When Sexual Abuse Comes to Light

How a generation of children, sexually abused overseas, aims to protect others before it happens.

Survivors need to know that their denomination or mission organization is taking steps to prevent abuse. They also need the organization to acknowledge and accept responsibility, said Beverly Shellrude Thompson, president of MK Safety Net and a Mamou survivor. They need their perpetrator brought to justice in a criminal court and kept away from children. They need enough money for continuing therapy, and they need help with their families, she said.

 

 

When Teresa Lea’s parents signed up with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) to become missionaries in Africa in the 1970s, they sent 5-year-old Teresa to boarding schools in Gabon and Ivory Coast. She spent 12 years there, learning how to add, read—and, if she wanted to eat, perform oral sex.

When Lea tried to tell her parents of the abuse, the school authorities told her parents she had an overactive imagination. Disbelieved by her parents, Lea didn’t mention the abuse again until she was an adult. Lea went to therapy, ended her marriage, and changed her career. She slowly began to heal. In the process, she found other adult missionary kids (MKs) doing the same thing, in part by attending the first-ever interdenominational conference for MK abuse survivors.

For too long, the abuse of missionary children was hidden or dismissed as “false memory.” No longer. Rich Darr, who survived physical and emotional abuse at the CMA’s Mamou school in West Africa, said abuse there was rampant in the 1950s through the early 1970s. “Far from being an isolated incident in the CMA, abuse was going on at many of their boarding schools,” Darr said. “As the Mamou Alliance Academy case was coming into the open, we heard many reports of similar abuses from Alliance boarding schools such as Quito Alliance, Sentani, Indonesia; Bongolo School, Gabon; Zamboanga School, Philippines; Dalat, Malaysia; and more.”

The CMA wasn’t the only Christian organization facing accusations. An independent investigation found New Tribes Mission MKs suffered sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse at the hands of 12 adults at its Fanda boarding school in Senegal. MKs at a Presbyterian Church (USA) boarding school and a Methodist-Presbyterian hostel in the Congo were also abused, according to an independent inquiry.

In addition to survivors now speaking more openly about their abuse, many Christian institutions have prioritized abuse recovery and prevention. But the most significant changes are among the survivors. As a group, survivors are becoming more proactive, with many systematically pushing for awareness, reforms, new policies, and better laws.

Religion Gone Bad

Ongoing support for abused MKs is mostly at the grassroots, said Moody Bible Institute professor and abuse survivor Andrew J. Schmutzer. Victims typically find each other online, through websites and Facebook.

“It’s very much a ground-up movement,” he said. “It’s an imperfect and inefficient way. But what other alternative is there? We know our websites, we know the agencies and denominations that are doing a good job, and we’re networking with them.” Abuse of MKs, which began surfacing in the late 1980s, is still happening, he said. “We don’t have statistics on prevalence rates. Obviously, the human heart hasn’t changed.”

It doesn’t hurt to have leading evangelicals talk about their pasts. Compassion International president emeritus Wess Stafford and The Shack author William Paul Young were sexually abused as MKs, and both have spoken publicly about it. In 1999, adult MKs from Mamou School created MK Safety Net, a support and advocacy group.

Last April, MK Safety Net sponsored the first interdenominational conference for MK abuse survivors. Christianity Today attended the event in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, where 45 survivors spoke of the abuse they had experienced as young children. Several of them said they believed that just being sent to boarding school—even if a child didn’t get raped or beaten—was abuse in itself. Family was “something you did on holidays, not something you were in,” one survivor said. Several therapists were on hand to assist survivors.

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