Missionaries Ought to Know About ...
What Missionaries Ought to know about Sexual Abuse
Ronald L. Koteskey
What Missionaries Ought to Know about Sexual Abuse
We all wish it did not occur, and we avoid talking about it as if it
never happens. However the fact is that, like other children, missionary
kids (MKs) are sometimes sexually abused. In some cases MKs may be in
even more danger of sexual abuse (such as being touched or touching
inappropriately, being shown pornography, having intercourse, etc.). If
parents are frequently absent, leaving their children with other
missionaries, and telling their children to respect and obey the other
adults as they would their own parents, those children are put under the
authority of a greater spectrum of adults, increasing their opportunity
to run into an abuser. If the parents have not had an open attitude
about the discussion of sexuality, their MKs may believe a perpetrator
whom they know well when that abuser tells them some activity is all
right. Let's consider where sexual abuse can occur, what are some signs
of sexual abuse, and what we can do to prevent it. (Note that we are
talking about sexual abuse involving an older person, not curiosity
about sexual differences between children of about the same age.)
Can it happen at home (incest)?
Of course, it can. It most often happens in families that appear to
be very close. However, they are too "close"; the family
members are too enmeshed. When the incest is discovered, family members
typically go through denial, shock, horror, anger, grief, and finally go
on to some action (or decide not to act). The following are
characteristic of incestuous relationships.
- Power Differences. Children are in a position of less power than
perpetrators (parent or older sibling). Holding lower positions and
respecting older persons, children find it very difficult to resist
- Betrayal of Trust. Families are expected to be places of safety
and security, places where children are nurtured and develop the
potential God has provided. Sexual abuse within the family violates
this basic function of the family.
- Blame. Although unfair, other family members may blame the abused
children, accusing them of dressing or behaving provocatively.
Children may blame themselves for letting the sexual activity occur,
for participating in the affection and attention, or for actually
enjoying the physical sensations and closeness (if they did).
- Secrecy. Children may remain silent because of shame, fear,
ignorance or because they do not know how to explain what is
Can it happen with other missionaries?
Of course, it can. When it does, it often has many of the same
characteristics as incest (sexual abuse within a family). In fact, many
mission agencies refer to themselves as "missionary families"
in which each child has many "aunts" and "uncles"
who are not blood relatives, but to whom the children feel close. Like
biological families, such missionary families living together in another
culture may become too enmeshed so that they become dysfunctional, and
sexual abuse may happen to children as well as single female
missionaries. These relationships have the same characteristics as
- Power Differences. Children on a given field are encouraged to
respect and obey other missionaries as they do their parents. Single
women may also be under the authority of the perpetrator and be
somewhat flattered to receive attention. This is especially true of
the perpetrator is the spiritual and moral leader of the group who
is in the spotlight of many worship services.
- Betrayal of Trust. Children and single women expect the missionary
community (family) to give them protection and care in the host
culture. Sexual abuse within that community betrays such trust.
- Blame. The missionary community (family) may blame the child or
the single woman for seducing their colleague or leader. Likewise,
the victims may also begin to blame themselves.
- Secrecy. Sexual abuse in the missionary family may be even more
secret because if it becomes known, it will bring shame on the
missionary enterprise, God's work.
Can it happen at boarding school?
Of course, it can. Cases of such abuse have received wide publicity
during the '90s with schools and churches apologizing to those abused.
Again the family model is used with the students living in houses with
others who are like brothers or sisters their age, and the people in
charge are their dorm "parents."
- Power Differences. Students are to respect and obey their
surrogate parents and love their surrogate siblings.
- Betrayal of Trust. The school family is to be a place of
protection and care.
- Blame. Again victims may blame themselves or be blamed by others.
- Secrecy. Revealing the abuse will bring disgrace on the school. If
it is a Christian school, revealing the abuse will also bring
disgrace on the cause of Christ.
Can it happen in the host culture?
Again the answer is a resounding "Yes!" In this case it is
abuse coming from outside the family, so it is not a betrayal of trust
and seldom is the victim blamed, but the secrecy is still there in the
sense that it is often not talked about.
One adult MK described walking through a bustling marketplace at the
age of 16 with a friend. Suddenly a man on a bicycle veered toward them
so that the man could reach out and grab the friend's breast. The two of
them walked on without breaking stride. Their conversation continued
uninterrupted. Although it is painfully seared on her memory, never in
25 years did the two of them ever mention it.
Some cultures view women as intrinsically inferior to men in nearly
every way rather than as image-bearers of God who are to be respected.
Sometimes female MKs are told to ignore the stares, rude gestures,
touches, and pinches. They may come to believe that their feelings of
fear, indignation, and humiliation are wrong rather than seeing the
abuse as what is wrong. They are expected to treat such things as
insignificant, something to get used to, a part of adapting to the
Boys as well as girls may be sexually molested. In fact, some
cultures routinely masturbate boys to calm them, and sodomy can occur in
What are some signs of sexual abuse?
Some children who are being sexually abused function quite normally
and do not have any obvious symptoms. Others have only general symptoms
that could indicate a variety of other problems related to growing up.
The most certain way to know about abuse is when individuals report it.
Some physical conditions may indicate sexual abuse. If a child has
bruises or bleeding in the genital or anal areas, foreign bodies in the
vagina or rectum, pain or itching in the genital area, stained or bloody
underclothing, painful discharge of urine, or difficulty walking or
sitting, they should be examined by a physician. It is important not to
make accusations of sexual abuse because any or all of these conditions
may have other causes, and a missionary's reputation and effectiveness
can be destroyed by a false accusation.
Some behaviors may indicate sexual abuse. Children who force sexual
acts on others, talk a lot about sexual activity, engage in sexual games
unusual for children their age, have an unusual knowledge of sexual
things, engage in sexually aggressive behaviors, have an unusual
interest in sexual things, or have an unusual fear of men may have been
sexually abused. Again, any of these may have other causes, and
accusations must not be made on the basis of them alone.
What can we do?
Although sexual predators will always be with us, there are several
things we can do to minimize the damage they do.
- Talk about it (early, regularly, age-appropriately). Teach
children the difference between good touch, bad touch, and confusing
touch as well as the difference between good secrets and bad
secrets. Tell children where they can go if trouble occurs and make
it clear that no matter what happens, no sexual activity with an
older person should be kept secret. Let them know that sometimes
people, even people they trust, may try to touch them
inappropriately or get them to do something that seems to be wrong
as part of a game or secret. If this occurs they should say no and
not do the wrong thing.
- Believe them. If a child reports abuse, tell them that you believe
them (even though "Uncle John" seems to be the most
child-loving, spiritual missionary you know). Do not jump to
conclusions but stay calm and listen. Do not ask leading questions
(Did he touch you there?), but write down word-for-word exactly what
the child said describing the abuse as soon as possible after
talking with the child. Affirm the child's feelings (It's OK to be
angry, frightened, etc.) and reassure him or her that you will
continue to be there whenever needed.
- Report it. Even though the alleged perpetrator may be an important
spiritual leader in your agency, take some action. If your agency
has procedures for taking action against people who do wrong, follow
those procedures. If not, take whatever action you can in your
situation. This is as much to prevent abuse of others as it is to
stop abuse of the child involved. Abusers often repeat the offense
and must be stopped.
Member Care Consultant