The girls—now grown women—reported they were terrified of the man, who sometimes used physical force and often threats to keep them quiet, and warned some girls not tell anyone of their “secret game.” Much of the abuse took place at boarding schools where missionaries sent their children—one described as a place where children often were isolated and homesick and where the letters they wrote to their parents were screened by the adults in charge to make sure they didn’t write anything negative or upsetting, which could distract their parents from their work for the church.
The survivors told the investigators these things: He told me to be quiet. He covered my mouth with his hand. He said, “Don’t tell your parents. They will never believe you.” If you tell, “something very bad will happen to you” or “they will hate you for being a liar. God punishes liars.” And “you aren’t very pretty. You are lucky that I am paying attention to you.”
The report does not name any of the perpetrators or the victims, but several years ago eight women brought accusations of abuse in Grace Presbytery in Texas against William Pruitt, a former missionary in the Congo who went on to work as an associate minister for Highland Park church, Dallas. Pruitt, who denied the charges, died in 1999.
The report states that the abuse continued even after the man returned to the United States and began working at Highland Park church, a large and prominent congregation. Some of the victims were his relatives. Some incidents, according to the report, occurred in a Highland Park church building or when the man made pastoral calls. His victims included three adult women. He molested one adolescent girl in the U.S. on a continuing basis, sexually abusing her on the average of once a month from 1971 to 1974, the investigators found.
In response, the inquiry committee has issued 30 recommendations—among them, that any adult found guilty of abuse should be removed from mission service; that alleged victims of sexual abuse be given more rights when alleged perpetrators are investigated in church disciplinary proceedings; and that allegations of abuse at other boarding schools in Egypt and Cameroon also be investigated. Two of those who served on the inquiry committee were involved in an earlier investigation that, in a report released in 1997, documented sexual abuse at a missionary boarding school run by the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination in Guinea, Africa.
The executive committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) established the independent committee of inquiry in 2000, after Marian McClure, director of the denomination’s Worldwide Ministries Division, received a phone call telling her of the abuse and after representatives of the PC(USA) heard accounts of what had happened at a retreat for survivors the denomination helped to arrange. Since then, the inquiry committee has interviewed women who spoke of the abuse and former students from the schools and retired missionaries from the Congo; examined records from the denomination; and received letters, notes or statements from more than 450 people. The inquiry committee’s responsibility was “primarily pastoral” rather than disciplinary or to reach conclusions about civil legal liability.
According to the report, the abuse occurred at two schools in the Congo—at Central School in Lubondai, in the heart of the country, and one later in Kinshasa, at a hostel established in the late 1960s as a joint venture by Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries so their children could attend a nearby school.
The inquiry committee’s report states that the missionary systematically looked for ways to be alone with young girls; used movies, magic tricks, toys, backrubs and even hypnosis as ways to win the trust of children and get access to them; visited girls who were sick and crept into their rooms at night, sometimes wearing black pajamas so he couldn’t be easily seen. He fondled and kissed girls’ breasts, put his hands inside their clothes and felt their genitals, sometimes penetrated them vaginally with his finger.
Some of the girls never told anyone of the abuse at the time, feeling shocked and frightened. Some tried desperately to avoid the man and to protect their younger sisters.
Eight girls did tell someone immediately after the abuse, sometimes classmates or siblings, sometimes an adult. But the adults they turned to told them, “nice girls don’t talk about such things” or “don’t talk about it again,” the report states.
The missionary accused of the abuse worked for the American Presbyterian Congo Mission—which was sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the southern branch of American Presbyterianism, which in 1983 reunited with the northern United Presbyterian Church in the United States to become the PC(USA) The mission in the Congo—a country previously known as Zaire or the Belgian Congo—was far-ranging; was, according to the report, “the largest Presbyterian Mission in Africa and in the world.”
In some cases, allegations of the abuse involving the missionary were brought to the attention of Presbyterian officials—including at the Nashville offices of the Board of World Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. In at least two cases, the denomination paid for counseling or medical treatment for girls—both the daughters of missionaries who were not Presbyterian—whose parents reported to officials in Nashville that the man had sexually abused them. The executive secretary of the Presbyterian’s Board of World Mission was informed of at least one case, and the missionary was asked to undergo a psychiatric consultation at the denomination’s expense, after which he promised to stop using hypnosis.
