual misconduct and abuse of children by former Servants of the Word Ed Conlin and Jamie Treadwell. As you well know, these cases are currently in litigation in two Michigan courts and are undergoing a process of mediation to settle them. My purpose in this letter is to explain to you the silence of SOS and Servants of the Word leadership during this process.
As I start, however, I want to preface it with a few points:
- No mediated settlement can make up for the horrific damage done to any minor who has been abused. Nothing can restore their childhood, their trust, or their damaged relationships. We who serve on the International Executive Council of SOS don’t pretend that this is the case, and we want to absolutely acknowledge this.
- We, the leaders of SOS, as well as brothers in the Servants of the Word, also want to speak openly about what transpired in these past decades. We look forward to the time when mediation is completed, and this can happen. Both the plaintiffs and members of our communities, especially those in the five communities most affected, must hear an accounting of what happened and what could have been done better. This will first happen when the Independent Review (IR) from Lathrop is completed, which was commissioned by both Servants of the Word and Sword of the Spirit. After that, both organizations will be able to give detailed statements. Mediation is only one step forward in moving ahead in this regard. We hope and expect that it will not be long before the IR report is done, and a full accounting can be made.
I want you to be clear: we in SOS leadership want you to know the truth, as do the Servants of the Word. We know that is what you, our brothers and sisters in SOS, also want.
Why have our leaders in SOS and in the Servants of the Word been silent?
Some of you have rightly asked, “Why have our leaders in SOS and in the Servants of the Word been silent?” This is especially difficult to understand when the plaintiffs have spoken so publicly. I know, my brothers and sisters, that this is a concern that many of you have, and I ask you to be open to the Lord as I offer you my thoughts.
It is my understanding that the mediator, an independent lawyer chosen by the parties and subject to the judges in the cases, has required the parties and their lawyers involved in the mediation to keep the contents of the mediation confidential. That is also the requirement of the Michigan Court Rules. The SOS leaders in the North American Region and the Servants of the Word are abiding by this requirement. In addition, the mediation itself may be impacted by public statements of any of the parties. The Servants of the Word, guided by legal counsel, feel that it is both in the spirit and the letter of the mediation process that they must wait to speak. This is a very real challenge for you, brothers and sisters, and this is a very real challenge for the Servants of the Word as well. The Servants of the Word very much look forward to speaking once mediation is complete and have wanted to do so for a long time.
In addition to the demands of the Mediator and the Michigan Court Rules, the Sword of the Spirit and the Servants of the Word are subject to other restrictions as to what they might say while litigation and mediation is ongoing: 1) our defense lawyers have told us many times not to speak publicly about the lawsuits, 2) our insurance companies demand that we comply with the lawyers’ admonitions, 3) the insurance policies have a requirement that we cooperate with the insurers and the lawyers they assigned to us, under penalty of losing insurance. They have very good reasons for this, based on experience: the lawyers and insurance companies don’t want speech from us that would prevent us from resolving these cases. And of course, the mediation’s confidentiality rules are to provide for good communication within the mediation process and help bring the cases to a just settlement.
I want all of us to remember that all of us in SOS desire the same goals: (1) to have each of our communities be a place of holiness and goodness for all of our members, especially our children; (2) to have strong safeguarding policies that are implemented and monitored well; and (3) to bring into the light any mistakes, failures, or weaknesses in our policies, practices, or oversight in the past. If mistakes were made and they failed to prevent egregious sexual misconduct, we all want this to come into the light and begin to set things right.
Where we may differ is the order of this process. Some feel as if explanations and clear statements of account must come first in order for the other goals to have meaning. I want you to know that I support the leaders of the Servants of the Word and the Sword of the Spirit in the North American Region in their decision to wait to speak publicly until our legal counsel gives the go-ahead. I do not say this lightly or out of any desire to withhold the truth. This is out of respect for the legal process in which we are engaged. For those of you who disagree, I acknowledge that we disagree but ask with humility that we not become divided.
It is the hope of legal counsel in North America that mediation will conclude by early September. The lawyers and leaders within the Servants of the Word and within SOS in North America are working hard to do this, and they believe that all of the parties want the cases to be settled. By God’s grace, the claims of three plaintiffs were resolved earlier this year, and the paperwork for these cases is nearing completion. There are two claims remaining to be mediated. I urge you to pray with me that the Lord would bring mediation to fruition so that further important steps may be taken.
What about the Independent Review being conducted by Lathrop GPM? Why can’t it be resumed now?
The Independent Review has also been delayed greatly by the legal process. In 2020, we (the International Executive Council of the Sword of the Spirit and the Servants of the Word) jointly commissioned an independent external review to provide input on what we need to learn and improve in the area of safeguarding and in our leadership culture. We commissioned this Review at the simultaneous request of some of our member communities and the Servants of the Word. The Review was tasked both to recommend ways for SOS and Servants of the Word to improve safeguarding policies and practices in the future, as well as to identify ways that our safeguarding was insufficient in the past. We hired Lathrop GPM, a firm that has experience in conducting independent reviews in the area of sexual abuse.
