|Sanford's New Tribes Mission Faces Sex-abuse Allegations from 1980s
By Amy L. Edwards
September 2, 2010
[The full report from BishopAccountability.org]
Dozens of children whose parents were missionaries for Sanford-based New Tribes Mission were sexually and physically abused at an African boarding school in the 1980s, according to a report made public this week.
New Tribes, one of the largest Christian missionary organizations in the world, operated a boarding school in the village of Fanda, in the country of Senegal, in the 1980s and 1990s for the children of missionaries.
The report said many children endured sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse at the hands of workers at the school.
It estimates there were 22 to 27 child sex abuse victims, and more than 35 victims of physical and emotional abuse.
Though the report alleges much of the behavior was criminal, New Tribes spokeswoman Nita Zelenak said Wednesday she is not aware of anyone being charged criminally for the abuse allegations at the African school.
New Tribes admits there was abuse and it takes responsibility.
"We are deeply saddened by the extent of the abuse reported by GRACE," New Tribes said in a statement on its website.
"Individuals in our organization abused children. People in leadership at the time were culpable through inadequate screening and training, creating an atmosphere of legalism and autocracy, and not addressing the abuse properly. This means that we as an organization are responsible and have sinned against these students."
Alleged victim speaks in Orlando
On Wednesday, one of the alleged sex abuse victims, Kari Mikitson, was in Central Florida and spoke with the Orlando Sentinel about the new report.
Mikitson, who agreed to be identified publicly, said she attended the Fanda school when she was 8 to 12 years old.
She told her parents about the sex abuse as a child, and in 1989, they reported it to New Tribes officials.
"There was much inaction," Mikitson said of New Tribe's response.
Now, Mikitson is devoted to bringing awareness to the issue and blogs about the alleged abuses (fandaeagles.com) at the Fanda school and other New Tribes boarding schools.
Mikitson, now 33 and living in Seattle, said children at Fanda knew there was widespread abuse. But she didn't know the extent of the sexual abuse.
When she read the report, which was compiled by the GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) organization, Mikitson said: "The number of perpetrators was shocking to me."
Mikitson remained friends with children she met at Fanda and has reconnected with others, including those who were also allegedly sexually abused.
"It was a shock to us all that we weren't the only ones abused sexually," Mikitson said.
As girls, they didn't talk about the abuse. Mikitson said they were groomed by their abusers and told they'd hurt their parents' ministries if they reported incidents.
The report said children as young as 5 years old were separated from their parents and placed in the Fanda dorms.
The children weren't allowed to complain about the conditions at Fanda, the report said.
"They were repeatedly told by those in authority at Fanda that such complaints would hinder their parents' work and result in Africans going to hell," the report said. "In some cases, their letters were censored of all bad news in the name of the Lord's work. The authority of Fanda dorm parents over the children was allowed to trump that even of the parents in their children's lives."
GRACE, whose mission is to "empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize and respond to the sin of child abuse," presented its report to New Tribes last week, according to a statement on the organization's website.
New Tribes retained the Virginia-based GRACE to conduct the study. The GRACE team consisted of two former child sex-abuse prosecutors, one clinical psychologist, a professional counselor and a teaching elder.
Earlier this week, New Tribes issued another statement on its website, stating the organization began implementing recommendations made by GRACE in its report.
"NTM USA's leadership team continues to be deeply disturbed and heartbroken over the abuse and sin that took place against the students, and NTM's failure to respond quickly and effectively," New Tribes' statement said.
Report critical of New Tribes, offers recommendations
GRACE was critical of New Tribes' lack of formal reporting of the criminal incidents to U.S. authorities.
New Tribes officials called state abuse hotlines, including in Florida, in 1997 and 2009, Zelenak said.
The GRACE report said "no documented efforts were taken to notify local or US authorities regarding criminal actions found in the study."
It also references calls to state hotlines that were made, but the report said those calls "are no substitute for documentable reporting to the authorities."
"This is especially true in this case, as the hotlines were called without disclosing the names of the perpetrators but simply to inquire if the reports would be taken — which they were not. In addition to calling the hotline, it would have been appropriate to contact the authorities where the offenses took place and also where the suspected perpetrators reside and follow up with a written summary of the concerns."
The report also identifies alleged abusers.
Some of the alleged abusers named in the GRACE report are still with New Tribes, Zelenak said.
GRACE made several recommendations for New Tribes, including that the organization establish a standing fund of $1 million for victims.
It also makes specific recommendations for the people accused in the report, including terminating membership for those still affiliated with New Tribes.
Zelenak said New Tribes has not paid financial settlements to any children of its missionaries related to the abuse allegations.
But the organization has paid for counseling and other expenses, she said.
"We are diligently working through all the recommendations with GRACE. We accept all of them, but the real issue is the practical steps of how to implement them," Zelenak said.
Mikitson she wants to encourage other victims of sex abuse to come forward. And she wants New Tribes to be responsive to the issues.
"We want New Tribes to stand with us and be transparent," she said.
Walter Pacheco of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Amy L. Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5735.
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