The law firm Rothgerber Johnson & Lyon recently published an article titled Are Protestant Ministries a New Market? Lessons Learned from the Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal. This authors are L. Martin Nussbaum, primary contact for the Religious Institutions Group, and Theresa Lynn Dixon Sidebotham, formerly an MK in Indonesia. This article discusses child abuse in the Catholic church, in Protestant religious groups (including mission boarding schools) and in government settings such as schools and juvenile facilities. I am responding to his statements about MK abuse, which show a lack of understanding of MK issues, in spite of the fact that an MK is named as an author.
The authors state that sexual abuse lawsuits against religious organizations come in waves, and reasons that these waves are a result of marketing by lawyers in order to expand their business, since settlement amounts for Catholic plaintiffs are dropping off. There might be lawyers doing this, but there are other explanations for the wave of allegations being brought forward by MKs. Demographics alone can explain it. During the 60s and 70s, boarding school attendance was at its highest numbers, and this is when much of the abuse occurred as well, at least in SIM schools. The MKs from that time are just now reaching a point in their life where they feel safe reporting the abuse, or when they can no longer ignore the effects it has had on their lives. You can read more about this in my post Delayed Disclosure of Abuse on the Mission Field. The internet, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are also playing a big role, as MKs are becoming aware that they are not the only ones who suffered from abuse, and are being empowered by each other to tell their stories. It is easy to do this today, to a world-wide audience, in a way that the mission cannot edit or censor. The fact is that most MKs present their stories to the mission first, sometimes for a long time without results. When an investigation is opened it is done by an independent panel, not in the courts. Lawsuits are more of a last resort with MKs, so the wave of stories coming out today is hardly the result of influence by marketing lawyers.
The authors state that the “theory of repressed memories is junk science. The almost universal human experience is that traumatic events are more memorable, not less.” I am not a psychotherapist, but then neither are either of these authors. What is passed off as a factual statement is based on the work of Elizabeth Loftus, in The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1996). Elizabeth Loftus’ theories are just that – theories – which have been highly criticized by some of her colleagues and labeled as inconclusive, abstract, and invalid. Her main argument for her theories is that there are no controlled scientific experiments to prove that repressed memories actually exist.
I disagree with the statement that it is universal human experience that traumatic events are more memorable. I know many MKs, including myself, with huge memory gaps and fuzzy memory. Memory loss is a natural survival skill, a coping mechanism and sometimes I believe it is a gift from God. Memories can resurface when you are ready to process them, or can be triggered by an event or a sensation, causing severe symptoms such as PTSD. Dissociative amnesia is inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature. For more information on studies in this area see Jim Hopper’s page on Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse. I have to make clear here that the abuse stories I know of at SIM schools are not the “fuzzy” type, they are clear memories that can be corroborated by several MKs.
The article states that “Some allegations of abuse in missionary boarding schools conflate actual abuse with typical MK issues, or confuse the two. Most MKs have feelings of disorientations, dislocation, abandonment, and rejection, whether or not they attended a boarding school….These experiences, though painful, were often not abusive, but an outcome of a particular choice of lifestyle and occupation by the parents. For a missionary child to face a boarding school separation is no more abusive than for military children to have their fathers sent to Iraq for a year.
Really! Do these people think that we can’t tell the difference between homesickness and rape? No one is bringing allegations of disorientation or abandonment and trying to pass them off as abuse. Sure, the separation was a root cause of the problem, because if the parents had been present the perpetrators would not have had their power, however the real issue here is rape of children by staff, rape of children by other children, severe punishments and humiliations inflicted on children by dorm parents and teachers.
The article cites the documentary “All God’s Children” as an example, stating that “it appears to assume that growing up as an MK is abusive by definition.” I am flabbergasted by this statement – did they actually watch the movie? Are they suggesting that the event at Mamou were a normal part of growing up as an MK, and not abuse?
The article states “Some investigators assume the guilt of the organization and the truth of every claimant’s report. Many accusations are true, but a substantial percentage are exaggerated or untrue.” There are two things wrong with this statement. The first is that all the investigation reports I have read showed meticulous research by the investigators, interviewing and corroborating all of the allegations. In fact in the Mamou investigation one perpetrator was never named because only one victim would testify against him, and he was still employed by the mission. Secondly, it is insulting and unsubstantiated to say that a large percentage of claims are exaggerated or untrue. Although many of the statements made in this article are cited in footnotes, this one is not. I can only assume it is a personal opinion without any factual basis, and it certainly shows a derogatory attitude towards abused MKs.
This article takes the GRACE organization to task for several reasons, and I disagree with a few of their points, but one of the most important is their statement that “The report, discussing numerous sensitive personnel issues and naming specific employees, was released simultaneously to the board and the general public. A board should receive such a report confidentially and then decide whether the values in play are best served by public announcements.” According to this article, the mission board should be able to decide what to do with the results of an investigation. This exact situation happened with the Mamou investigation. The investigating panel handed the results over to the mission, who refused to release parts of the report, even to the MKs who were victims! The MKs felt like they were being further victimized by this withholding of information. It is just more of the same behaviour that brought these problems about in the first place – the secrecy surrounding abuse. It is WRONG to keep information about abusers a secret, because it creates an environment where victims think they are the only ones suffering, and are reluctant to come forward. It shelters the perpetrators and allows them to keep on committing these crimes. A mission board that receives a report confidentially and then withholds information from victims and the public is just continuing to participate in the cover-up.
The article ends with a few open-ended questions. “Is there a moral statute of limitation for the person who offended 30 years earlier, reformed his life, and provided good ministry without blemish thereafter?” No, there is no moral statute of limitations! This law office should know that sexual abusers do not just strike once, they abuse over and over again, and most likely that perpetrator did not have a ministry without blemish.
Does it matter whether the boundary violation with a child was slight or severe? NO! This is a call that can only be made by the victim themselves. It would be presumptuous for the mission or a lawyer to tell a victim that their abuse was only “slight”.
What does the forgiveness preached by the ministry mean when it comes to disciplining a perpetrator? The ministry often preaches a skewed message of forgiveness, meant to keep the victim quiet by telling them to forgive and forget. Are these authors implying that victims should be forgiving their abusers and not asking that they be held accountable? See the Thoughts on Forgiveness in the pages on this blog.
This article concludes by saying “We hope that this paper might help facilitate such learning. The risks are great. Now is the time to prepare.” These lawyers are drawing the battle lines for missions who wish to protect themselves against an onslaught of sexual abuse lawsuits. Advice like this will only make missions even more secretive, more cautious and protective of themselves, and less willing to listen to abused MKs and to help them. In spite of having their own MK on staff (who may or may not have attended a boarding school), it is clear that these authors don’t know or understand abused MKs and their issues.
Missions, and especially SIM, seem much more concerned about the legal defense of their resources and their reputations than they are about helping MKs who were abused by their own staff.