Delayed Disclosure of Abuse on the Mission Field

Why do missionary kids sometimes wait many years to talk about abuse they suffered at boarding schools?  What is the response of SIM to those abused MKs who are coming forward now?

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in September 2009 explored the patterns of disclosure of child sexual abuse by victims.  Twenty five percent of the respondants had never disclosed that they were sexually abused.  Of these respondants, men were twice as likely as women to keep child sexual abuse to themselves.  People were more likely to report abuse by a stranger, and less likely if it was a family member or someone else they knew.  Half of sexual abuse survivors delayed their disclosure, some waiting up to five years before disclosing the abuse. 

Many missionary kids who are abused as children wait much longer to tell their stories, sometimes 30 or 40 years.  Why didn’t they just report the abuse right away, or at least when they were still young adults and the perpetrators were still active on the mission field?

A child in a mission-run boarding school is in a pretty powerless position, and it is not surprising at all to me if that child wouldn’t want to report these things to the very dorm parents that were creating the abusive environment in the first place.  That would just invite punishment.  What about reporting it to their parents during vacations?  Maybe some kids still had a close enough relationship with their parents after spending 9 months of the year at boarding school to talk about these things, but I think the norm was we grew away from our parents pretty quickly.  We were also given the message at school that our parent’s work was of the utmost importance, much more important than our own happiness or well-being.  Living in an abusive environment was also the norm.  Even though my life back then was very unhappy at times, I never said to myself when I was a child “I am being physically and spiritually abused.” Children often do not recognize abuse as abuse if it is the normal way of life for them.

Why didn’t missionary kids who were abused report it right away when they returned to their home country and began their adult life?  There are many reasons for this.

  • It was enough of a culture shock just settling into life in another country.  This process was such an emotional drain that memories of abuse as a child were put on the back burner.
  • Many of the perpetrators still held active positions in SIM, and it would be very intimidating for an MK to confront them.  It is still intimidating today to talk to some of the dorm parents who held such power over us, and I am in my 50s now.
  • Some victims had suppressed their memories of abuse.  One victim of sexual abuse at Bingham Academy didn’t process the memories until she heard her perpetrator had died.
  • Whether purposefully or not, SIM has created an environment that is unsafe for MKs to talk about abuse.  Through Simroots we have been chided for complaining, told how lucky we are to grow up at KA, and told that it is a sin not to put the past behind us and forgive.   I gave some examples from Simroots in an earlier post.  Even in the most recent issue of Simroots an SIM employee states that there are MKs “who point to their MK background to rationalize their shortcomings or to walk away from God.”  This produces nothing but guilty feelings and doesn’t make a victim feel their story will be welcomed or heard by SIM.
  • Since no one talks about these things and investigations are kept secret, many MKs think they are the only one who suffered, and don’t want to come forward alone.  The fact is that perpetrators usually have more than one victim. 

A study published in Clinical Psychology Review in 1997 focused on male victims and why they do not disclose their abuse.  One reason cited is that professionals do not create conditions that would enable males to talk about their abuse.

Psychologist Mic Hunter states in his book Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse that  “Some of the effects of sexual abuse do not become apparent until the victim is an adult and a major life event, such as marriage or birth of a child, takes place. Therefore, a child who seemed unharmed by childhood abuse can develop crippling symptoms years later and can have a difficult time connecting his adulthood problems with his past.”  These symptoms themselves, including major depression, substance abuse, attempted suicide and often a history of continued abuse in adulthood can create such a struggle for survival that it is impossible for the victim to address the root of the problem.

SIM could help these MKs by providing an outreach where they acknowledge abuse and create conditions that enable the survivors to talk about it.  But we are being told that its a “delicate situation,” and that these things take time, you can ruin things if you proceed too quickly.  We are told SIM is already in the process of caring for ANY MK who was abused at boarding school.  How is that possible when there are so many MKs who were abused who have no contact with SIM?  If we don’t know that we are being cared for, are we really being cared for?

Maybe a good first step for SIM would be to stop being secretive about what they are doing, and to start treating us like adults and equals instead of continuing the authoritarian relationship we had with them in the past.


20 thoughts on “Delayed Disclosure of Abuse on the Mission Field

  1. Pingback: Legal Article Shows Misunderstanding of MK Issues. | SIM Missionary Kid Survivors

  2. Jim, your stories of dealing with SIM when you needed help after graduating make me very sad, and also angry at the way that you were treated. Especially since I have been reminded only recently by SIM, when I was approaching them with an issue, that we ARE part of the SIM family. Apparently MKs are part of the SIM family when we want to bring things to light that SIM thinks should be “kept in the family,” but we are not part of the family when we have real, tangible needs to be met.