But the inquiry did not go further—indeed, the man and his wife were allowed to return to the Congo in 1976 as volunteers in mission, even though some involved in approving that appointment knew of the allegations that he had sexually abused young girls in Africa.
The inquiry committee describes the response by Presbyterian officials to the complaints from parents as “minimal” and says it “may be readily understood in light of the enormous personal, organizational and administrative costs that would have attended a more aggressive approach.” To do more, the report states, “the executive secretary would have had to account for a decision that attacked one of the most visible and most highly-respected members of the denomination’s largest and most successful foreign mission.”
But the inquiry committee also concludes “over the period of approximately 10 years, key opportunities were repeatedly missed by church officials who received credible reports of one missionary’s abusive behaviors.” And it adds “it is clear that the organization’s failure to intervene and prevent a sexual molester’s continued access to children and other vulnerable persons allowed for the toll of victimization to arise to tragic levels.”
The inquiry committee determined that a male Methodist missionary also abused the children of Presbyterian missionaries who attended The American School of Kinshasa from 1968 to 1970. The Methodists and Presbyterians operated a hostel together for missionary children who attended the school; a Methodist couple and a Presbyterian couple served as house parents. The report states that a male Methodist missionary had “inappropriate sexual contact” with younger female children during story-time, sexually abused an adolescent girl, and once drove so fast that a Presbyterian girl fell out of the van “and suffered serious physical injury. He returned her to the hostel and left her in the care of other students. Several hours passed before another adult arrived and transported her for necessary medical attention.”
The report states that “the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church declined our request to review some of its mission personnel records. The Methodist Board of Pensions similarly refused to help us locate Methodist families whose children had lived at the Methodist-Presbyterian Hostel and who might have been one of the victims of the perpetrators being investigated,” although most retired Methodist missionaries the committee contacted “were extremely helpful.”
The report states that in March 1970, after an adolescent girl told her mother and two others that she had been sexually molested by the male Methodist house parent at the hostel, the hostel board investigated and the Methodist house parents later were reassigned.
The committee said it did not have the resources to determine whether the missionaries also abused any African children—a possibility raised by missionaries and missionary children—so it recommends referring its report to the Presbyterian Church in the Congo.
The report states that 22 cases of abuse have been documented regarding the Presbyterian missionary, but “the committee could only speculate as to the total number of victims of this man. The accepted professional literature would suggest that it is a significantly higher number.”
Some people did attempt to confront the missionary while he was still alive—the inquiry committee said it documented 11 such instances. “Colleagues went to him in good faith, believing that he would repent and change his ways,” the report states. “None of the 11 confrontations resulted in repentance or reform.” The man responded that the girls had misunderstood him or said things such as, “I only gave backrubs or hypnotized children to help relax them and reduce pain.”
And the report states that the missionary’s wife “played an active role in concealing the truth about her husband,” vigorously denying any wrongdoing and that “she went to great lengths to foster an atmosphere of denial” among retired missionaries who had served in the Congo. At one point, in 1998, a man whose parents had been missionaries wrote to the man urging him to confess and repent and, according to the report, the wife responded: “Confess? To whom? For what?”
The committee also suggested that the missionary children these abusers preyed upon were particularly vulnerable—living far from their parents for months at a time, often with letters as their only form of communication. The committee stressed that the conditions in the Congo for missionary families were difficult—with disease and little water and political unrest that at times endangered the missionaries’ lives—and that the decision to send their children far away for education was for many parents wrenching, but was a decision they made so their children could get an education and so they could dedicate their lives to serving God.
“We recognize and want to remind others that the personal behavioral choices of a few”—those who committed the physical and sexual abuse—”do not negate the accomplishments of the dedicated many” who served the Presbyterian church in the Congo, the inquiry committee wrote.
The boarding schools became places where the children and adults established their own social structure. The children—- some of them very young—were often homesick and lonely. The staffs were chosen sometimes more for availability than for skill or training in education. The parents sometimes were not told if the children were sick and some of the children, to deal with the pain of separation, learned to bury what they felt . The children looked after each other—sometimes well, sometimes “with older children taking advantage of younger ones,” the committee reported.
