Sexual Abuse of Children Crosses Faith Lines

By David Briggs
May 18, 2010

The Rev. Dick Darr and his wife, Anne, were model missionaries. They sent their children to boarding school so they could focus on saving the souls of others in remote African villages.

In 1957, while in the country today known as Mali, Darr said he found out his 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son were sexually molested by another missionary. When Darr reported it, the missionary was sent back into the mission field. Darr said he was told by the president of United World Mission, “You know the first thing some people want to do is ruin a man’s ministry.”

He left United World Mission in protest, and joined the Gospel Missionary Union, eventually becoming its president. In the early 1990s, he learned his children and others had been the victims of sexual and physical abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinea, West Africa.

For years, despite his efforts, the Gospel Missionary Union turned its back on the victims, neither admitting responsibility nor offering counseling.

It is a pattern repeated by faith groups everywhere.

Recent news reports about Catholic malfeasance at the highest levels are again shedding important light on the problem of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. Yet it would be a mistake to give in to the convenient temptation that this is “a Catholic problem.”

A growing body of research affirms what I have discovered in more than a decade of investigative reporting:

Young people have been and are being sexually abused in evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, in mosques and synagogues and temples.

The initial response is largely the same. Religious leaders protect the institution, often angrily condemning or ignoring the victim lying wounded on the side of the road.

A 1993 study of more than 600 children of missionaries by a consortium of mission groups found nearly 7 percent said they were sexually abused during their elementary school years.

While Catholic bishops were being held to account for failing to discipline abusive priests, the House of Bishops of the U.S. Episcopal Church decided to restore one of its own members — a prelate who admitted sexually abusing a teen — back into office.

Who is responsible?

In his important work “The Question of German Guilt,” German philosopher Karl Jaspers challenged his countrywomen and men and the world to examine their own responsibility in acts of omission and commission in enabling and permitting the atrocities of Nazi Germany. If you knew what was going on, whether you were sitting at a breakfast table in New York or a guard in a concentration camp, what did you do to stop the genocide? The sexual abuse of children deserves similar introspection.

Protecting the abuser

Former MK, or missionary kid, Annette McNeil said it was like incest when she was sexually molested nightly as an 8-year-old by a missionary parent at the Ivory Coast Academy because the abuser was like her “substitute father.”

There was nothing she and other 8-year-olds could do during that 1973-74 school year because the children were told they would “disrupt” God’s work if they bothered their parents with their own problems.

When one of the girls told her parents of the abuse during Easter break, the others confirmed the account, and three fathers returned to the school to confront the abuser. The abuser confessed, and asked the fathers to forgive him, McNeil’s father said.

The abuser was not only forgiven, but allowed to remain at the school to spare him the embarrassment of leaving in shame. It was never to be spoken of again.

It is difficult to come up with precise numbers regarding the sexual abuse of children by religious workers. Despite the media attention focused on one religious group, however, available evidence suggests the rates of abuse, from 2 percent to 5 percent – are similar across religious boundaries.

What we do know from hundreds of studies is that the dangers are the same.

Abusive clergy and youth workers are drawn to working with children. In their own minds, many see the extra attention they devote to the children they abuse as a sign of caring. Religious institutions have long offered such workers not only access to young people, but lift them up as trusted representatives of God.

We know it takes extraordinary courage for even one victim to come forward amid the shame associated with sexual abuse. Most clergy abusers are likely to have several victims, and should never again have access to children.

Yet when the unimaginable happens, few are willing to believe the victim. Congregants remember the minister, rabbi or imam as someone who visited them in the hospital or comforted them at funerals. Religious leaders tend to view them as friends and colleagues, and are likely to take their word over the victim’s word or give the abuser a second or third chance. Fear of lawsuits or damage to the institution hardens their hearts further.

And the children suffer, many for the rest of their lives.

A review of 500 studies of child sexual abuse found that about half of long-term abuse victims will suffer long-term mental health problems. Depression, suicide, substance and behavioral addictions, failed marriages are among the outcomes for those who attempt to bury their suffering inside, as so many people even among their own families have advised them.

The most religious, those who are most likely to accept a cleric’s authority and most dependent on their faith to cope with tragedy, are the most vulnerable.

Facing the pain

The stories of each of the scores of victims I have spoken with are seared into my being.

One woman who was raped in church by her pastor when she was in fourth grade still remembers crying out in her mind, “Jesus help me” as the priest attacked her. Seeking help as an adult, she was rejected by her bishop, called a whore by her father and told by a parish priest to keep her mouth shut “because she had already shamed her family enough.”

How can I ever forget this woman, her arms and legs wrapped inward around her on the living room floor of her modest Ohio home, looking up at me and saying, “I’m 51 years old, and still wondering why Jesus didn’t help me.”

She is not alone. There are tens of thousands of people like her in churches and mosques and synagogues and temples throughout the world. And we need to hear their stories and seek justice in whatever religious setting they find themselves.

Decades of sexual abuse of children by religious workers did not happen because a few Catholic hierarchs like Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston transferred abusive priests from one parish to another.

Millions of people over generations were complicit in these crimes, from religious workers who failed to report the abuse to large swaths of ordinary Christians, Muslims and Jews who did not hold their institutions accountable and chose not to embrace but to lash out at those seeking to bring these horrors to light.

This is the question of “catholic” guilt that deserves an answer.


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