The Independent Review has had several starts and stops. Early on, when Jamie Treadwell’s two criminal cases were filed in Grand Rapids, Lathrop was instructed by the prosecuting attorney there to halt the review. Treadwell’s case dragged on because of Covid’s impact on the courts. Eventually, Treadwell pled no contest to a reduced charge in February 2022, and the IR resumed. But only a few months later, the civil suits were filed in Michigan in May 2022. Lathrop GPM recommended that we speak to our legal counsel out of concern that the Independent Review investigation could impact a civil trial. When we spoke to legal counsel in North America, they felt that this was in fact the case, and that it would not be prudent to have the civil suits and the IR taking place at the same time. We agreed with legal counsel, and I, as the International President, asked Lathrop to wait to resume their Review until legal counsel gives us the go-ahead.
This is still my position, especially now, while the civil suits are being mediated in the United States. The plaintiffs in the suits asked SOS in North America to agree to work toward a mediated settlement for each of the cases, a request that the North American Region readily agreed to. Legal counsel in the United States is hopeful that the remaining cases could be successfully mediated by early September, although this is not guaranteed, of course. But successful mediation would open the door to further steps, including the resumption of the Independent Review and the ability for the Servants of the Word to speak publicly.
Brothers and sisters, for some of you, perhaps many of you, this waiting is a heavy burden to bear. No doubt it is an even heavier burden for the survivors. I know that you want to hear the Servants of the Word speak about what they knew and when they knew it. I want to tell you that those Servants of the Word who are defendants in these cases also want to answer those very questions; they are eager to speak to your communities and to various individuals.
I understand that you may disagree with our lawyers’ recommendations. However, until legal counsel in North America approves, I will not agree to resume the Lathrop review.
Some Thoughts about Our History
I know that some of you, brothers and sisters, have had your trust shaken in the leadership of the Servants of the Word and the Sword of the Spirit. I want to remind you that this is not our first great struggle in SOS. Some of you remember the split in the covenant community movement that took place in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. What was this like for many of us?
First of all, for us in Lebanon, we were already in the middle of a civil war. Our community had begun in 1975, the first year that the wars in Lebanon erupted. And throughout these early, war-torn years, our community grew. Then, 1989 and 1990 were the worst of these years. And the wars had a real impact on our children and our families. This was not some far-away struggle – like some of the plaintiffs, these were our children. And through this, somehow, the Lord was our strength. He was faithful to his covenant to us, even in our weakness.
SOS had its struggles in those years as well. SOS’ turmoil in 1988-90 was different than today’s. Leaders were divided by differing visions of covenant community, of ecumenism, and of pastoral care. Today’s turmoil and strained relationships are the heartbreaking consequence of sexual abuse of minors. But both times of struggle strike at the heart of our commitment to the Lord’s call to build covenant community together.
But in the 1990’s, many of us, many of you, stayed the course. And while the 1990’s were a time of grieving the pain of those brothers and sisters who left our communities and healing from the fracture of those relationships, they were also a time of grace and even renewed growth. Through it all, the Lord blessed us immensely. What I am saying is this: God is faithful, even through our trials, even though all of us are sinners, even though we make mistakes. Those of you who weathered these storms know that this is the case.
For you, brothers and sisters, who are younger members in this SOS family, do not let your faith in the Lord or in his call be shaken. Let your anger move you to build just and safe and holy communities, but do not let anger be your primary guide. Do not let anger divide us. Together, we will learn. Together, we will protect. Together, we will refuse to tolerate violations of our safeguarding policies—within any of our communities.
This is why the International Assembly has mandated that every SOS community have a strong safeguarding policy that is monitored and enforced. Many of you already see this in your local communities. Remember: each of us has the responsibility to protect and care for the children in our local communities. Let us not take this responsibility lightly. Read your community’s safeguarding policy. Live it out well. Raise concerns loudly, and at the same time, live wholeheartedly as the Lord has called us. Our weaknesses and sins do not lessen the call of the Lord to love one another. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us in these coming months. We ask you to continue to have mercy and patience as we continue to take steps.
A Final Thought
Brothers and sisters, in this, my last year serving you as International President of SOS, I have two goals:
- I want SOS to be a place of holiness and beauty and safety, especially for children and vulnerable adults. I want us to tolerate no sin, no compromise, not even a hint of wrongdoing in this area. These are our children whom God has entrusted to us. If the Lord is to dwell with us, then we must be holy. I want our SOS house to be clean.
- At the same time, I want all of us to fight for unity between all of our communities and between all of us as brothers and sisters. I want to uphold every community within SOS, and I plead with you to do the same. Especially during this time, I pray for you, and I uphold you, my brothers and sisters in Antioch (London), in Charis (Belfast), in Word of Life (Ann Arbor), in Work of Christ (Lansing), in Light of Christ (Grand Rapids), and you, my brothers in the Servants of the Word. I am committed to all of you. I am covenanted to each of you and to your communities.
I ask all of us who are members of the Sword of the Spirit to take both of these priorities seriously. We must fight to be holy and fight to be one. For all of this, we rely on the Lord’s grace, for “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Sword of the Spirit