Child Safety in Missions

Child Safety in Missions

Being raised on a mission field deeply affected by the perversion of abuse, I have given considerable thought to what a healthy mission field and board for MKs (missionary kids) would look like. What was overlooked or practiced besides the abuse itself that could have changed history for me and for those I grew up with? Hindsight is definitely 20/20, but we would all be foolish not to take a close look and learn what we can to protect future generations. Mission boards willing to be beacons of change in regard to child safety will leave an important mark in the history of modern missions—a turning point where darkness was abandoned and a commitment to ministry in the light was embraced.

At the home office several simple commitments should be part of the core child-safety policy:

  • A commitment to transparency regarding allegations of abuse and investigations into abuse
  • A commitment to immediately report to proper authorities all allegations in the US (and abroad, if foreign soil issues exist that would make US prosecution difficult)
  • A commitment to true third-party investigations1 of any and all claims after they have been reported to legal authorities in both pertinent countries (and only if government authorities cannot investigate themselves because of statutes of limitations of jurisdiction issues)
  • A commitment to place those being investigated on administrative leave if they are still employed during the investigation (i.e., remove them from the field immediately)
  • A commitment to terminate those who are arrested for child abuse OR found by investigation to have credible allegations against them (never retire them, never ask for resignations—always termination)
  • A commitment to share investigation findings and a general description of the allegations with coworkers and churches, with provisions for those who deny guilt2
  • A commitment to never interview a child without a trained counselor and parental supervision (unless a parent is the accused)
  • A commitment to never withhold information regarding a minor from a parent, unless a parent is the accused and government authorities have removed the child from the parents’ custody
  • A commitment to a strict zero-tolerance policy regarding any morality clause (this sounds harsh to some, and yet simply following through with the terms of the morality clause would have saved many children from abuse on our mission field in Bangladesh as our abuser was repeatedly excused his violations of the morality clause)
  • A commitment to support missionary families (financially and emotionally) who want to press charges of child abuse against a fellow missionary in keeping with the laws of our country or the country where the abuse took place or who decide to seek a civil suit against the abuser if criminal charges aren’t possible but guilt is evident from a professional investigation

In the initial hiring process of missionaries, several practices should be in place:

  • Thorough background checks of prospective missionaries. This should not only be a scan of the candidate’s possible criminal history, but also a diligent follow up with churches and colleges attended as well as previously held jobs, asking questions specific to moral character and integrity.
  • Sexual abuse prevention and response training for all missionaries. This step (regardless of gender or role on the field) would increase awareness of the warning signs, enforce the message to potential pedophiles that the field is not “safe” for them, and create better caretakers of children should the worst happen.
  • Contracts regarding disclosure with existing and new missionaries. These contracts would commit to disclosing immediately any allegations of abuse or sexual immorality3 by any coworkers (both local individuals and missionaries) on the field where the missionary will serve. Equally as important in this covenant is the assurance that every missionary will be notified immediately in writing if allegations come to light at any point, even if they are no longer serving with the board. For example, every missionary parent must have the right to know if their child was raised in the presence of an alleged pedophile—whether those children are now teenagers or parents themselves, when evidence or allegations come to light. In the case of adult children, every effort should be made to contact them directly and not rely on the missionary parent to communicate the information. This radical embracing of responsibility for communication and transparency is a vital facet of a safe mission board. There must be a zero tolerance policy for skeletons in the closet. Identify skeletons for what they are, by all means—allegations, confessions or proven guilt—but never let them hide like cancers at the heart of the ministry. It is not gossip to inform individuals that a colleague may be a danger to children or that a colleague has been accused or found guilty of any moral failure. The mindset that it is has to be abolished completely in ministries. This clear recognition of what is and is not gossip must start at the top of the leadership and be communicated clearly and repeatedly.
  • Boards must make a commitment of disclosure to supporting churches before the first check of support is even signed. This commitment promises the senior pastor and church leadership board will be notified immediately in writing if allegations come to light regarding any supported missionary during his or her career or retirement. Protections for the falsely accused (an extremely rare phenomenon) can be written into this covenant, allowing for the inclusion of a brief statement by the missionary herself or himself in all such written notifications.

