A woman stands at the front of a class teaching
Photo courtesy of Val Hiebert

Val Hiebert, program co-coordinator for MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention program and professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba, lectures one of her classes at the University of Manitoba.

Val Hiebert does not have an easy job. As part of MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention program, she speaks publicly about abuse, how to identify its many forms and how to respond to it.

She’s taught about abuse academically for 20 years, educating students at Providence University College and the University of Manitoba on the complexities of the systemic and insidious nature of abuse. And she says in all that time, one thing hasn’t changed.

“It didn't really matter where I spoke, it was guaranteed that afterwards, I would either receive emails or somebody would linger, and come to talk to me about their experience of abuse,” says Hiebert. “Their stories came from everywhere. It can be a kid in a pastor family. It can be spousal-, or partner-related. It's everywhere.”

At every event, every lecture, she’s met people who’ve experienced abuse or realized through what she’s shared that something they’ve experienced has in fact been abuse. When faced with the immense vulnerability of someone sharing that sort of information, Hiebert says the first and best thing to do is the same in every case — believe them.

“For any of us receiving people telling us their stories of harm, the most important thing we have to do is believe them in that moment. Because there are lots of reasons why people don't want to believe victims. What if this got out? And really, are you sure? Because we don't want to believe that about our grandpa, or our pastor, or a brother, we don't want to believe they have done such things. So there's this immediate resistance. And it's really important for us to just take a deep breath and believe them because that's a watershed moment where a step toward healing is possible if we believe them, or adding to their trauma if we don’t.”

A women poses for the camera holding her doctorate degree Val Hiebert poses with her PhD in sociology of religion at a ceremony in September 2022.Photo courtesy of Val Hiebert

Hiebert says she has often found herself at that intersection between research-based information and real people’s experiences and it’s motivated her to find more ways to educate people in and out of the classroom. She says even the seemingly simple act of naming different types of abuse is what causes the “lightbulb moment” for people to recognize that they’ve experienced or observed abuse.

“I’ll name, for example, verbal abuse, or the reality of emotional, psychological or financial abuse,” she says. “When most people hear ‘abuse’ they immediately think either physical or sexual abuse, most of us are familiar with those. But there are all those other ones. And when psychological or emotional abuse is present, the likelihood that the other forms are present is quite high. Not always. But usually abuse types are compounded in any context. So it's hard to always tease them apart. But that's actually many people's “aha” moment.”

And it's really important for us to just take a deep breath and believe them because that's a watershed moment..."

- Val Hiebert, abuse response and prevention program co-coordinator.

Hiebert has worked with church groups to educate pastors on both the role they play to congregation members who’ve experienced abuse and how they can better identify the power structures that lead to abuse within the church.

“Almost all pastors have had experiences of abuse within their congregations. And they’re often not trained to recognize how much internal power everyone grants the pastor. They're usually overworked and overtired and supposed to be everything to everybody. Whatever their training background is, doesn't typically have courses in it that equip them well to deal with abuse, that help them to understand the complexities of domestic violence.”

Hiebert says that, alongside Jaymie Friesen, her counterpart in MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention program, she sees a long runway ahead to increase public awareness of the signs and appropriate responses to abuse.

“It is it is very much a ‘we’ thing,” she says. “We all have to carry greater awareness, we all have to be more willing to say, ‘that seems a bit troubling to me’ versus just, ‘well, that's not my business. It's not my family, and I don't even know those people, so I'm not going to do anything.’”

The success of the abuse response and prevention program has opened more doors for Hiebert and Friesen. In 2023, they’ll be teaching a one-week intensive course through Canadian Mennonite University focused on helping pastors understand their own power and learning to create healthy boundaries for themselves.

“If we had all the money in the world, I’d want to teach this course at every seminary across the country,” says Hiebert.

To learn more about the work of MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention team or to find related resources, visit abuseresponseandprevention.ca.