Missionary kids: 'Lives devastated' by abuse

Missionary child abuse, long unspoken of, emerges from the shadows as victims seek reform from evangelical mission agencies.

CHICAGO — They followed their parents to remote regions of the world to preach the Gospel. But in recent years, dozens of adults, known in evangelical Christian circles as "MKs," or missionary kids, have come forward to report decades-old abuse at the hands of other missionary families or boarding school staff.

These children suffered, advocates say, either in silence out of respect for their parents' work or because their cries for help were ignored. But years later, as adults, they have coalesced into a national movement that is calling on the more than 200 evangelical mission agencies to address past physical and sexual abuse and help keep the next generation of missionary kids out of harm's way.

"I don't know of one case where the person bringing a case was welcomed and listened to and dealt with appropriately," said the Rev. Rich Darr, a Methodist pastor in Park Ridge, Ill., and founder of the victim-advocacy group MK Safety Net. "All we want is for the church to be church. I see progress, but it is maddeningly slow."

Evangelical mission agencies have only recently taken action, prompted by victims who started speaking up in greater numbers after Roman Catholic Church leaders began addressing their scandal more than a decade ago.

Since 2006, about 50 of the more than 200 evangelical mission agencies around the world have worked with an umbrella group to collectively address abuse. Member agencies receive training in child safety and how to keep potential predators from joining their ranks.

Related: Pope Francis urges decisive action against abuse


But Darr and others say the efforts of that group, the Child Safety and Protection Network, aren't enough. Victims and advocates want to see even more reforms and accountability from the evangelical mission agencies that sent their families overseas in the first place.

They cite as an example Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham. The former sex-crimes prosecutor began selling his services as an independent investigator in 2001 to mission groups facing allegations of abuse. His group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, releases its findings to the public.

"There has been a culture of silence as it relates to abuse in the mission field," Tchividjian said. "What we're encountering is so many adults now whose lives were completely devastated by this abuse in the mission field, and also sadly the failure of family members or mission agencies to do anything about it. They were so focused on evangelizing and reaching souls for Christ, sometimes their own children were being sacrificed."

Some advocates for abused missionary children take a more personal approach.

Proof of that is found on Fanda Eagles, a blog run by a Chicago woman under a pseudonym to expose the abuse she said she suffered at a boarding school in Fanda, Senegal, miles from her parents' mission. The blog has since become a forum and source of encouragement for missionary kids who are abuse victims.

While many abused children she knew suffered severe beatings, the Chicago woman said, she was sexually abused by her dorm father when he tucked her in at night. Afraid of getting in the way of her parents' mission, she didn't complain.

"The blood of the Africans would be on your hands if you damaged your parents' work by being honest, by being real," she recalled thinking at the time.

But her silence didn't last. Her family abandoned the mission and returned to the U.S. shortly after she revealed what was happening at school. Meanwhile, she said, the evangelical group that oversaw her school and her parents' work, New Tribes Mission, did nothing to halt the abuse or punish the accused.

In 2008, the woman found her way back to Senegal and reconnected with peers. To her surprise, she discovered that they believed the sexual abuse they had suffered was normal affection and the beatings were acceptable forms of discipline. She believed they had been brainwashed and betrayed.

New Tribes Mission still wouldn't respond to her concerns, so she launched her blog. New Tribes eventually offered her a financial settlement and agreed to cover the cost of counseling.

Related: Vatican official thanks media for uncovering Church abuse


Pam McCurdy, a New Tribes spokeswoman, said the mission is trying to address decades-old allegations and prevent abuse with background checks and training now in place.

"We are leaving no stone unturned to bring the perpetrators to justice by handing over all of our findings to the appropriate law enforcement," McCurdy said. "We are acutely and painfully aware of the lingering damage that abuse can bring to precious children and their families. ... In short, no abuse of any kind will be tolerated."

The agency also hired Tchividjian's group, GRACE, to investigate the claims.

As a criminal prosecutor in Florida in the 1990s, GRACE's founder, Tchividjian, said half the sex crimes he prosecuted involved a faith community. The sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church came as no surprise to him and influenced his decision to leave the prosecutor's office in 2001 to launch his group.

"The Gospel is about the fact that God does his greatest work when we are most vulnerable and most transparent," he said. The argument that publicizing abuse "will hurt the cause of Christ is nothing but a smoke screen for 'This could hurt my paycheck. This could hurt my future.' It has nothing to do with Jesus."

Related: It’s OK to tell: Teach kids the signs of sexual abuse


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