Council will apologize to victims of sexual abuse by missionaries

LOUISVILLE — A committee investigating sexual abuse that Presbyterian missionaries allegedly committed against children in Africa from 1945 to 1978 has reported back — and leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) plan to send a letter of apology to those who endured the abuse and to set up a work group to consider what steps to take next.

The Executive Committee of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly Council voted Sept. 25 to send a letter to those who experienced the abuse, to “acknowledge and apologize for the abuses that have been done to them, and for the additional suffering caused when reports of harm to them were ignored, misunderstood or dismissed, and when persons representing the church discounted or overlooked the harm done to them.”

That admission places the PC(USA) in the territory of the national debate — particularly difficult for the Roman Catholic church — surrounding pastors and other church leaders who have sexually abused children, and whether those in authority responded at the time by trying to stop the abuse or by ignoring it or covering it up.

The executive committee met for 90 minutes in closed session to discuss the Independent Committee of Inquiry’s report, and later voted unanimously to approve its response.

But the report itself won’t be made public until Monday, Sept.30. Barbara Renton, chair of the GAC’s executive committee, declined to answer any questions about it — the purpose of the inquiry committee was “essentially pastoral,” the executive committee response states, and the inquiry committee wants time to contact the survivors of the abuse to discuss the report with them before it’s made public.

That means key details still not have not been revealed — including which Presbyterian missionaries had complaints substantiated against them, how many children were involved, and whether some of those people tried to alert the denomination earlier, and what response they got when they told of the abuse.

Many of the accusations were made against William Pruitt, a former Presbyterian missionary who later became an associate pastor at Highland Park church, Dallas, and who died of a heart attack in 1999 at age 88. Eight women — the now-grown daughters of other Presbyterian missionaries, some of whom lived at a boarding school where Pruitt worked and some of whom encountered him when he visited the places where their parents worked — brought allegations against Pruitt in Grace Presbytery in Texas, which initiated an investigation. In keeping with the PC(USA) Constitution, that investigation ceased when Pruitt died.

Marian McClure, director of the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division, has said previously that at least 20 people have made claims that Presbyterian missionaries — including Pruitt and others who also are dead — sexually or physically abused them between 1945 to 1978 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The executive committee’s response states that McClure got a phone call in August 1998 from a former, retired missionary who had served in the Congo and “this call began a journey with a group of women who told of sexual abuse by the late Rev. Mr. William Pruitt during their time as missionary children.”

The PC(USA) has provided pastoral care counselors to meet with the victims, and has agreed to pay up to $15,000 apiece, when asked, for individual counseling for those people. It also established the independent committee of inquiry in 2000 — a five-member group consisting of two certified psychotherapists (one with experience in dealing with child abuse, one with experience in dealing with sexual abuse by church officers); an attorney with experience in addressing sexual abuse by church officers; a PC(USA) minister and a PC(USA) layperson.

The purpose of the inquiry committee was “essentially pastoral,” the executive committee’s response states, and “is not a disciplinary action under the PC(USA) Constitution, nor is it to evaluate or reach conclusions about civil legal liability.”

It is unclear exactly what else the PC(USA) intends to do. The executive committee’s response says the denomination will sponsor a retreat for those who experienced the abuse and “will work expeditiously to develop or improve ways to prevent abuse in the future,” including responding to specific recommendations the inquiry committee has made. But it does not say what those recommendations are.

There will be a news conference at PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville on Tuesday, Oct. 1, to discuss the report.

Editor’s Note — It was incorrectly reported earlier here that the names of abuse victims would be included in a non-public “need-to-know” supplement which will contain information about the alleged offenses committed by mission personnel. The names will not be included.The Outlook regrets this error.