Most of the abuse involved the children — now adults — of Presbyterian missionaries who served overseas for predecessor denominations of what is now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). As was common at the time, many missionaries sent their children to boarding schools for education while the parents were busy working for the church.
The investigative report substantiates 11 cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by adults; 18 cases where one minor sexually abused another minor, sometimes a sibling; one case of physical abuse; and one situation in which there was a failure to protect a child known to be at risk.
At least one of the adults accused of abuse is a Presbyterian minister who is still alive, said Hunter Farrell, the PC(USA)’s director of world mission. The review panel’s findings have been reported to that person’s presbytery, Farrell said during a news conference Oct. 8.
The panel documented abuse that occurred in eight countries: Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Pakistan, and Thailand. The investigators were unable to substantiate some reports of abuse and church officials point out that the numbers of documented cases of abuse are relatively few, considering how many Presbyterians served honorably as international missionaries during this time.
The panel identified 81 people who were possible victims of abuse and substantiated the abuse of 30 of them. Some of the 81 had died or could not be reached; some did not want to participate in the inquiry. In nine cases, the panel determined that abuse had not taken place.
But the investigators determined that 30 people were victims of abuse, some repeatedly. The 546-page report presents chilling details of what did happen: of adults creeping into children’s rooms at bedtime; of the victims’ feelings of shame and betrayal and powerlessness; of parents who trusted that the church would take care of their children; of children singled out over and over for ridicule and abuse.
One victim told of how the damage was “overwhelming,” describing “how alone, afraid, abandoned my 10-year-old heart felt,” and the “desperate, frightening, lonely, vulnerable, heart-closing feeling.”
Farrell and Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council, both stressed that the focus of the review panel’s work was truth-telling and creating a “safe place” where victims of the abuse could tell their stories, be heard and start to heal — not prosecution.
“The purpose of this was an investigation,” Valentine said at the news conference. “We are not an adjudicatory body.”
Asked about the possibility of criminal charges being brought against those accused of abuse, Valentine said the panel determined it was not required to make mandatory reports to the governments of the countries where the abuse occurred.
And Farrell said “we are unable to speculate about issues of jurisdiction and statues of limitation.” He also said: “I don’t think it’s the time to assess the blame.”
Asked what she would want a presbytery to do in a case where a minister has been accused of abuse, Valentine said: “It’s for those presbyteries to deal with it” — she would not offer advice beyond that.
The PC(USA)’s leadership did offer its “deepest apologies” to the victims.
Valentine said that on reading the committee’s findings, “We all have great pain, grief, a sense of responsibility, and prayers for healing.” Farrell said he wept when he read the report.
The Executive Committee of the General Assembly Mission Council created the review panel in 2003, after an earlier investigation documented sexual abuse at two church boarding schools in the Congo and the investigators began to hear what Farrell described as “whispers” of possible cases of abuse in other places.
In 2002, an Independent Committee of Inquiry issued a report involving allegations of physical and sexual abuse at schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That report found “overwhelming” evidence that a former Presbyterian mission worker had sexually abused at least 22 girls and women over nearly a 40-year period, both in Africa and in the United States, from 1946 through 1985.
That report did not name a perpetrator, but eight women filed 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 in Dallas. Pruitt denied the charges and died in 1999.
The report states that the abuse by the mission worker continued even after he returned to the United States and began working at Highland Park Church. The investigating report found that some incidents occurred in a Highland Park church building or as the perpetrator made pastoral calls. His victims included adult women and adolescent girls, some his own relatives, the report stated.
Girls who were students in the Congo boarding school — now adults — reported they had been terrified of the man, who used the power of his position and both physical force and threats to keep them quiet, telling them their parents would never believe them and that “God punishes liars.”
That report found that the abuse occurred at two schools in the Congo — at Central School in Lubondai, and 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.
Some of the girls tried to tell others about the abuse at the time.
But adults they turned to for help responded that “nice girls don’t talk about such things” or told them “don’t talk about it again,” the report states. In some cases, allegations of the abuse involving the missionary also were brought directly to the attention of Presbyterian officials, but the report describes those officials’ response as “minimal.”
As a result of the Independent Committee of Inquiry’s work, the General Assembly Mission Council established an ombudsperson’s office to deal with reports of sexual abuse, and approved a series of policy changes related to sexual abuse. Another outcome of that investigation was the creation of the Independent Abuse Review Panel to investigate possible cases of abuse at other church-related boarding schools.
The three members of the panel who wrote the report are:
- James Evinger, a Presbyterian minister who has worked at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has experience studying child abuse and sexual misconduct in faith communities, and served on the Independent Committee of Inquiry;
- Carolyn M. Whitfield, who has a background in social work and public policy analysis and was a staff assistant to the Independent Committee of Inquiry; and
- Judith Rhea Wiley, a counselor and family therapist who has worked professionally with sex offenders.