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Fear at Fanda

A sexual abuse scandal at a New Tribes Mission boarding school in West Africa reveals a long tale of childhood suffering and the poor record of missionary accountability

Fear at Fanda

(Kari Mikitson: Handout photos)

Warning: This report contains disturbing accounts of child abuse in ministry settings.

The most harrowing hours for the children living at the Fanda Missionary School in Senegal, West Africa, came at night. It wasn't just the country's war-zone conditions of the 1980s and 1990s that brought dread into the hearts of young boarding school students who missed their parents at bedtime: For many of the children, the midnight prowlers they feared most were the missionaries assigned to protect them.

Twenty years later, their dark story of abuse is getting daylight, exposing the victims' ordeal and the child abusers who remain free today. In late August, an evangelical organization called GRACE, an acronym for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, issued the results of a year-long investigation into child abuse at Fanda, a now-closed boarding school operated by New Tribes Mission (NTM)-one of the largest evangelical mission agencies based in the United States.

The findings of the independent study-commissioned by NTM-are brutal. They include years of sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse of NTM children by NTM workers at Fanda, and years of gross failure by NTM leadership to respond properly. They also include a report of statutory rape, and the victims' response to abuse includes drug- and alcohol-related crime as well as possible suicide.

The report presents a critical moment of truth when one of the largest mission agencies in the country has an opportunity to act in the interest of abuse victims still struggling to recover from decades of personal destruction. It's also a moment for other evangelical groups and churches to learn from NTM's admitted failures and to face the stark reality: This could happen anywhere.

Near the end of the 66-page report that includes 351 footnotes and reams of excruciating detail, the authors try to capture the horror of what they discovered after interviewing NTM abuse victims: "If the world could have seen and heard what GRACE saw and heard etched in the faces and trembling voices of those who shared their experiences with us, surely the world would act."

Within a week of the report's release, NTM leadership responded: The leaders didn't dispute the report. They expressed sorrow and confessed that the group had sinned against some of its most vulnerable members. They promised swift action against specific abusers.

NTM leaders say they have begun following the report's recommendations regarding a number of former and active NTM members. Some of the recommendations involve terminating NTM membership. For the worst perpetrators, the recommendations involve notifying abusers' current church leaders, and cooperating with criminal or civil investigations.

The road to this point of reckoning began more than 20 years ago in Senegal. For decades, NTM clung to a tradition once common among other mission organizations: When parents left for remote mission outposts, NTM usually expected (though it didn't require) that parents leave their children in boarding schools staffed by other NTM missionaries.

It wasn't just the difficult conditions of the mission field; it also was a ministry philosophy the report described this way: "The children were viewed as a hindrance to the work of God." NTM leaders believed couples could achieve more without the distraction of children and encouraged parents to leave their children behind for the sake of other souls. According to the report, "Parents were often reminded that if God sacrificed His only Son, missionaries should be willing and prepared to do the same."

For many children left at Fanda during the 1980s and 1990s, the results were disastrous. The investigation records 22 to 27 victims of sexual abuse and more than 35 victims of physical and emotional abuse by at least 12 adults at the school. The report says victims of spiritual abuse "may well include almost the total school population."

The descriptions of abuses against children as young as 8 are nauseating. They include accounts of men repeatedly molesting, fondling, and caressing young girls. At least one predator-a "house parent" to the children living in the school's dormitory-molested girls at night in their dorm beds. Others sexually abused girls that they invited to their private homes on campus. One abuser followed girls into dorm showers. One account included the statutory rape of a male teenager by a missionary's wife.

Physical and emotional abuse also abounded: The report included accounts of vicious beatings and humiliation of children by NTM workers at Fanda for infractions like breaking a toilet or wetting the bed.

Some of the most insidious abuse: The report says that Fanda staffers told children that telling their parents about the abuse would distract from the work of missions and send Africans to hell. Some perpetrators spoke about God while they abused children. One former Fanda student told the investigators: "I remember him [an abuser] talking about his close relationship with God while he was touching me."

