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.
In these and other forums, survivors are increasingly detailing the internal, psychological, and religious dynamics of abuse. Just identifying them aids the healing process.
For example, one problem for MKs is the pervasive God-talk, Schmutzer said. On the mission field, there is no place to express doubts. "You can't ever say, 'I don't understand God,' or 'God is unfair.' In the mission context where God is the wallpaper, you aren't allowed to question—that's dissent."
This leads to an enormous amount of cynicism, Schmutzer said. "I see this in MKs at Moody who are spiritually cynical, in part because of hypocrisies they've lived close to."
"All the pieces were contorted or twisted," Lea said. "We were told we would be preventing the salvation of the people that our parents were here to save if we told the truth."
India Baker, who endured emotional and physical abuse at Ivory Coast Academy in the 1990s, said, "They told us, 'Don't tell your parents anything bad, because if you do, you're keeping them from doing what they're supposed to do on the mission field. You're keeping them from doing God's work.' I wanted to be the good Christian girl. I wanted God to love me."
In some ways, missionary parents unwittingly set their children up for abuse, said Rachel Steffen, a former missionary with New Tribes Mission whose children were abused at boarding school. "We taught them to be very compliant, very obedient. We talked about how important our work was for God. We even used words like, 'You need to be a good little soldier for Jesus.'"
The boarding school model, which was required by the CMA until 2000, can weaken the family and isolate children, making them vulnerable to predators.
"There were a variety of things that happened when we lost the sense of family and even sibling subculture," said Lois Kunkel, whose parents were missionaries with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Liberia in the 1960s and '70s.
The adults at Kunkel's school often used the threat of God's omniscience to coerce children to tell on one another, she said. "They would isolate us, take us one by one, and say, 'Who did this? God knows. Will you tell?' I remember crying and telling on my sister and some friends because God knew. There was an anxiety about God, who knew all things."
Survivors need help in rethinking the many metaphors for God—loving Father, for example—and getting over the rhetoric of verses like, "I urge you, brothers, to present your bodies as living sacrifices," Schmutzer said. "This language is toxic to survivors."
Some survivors look to other religions to find healing. Lea spent years looking for faith in Asian religions and dabbled in Wicca. "I knew that faith was important to me, but God as he was portrayed to me was not the God I wanted to love," she said. "What brought me back was grace—that I could redefine who God was for me." Still, Lea doesn't label herself a Christian. "The word Christian is associated with past pain," she said. "I say I choose to follow Christ's example."
For other survivors, Christ's suffering has become an increasing source of hope, Schmutzer said. "God doesn't try to heal in absentia. He comes into the brokenness and absorbs it into himself on the cross. He identifies with the plight of humanity when he says, 'I thirst.'
"Survivors need this human point of contact with Christ's suffering. As many survivors have observed, they took his clothes, too."
"The mission field can be a very dangerous place for a child," said Boz Tchividjian, founder and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and one of the most vocal organizers of survivor response. At a Religion Newswriters Association conference in 2013, Tchividjian (grandson of Billy Graham and brother of pastor
Tullian Tchividjian) said he believed that U.S. evangelicals were worse than the Catholic Church in handling abuse.
"The unique dynamic of mission abuse is that it is happening to children who are already in a foreign culture," he said. Still, there are many signs that large Christian institutions are joining survivors in addressing the controversy more openly.
The CMA has apologized and changed its policy on boarding schools. There are 150 schools globally that serve missionary children. But only about 30 schools still offer the option of boarding, said the Association of Christian Schools International. Many missionaries teach their children at home.
New Tribes Mission, based in Sanford, Florida, hired GRACE in 2010 to conduct an independent investigation. It made a public apology afterward and opened further investigations into boarding schools in Brazil, Bolivia, and Panama.
The CMA has also written clear policies, which require all accusations to be thoroughly investigated and followed through completely. "In the '50s and '60s, little was understood or known, and I don't think people believed things were taking place," said CMA assistant vice president for international ministries Jim Malone. The CMA wants to create an environment where children can be believed, he said. "If there was more I thought we could be doing, we'd be doing it."
The CMA was one of the founding organizations of the Child Safety Protection Network (CSPN), which offers education and resources to about 53 international mission agencies and Christian schools, CSPN board chair Becky Leverington said.
It's impossible to prove that CSPN has prevented abuse. But adult MKs who reported abuse to CSPN's member organizations have been impressed that they were taken seriously and treated compassionately. "They have expressed appreciation for the thoroughness of the response process and follow-up care received. They are also glad to know that better prevention strategies are in place," Leverington said.
In recent years, other missions groups have upgraded their practices. The Southern Baptist International Mission Board expects any short-term missionary age 18 and older to undergo a criminal background check and be trained to spot and report sexual abuse of children.
The federal government also has stronger measures available. The 2003 Protect Act makes it a federal crime for Americans to have sex overseas with anyone under age 18. It also eliminates the statute of limitations for child abuse. (One former New Tribes missionary to Brazil was sentenced in a U.S. federal court to 58 years in prison for producing pornography involving tribal children.)
Mission organizations that do not have prevention and response policies in place could lure offenders, Leverington said. The culture of trust between staff members, staff turnover (leading to poor screening and training), and the sometimes naive belief that "it couldn't happen in our organization" can make mission organizations vulnerable.
"We are helping organizations adopt best-practice standards in child safety, but there are a lot more out there who don't yet have this on their radar," Leverington said.
In Canada, the pressure to put focus on safety policies and training is aided by insurance companies, which won't cover abuse claims unless the faith-based organization has policies in place, said Melodie Bissell, president of the abuse prevention organization Winning Kids.
"Six years ago, maybe 50 percent of the ministries we worked with had a policy in place," she said. "Now, of those we work with, probably 80 percent have a policy in place. We're doing so much better than we were 40 years ago. But we still have a long, long way to go."
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. On the MK Safety Net website, the organization shows results of its survey of policies enacted by the 25 mission organizations associated with MK abuse. So far, 9 of the organizations have responded.
For Teresa Lea, being abused as a child had lifelong consequences. "I hit a wall around age 25," Lea said. "I was a successful professional with a great looking marriage and a good home, and a piece inside of me that was dying." She said her connection with other survivors in a Christian context has been an essential step toward recovery. MK Safety Net will have its next one-day conference on Saturday, May 17, in Corning, New York.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is a journalist in the Chicago area.
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