After criticism, mission agency seeks greater amends over Haiti abuse scandal

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 2, 2019

Ohio — As the number of victims of alleged sexual abuse by a former American missionary to Haiti began to grow in recent weeks, so did an outcry from their advocates at reports that his former employer was offering them quick financial settlements without their lawyers present.

On Saturday, an attorney for the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries acknowledged that some representatives of the large agency did make settlement offers to the alleged victims in Haiti — but the agency is calling that effort to a halt.

The news comes shortly after the ex-missionary at the center of the scandal, Jeriah Mast, appeared before a judge in this northern Ohio town last week on charges of molesting five Ohio youths. Mr. Mast remains under investigation for his actions in Haiti, where he served for many years as a missionary before fleeing in May in the wake of new allegations.

The effort to reach settlements with victims was “well-meaning but not the way” to respond to these cases, said Robert Flores, attorney representing Christian Aid Ministries.

“I don’t believe any of [the settlements] have been finalized, and they’re not going to be,” he said.

A proper response would be “victim-focused” with provisions for ongoing therapy, and would not preclude any cooperation in a criminal investigation, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is provide some long-term solutions to provide care, instead of quick solutions in hopes things will go away,” Mr. Flores said.

This was the first public acknowledgment that any settlement effort had been underway; Christian Aid Ministries has maintained a statement on its website since June, saying it “has not authorized any settlement payments.”

Two victim advocates — North Americans who have traveled to Haiti and met with alleged victims — began publicly reporting in recent weeks that Christian Aid Ministries was making individual settlement offers of between $8,000 and $10,000 to some of Mr. Mast’s alleged victims in Haiti, all without their lawyers present and while they considered going forward with criminal charges.

The advocates said their information came from multiple sources, including some of the alleged victims, and added that they understood that some of the young men have accepted the offers. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and more than 6 million Haitians earn less than $2.41 per day, according to the World Bank.

Christian Aid Ministries, a nonprofit that reported more than $130 million in revenue in 2017, the most recent public tax filing available, provides religious and humanitarian services in several countries and is supported by conservative Mennonite, Amish and related Anabaptist churches.

Trudy Metzger, an Ontario, Canada-based advocate for victims of abuse in Anabaptist settings, questioned whether mission representatives are approaching victims without their attorneys present, and she’s concerned about whether the agreements require the victims’ silence.

“No victim should ever be silenced,” she said last week.

Mr. Flores confirmed that no non-disclosure agreement would be made unless a victim requested it, and no settlement would preclude cooperating with a criminal investigation.

Rick Ashley, a North Carolina man who has worked for years in Haiti to build emergency-medical service capacity in Haiti and who has taken up the alleged victims’ cause, sent a letter to Christian Aid Ministries expressing dismay over the reports.

"My greatest concern is [to] see that these boys and all the victims get the mental health and medical needs addressed, and just because they are poor and needy does not give them any less rights,” he wrote.

The alleged abuse occurred over many years, and most alleged victims are now in their late teens or 20s. Two Haitian lawyers have reported claims from at least nine young men.

Mr. Flores on Saturday said the ministry will carefully develop a plan that will ensure that ongoing aid reaches the victims.

“CAM has been devastated” by the scandal, he said. “They are heartbroken over this. They are trying to figure out what to do. They love the Haitian people, they’re going to continue to do ministry there, and they want to be able to do that and be welcome.”

Mr. Mast began work in Haiti more than a decade ago, and Christian Aid Ministries continued to assign him to Haiti even after 2013, when two supervisors knew he had confessed to sexual activity with “young men.” The agency placed both men on leave for “their failure to properly investigate and inquire into Jeriah’s conduct.”

In May, Mr. Mast fled Haiti after being confronted anew by abuse allegations. He immediately confessed his deeds to his home church in Ohio and then to local law enforcement, according to statements from his church and former employer.

The case arose as current and former Mennonites and Amish are reporting numerous other long-suppressed cases of sexual abuse in their ranks.

As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in its series “Coverings” in May and June, church members say victims are often pressured to forgive predators without legal consequences for the abuse, and church leaders have often been quick to trust a confessed abuser who claims to have repented and reformed. Church leaders say they recognize past failings and have improved their responses and cooperation with law enforcement.

Mr. Mast was indicted in July on charges of sexually abusing five youths in Holmes County between 1999 and 2008.

On Thursday, Mr. Mast, dressed in khakis and a button-down black shirt, entered the Holmes County Courthouse for a brief pretrial hearing. He was accompanied by family members including his wife, wearing a long dress and a head covering, common attire in the conservative Anabaptist movement.

Mr. Mast is out on bond following his July indictment on 14 counts. Judge Robert Rinfret moved the trial date from Sept. 30 to Nov. 5.

Also appearing at the short session was an attorney, Thomas White, representing some of the alleged victims.

While Mr. Mast is forbidden from contact with alleged victims under his bail conditions, the victims want to meet with his defense lawyer, according to county Prosecuting Attorney Sean Warner.

Mr. White did not return calls seeking comment. While the prosecutors’ offices have advocates for victims, it is less common for victims to hire a private attorney.

Mr. Warner said he has not been contacted by federal authorities. U.S. law allows for the prosecution of Americans for certain sexual offenses that take place overseas.

Since Mr. Mast’s departure from Haiti, lawyers began representing alleged victims of Mr. Mast in two Haitian cities.

A court in the city of Petit-Goave summoned Mr. Mast to answer to allegations from young men that he gained their trust and then sexually assaulted them. 

And another set of allegations arose around the city of Cabaret. Attorney Ludwig LeBlanc said he represents young men who have been considering pursuing prosecution.



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