I have just completed the reading of one of the most shameful, shocking and disturbing reports for a Christian organization. It is the GRACE report (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to New Tribes Mission “for the investigatory review of child abuse at New Tribes Fanda missionary school” in Senegal. The systematic abuse took place in the 80’s and 90’s against Missionary Kids (MK’s) while at this school.”

The introduction to the report states that “In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, New Tribes Mission (NTM) operated a boarding school in the village of Fanda, in the country of Senegal. The children of missionaries were housed at this school, sometimes over the strong objections of their parents. The workers NTM placed in charge of these children were often cruel and many of the boys and girls placed there endured sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse. Much of this behavior was criminal.”

As if this abuse were not enough, NTM systematically ignored the issue even when they were alerted to the abuse taking place. The field council in Senegal kept abusive personnel in the school even after complaints from children and parents. They downplayed allegations and did not alert the executive leadership in the United States. When the executive leadership in the US was made aware they did not alert authorities, allowed abusers to remain in NTM and hushed up serious (criminal) behavior they were made aware of. The GRACE report suggests that NTM placed the evangelization of the unsaved above the safety, protection and best interests of MKs. In some cases years went by before NTM was willing to even address the concerns of parents to say nothing of the abused children.

The cost to these MK’s of NTM in Senegal has been immense. While some have continued in their faith, others will have nothing to do with Christianity as much of the abuse was perpetuated in the name of Christ like the abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. Many are deeply bitter at NTM for the hypocrisy of ignoring the sin in their own organization. Like all those who have been victims of sexual, emotional or physical abuse, all of these kids (now adults) live with scars that will never be completely healed. As the report says, three generations have been deeply wounded and scarred by this abuse.

What contributed to a culture where such abuse could continue unfettered and for such a long period of time? The report suggests that NTM has had a culture of authority among its leaders that does not allow for disagreement. Disagreement was seen as rebellion and sinful and leaders led by authoritarian and coercive means. Field council leaders in Senegal had nearly complete authority over all aspects of their missionaries lives – with little recourse unless one simply resigned and even then, this was seen as a rebellious spirit against leaders. Even now, NTM leadership seems to believe this is a problem and is seeking to change their often legalistic, non-grace filled culture according to the report. They are also seeking to determine whether there were other places where such abuse took place.

It is also clear that NTM did not screen applicants for their mission with any degree of care. In addition, even knowing that they had pedophiles amongst them they did not discipline them, expose them or remove them. In one case a female missionary wife had an affair with a student at the school. The situation was hushed up, she was transferred to another assignment and the victim’s family was let go from the mission. Such a gross violation of trust can hardly be imagined! Only now – years later with the publishing of this report is it recommended that she be fired. Missions who do not properly and carefully screen applicants are on a course for trouble!

Too many missions in their drive to evangelize the world take almost all who come their way without regard to their spiritual, emotional, relational and skill health. This was certainly true of NTM as evidenced by those who perpetuated these egregious acts as well as the leaders who chose to minimize, ignore or even protect the abusers. Even at the highest levels of the organization there was not the health among leaders to choose the right course of action. The evangelization of the world took precedence over the care and health (spiritual, emotional and relational) of their own personnel.

What forced the issue for NTM? Why did they come forward now? Not, it seems, only their desire to bring sin to light within their organization (I hope their desire is authentic). There was the pressure put on them by their own abused MKs through their blog ( New Tribes Mission Abuse ), along with public pressure as the story has emerged over the last years. Even then, NTM’s response was too little, poorly managed, and fell far short of the independent investigation that finally took place by GRACE with its strong recommendations. This has left the affected victims and their families with serious questions as to whether the response today is genuine or is simply a reflection of self – interest. In the short run it is indeed hard to tell. The long run repentance, treatment of victims and changes in its ethos and culture will tell the real story.

Choosing to confront sin is a tough thing. But choosing to ignore it says everything about the character of an organization and its leaders.

This situation bothers me deeply on many counts. I am an MK and am aware of other situations like this that have destroyed the lives of MKs. I am a leader of a mission organization and know the trust that is placed in our leadership by supporters, staff and churches. I am a father and soon to be grandfather who cannot imagine a pain greater than the violation of my children or grandchildren and its devastating long term consequences. And, as a Christian leader I am convinced that we are and ought to be held to a much higher standard than others. No ends (evangelization of the lost) justifies the means (substandard treatment of kids so that the gospel gets out).

I hope and pray that something redemptive will come from this tragic chapter. Humility, repentance and a massive ethos change for NMT and healing for victims and their families. May such a chapter never be repeated in modern day missions.

The full GRACE report is a difficult and sad read. May it also be a cautionary tale for mission organizations. I understand my comments here are unusually to the point. Not more so, however, than the report that NTM solicited from GRACE.
  • Sep 06, 2010
  • Category: News
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