Saturday, September 4, 2010
According to a report made public last week, dozens of kids were sexually and physically abused at a boarding school in Senegal that was run by New Tribes Mission (NTM), an evangelical missionary-sending organization. The report not only documented the abuse, but also the cover-ups. NTM officials “created a mindset that ignored clear evidence of abuse, protected the perpetrators, and… shamed and even shunned the victims and their families.”
The GRACE report found “credible evidence” of countless acts of abuse that occurred beginning at least as early as the mid-1980s. The report identifies by name 12 individuals, who stand accused.
The impact of the abuse is a “catalogue of heartbreak and pain” that includes “denial, memory loss, depression, guilt, feelings of powerlessness, panic attacks, anger, fear, distrust of adults, suicidal thoughts and actions, self harming, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual experimentation, sexual confusion, sexual repression, running away, turning to the occult, criminal behavior, imprisonment, and death.”
Yet, even as the missionary kids made repeated disclosures of abuse, and even as the evidence grew, NTM officials “repeatedly failed to report abuse to the authorities, to inform parents of the allegations, or to competently investigate the allegations. Rather, NTM officials “acted to protect the perpetrators and the institution at the expense of children.”
In 2009, NTM finally did something right. The Child Protection Committee of NTM recommended “a full and complete independent review of the actions of the New Tribes Mission” concerning the school in Senegal. Ultimately, the NTM Executive Board commissioned GRACE as the independent entity to conduct such an investigation. GRACE stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. The GRACE team consisted of two former child sex-crime prosecutors (including Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham), one clinical psychologist, a professional counselor, and one teaching elder.
Of course, even NTM’s step of commissioning an investigation is a step that would never have happened without the extraordinary perseverance of some of the missionary kids who are now adults. For over a decade, and in the face of enormous resistance, they worked relentlessly to seek acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs and to prod NTM into action for the protection of others. Finally, they have been vindicated. I applaud them.
I also applaud GRACE, whose report is unflinching.
I yearn for the day when many hundreds of Baptist clergy abuse survivors may benefit from a similar process -- when their allegations will be looked into with respect and care by people who have the experience, training and objectivity to competently do so.
To have the faith community hear their stories with compassion and concern is something that almost all clergy abuse survivors long for. Tragically, it is something that most Baptist clergy abuse survivors never get . . . and that they ultimately lose all hope of getting.
If you read the 68-page GRACE report, many of you will see many familiar patterns from your own experiences in Baptistland. Let me highlight just a few of those patterns, together with the lessons of the GRACE report.
None of the NTM staff and officials who are named in the report have ever been criminally prosecuted. However, this did not in any way deter GRACE. Rather than looking to the standards of the criminal law, GRACE looked to whether there was “credible evidence” to support the allegations. This “degree of proof” was considered enough to draw conclusions that would serve the proper priority of protecting children. And as it turned out, much of the evidence was “compelling” and “unequivocal.”
GRACE was very critical of NTM officials who made excuses for their inaction by saying such things as “there was nothing definite” . . . “no details” . . . “only allegations” . . . and “only bits of inappropriate behavior.” GRACE pointed out that these excuses made “clear” that NTM leadership was trying to do little more than get themselves off “the hot seat.”
The victims’ favorable response to the GRACE investigation demonstrates why it is essential that those who review abuse allegations be independent of the place where the abuse occurred. GRACE sent initial questionnaires to 108 former students at the NTM boarding school. Fifty-six responded, yielding a return rate of 52 percent. This contrasted with the 3 percent return rate for an earlier survey that was done by NTM officials. As GRACE pointed out, the NTM officials lacked the training and experience to appropriately question people about abuse, and they took a hostile posture toward the victims. Indeed, given that many of the missionary kids had tried to tell about abuse when they were younger -- only to be rejected, silenced and further shamed -- it’s no wonder they were reluctant to again speak of their abuse with people who had failed them so miserably before.
The conduct of New Tribes officials effectively emphasized “the saving of souls at the expense of children,” says GRACE, and that is what made the abuse and nonresponsiveness predictable.
So often we have seen a similar misplaced emphasis from Baptist officials, and the consequences have been devastating.
We see it in local church officials who seek to protect the “witness of the church” by quietly letting accused ministers move on. It is children at the minister’s next church who pay the price.
We see it in denominational officials who claim that Cooperative Program dollars can be used only for missions and pursuit of the Great Commission. They refuse any resources for implementing independent assessments of clergy abuse allegations or for keeping records on credibly accused clergy. As a result, predatory preachers are able to easily church-hop, and it is children who pay the price.
When so many religious leaders use “saving souls” as a rationalization for doing nothing about ministers who molest kids, it makes abuse and cover-ups predictable. As the GRACE report explains: "In the abstract... the church is always opposed to the physical, sexual and emotional violation of a child’s body and mind. When faced with the reality of abuse, however, the church is slow to side with the victim and quick to protect the perpetrator."
I hope and pray that Southern Baptist leaders will read the GRACE report and learn from it. May they soon find within themselves the moral fiber to fully confront the reality of clergy abuse in their own ranks. The safety of children depends on it.
Update: "Missionary group admits Senegal abuse," Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee), 9/17/10 ("A Christian missionary group... said it will purge its ranks, strengthen its personnel policies and set aside $1 million to aid victims, in response to a new report that dozens of missionaries' children endured physical and sexual abuse at its boarding school in Senegal.")
Posted by Christa Brown at 11:07 PM