On the field itself, several things should be considered:

  • Though it was born of good intentions, discontinuing the forced “aunt” and “uncle” tradition of many mission fields is a must. The familial monikers for adults create a false sense of intimacy and trust before trust has been earned. It’s an unfortunate outcome of a well-meaning tradition that has made more than one mission field a comfortable home for pedophiles. (Note: Awareness of the “grooming” process of victims illuminates the importance of this point—another reason prevention training is so vital.)
  • On some fields, decisions regarding the welfare of individual children are made as a team, an unfortunate perversion of unity in ministry. Families must maintain their autonomy as an independent units, capable of making their own choices regarding what is best for their children in all matters: be it education, medical care, housing, friendships, etc. Family autonomy in matters of child rearing should not just be allowed but encouraged by the board itself.
  • When in a culture where women are second class citizens, the way they are on many Muslim mission fields, parents must be vigilant against the subtle indoctrination of their kids. The negative impact a male dominant culture can have on children, male or female, must be carefully examined and guarded against. Female MKs who internalize such cultural messages about their worth can become almost paralyzingly self-conscious, full of anxiety about their safety, and saddled with misplaced guilt when it comes to the sexuality of the males around them. The impact on boys is often more subtle, but just as insidious as it can affect their treatment and view of women well into adulthood, creating self-centeredness and a male-centric worldview that is hard to undo.
  • Third-party counseling and safety support should be endorsed by the mission board and offered to every MK. Whether it is a literal telephone hotline or a simple email address, the ability to reach a safe person trained in handing abuse crisis (with no ties to the missionaries or mission board) is an important step in ensuring MK safety. The relative ease of reporting abuse that we take for granted here in the US—calling 911, telling a pastor, telling a teacher—does not exist for many MKs. If her teacher is the abuser’s spouse, her pastor is her father, and the police are not trusted because of corruption or language barriers, you have a young girl—or boy, for that matter—with very little hope. Contact information for such a third party should be easy to find, posted in all MK schools and ministry offices abroad and at the home office.

The Bible is specific regarding our responsibility to care for children, and their well-being should never be sacrificed “for the sake of the Gospel” as it has been so many times by so many boards in the last century who viewed exposing missionary pedophiles as a potential hindrance to ministry. Mission boards who hide behind indifference to criminal activity “for the sake of the Gospel” are no different than the disciples who shoved children away from the feet of Jesus. We often forget that those disciples meant well too—that they, too, just wanted to be sure the masses could hear the Good News. But Jesus was quick to reprimand them, quick to set them straight, as we see in every gospel account of that day. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such children, so who are we to view child safety as a hindrance to missions?

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What is a third-party investigation? This can be tricky to define, as the mission board will almost always be paying for this service. However, here are a few hallmarks of an objective third party:

  • They have been chosen by the victims rather than the mission board–trust between the victims and the third party is imperative or the exercise is entirely in vain
  • They have stated clearly in writing that they have no allegiance to or obligation to protect the interests of the mission board
  • They have clear and open communication throughout the investigation with both the victims and the public–updates on the investigation should be readily accessible at reasonable intervals
  • They will publish findings in a way that is accessible to all parties including churches and individual supporters, uncensored except to protect victim’s names
  • They have absolutely no confidentiality clauses with the mission board pertaining to investigation findings (except names of victims and innocent witnesses or identities of whistleblowers–none of which should be known to anyone outside the investigative team)

When we talk about disclosing descriptions and findings, there is a point to it. It is not just an act of shaming. It protects children from future abuse and it protects any known victims from backlash. If a mission board says only “it was physical abuse” then this allows an unrepentant abuser to tell others that it was just “a harsh spanking.” “Sexual abuse” becomes “a misunderstanding.” The victims–if their identities are known–then become victims of misplaced anger by uninformed supporters of the abuser.  On the other hand, if a supporting church or coworker is informed that the accusations found to be credible are [TRIGGER WARNING] that the missionary in question beat a 9-year-old little girl (for example) until the back of her legs were black from bruising and oozing blood and that she could not sit down for several weeks without a pillow and that several other children witnessed the screams during the beating and the physical evidence afterward … then few are likely to question the judgement of credible guilt. Provisions can be made for a brief statement to be included in these written disclosures by an accused missionary who denies guilt (though it must be understood that false allegations–outside of child custody suits–are rare and false allegations from adults reporting their own childhood abuse are rarer still). ARTICLE  1 on Abuse & False Allegations. ARTICLE 2 on Abuse & False Allegations.

Some will no doubt wonder why I include sexual immorality alongside child abuse. The fact is that hints of, allegations of, and even evidence of sexual immorality were repeatedly overlooked in the case of the ABWE pedophile in Bangladesh and as events unfolded over decades, many of his coworkers were unaware that his character was ever in question, thus they did not take seriously red flags that might otherwise have been obvious to them. In any ministry where trust is necessary (and is that not all ministry?) transparency regarding moral failure is imperative. While this means innocent parties may, at times, have reputations injured by false allegations, we can’t hope to gain integrity by keeping secrets. Dealing with allegations and evidence openly is the only way for ministry to survive.