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Fear at Fanda

Sexual Abuse | A sexual abuse scandal at a New Tribes Mission boarding school in West Africa reveals a long tale of childhood suffering and the poor record of missionary accountability

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Warning: This report contains disturbing accounts of child abuse in ministry settings.

The most harrowing hours for the children living at the Fanda Missionary School in Senegal, West Africa, came at night. It wasn't just the country's war-zone conditions of the 1980s and 1990s that brought dread into the hearts of young boarding school students who missed their parents at bedtime: For many of the children, the midnight prowlers they feared most were the missionaries assigned to protect them.

Twenty years later, their dark story of abuse is getting daylight, exposing the victims' ordeal and the child abusers who remain free today. In late August, an evangelical organization called GRACE, an acronym for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, issued the results of a year-long investigation into child abuse at Fanda, a now-closed boarding school operated by New Tribes Mission (NTM)-one of the largest evangelical mission agencies based in the United States.

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The findings of the independent study-commissioned by NTM-are brutal. They include years of sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse of NTM children by NTM workers at Fanda, and years of gross failure by NTM leadership to respond properly. They also include a report of statutory rape, and the victims' response to abuse includes drug- and alcohol-related crime as well as possible suicide.

The report presents a critical moment of truth when one of the largest mission agencies in the country has an opportunity to act in the interest of abuse victims still struggling to recover from decades of personal destruction. It's also a moment for other evangelical groups and churches to learn from NTM's admitted failures and to face the stark reality: This could happen anywhere.

Near the end of the 66-page report that includes 351 footnotes and reams of excruciating detail, the authors try to capture the horror of what they discovered after interviewing NTM abuse victims: "If the world could have seen and heard what GRACE saw and heard etched in the faces and trembling voices of those who shared their experiences with us, surely the world would act."

Within a week of the report's release, NTM leadership responded: The leaders didn't dispute the report. They expressed sorrow and confessed that the group had sinned against some of its most vulnerable members. They promised swift action against specific abusers.

NTM leaders say they have begun following the report's recommendations regarding a number of former and active NTM members. Some of the recommendations involve terminating NTM membership. For the worst perpetrators, the recommendations involve notifying abusers' current church leaders, and cooperating with criminal or civil investigations.

The road to this point of reckoning began more than 20 years ago in Senegal. For decades, NTM clung to a tradition once common among other mission organizations: When parents left for remote mission outposts, NTM usually expected (though it didn't require) that parents leave their children in boarding schools staffed by other NTM missionaries.

It wasn't just the difficult conditions of the mission field; it also was a ministry philosophy the report described this way: "The children were viewed as a hindrance to the work of God." NTM leaders believed couples could achieve more without the distraction of children and encouraged parents to leave their children behind for the sake of other souls. According to the report, "Parents were often reminded that if God sacrificed His only Son, missionaries should be willing and prepared to do the same."

For many children left at Fanda during the 1980s and 1990s, the results were disastrous. The investigation records 22 to 27 victims of sexual abuse and more than 35 victims of physical and emotional abuse by at least 12 adults at the school. The report says victims of spiritual abuse "may well include almost the total school population."

The descriptions of abuses against children as young as 8 are nauseating. They include accounts of men repeatedly molesting, fondling, and caressing young girls. At least one predator-a "house parent" to the children living in the school's dormitory-molested girls at night in their dorm beds. Others sexually abused girls that they invited to their private homes on campus. One abuser followed girls into dorm showers. One account included the statutory rape of a male teenager by a missionary's wife.

Physical and emotional abuse also abounded: The report included accounts of vicious beatings and humiliation of children by NTM workers at Fanda for infractions like breaking a toilet or wetting the bed.

Some of the most insidious abuse: The report says that Fanda staffers told children that telling their parents about the abuse would distract from the work of missions and send Africans to hell. Some perpetrators spoke about God while they abused children. One former Fanda student told the investigators: "I remember him [an abuser] talking about his close relationship with God while he was touching me."

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