Missionary Kids Silent No More about Abuse

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- U.S. missionaries have been spreading the gospel overseas since The Great Awakening. But now, a dark chapter in U.S. missions history is unfolding.

In recent years, four mission agencies have investigated their own employees for charges of child abuse in the field. Two more investigations are pending and more may be on the way.

MK Safety Net, a clearinghouse of information and support for missionary kids who were abused, says it's received reports from former missionary kids representing more than 20 denominations.

Keeping the Nightmares Quiet

Kari Mikitson was a just a little girl in the mid-80s, attending a New Tribes Mission boarding school in Senegal, when the missionaries assigned to protect her began to abuse her.

"From roughly 6 to 8 years old my dorm father sexually abused me," Mikitson said. "The physical abuse was most of the teachers there and dorm parents."

In the 1960s, Wess Stafford also suffered at his boarding school, the Christian and Missionary Alliance's Mamou Academy in Guinea, West Africa. He says the staff would beat students daily for minor infractions.

"It was like Auschwitz. There were a million things you could do wrong and be punished for it," Stafford explained. "Silly little things like a wrinkle in your bedspread when you're 6 years old was good enough for a beating."

Sexual abuse was common at Mamou as well.

"The very people who were reading us Bible stories just minutes later after the generator went out were molesting us," Stafford said.

Susannah Baker's abuse took place in the 60s and 70s while she was living with her family on a missionary compound in Bangladesh. She says her attacker was her neighbor and a doctor on the compound.

"He's a very intelligent and sly man," Baker said. "He knew how to hide what he was doing."

Her mission, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, sent an investigator when another missionary girl spoke out.  Baker's abuser reportedly told the investigator of his sexual abuse of that girl.

The ABWE recently commissioned GRACE, an independent non-profit ministry group, to investigate the doctor.

CBN News requested an interview with the doctor but he refused, citing the pending investigation.

Mikitson, Stafford and Baker followed a common pattern among abuse survivors -- keeping their nightmares quiet until years later. The reason for Mikitson and Stafford was simple. Their abusers leveraged their loyalty to God and their parents.

"We were told as children never to tell our parents anything negative about the school or we would be hindering God's work on the field," explained Mikitson.

"They told us, 'You tell your parents about this and there will be Africans in hell. You will destroy their ministry in Africa,'" Stafford recalled.

Conditions Ripe for Abuse?

No one knows exactly how prevalent child abuse is on the international mission field. But many believe conditions overseas are often ripe for it.

Abusers can flourish because missionaries are isolated. Also, missionaries tend to be trusting.

Boz Tchvidjian, a former child abuse prosecutor in Florida, who now heads GRACE, says abusers have historically faced no legal charges.

"You have a tremendous unchecked environment," he told CBN News of the mission field, "where abuse can go on and at the very worst an offender will go home."

Mikitson, Stafford and Baker eventually reported the abuse to their mission agencies and all met with great resistance.

Stafford, who had risen to become president of Compassion International, a Colorado Springs-based ministry, eventually met face-to-face across town with leaders at the Christian and Missionary Alliance, his former mission.

"I said, 'I'm one of your kids so don't deny this,'" Stafford recalled. "'It did happen. And don't blame the victims.'"

Agency Acknowledges Abuse

In 1996, the Alliance became the first Protestant mission to investigate and acknowledge widespread abuse at one of its own boarding schools. Today, the Mamou academy no longer exists, but the Alliance's effort is considered by many as a catalyst in prompting other mission organizations to launch their own investigations.

In 2009, the United Methodist Church issued its report followed by the Presbyterian Church USA and New Tribes Mission in 2010. Investigations still underway include the ABWE and a new one for New Tribes.

In each case, it's taken years for abuse survivors to convince their missions a problem existed.

Bob Fetherlin, vice president for International Ministries at the Alliance, believes the organization made some mistakes.

"If we had to do it over again we would have taken the stories seriously right from the start," he said. "We should have responded with greater care, greater sensitivity and greater love."

Internet Blogs Empower Victims

The pulpit provided by the Internet is empowering victims in a new way. Both Mikitson and Baker say their survivor blogs exploded overnight.

"It went from hundreds of people reading it daily to thousands," Baker said.

"They come together and instead of one voice it's dozens or sometimes, tragically, hundreds," Tchvidjian noted. "They speak and they speak loudly and in some cases the agencies, the institutions are forced to respond."

One risk for the victims is their newfound platform can devastate them all over again as they face hostility for speaking out. Trauma therapist Beth Parker says the best response is to affirm a survivor when they tell their story.

"Whenever outside sources don't believe, it adds to the view that 'maybe I'm wrong and the world is right,'" she explained.

The biggest desires for most victims are validation and an "I'm sorry" from their abusers and those who oversaw them.

"There's never anything harder you can do than come forward," Mikitson said.

She believes it's a misperception that victims simply want financial compensation.

"Abuse victims don't come forward to find a cash cow," she added. "It's never about money."

Tchvidjian, who led the New Tribes Mission investigation and currently leads the ABWE effort, says he's seen great good come from the process. Repentance from both abusers and those who oversaw them can help survivors and mission agencies move forward.

"You should want to know all the details of how you failed," he said. "Not only so you can repent but also so you never repeat the same mistakes."

New Child Protection Policies

Today mission attitudes are changing and many organizations have created new child protection policies. The Alliance is one of them.

"The policies now which are very clear are absolute zero tolerance for the abuse and mistreatment of children," Fetherlin pointed out.

Close to forty mission agencies and other Christian organizations have also created the Child Safety and Protection Network that's developed best practice standards for training and responding to reports of abuse.

The ABWE, a member of that network, now says its former doctor under investigation is a pedophile and publicly regrets that it did not report him years ago to the law or any state medical boards. In March it finally reported him to the Michigan Bureau of Health Professions. Just several months ago, the doctor retired from his family practice.

Protecting Children in the Future

The question for mission organizations today is how will they go forward and how aggressively will they work to protect children from potential and known missionary offenders?

"Had this happened on American soil, had we not been silenced so long-there's a bunch of them who would have ended up in prison," Stafford said.

"How many are out there right now?," asked Tchvidjian. "This is a 9-1-1 for the Christian world and how we respond has eternal implications."

--Published Aug. 19, 2011

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.