Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Apologizes for Abuse during Mission Work

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal
October 8, 2010

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders formally apologized Friday to 30 people who they determined were sexually or physically abused in mission programs overseas, most of whom were children of missionaries serving across Africa and Asia between 1950 and 1990.

The apologies came with the release of a 546-page report that followed a nearly seven-year investigation of abuse in mission programs by a review board of the Louisville-based denomination.

It found cases of sexual abuse perpetrated on 14 victims in Cameroon, five in Congo, three in Ethiopia and seven in Thailand, and one case of physical abuse in Pakistan.

"To those who were abused, we offer our deepest apologies," said Linda Valentine, executive director of the denomination's General Assembly Mission Council, which oversees the denomination's mission work. "I am sorry, and all of us in the leadership of the church are sorry for what has happened. We are horrified by what you have gone through, and we are grateful for your courage in bringing the abuse to light so that future generations of missionary children will not face the fear, the pain, and the trauma you endured."

In one case, the panel found that members of a board overseeing a dormitory in the Congo failed to protect children from a teenage boy they knew was repeatedly sexually abusing other children in the 1980s.

In fact, the report found more instances of sexual abuse of minors by minors — 18 — than by adults, where there were 11 instances substantiated.

"In speaking with witnesses, this type of abuse was often the last to surface, which leads the Panel to believe that this abuse is some of the most hidden of all that occurs on mission fields," the report said.

The report said the protection of children should have been a spiritual mandate. "God's standard is that children are to be protected from harm," it said.

The denomination has offered counseling to victims. None of the abusers are currently serving in overseas mission programs with the church, but in six cases the panel sent its findings to officials from local Presbyterian governing bodies or other organizations that may supervise alleged abusers for possible disciplinary action.

The abuse occurred in a variety of settings, but many incidents occurred at boarding schools attended by children of missionaries — from Presbyterian and other denominations. Those accused of abuse included missionaries, teachers, parents, houseparents, indigenous persons and children's own siblings and classmates.

The report was issued by a three-member Independent Abuse Review Panel, which the denomination commissioned in 2003 in response to an earlier revelation of serial abuse by a Presbyterian missionary.

The panel cited the difficulties of obtaining records and contacting witnesses over such a wide range of distance and time. But the panel met 81 times over the years, consulted experts, interviewed victims and accused persons and dug through mission archives.

The report noted instances of houseparents meting out humiliating or severe punishments or treatment at a boarding school dormitory in Cameroon in the 1950s and 1960s.

It said these did not rise to the level of abuse, and in other cases there were allegations of disturbing behavior that could not be verified, but described a "heartbreaking" case of overworked, stressed houseparents who failed to receive enough oversight or resources from the U.S mission office.

Those conditions left the dormitory ripe for children to prey on each other, with some of them fondling or simulating sexual acts on other children.

In the Congo, the report focused on abuse at a dormitory jointly overseen by Presbyterians and Methodists and serving the children of missionaries from various denominations, as well as other children.

It said one teenage boy was well known as a predator and that individual missionaries took steps to protect their children from him, but that the board failed to take stronger action, even though it knew about what was happening.

In 12 other cases in various countries, however, the panel found it could not corroborate allegations that church officials knew of abuse and failed to protect children.

The panel investigated dozens of allegations in which it could not conclude whether abuse occurred, often because of insufficient information, but it concluded it had enough information on nine of those accused of abuse to name them in the report.

The revelations culminate a decade's worth of investigations into sexual abuse involving Presbyterian missionaries and their families.

A separate, independent investigatory committee reported in 2002 that a deceased missionary, William Pruitt of Dallas, had sexually abused 22 girls and women in the Congo and the United States from the 1940s to the 1980s — and that Presbyterian co-workers failed to act aggressively when they learned of the allegations.

That committee also began receiving reports of abuse involving missionaries in other countries. The denomination then commissioned the review panel.

In 2004, after the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation by clergy erupted with revelations involving Roman Catholic, Protestant and other clergy, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s General Assembly approved policies strengthening the penalties on abusers and the rights of victims in church disciplinary proceedings.

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.


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