by Perry Bulwer
Child sacrifice. The phrase may evoke images of Old Testament or New World rituals, or perhaps more modern images of misguided believers in 'faith healing' allowing children to die without even basic medical intervention that could have saved their lives. Those are examples of literal child sacrifice, where children are purposely killed or allowed to die because of superstitious belief that it will please a god. But the notion of 'child sacrifice' is also used metaphorically by some religious zealots indoctrinated to believe that parental duties are less important than their godly duties.
The documentary, All God's Children: the ultimate sacrifice, which examines abuses perpetrated against missionary kids isolated in a boarding school in Mamou, Guinea operated by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, opens with a discussion of the metaphor of a father sacrificing, or giving up, his son to save the world. It is such a powerful metaphor that it formed the foundation for three 'great' Abrahamic religions, and continues to compel mothers and fathers to break their natural parental bonds and abandon their children, to 'sacrifice' their kids in order to further their perceived, or more accurately, their misperceived spiritual mission. As one adult survivor of the horrendous abuses at the boarding school featured in the documentary asked his father: "How many African souls were worth my soul?" That was not a rhetorical question. The effect of religion related abuse on many survivors is a devasting loss of faith.
The sad tales of extreme emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, and spiritual child abuse recounted in the documentary are all too familiar to survivors of religion related child abuse, as well as to the health professionals who assist their recovery and the advocates who assist their search for justice and accountability. Those abuses all have similar characteristics, regardless of the particular religion, denomination, or sect, and survivors use similar words and phrases to describe that abuse, such as "mind control", "soul control" and "mental rape", each of which is heard in the documentary. The descriptions of corporal punishment, furthermore, clearly describe extreme physical abuse that was tantamount to torture and was intended to coerce, intimidate and humiliate, and could just as easily be describing abuse by Catholics, Baptists, the Hare Krishna, the Twelve Tribes, or the Children of God/The Family International. Regarding that latter group, they have an historical connection to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, but more on that later.
Just as vile as the physical and sexual abuses, perhaps even more so for some, are the accounts of psychological and spiritual abuses, or "soul control" as one interviewee put it. Children as young as 6, abandoned to the care of uncaring strangers, and experiencing separation shock were told to just get over any natural feelings and emotions. Siblings were prevented from comforting and supporting each other. The Alliance, and the boarding school they were virtual prisoners in, was the children's entire world, their 'family', which they were taught was the 'Body of Christ. They referred to all adults as aunts and uncles, who in the children's minds stood in place of God. As one survivor put it, when she was being violently raped by a staff member, it was the "face of God" that was causing her pain. In that totalitarian environment, where their guardians were their abusers, children could not turn to their teachers or dorm 'parents' for help or comfort. They were physically and spiritually threatened into silence, a silence that lasted long into their adult lives.
That long-term effect of child abuse is another way in which these survivor stories are so similar to those of other survivors. Many buried their shame, fear and anger for years, unable to express or process the abuse suffered during what must have been a terribly confusing childhood. After all, the children were experiencing the exact opposite of the gospel of love their parents were busy preaching to others. One survivor recounts that years later, back in the U.S., he laughed out loud when conversing with someone who said they had a happy childhood. The notion of a happy childhood was so oxymoronic to him that he actually thought the person was joking, as he had no idea it was possible to be a happy child. How sad is that? This same survivor also exhibits signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a common diagnosis for abuse survivors, when recounting with teary eyes and quivering voice how he struggled with suicidal thoughts, and how traumatic triggers, such as evangelical church hymns, immediately remind him of the "mental rape" he endured.
The documentary also reveals a similar pattern of recovery and advocacy that has occurred with other survivor groups. Emotions and psychological pain can only be bottled up for so long, and eventually some survivors begin connecting with each other, comparing stories, identifying abusers and organizing. For some, it was not until this process started that they began to recognize their childhood mistreatment for what it was, severe child abuse. However, any relief this initial recovery process may have brought them was tempered by the Alliance's response to their complaints, which was typical of most religious institutions confronted by allegations of systemic child abuse. For ten years a small group of survivors presented their complaints and allegations to the Alliance leadership, and for ten years they were ignored. A handful of survivors are shown protesting outside a general meeting of 4000 Alliance members. Except for one woman who stood with the protesters because her son had been sexually assaulted in one of the 12 boarding schools the Alliance operated, the survivors were completely ignored by Alliance members. For the survivors, this was simply adding insult to injury.
It was only after the survivors began a campaign to shame the Alliance in the media that any effort was made to address their complaints. The Alliance finally agreed to set up an internal Independent Commission of Inquiry. The survivor group, knowing how difficult it is for many to speak about their abuse, had hoped for at least 20 victims willing to testify, so were surprised when 80 agreed to do so. The Inquiry found that for several decades there had been consistent, systemic child abuse, and that it was not a result of just a few bad apples, which is a common excuse many abusive religious institutions give. So far, so good. The Alliance even agreed to set-up a weekend retreat for survivors of the Mamou school to help with their recovery, but that is as far as the Alliance has moved toward effectively addressing and correcting the specific issues raised by those survivors.
