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Far away from home

A sex and financial abuse case in Nigeria raises questions of accountability for U.S. groups funding overseas ministries

Far away from home

Former students of the Stephens Center school (Onize Ohikere)

Deborah Bala was 9 years old when she arrived at the Stephens Center Group of Schools in 2007. She had lost her father to Islamist attacks in Kaduna state. With her mother and brother, Deborah moved to Kano, a majority Muslim city and the largest city in northern Nigeria.

Her mother soon sent her to Stephens Center, a boarding school in Abeokuta—the capital of southwest Ogun state—for children who survive religious violence in northern Nigeria. There she quickly became a favorite of Isaac Newton-Wusu, the director. This, she says, was not a positive development for her.

Bala, now 19, is now one of seven women who say they were sex abuse victims—and who belong to a group of 30 former students publicly accusing Newton-Wusu of sexual abuse and misuse of the nonprofit’s funds.

The students’ accusations involve one Christian school in one nation, but they highlight trends that reverberate beyond Nigeria. They show that the concerns of the #MeToo movement—and a willingness to speak out about sexual abuse—extend well beyond Hollywood and the United States. They also illustrate the dangers when Western Christians give money to overseas groups without ensuring accountability.

Newton-Wusu founded the Stephens Center in 2000 with support from Voice of the Martyrs (VOM-USA), the Oklahoma-based Christian nonprofit that for more than 50 years has been an advocate for the persecuted church worldwide. Newton-Wusu, now 64, leads Voice of the Christian Martyrs (VOCM), which received VOM-USA funding in Nigeria until VOM-USA pulled funding two years ago as scandals mounted.

VOM-USA did not publicly acknowledge possible impropriety at the Stephens Center until long after the breakup, saying it “is aware of accusations that have been made against a former partner ministry” in an undated statement posted and updated on its website.

Voice of the Christian Martyrs

Isaac Newton-Wusu (Voice of the Christian Martyrs)

The statement claims VOM-USA “had already ceased supporting VOCM-Nigeria’s work when we became aware of these accusations” in June 2016, but allegations of sexual abuse have been surfacing for years, say former employees and students in Nigeria.

Newton-Wusu denies all the charges against him, telling me they are “absolute nonsense.” He says the charges were part of a campaign led by people with grievances against VOCM, and he claims former staff members were the ones involved with financial irregularities. (He showed me email conversations where one former employee admitted to stealing and refunded more than 2.4 million naira—$6,600—allocated to assist widows and victims of Boko Haram attacks near the Cameroon border.)

He won a victory in June, when a magistrate court in Nigeria threw out charges against him—but the accusations come from multiple former students, and the students are not backing down. I spoke with 13 of them in Abuja, the nation’s capital, where they had traveled in January to ask the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria to weigh in on their accusations.

Bala told me about encounters with Newton-Wusu that she says began in 2010, when she was 12. She said Newton-Wusu once sent her to arrange his bedroom in the classroom block, then entered the room behind her. Bala said he asked her to sit on his lap and kiss him. She said, “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something bad. I tried to drag myself away.” She fled when one of her schoolmates, Friday Adamu, knocked on the door.

Bala and Susan Rayner, another former student, both said Newton-Wusu had bedrooms in his offices in the classroom block and on the second floor of the girls’ hostel. Bala said Newton-Wusu once asked her to sleep in his room in the VOCM headquarters during a trip to Lagos.

In another incident, Bala said Newton-Wusu drugged her with a medication that tasted like sweetened vitamin C. She said the orange tablet came in a packet with no description. Bala said she later agreed when Newton-Wusu asked her to go and take a shower in the tub, adding, “I wouldn’t say no to my dad.”

She said he entered the bathroom in his towel and joined her in the bathtub. “We bathed together. I don’t remember anything after that.” She woke up at about 7 p.m. and returned to the hostel, saying she felt physical pain that night.

Bala said abuse happened two other times before she finally spoke about it. “The last time I felt penetrations. I didn’t have the strength to move or shout.” Bala said she told Kemi, the director’s relative who served as a matron in the girls’ hostel. She says when Newton-Wusu found out, he started to single her out for punishments and told her peers she was a thief.