  3. @ Jim, I am very sorry for your experiences with SIM. I am a SIM MK, and while I have a good relationship with many at SIM, I had horrible experiences at KA and have several friends that had horrible atrocities committed against them as well. I have recently been to SIM about this issue, and as with many christian organizations, no one wants to see the “ugly.” Just like people only want to hear about a loving God………….no one ever wants to hear sermons about a just God, vengeful God, etc. The only thing that has “saved” me with respect to KA is the fact that my parents believed our stories and fought hard to make changes! I am glad you find this blog helpful.

  4. Maggie, I certainly agree that there are many cases where MK’s had great experiences in boarding schools. However, I think that it is relevant that you specify “and have gone on to serve in overseas missions”. I found that my upbringing left me with little cultural or career role models other then missions. Because I was unable to finish 4 years of college, because of the many deficits I was left with when I returned to the states, most missions were not interested in my services. SIM wanted 4 years of college or a trade skill in order to be recruited. I was not ready or able to deal with life here in the US effectively without help that SIM was unwilling to give.

    Many people have this problem in our society. However, that this is happening to children of people who have been called to a “higher calling” puts a higher burden on them to be an example to the world.

    When we discussed these issues with SIM, they were very quick to explain that they are just a business entity enabling independant missionaries to accomplish their goals. They did not feel that they had any moral obligation to help anyone who wasn’t a full time “member” of the mission.

    All those years of calling missionaries I grew up with “Aunt” and “Uncle” was a lie. According to SIM they were not family, they were business associates.

  5. Well put Liz. @ Maggie, just because your friends had good experiences doesn’t mean that everyone did. There are hundreds of stories out there about emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that happened in boarding schools and just because your friends didn’t experience those atrocities doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And as Liz points out, there are very few places victims can speak out. You need to come to this site as in any issue….with an open mind…..knowing there are always 2 sides to every story. Read up on New Tribes Mission, the PCA, Mamou Academy………..look at the Catholic church…….just because there are some great priests, teachers, pastors, dorm parents that look after children doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there that commit atrocities on those they were supposed to cherish and take care of while their parents were doing God’s work. Just because we talk about the bad doesn’t mean we are “anti.” Try walking/listening to someone who has been sexually assaulted, physically abused, humiliated as a young child and has no one to turn to and who has to live with those nightmares his or her entire life………if you can do all that and come out thinking the same way……………great for you.

  6. What about all of the MKs that have had great experiences and have gone onto the field themselves? Many of my best friends grew up in boarding schools as Mks and have gone on to serve in overseas missions, they are happy and healthy, and their kids are happy and healthy as well… I don’t know what happened with you guys, and I don’t diminish the bad experiences you had, but your conclusions seem very one-sided.

    • Maggie, yes, of course our conclusions are one-sided because this is a blog for abuse victims. It would hardly be a good blog for victims if we went on to then justify the system by telling about all the “good” experiences other MKs have had. Believe me, there are plenty of other places where you can read those stories, but very few places where you can read about the experiences of MKs who suffered abuse. And maybe that’s why you don’t know “what happened with us guys” – because NOBODY EVER TALKS ABOUT IT. That does NOT mean that it didn’t happen. Obviously your MK friends are giving you a very one-sided story, so I’m glad you are here now and hearing about what really happened.

  7. I was an MK with SIM. I was not physically abused, but I think that it is important to understand the implications of the neglect which missionary families are guilty of. They are called to a higher calling and their “Mission” is very critical. It’s the very lives of the people they are serving. However, because of the time and energy they put into thier mission, they cannot provide thier children the care and nurturing they require. The Bible says that, as Christians, we “should raise our children in the way they should go…”, and this takes a lot of time and energy. Anyone who has raised children know this. As Christians and Missionaries, they should provide an example or the right way to do this, as Paul instructs Timothy and Titus. Paul in I Corinthians 7:32-35 says,

    32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

    To me this means that married Christians in a ministry MUST be involved in the worldly interests of thier family. Neglecting this just leads to problems and divisions in the family.
    I grew up in an environment which was total divorced from the reality I would be required to cope with after I turned 18 and the mission no longer had any interest in my well being. My parents were still devoted to thier mission. I had no relationships with a larger community to hold on to. To me this is abusive neglect.

    • I hear you Jim. Where does the idea come from that the work of the mission is more important than your own children? I was lucky, as I realize now. My parents did leave the mission field and come back to the States for my last two years of high school, and first year of college, and then returned to Africa. At the time (and for years later) I really resented it, and wished I could have stayed at Hillcrest and graduated with my class. It’s only just lately I have realized the sacrifice they made in giving up their work during that time, and that it was the best thing for me. Here’s another blog that talks about this: Having college age kids myself now I find it very heartwrenching to hear these stories.

