Sunday, June 21, 2009

I was at a book-signing event in Seattle a few months ago when I met Marilyn Christman, who asked me to look into the sexual abuse of Protestant missionary kids (MKs).

I ended up viewing “All God’s Children: The Ultimate Sacrifice,” a documentary by New York filmmakers Scott Solary and Luci Westphal. They were haunted by the stories of more than 80 children whose days at a Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Mamou, Guinea, in West Africa sound like something out of Abu Ghraib: savage beatings, sexual abuse, rape and sadistic punishments.

(Corrected paragraph:) Kids were beaten so hard the yardsticks broke. Old film footage of happy children at school — with classic hymns as the soundtrack — is juxtaposed with stern-faced adults describing the horrible things done to them. Mrs. Christman says she was raped by a male dorm parent when she was 16.

“It was the perfect set-up for a pedophile,” she said of the school. “You were groomed not to tell your parents what was going on. The staff would tell you that if you said anything was wrong, you were hurting God’s work there.

“There’s a lot of ambivalence among missionary kids about their faith. A lot of MKs will no longer darken the door of a church.”

She’s calling for independent investigations of the 50-plus overseas boarding schools encompassing 11,000 children. She has heard reports of a ring of sex predators in one South Asian boarding school, and she’s amazed there have been no lawsuits filed.

One of the most famous former MKs is William Paul Young, author of the evangelical best-seller “The Shack,” who was sexually abused while his parents were C&MA missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

In 2001, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported nearly 7 percent of former missionary children said they were sexually abused during their elementary-school years. That statistic was derived from a 1993 survey of 600 former missionary kids that was kept under wraps for eight years.

The 70-minute film includes video of an official apology by the C&MA from 1999, when the Colorado Springs-based denomination sponsored a retreat near Atlanta for abused children of missionaries.

“Kids were instructed at the boarding school to never tell their parents they were unhappy,” said Miss Westphal, “because that would distract their parents from missionary work and saving souls. They were told, ‘If you complain about the school, such and such a person would go to hell.’”

“And it’d be your fault,” Mr. Solary said. “These children were burdened that they were responsible for the salvation of Africa.”

Compared to lengthy investigations of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, little has been written about abuse in Protestant settings. The United Methodist Church released a report in April about seven abuse cases at a Congolese boarding school from 1945 to 1978.

The Presbyterian Church USA released a report in 2002 of sex abuse of missionary children in Egypt, the Congo and Cameroon. One man, a now-deceased minister at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, molested at least two dozen women and girls, according to the Dallas Morning News.

“All God’s Children” will be shown Aug. 8 at a Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests conference at the Crystal City Hyatt Regency. Be forewarned: It’s depressing.

• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at

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