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Fear at Fanda

"Fear at Fanda" Continued...

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

When NTM parents and victims began complaining about abuse at Fanda in the 1980s, NTM's local Senegal field committee failed to report the abuse, to take steps to protect children, or to listen to parents. Higher NTM authorities, even when some perpetrators admitted to abusing children, failed to investigate thoroughly or respond aggressively. According to the report, NTM leaders allowed some of the worst abusers to resign, without terminating their employment.

The Fanda abusers apparently never faced criminal charges, either. NTM leaders say they contacted state abuse hotlines in the United States to report those who returned there, but that hotline workers told them the overseas abuse fell outside U.S. jurisdiction. The GRACE report contends that NTM should have contacted authorities beyond state hotlines. "Why aren't you calling the sheriff's office?" said GRACE president Boz Tchividjian in an interview. "Why aren't you calling law enforcement?" The report doesn't indicate whether Fanda victims reported their abusers to authorities.

GRACE is a Virginia-based organization aimed at preventing and responding to child abuse in ministry settings. The seven-member board of directors includes two former child abuse prosecutors, a clinical psychologist, a professional counselor, and a teaching elder. Meanwhile, NTM conducted its own investigation in 1997 and confirmed as many as 12 sexual abuse victims of one Fanda missionary, and another 11 victims traumatized by knowledge of the abuse. It cited four more abuse victims of another missionary, according to the report. Still, the August report on the scandal found NTM's investigation "wholly incomplete and inadequate."

By 2008, now-grown victims of Fanda abuse began calling for NTM to respond. Kari Mikitson, an abuse victim who lived at Fanda for three years, created a website called fandaeagles.com to chronicle victims' stories and correspondence with NTM. On the website Mikitson writes that after leaving Fanda, "I had a life of deep depression, drug addiction-a runaway with a death wish." Mikitson was 8 years old when a Fanda worker began sexually abusing her, and she underwent years of therapy. Her grief-stricken parents tried to help while coping with their own guilt over failing to protect their daughter. "Our family went through a decade of darkest hells," said Mikitson.

By last year, NTM leadership had conducted another cursory review of the abuse scandal and concluded that they needed an independent report. In a phone interview from his office in Sanford, Fla., NTM CEO Larry Brown explained why: "It became very evident that New Tribes Mission didn't have the competence or the trust to be able to work through this process in a way that was going to be constructive."

Brown also spoke about NTM's reaction to the report: "We're ashamed."

Brown, who grew up in an NTM missionary family in Brazil also said that theological failings planted the seeds for abuse in the organization. He says during the decades of Fanda abuse, NTM promoted a legalistic and authoritarian system among its members: "Any time there is legalism there is the stress of appearance and performance over spiritual reality."

That system made admitting failure anathema to some NTM workers at Fanda, and it made speaking out nearly impossible for children. Even parents of abuse victims faced pressure to conceal the truth by field workers determined to protect themselves and the organization. (The report does emphasize that some former Fanda students recalled good memories at the school, and it does not accuse all Fanda workers of abuse.)

Brown says NTM also emphasized mission work over family needs: "In New Tribes Mission's zeal to reach out into very hard, difficult places, we left families behind."

In 1997, that philosophy began changing, according to Brown. A letter from the group's executive committee to NTM missionaries apologized for the group's harshness and called for a gracious, Christ-like environment. Brown calls the era "a pivotal time" in the organization. The abuse report called it a "tectonic shift in priorities and practice" that would transform the institution.

Nearly 13 years later, NTM still operates boarding schools, but Brown says the organization makes clear that parents don't have to send their children. When he grew up on an NTM field in Brazil, about 90 percent of NTM children (including Brown) attended boarding schools; today about 9 percent do.

Even as NTM floundered in its internal Fanda investigation, NTM also began forming stricter standards for child protection in the 1990s and helped form the Child Safety and Protection Network subscribed to by more than 30 large mission agencies. Brown says that since the late 1990s, NTM has dealt with three cases of child abuse involving adult males. But more allegations of abuse may surface as the report is read. Brown says: "We're committed to looking at any allegation that comes up."

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