When NTM parents and victims began complaining about abuse at Fanda in the 1980s, NTM's local Senegal field committee failed to report the abuse, to take steps to protect children, or to listen to parents. Higher NTM authorities, even when some perpetrators admitted to abusing children, failed to investigate thoroughly or respond aggressively. According to the report, NTM leaders allowed some of the worst abusers to resign, without terminating their employment.

The Fanda abusers apparently never faced criminal charges, either. NTM leaders say they contacted state abuse hotlines in the United States to report those who returned there, but that hotline workers told them the overseas abuse fell outside U.S. jurisdiction. The GRACE report contends that NTM should have contacted authorities beyond state hotlines. "Why aren't you calling the sheriff's office?" said GRACE president Boz Tchividjian in an interview. "Why aren't you calling law enforcement?" The report doesn't indicate whether Fanda victims reported their abusers to authorities.

GRACE is a Virginia-based organization aimed at preventing and responding to child abuse in ministry settings. The seven-member board of directors includes two former child abuse prosecutors, a clinical psychologist, a professional counselor, and a teaching elder. Meanwhile, NTM conducted its own investigation in 1997 and confirmed as many as 12 sexual abuse victims of one Fanda missionary, and another 11 victims traumatized by knowledge of the abuse. It cited four more abuse victims of another missionary, according to the report. Still, the August report on the scandal found NTM's investigation "wholly incomplete and inadequate."

By 2008, now-grown victims of Fanda abuse began calling for NTM to respond. Kari Mikitson, an abuse victim who lived at Fanda for three years, created a website called fandaeagles.com to chronicle victims' stories and correspondence with NTM. On the website Mikitson writes that after leaving Fanda, "I had a life of deep depression, drug addiction-a runaway with a death wish." Mikitson was 8 years old when a Fanda worker began sexually abusing her, and she underwent years of therapy. Her grief-stricken parents tried to help while coping with their own guilt over failing to protect their daughter. "Our family went through a decade of darkest hells," said Mikitson.

By last year, NTM leadership had conducted another cursory review of the abuse scandal and concluded that they needed an independent report. In a phone interview from his office in Sanford, Fla., NTM CEO Larry Brown explained why: "It became very evident that New Tribes Mission didn't have the competence or the trust to be able to work through this process in a way that was going to be constructive."

Brown also spoke about NTM's reaction to the report: "We're ashamed."

Brown, who grew up in an NTM missionary family in Brazil also said that theological failings planted the seeds for abuse in the organization. He says during the decades of Fanda abuse, NTM promoted a legalistic and authoritarian system among its members: "Any time there is legalism there is the stress of appearance and performance over spiritual reality."

That system made admitting failure anathema to some NTM workers at Fanda, and it made speaking out nearly impossible for children. Even parents of abuse victims faced pressure to conceal the truth by field workers determined to protect themselves and the organization. (The report does emphasize that some former Fanda students recalled good memories at the school, and it does not accuse all Fanda workers of abuse.)

Brown says NTM also emphasized mission work over family needs: "In New Tribes Mission's zeal to reach out into very hard, difficult places, we left families behind."

In 1997, that philosophy began changing, according to Brown. A letter from the group's executive committee to NTM missionaries apologized for the group's harshness and called for a gracious, Christ-like environment. Brown calls the era "a pivotal time" in the organization. The abuse report called it a "tectonic shift in priorities and practice" that would transform the institution.

Nearly 13 years later, NTM still operates boarding schools, but Brown says the organization makes clear that parents don't have to send their children. When he grew up on an NTM field in Brazil, about 90 percent of NTM children (including Brown) attended boarding schools; today about 9 percent do.

Even as NTM floundered in its internal Fanda investigation, NTM also began forming stricter standards for child protection in the 1990s and helped form the Child Safety and Protection Network subscribed to by more than 30 large mission agencies. Brown says that since the late 1990s, NTM has dealt with three cases of child abuse involving adult males. But more allegations of abuse may surface as the report is read. Brown says: "We're committed to looking at any allegation that comes up."

For now, the Fanda scandal is NTM's focus. The report includes a long series of recommendations for NTM, including action against former NTM workers accused of abuse, workers accused of not preventing abuse, and workers charged with not responding properly. NTM says it has already taken action against 14 of the individuals named in the recommendations.

