Missionary organizations are not exempt from the sin that inflicts many Christian institutions, the sin of institutional self-centeredness. The stated purpose of most missionary organizations is generally centered on reaching peoples with the Gospel. Unfortunately, as some institutions grow and develop, their purpose often becomes less about the Gospel, and more about the sustained existence of institution. This purpose is often rationalized with an implicit philosophy that the reputation of the Gospel rests upon the “successes” and “failures” of the organization.
Institutional centered cultures will often place institutional reputation over individual value. To this end, such institutions commonly erect three walls of silence upon learning of allegations related to child abuse. The first wall silences members from even mentioning allegations of abuse. This institutional directive is often under the guise of preventing “gossip”, when oftentimes the real reason is the institution’s desire to protect its status and reputation amongst its members. A culture that silences its members from speaking with each other about suspected abuse is one where abuse will almost always flourish.
The second wall of silence is one that exists between the institution and local authorities. This wall often results in the refusal of the organization to report suspected abuse to authorities of the host country. This failure to report is often premised upon the institution’s concern that such a report could compromise its reputation, and may result in the organization being ejected from the host country. The commonly stated rational for this concern is that being removed from the country will result in the waste of invaluable capital, resources and human lives, which have been invested into the particular mission field. The stated spiritual rationale for such silence is that the removal of the organization will result in less conversions and more eternally lost souls.
The third wall silences the disclosure of suspected abuse on the mission field to the supporters back home. In one case, a missionary confessed to sexually victimizing a child on the mission field. This perpetrator was sent home with a letter sent to supporting and host churches explaining that his premature return home was based upon a “moral indiscretion”. Most interpreted “moral indiscretion” to mean an adulterous affair, not child sexual abuse. Failure to disclose the truth about abuse on the field to institutional supporters is often driven by the organization’s concern for reputation within the Christian community. The fear is a tarnished reputation and loss of support if host churches and supporters learn that a missionary has victimized children.
Not only do these walls of silence communicate worthlessness to those victimized, but they also enable the continued victimization by missionary perpetrators. If the abuse is never discussed amongst the members, reported to local law enforcement, or disclosed to institutional supporters, the abuser is free to move from institution to institution, mission field to mission field, victimizing and destroying children along the way.
Ultimately, a culture of ministry that is centered upon the institution will go to great lengths to protect its reputation. Consequently, the value and protection of the individual is compromised for the “benefit” of the institution, which always leads to tragic results. Missionary institutions must first be transformed by the Gospel before being able to facilitate a culture that fulfills the God given mandate of sharing and demonstrating the Gospel to all peoples, including missionary children and their families.
1. Though there are many missions organizations that have a healthy institutional culture, this post is focused on commonalities GRACE finds within institutions where child abuse and subsequent failed responses are prevalent. It is my hope that even healthy missions organizations will be able to take away something from this post that will propel them to perpetuate a Gospel centered culture.