(PLEASE SEE UPDATE REGARDING RNS’ ABWE COVERAGE BELOW)
This Christianity Today article [CLICK HERE] has been out for several weeks now. It’s a good start in addressing mission field abuse (but should come with a trigger warning for its graphic opening paragraph).
I say “good start” because CT has been notoriously soft on these mission boards in the past, particularly ABWE and their firing of GRACE one year ago.
This new CT article does expose several key stories of abuse, but it also carries the hallmarks of most evangelical journalism, which is that the mission boards are allowed to weigh in (of course—I’d never suggest otherwise), but their answers that ring hollow are not questioned and instead allowed to hang there as the last word on the subject. What I mean is, specifically, when a representative of the CMA (Christian and Missionary Alliance) says “well we’ve apologized” and “if there was more I thought we could be doing, we’d be doing it,” the correct next sentence is to point out how they’ve failed to live up to those apologies.
And when the mission boards’ self-created, self-insulated, self-regulated “safety structure” (namely CSPN, Child Safety Protection Network) is touted as helpful to victims, that summation should probably be backed up by actual endorsements from victims themselves and not just a random claim by the CSPN board chairman Becky Leverington that their efforts have been “appreciated” by victims.
Another problem of the article is its focus on boarding school abuse. While I agree wholeheartedly that boarding schools are problematic, the more I talk to other MKs and missionaries from other mission boards through the incredible network for survivors that MK Safety Net (an MK-led, MK-created child safety advocacy group) has created, the more I see a common thread running through almost every account of abuse on the mission field.
It is not in fact boarding schools that is the biggest common denominator—though of course they often factor in—but rather the greatest common denominators are more often …
- authoritarian religious environments
- toxic leadership structures that are closed to outside accountability
- extreme reputation management as standard operating procedure as opposed to transparency
- abiding and cultivating untouchable “favorites” or “beloveds” among the missionaries (hint: often the most charismatic and charming person in the room is the one most likely to be the pedophile)
- an inbreeding of leadership such that exposing Pedophile A is deemed inappropriate, because other members of Pedophile A’s family are on staff with that mission board (or another closely related one) and the protection of their feelings is deemed more important than the physical protection of other children who may have contact with Pedophile A
Truly, almost every single one of those five commonalities runs through the stories of MK abuse I have heard for the last three years from ABWE to New Tribes, to CMA, to SIM and so forth, and I wish that the CT journalist had tackled those issues instead of the easiest scapegoat for missions to shift the blame toward: boarding schools. Yes, they are a problem, but could there be an easier out for these mission boards than to just blame-shift the problem onto the boarding school and shut it down? In doing so, they become free from their personal responsibility for the mission culture that created, cultivated and then curated the sickness (which was, namely: the protection of abusers). Please understand, the abuse is only part of the problem. It’s what these mission boards have done about the abuse and abusers that must also be addressed.
Please, let’s do rid ourselves of boarding schools in missions work. But let’s not forget the problems of leadership and religious cultures within these mission boards that allowed the abuses to flourish in the first place.
NOTE: It’s also not lost on me that ABWE is not even mentioned in the article by CT. Maybe because boarding schools weren’t part of our problem. However, ignoring ABWE has recently been a common theme in evangelical journalism. Religious News Services (RNS) has referenced ABWE in passing in two separate articles recently without actually naming them. They have become simply “an independent Baptist mission board” as if their identity is irrelevant (Article 1 / Article 2).
Truly, these evangelical “news outlets” do not know what they are contributing to by not naming such boards. Every time the boards are not named, their PR teams breathe huge sighs of relief and the victims weep that their pain isn’t worthy of mention. There is no reason in either RNS article not to name ABWE. Instead, RNS has chosen to be an active participant in ABWE’s reputation protection.
If you believe that RNS should be naming ABWE in relevant articles as opposed to referring to it as a nameless “independent Baptist mission board” then please drop a quick line to Kevin Eckstrom, the general editor of RNS. [EMAIL ADDRESS REMOVED AT REQUEST OF KEVIN ECKSTROM.]
This morning I received the following note from Kevin Eckstrom and I imagine all of you who wrote received it as well:
Ladies and gentlemen:
I’m writing to respond to the deluge of emails I’ve received from you in the past 24 hours about RNS coverage of Bob Jones and, indirectly, the ABWE. We always appreciate hearing from readers, even and especially when they think we’ve missed the mark.
A couple of points:
— I have asked my staff to insert the ABWE name into the articles you referenced. That has been done.
— I can assure you that there is absolutely zero attempt on our part to protect or expose anyone, ABWE or otherwise. We are not, as some of you have alleged, trying to “protect their reputation” or “giving them the gift of anonymity” or “saying that the victims do not deserve or need justice.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
— In fact, there was zero discussion on our staff about naming or not naming ABWE in our stories. Perhaps that was an oversight, but it was not an intentional one. In journalism — where space, deadline and staffing pressure loom large — some decisions are made for no particular reason. Both of these stories were written on tight deadlines with minimal staff, and the focus of the stories was meant to stay on Bob Jones; the ABWE was mentioned only in passing, and nothing more.
— You should know we take your concerns seriously, and have responded appropriately. You should also know that RNS is the only mainstream media out with a paid writer (Boz Tchividjian) who is dedicated to writing about abuse in religious settings. So we take this matter seriously and respectfully.
I believe we have addressed your concerns to the best of our ability, and now I would ask you to remove my personal email address from your website–on the Internet, that’s like listing your personal cell phone number for people to call at any hour of the night, and makes my inbox vulnerable to spam.
Religion News Service
529 14th Street NW, Suite 1009
Washington, DC 20045
A BIG THANK YOU TO THOSE OF YOU WHO HELPED RIGHT THIS.
Yes, he’s right. It was mentioned only in passing. But it was mentioned, so it’s worth naming. Also, he is not addressing the fact that I wrote to him privately on two separate occasions immediately after the first article ran asking him to address it and my emails were ignored. My concerns were NOT “taken seriously.” And so I’m grateful for the myriad of voices who echoed mine in saying that it wasn’t right to mention ABWE–no matter how “in passing” it was–without naming them. THANK YOU, FRIENDS!