At Central School in Lubondai, “the boys’ interactions could be brutal and hierarchical,” the report states. One former student wrote: “One could aptly call certain periods of time `reigns of terror,’ ” and the committee heard reports of ridicule, sexual harassment, and older boys forcing younger ones to endure the “belt line,” where the littler ones would be whipped with belts as they crawled between the older boys’ legs. An adult beat one student with a board so severely the student could barely walk.
Students at Central School “lived with loneliness and intimidation,” the report states. “They were parented by older children, sometimes compassionately, sometimes in a hostile way. Punishments administered by adults were inappropriate and unduly severe.”
Both at Central School and later at the hostel, some sense of family emerged—with the children turning to each other for support and students calling the adults who cared for them “aunts” and “uncles.” Eager for attention, “children sought out adults with vivid personalities who made them feel special,” the report states—including the two men now accused of sexual abuse.
And these children were especially vulnerable—being separated from their parents, afraid of political instability and violence in the country as the Congolese people wrestled for independence for Belgium and later fought for control of the country among themselves. The missionary children “lived with heightened fear (especially during periods of political violence) and sometimes desperately hungered for adult attention, affection and security,” the report states. “Such circumstances provided an ideal climate for a man who was not really their kind uncle but a sexual molester.”
Some retired missionaries who served in the Congo told the investigators they didn’t understand the value of the inquiry all these years later.
But many of the victims told the investigators that the impact of the abuse has echoed through their adult lives, causing pain for them still. Some grew distant from their own families; many struggled with issues of trust and betrayal and had troubled marriages and difficulty with intimacy, finding sex disgusting, or grew sexually promiscuous; some struggled with depression or eating disorders or substance abuse, or even attempted suicide.
“Some survivors gave been so emotionally damaged themselves that they are unable to be nurturing parents,” the report states, adding that “some witnesses spoke with great sorrow of not having been able to be the kind of mother they would have liked to be.”
And “in many interviews we heard how abuse had alienated a victim from God. How could God have allowed this to happen? If God is Father, God is male; if God is male, God must be like the abuser. Many witnesses spoke of no longer being Presbyterian, of not being Christian at all.”
The report includes 30 specific recommendations it urges the PC(USA) to prevent in response to these revelations. Among them:
It says the missionary community should stop denying what happened and that the United Methodists should conduct a similar inquiry.
It suggests investigations into allegations involving physical and sexual abuse of missionary children at other boarding schools—the committee heard reports from what it calls “very credible missionary sources” of alleged abuse at the American Presbyterian Mission, Schutz School, in Alexandria, Egypt from the 1950s to the 1980s and at Hope School in Elat, Cameroon in the 1960s.
It suggests new approaches for encouraging people to report abuse of missionary children; for training missionary candidates regarding sexual abuse; and for handling Presbyterian disciplinary cases involving sexual abuse.
It also suggests that the PC(USA) was right to create and finance an independent inquiry into the abuse by missionaries in the Congo—in part for theological reasons. The victims were children. And “it is a grave mistake to assume that truth-telling about abusive behavior will destroy the church or any part of it,” the report states “The people of God are resilient. We belittle the people of our faith community, and our God, when we fail to acknowledge sin and seek truth. In the final analysis, whether to inquire into allegations of abuse is a choice of faith.”
The inquiry committee consists of five persons: Geoffrey Stearns, a California lawyer and an Episcopalian who has participated in similar child abuse investigations, including for the Christian and Missionary Alliance and for the Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic church in the western U.S.; Howard Beardslee of New Hampshire, a retired Presbyterian minister, missionary and psychotherapist who worked in Africa; Lois Edmund of Manitoba, a psychologist and a Mennonite whose parents were missionaries and who participated in the Christian and Missionary Alliance investigation; James Evinger of Rochester, N.Y., a Presbyterian minister and nursing professor who has written about clergy sexual misconduct; and Nancy Poling of Illinois, a Presbyterian academic tutor and editor who has written about domestic violence and clergy sexual abuse.
Officials from the PC(USA) released the 173-page report from the inquiry committee Monday, Sept. 30 and have scheduled a news conference for the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 1, to discuss it.
A request by an Outlook reporter for comment from a United Methodist official was not immediately returned.