In a similar case, Rayner, now 23, first arrived at the center in 2007 from Dutse, capital of northeast Jigawa state. At the time, the 12-year-old had lost her mother in religious attacks staged by Islamic extremists, who targeted Christians and burned down churches.

Rayner said Newton-Wusu asked her to bring food to his house opposite the school once in 2011. She said he started to touch her breasts and made a sexually inappropriate request. Rayner said she escaped when Newton-Wusu’s wife, Yetunde, entered the house.

Other former students speak of financial corruption. In 2013, VOM-USA sponsored Oklahoma-based prosthetist Jeffrey Arnette to start a center providing prosthetics for children wounded in conflict in Jos, Plateau’s capital. Nicodemus Baggi-Bawa, a Stephens Center graduate, returned in 2015 to work with the prosthesis center as a lab technician.

Onize Ohikere

The Stephens Center (Onize Ohikere)

Baggi-Bawa says he soon began to hear more reports of abuse from ex-students, but he continued to lead several projects, including a VOM-USA sponsored mission to deliver aid items to Nasarawa state, and another to set up a business program for widows in northeast Adamawa state.

That’s when he started to witness irregularities in how Newton-Wusu handled funds, he says. The director, Baggi-Bawa said, would pull money from some ongoing projects and allocate it to other expenses like “miscellaneous” in receipts to balance the books. “Sometimes, he’ll ask me to send him 100,000 to 200,000 naira [$280 to $550].”

He says Newton-Wusu also told him he could take some of the money from the projects he managed, which he did: “He gave me permission to get large sums for travel.”

Around this time, another American arrived to work in Jos. Dan Horn, an elder from the Reformation Baptist Church in Youngsville, N.C., began leading annual conferences to counter prosperity gospel teaching in the area in January 2014. Noticing personnel and other changes, he along with Arnette began to ask questions.

It wasn’t the first time reports of abuse emerged from VOCM. Horn said VOM-USA sent a team to Abeokuta in 2013 that included former President Jim Dau and VOM’s Africa regional director Petr Jasek to look into the reports. The team notified Newton-Wusu before arriving, Horn and Baggi-Bawa said.

Bala confirmed she was fearful of speaking truthfully to the VOM-USA team, after Kemi and Newton-Wusu’s wife, Yetunde, gathered some of the other girls who had previously reported Newton-Wusu.

“They went down on their knees begging us not to say anything [to VOM-USA officers], and said that if we do, the school would be closed down,” Bala said. She denied the allegations to the VOM-USA team, even though the visiting team promised to protect her and offered to take her abroad for protection, she added.

Jasek (an Africa veteran who was jailed by Sudanese authorities from December 2015 to February 2017) told me VOM “investigated the Stephens Center in an especially thorough process” and “did not uncover any evidence to confirm accusations of child abuse by Isaac.”

Later in 2015, Raphael Afolabi traveled to Oklahoma to receive training on how to work with prostheses. Arnette said Afolabi showed him a letter written by one of the girls at the center that outlined how she said Newton-Wusu abused her. He went with Afolabi to the VOM-USA headquarters and spoke with Jason Peters, the vice president of connection, about the abuse. “They said they already dealt with it,” Arnette said.

In February 2016, Horn and Arnette returned to the United States to discuss the financial and abuse allegations at the VOM-USA Oklahoma headquarters with Peters, Cole Richards (who is now VOM's president), and VP for International Ministry Mark Underwood. Horn said only Underwood showed up, and he told Horn and Arnette that an independent investigator would look into the allegations.

Horn said he also spoke over the phone with Dau, who told him the organization would need the names of the girls accusing Newton-Wusu before it hired a private investigator. Horn said he refused the request and asked instead for the contact information of the investigators, which was denied.

In an emailed response to WORLD, VOM-USA said the 2013 and 2015 accusations did not include any reports of abuse. VOM-USA confirmed Underwood launched an investigation into the 2016 claims and said the organization also carried out four on-site visits to the Stephens Center: “These inquiries confirmed VOM’s concerns with VOCM’s project and financial management capabilities, but did not uncover any evidence of further accusations of child abuse.”