An Alliance leader, Peter Nanfelt, did offer an official apology at the time of that weekend retreat in which he expressed remorse and regret. However, as with similar apologies made on behalf of abusive religious groups, some survivors appearing in the documentary found the apology unsatisfying and self-serving. One referred to it as a "political" gesture by a "good politician", since Nanfelt had done everything he could, from 1987 onward, to stonewall any investigation into the abuse and keep it out of the media. The apology only came after the Alliance was forced into a corner. Some survivors saw it for what it was, an attempt to get forgiveness from them in order to let the Alliance off the hook and absolve them from any blame, without having to substantially address the issues that forced the apology. On the other hand, at the time of the apology some saw it as a significant step forward and a hopeful sign that healing and recovery was possible. However, other than the weekend retreat, the Alliance did nothing for the survivors.
Survivors took the next step in recovery and set up an advocacy website, Missionary Kids Safety Net (MKSN). In 2005 they met with the Alliance leadership and presented suggestions for changes in the organization that would protect the kids of missionaries. As of 2008, when the documentary was made, those advocates were still waiting for meaningful results from the Alliance. On the MKSN website they have posted documents that shed more light on the Alliance's inadequate resonse to this abuse scandal. For example, the Alliance issued another official apology in January 2009, which they posted on their website. If their first apology was so appropriate and effective, why would they need to issue another one? MKSN's response to this latest apology details some common faults in such institutional apologies. For example, here are just some of the criticisms:
"anger that the apology was not more specific"
"a sense of evasion of responsibility"
"continues to try to essentially coerce forgiveness from a situation where it is the last step in a process – not the first, or even an intermediate, step"
"apology was not signed by any individual Alliance official"
"nor did it go out as a personal message to individual survivors who are known to the Alliance"
"extremely limited scope of its distribution. The Alliance evidently thinks that a carefully worded apology in its in-house publications, in some way neutralizes the issue"
"the chosen manner of distribution for the apology means it will not reach a large percentage of abuse survivors"
"I expect that the Alliance now will assert it has done enough with regard to MK abuse issues. As we’ve said before, unless and until the C&MA reaches out comprehensively to all former students, submits allegations to a truly independent investigative process, and meaningfully engages a broader spectrum of the survivor community, gestures such as this will not have the impact you intend."
Sadly, this issuing of multiple, self-serving apologies for the same offences is nothing new. The Alliance seems to have copied this tactic from the leaders of the cult Children of God, now known as The Family International, who have issued numerous apologies for similar child abuses as those documented in All God's Children. One survivor of that cult abuse critiques those apologies and her criticisms are very similar to those above by the MKSN advocates.
I purposely make a connection here between the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Children of God, now The Family International, because the founder of that cult, David Berg, had been a minister with the Alliance for a few years in the late 1940s and early 50s. He wrote that his mother's evangelical faith healing ministry began with her own healing from a back injury after her husband was handed a tract written by A.B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Years later, after working in his mom's ministry, Berg became a minister with the Alliance and was placed at Valley Farms, Arizona. He was eventually expelled from the Alliance over doctrinal disputes and sexual misconduct with a teen employee of the church. A little more than ten years later, on the beaches of California, Berg began attracting followers to his extremist brand of evangelism from amongst the hippies and unaffiliated Jesus freaks and an abusive cult was born, one might say, from a 'seed' planted by the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
Berg's cult quickly became known for its manipulative, abusive tactics, and accusations of 'brain-washing' were frequently made against it, what survivors featured in the documentary might call "mental rape" or "soul control". However, it wasn't until children began being born and raised in totalitarian environments that the worst of the abuses began occurring. It is not surprising that the systemic child abuses detailed in All God's Children are in many respects the same as those within the Children of God/The Family International. Christian dogma, such as 'sacrificing' or giving up your children in order to do God's work, adhered to by both groups, is directly responsible for many of the systemic abuses committed within them.
And one final note on this connection. On the front page of the Christian and Missionary Alliance website, they offer this description of their organization: "The Alliance is a unique missionary denomination—a maverick movement..." That language is eerily similar to language used by the current leaders of The Family International to describe Berg's extreme doctrines. In a press release they describe the group's desire, not to distance themselves from abusive doctrines, but instead to preserve the group's "... uniqueness and unconventional doctrines". Too bad that the abuses these bad religions cause are not unique as well, instead of being all too common.
For more information on All God's Children: the ultimate sacrifice, a documentary by Scott Solary & Luci Westphal, visit their website at: http://www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com/