      • Thank you for creating this blog for expressing our stories and feelings. I appreciated the link to Michelle’s blog.

        We actually took our case to the SIM management and did not get a serious response. They felt that we just needed to get over it and move on. I feel that if there had not been neglect there would not have been the abusive neglect I talk about, or the physical and emotional abuse others have talked about. The neglect is institutionalized at SIM because there is such peer pressure to devote yourself to the “mission” and the goals of the mission that it takes an unusual person to ignore that and give the necessary attention to their children. In some mission fields, especially third world countries as in Africa, it is very difficult, not impossible, to raise your children with the attention they need. It is important to remember that these children are going to have to live in a culture, here in the US, after they turn 18, where they have little experience.

  8. @Karen………..the sad thing about SIMROOTS is that it almost takes an “act of congress” to get something published that may shed light on abuse and how it has affected many MK’s ( myself included) and their parents. In my opinion, it is at times biased towards those whose experiences were not such good ones. Everyone wants a “feel good” article when, in fact, there are many horrible stories out there and, I am quite frankly, tired of being told to “grow up, forgive, move forward, get over it.” Those were our formative years. All perspectives need to be published/portrayed………

  9. @ Karen…there are no ‘quick’ clarifications or justifications in my opinion.
    Isn’t your comment tantamount to a Republican Party or Democratic Party or Communist Party newspaper disclaiming their liability for the slant they give stories, or what stories they choose to publish, or what candidates they push? Doesn’t ‘Responsible Journalism’ with your slant on Truth in your professed independant publication become yours? You use world-wise disclaimers long after the publications have gone out for years with topics such as the topics you have covered unfeelingly. It might be good, since we claim Christ as OUR Saviour, to choose more carefully what is published in the future and deal more sensitively with the mess SIMROOTS has helped prolong. The lines between SIMROOTS and SIM and the people who grew up in SIM and some that continued on working for SIM become quite blurred in all of this. I know that there were lots of people, some anonymously, that spoke out in that publication with negativity to anyone who spoke out about abuse.
    It sounds like the SIMROOTS publisher is trying to distance themselves from years of perhaps irresponsible journalism, and also speaking for SIM, (at the same time carefully explaining they are not speaking for SIM) by saying that it’s not necessarily SIM’s opinion either. I feel that, after having read SIMROOTS over the years and having spoken with its publisher on the phone years ago, and am now reading the recent calculating comment, that the publisher does not really know or care who writes or what is written in their publication and feels no responsibilty for its damaging text. In fact its text has been found to be harmful for many on a continual basis for decades. Your words like ‘not necessarily the opinion of’ are a fairly transparent legal waiver with the intention of the published text still quite clear.
    No apology, just a waiver, Karen?

  10. Just a quick clarification . . . Simroots is not an SIM-run newsletter. It is run strictly by MKs whose parents were with SIM, through donations from its readers. Any published articles are the opinions of the authors and not necessarily of the Editor or of SIM.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Karen, that SIM as an organization is not responsible for publishing Simroots. And it’s awesome that you are reading this blog and joining in on this discussion. Actually the Simroots comments that I refer to all did come from MKs, from parents of MKs, and from SIM missionaries, not from the SIM Board. It is WORSE being told by other MKs to “stop being wimpy”, in my opinion. It’s much harder to speak out against peer pressure than against the administration.

      Some MKs are SIM missionaries now, some have worked as dorm parents themselves or work for SIM administration today. So there is a lot of overlap between SIM and MKs.

      Even though Simroots is physically published by a staff of MKs, the articles also come from parents, dorm parents, teachers and even SIM administration. I don’t have the mailing list but I am guessing many on it are not MKs but SIM staff, and some of the donations probably come from them as well. The Simroots web site has been hosted on an SIM server for years, a subdirectory of It’s THE system – the only one that I know of – for communication between SIM and MKs – I’d be surprised if SIM doesn’t have some influence over what is written there.

  11. My brothers and I attended Mamou Alliance Academy and we were participants in All God’s Children, the documentary that tells the story of that place. When the film screened across the country the past two years, the number one question we were asked was, “Why didn’t you tell.” Your discussion about that topic is very thorough and offers great answers.

  12. Thank you Liz,
    Your writing regenerates the memories I carry from the CMA boarding school, Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinee, West Africa. I’ve the same response, reactions to staff, and so on. I am grateful you’re speaking out. I am 64 this year…a grandmother still haunted.

    • Dear Vivian, I am so sorry for the pain that you and others have been living with for most of your lives. I pray that we all will be able to find peace.

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