Later in June, VOM-USA withdrew its funds from the partner ministry. Spokesman Todd Nettleton said the final funds transfer was approved on June 23 despite the accusations against the center. Asked why the funding continued, Nettleton told WORLD, “VOM-USA made every effort to withdraw support in a responsible way that wouldn’t create an immediate crisis of care for the children of persecuted Christians living in the Centre.” Several other global VOM affiliates also withdrew their funding from the center following the allegations.

VOM-USA in a statement said its leaders “forwarded all relevant information” to the FBI, but did not specify which allegations the documents covered.

Handout

Former Stephens Center students gather after addressing journalists in Abeokuta. (Handout)

By that point, VOM-USA had contributed more than $1 million to the Stephens Center beginning in 2013, but stated that it couldn’t have handled the case any differently since the organizations run independently. “There is nothing more VOM could have done,” said Nettleton.

VOM-USA continues to partner with indigenous evangelical denominations and some American organizations in Nigeria. The group said its aid efforts in the country this year will amount to $3 million.

Newton-Wusu continues to operate as the center’s director. When the magistrate court threw out the case against him, it was on the recommendation of the public prosecutor, who concluded the case was “heavily built” on “power tussle, conspiracy, and politics of some kind,” according to court documents. He questioned Bala’s account, saying parts of her testimony were “shaky.”

Despite the outcome of the case, Newton-Wusu told me he will continue to “seek justice.” On July 19, he filed a defamation lawsuit against Baggi-Bawa and 10 other people and groups, including two local media organizations. The court document said their activities “portrayed the complainant in a bad light … and exposed him to ridicule and hatred.” Newton-Wusu said the center lost about 200 children since 2016 when the accusations became public.

Newton-Wusu says Horn is giving former students money to speak against him. Horn confirmed his North Carolina congregation provided students with about $30 to cover their travel expenses during their conferences and court trials, but “we have never given them any money out of that context.” Horn said Reformation Baptist Church also paid legal fees directly to an attorney for some of the victims to file a case against Newton-Wusu after he threatened them.

Baggi-Bawa said Horn only gave the former students money for expenses for their campaign to bring the accusations to light and to encourage prosecution of Newton-Wusu. The campaign began last year when Baggi-Bawa reached out to former students about ways to address the accusations. It prompted officials in Nigeria’s Ogun state to look into the abuse claims and a state commission to recommend that Newton-Wusu step down as director until court proceedings concluded. He refused to do so.

The determination of the former students to publicize personal trauma is striking—because even before the alleged sexual abuse, they and their families were victims of Boko Haram and other extremist attacks.

At the time the campaign began, Bala said she was working to earn the money needed to pay for national high-school exams. She said she remains committed to speaking out about what happened at the center. “I don’t want my younger ones to be in the same [condition].”

—WORLD has corrected this story because a church and a medical practitioner didn't approach VOM-USA's board of directors about sex abuse accusations in 2015. WORLD also updated the story to correct the job title of Mark Underwood in 2016 and to clarify VOM-USA's past relationship with Voice of the Christian Martyrs in Nigeria.


 

 

Handout

Tom White (Handout)

VOM and Tom White

WORLD periodically receives questions from readers about a separate saga involving Voice of the Martyrs that dates back six years. In April 2012, Bartlesville, Okla., police were called to a home where the family of a 10-year-old girl alleged she had been molested by VOM’s executive director at the time, Tom White, a well-known advocate who had risked his life for persecuted Christians. The next day White’s body was found in a warehouse at VOM’s Bartlesville headquarters. He had committed suicide. The criminal investigation into White’s actions became a death investigation that soon closed.

Those who know the victim or her family say they have no doubt White abused her, but an investigation by police and by VOM—that included examining two years’ worth of White’s travel records, expense reports, and digital devices—turned up no additional evidence of abuse. In a statement provided to WORLD, VOM said it uncovered “no other allegation of inappropriate activity” and “in the six years since that time no other alleged victim has come forward.” —Mindy Belz

—This story has been updated to correct the age of the girl involved in the allegations.

Onize Ohikere

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.