Though the report didn't comment on whether criminal charges were possible against abusers two or more decades later, Brown said he would personally contact the church leaders of the perpetrators. But Tchividjian says his team found no evidence that NTM had contacted abusers' church leaders in the past.

The recommendations also include NTM setting up a victims' fund to pay for medical and mental health treatment associated with abuse, and setting up a retreat for NTM leaders to apologize personally to victims.

It's unclear whether those steps will actually help the Fanda victims. The report includes a breathtaking catalog of the suffering investigators uncovered among former students: "denial, memory loss, depression, guilt, feelings of powerlessness, panic attacks, the inability to sing in church, anger, fear, distrust of adults, suicidal thoughts and actions, self harming, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual experimentation, sexual confusion, sexual repression, running away, turning to the occult, criminal behavior, imprisonment, and death."

Tchividjian says the investigators learned of one student who tried to commit suicide while enrolled at Fanda, and of another death that could be a Fanda-related suicide. Mikitson told me she was aware of "several suicide attempts, one there at Fanda and several later in life in the states."

Tchividjian says another student currently in jail for drug-related crimes began abusing drugs at Fanda. And a former student who spent time in jail for vehicular homicide told the investigators he began abusing alcohol because of his abuse at Fanda.

Other victims are spiritually seared. "Because of NTM, I absolutely despise anybody who calls themselves a Christian," one victim told investigators. Another said Fanda "has destroyed any spirituality I had." Another: "I hated the God of Fanda because God meant legalism and hypocrisy."

Some, like Mikitson, who started a website for victims, have found hope. A few years ago she encountered a church with a welcome tagline: "No perfect people allowed." She finally began to understand Christian grace. "Legalism taught me that God hated me, but grace taught me that I am loved indeed," she wrote on her website. "Legalism bound me to impossible perfection, but grace freed me and gave me a heart that longs to obey Him." Mikitson says she and other victims are pleased with the abuse report and eager to see NTM act. After NTM announced its first steps, Mikitson wrote in an email: "I am now in a place of great hope."

For all of the horror of the Fanda scandal, Tchividjian says there's another sobering reality: This kind of abuse happens in other ministry settings. Grievous sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have dominated headlines in recent years, but some Protestant ministries and churches have confessed that the scandal has reached inside their walls too.

The mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) have all reported abuse scandals at boarding schools over the last two decades. GRACE's website and Facebook account offer a running list of current abuse allegations in evangelical congregations across the United States. "But those are just the cases that get reported," said Tchividjian. "Who knows how many go unreported?"

Tchividjian, a Liberty University law professor and former child sexual abuse prosecutor, says churches should recognize that they are often targets of predators: "Pedophiles like churches." He adds that predators often abuse the trusting nature of Christians: "If we don't have our antennas up and our guard up to know that people are going to exploit the very fruits of the Spirit that Christ calls us to live, we're foolish."

Safeguards for churches include developing written, common-sense policies regarding any work with children, including nurseries, Sunday school classes, and youth groups. GRACE and similar groups help churches think through such policies to prevent abuse. Tchividjian says his group also helps churches and Christian organizations respond when preventions fail.

Tchividjian is hopeful that NTM will respond appropriately to its own scandal. "Right now, words mean nothing," he said. "Actions are going to be key." The attorney sees an opportunity for the missions organization to respond in a way that other ministries have not: "If they do the right thing, it will be groundbreaking."

In the meantime, the stories of some high-profile abuse survivors offer hope for others who continue to struggle. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, revealed a few years ago that he was a victim of severe abuse at a Christian Missionary Alliance boarding school in Africa. Though the abuse deeply wounded him, he says it also drove him to a life of ministry to children. "I escaped what should have been the destruction of me and everything about me," he told the Colorado Springs Gazette last year. "I am useful. I am a tool in God's hand. It is a surprise to me and pretty much to everybody else."

The complete GRACE report-including names of alleged perpetrators-is available online at fandaeagles.com

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.