The mission arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) plans to send out a letter of apology for the sexual and physical abuse that was endured by dozens of people out on the mission field.
The denomination had received 85 reports alleging abuse – incidents that spanned a 40-year period and on ten different mission fields.
Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council, expressed horror and the church body's deepest apologies as it released a detailed report last week.
"We all have great pain – we are grieving and praying for healing," she said.
Over the past six years, the Independent Abuse Review Panel – chartered by the General Assembly Mission Council Executive Committee – received "disturbing stories of harms to children."
The panel conducted extensive investigations into the 85 allegations and concluded that abuse did occur in 30 instances on eight mission fields, including Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Pakistan, and Thailand. With respect to the other 46 reports, most could not be substantiated due to incomplete information.
Of the confirmed reports, there were surprisingly more cases of sexual abuse by a minor than by an adult.
Many of the alleged offenders were teachers, houseparents and peers, and most of the victims were children of missionaries. Many of the abuses occurred at schools and boarding facilities. Though boarding schools were conceived as a way of facilitating the mission work of the parents, such settings where children are separated from their parents pose greater risk of abuse, the 546-page report noted.
The report noted, "Children in boarding school felt vulnerable. Was it the separation from their parents with whom they might have communicated their fears? Was it the code of silence through censorship of letters home or implicit messages to not worry busy parents? Was it the loneliness and abandonment they felt? Or was it feeling they must be bad?"
Some victims of abuse who were interviewed described the effects of the incidents on their lives, citing depression, shame, difficulties with relationships, spiritual confusion and guilt.
Others recalled how they remained silent about the abuse.
"To this day I do not fully understand why I did not cry out as he attempted to rape me; why I wanted this crisis solved without others knowing," one witness was cited as saying in the report.
And still others who did report abuse were not protected from further harm.
Nine offenders were named in the report and they include a Presbyterian teacher, an indigenous African male, a Presbyterian missionary, a child of a Presbyterian missionary and Presbyterian clergy houseparents.
Two of the nine are being referred to their governing body for possible disciplinary action. Another two are unknown, one is a member of a non-denominational church and the other four are deceased.
Though many of the abuses occurred in the past, the IARP said the Church must acknowledge the sins of the past and address it in order to move toward healing, accountability and eventual prevention of abuse.
With the release of the report, the panel concluded that "the Church will no longer be able to say they do not know how abuse happens to children on the mission field" and "it will not be possible for Presbyterians to claim ignorance of the far-reaching effects of abuse in the lives of individuals, families, and mission communities."
It also dismissed claims that revelations of past abuse on mission fields could hurt the current mission of the church.
The Rev. Paul Seebeck, associate for Mission communications for the General Assembly Mission Council, explained, "The IARP report does not seek to diminish PC(USA) mission work, rather it seeks ways to do that work better."
He added that the denomination has already taken steps to improve support for mission families and screening practices of mission personnel.
Some of the actions that Presbyterian World Mission has taken following the findings include creating a Sexual Misconduct Ombudsperson position to allow for unbiased response and support of those reporting abuse; creating a 24-hour hotline as a means through which abuse could be reported; and providing age-appropriate conversations with children for prevention of sexual abuse.
The IARP has further recommended that top PC(USA) leadership make a strong statement of apology on behalf of the church and that the PC(USA) be held accountable for the fact that there are probably a number of adults who suffered as children in mission boarding schools and that the church did not pay adequate attention to the needs of missionary children.
The PC(USA) no longer maintains boarding schools, but parents on the mission field still make choices about educational settings for their children, and the Church still makes choices about which missionary placements it will facilitate, according to the report.
The panel added, "To conclude that children were devalued is not to blame the Church or missionary parents, or to impugn the value of mission work. It is simply to say that the balance of commitments, attention, and resources was not what it needed to be: this is a problem that the Church can address; this is an opportunity to learn and to improve."
Currently, the PC(USA) – the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country – has almost 200 missionaries serving overseas. Similar investigations of abuse on the mission field have been conducted by other bodies, including the Christian and Missionary Alliance and The United Methodist Church.