The man, Sean Coppedge, is the son of former Presbyterian missionaries in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a teenager, he lived at the Presbyterian-Methodist Hostel, which was associated with the American School of Kinshasa and served the children of missionaries from multiple denominations.
In December 2010, Coppedge filed suit in Jefferson District Court in Louisville, alleging that in 1988 he was sexually abused by another student at the hostel. The suit claims those running the hostel knew the perpetrator had earlier sexually abused another boy, yet they allowed the perpetrator to return to the facility.
Coppedge contended in the lawsuit that the PC(USA) had received reports before 1988 that children of missionaries had been sexually abused at church-run schools and “knew or should have known . . . that its mission children were vulnerable to sexual abuse.”
He filed the lawsuit in state court in Louisville, where the PC(USA) has its national offices. Coppedge sought damages for emotional distress, lost wages, the cost of counseling and other injuries.
In a March 15 ruling, Judge Irv Maze dismissed Coppedge’s complaint, saying it was filed too late under Kentucky’s statute of limitations. That statute generally restricts such personal-injury lawsuits to within a year of when the incident happened, or within a year after the victim turns 18, if he or she was a child when the injury occurred. Coppedge, now 36, may appeal that ruling.
The allegations Coppedge made in the lawsuit closely match the findings that an Independent Abuse Review Panel reached in October 2010, when it released a 546-page report documenting cases of physical and sexual abuse involving the children of missionaries serving in Africa and Asia from the 1950s through the 1980s. That report publicly named six people as perpetrators, including Samuel Shamba Warlick, whose parents were also Presbyterian missionaries at the time.
The independent abuse panel’s report alleges that when Warlick was a teenager, he sexually abused at least two boys at the Methodist-Presbyterian Hostel and later abused at least one of those children again, even though the victims had immediately informed the hostel’s houseparents after they were first abused. After each of the first two incidents, the houseparents drove Warlick across Kinshasa to his parents, a middle-of-the-night journey that was considered dangerous, the panel’s report states.
The report also states that “some missionary parents, at the time, viewed the behavior as abusive and took steps to try to protect” other children of missionaries “who they thought were at risk.”
The panel concluded that two governing boards of the hostel had failed to protect children from Warlick. It pointed out that some of the adults who knew of at least one of the incidents at the hostel were board members.
“It is tragic” that adults from the mission community did not do more to protect the hostel residents, the report states. It says the governing boards “had the role and the authority to keep Shamba Warlick out of the Hostel, and they failed to do this, resulting in further abuse.”
In an interview with the Outlook last October, Warlick denied the allegations made in the report. On Jan. 14, federal agents arrested Warlick in Florida and charged him with distributing and possessing child pornography.
The abuse panel’s report documented 30 cases of abuse that occurred in the mission field from 1950 to 1990. It publicly names nine people who it determined had abused children – two in Cameroon, two in Congo, two in Ethiopia, one in Pakistan and two in Thailand
In his ruling, Maze stated that Coppedge’s lawsuit wasn’t filed quickly enough to meet the statute of limitations requirements. The judge also ruled that an exception to the requirement – one in which a victim did not discover the injury for years after it occurred – did not apply in this case.
“Sexual molestation of a child is a horrible wrong in our society,” and the impact it has had on Coppedge’s life “is undoubtedly severe,” Maze wrote in the ruling. “This ruling in no way seeks to diminish or minimize these effects; it is simply recognition that the cause of action was not brought by the time period required by statute.”