Denomination asks forgiveness
for abuse at African school
___By David Briggs
___Cleveland Plain Dealer
___NORCROSS, Ga. (RNS)-- Water flows gently into a rock garden surrounded by flowers. Church pews stand in place of park benches on the walkway to the retreat center, where a life-sized wood carving of Jesus with outstretched arms welcomes visitors with the entreaty: "Come unto me and I will give you rest."
___Inside this earthly Eden, 80 alumni of a boarding school for the children of missionaries gathered with 70 parents, spouses and church officials recently for an extraordinary event: an evangelical denomination repented of widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
___Now in their 40s and 50s, adults who had kept childhood secrets of brutal beatings and sexual molestation through decades of broken marriages, addictions, depression and attempted suicides shared their stories and heard officials of the U.S.-based Christian and Missionary Alliance ask forgiveness for the denomination's failure to oversee the Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinea, West Africa.
___"I thought it was wonderful," David Darr, an Akron, Ohio, native and Mamou alumnus, said after the retreat. "It demonstrates the truth. We've been saying this is true, but a lot of people haven't always believed that."
___Mamou served 240 children of missionaries from the Missionary Alliance, Gospel Missionary Union and other missionary organizations throughout West Africa between 1950 and 1971, when it closed.
___The first reports of abuse at Mamou began to come into denominational headquarters in the late 1980s. But it was after Darr, his brothers and a sister from Akron and other alumni staged a public protest at the Alliance's annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 1995 that the church took action.
___The Colorado Springs-based Missionary Alliance appointed an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the allegations. The commission documented horrific acts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against scores of students.
___Students were forced to eat their own vomit, beaten black and blue and bloody and sexually molested, the commission reported. The first- and second-grade teacher from 1958 to 1966 was found to have engaged in an "ongoing reign of terror and sadistic behavior."
___In all, seven former staff members and two former students were found to have physically, sexually or psychologically abused children at Mamou. Those members still in the denomination have been asked to undergo counseling.
___The report was significant in that it shattered a wall of silence in evangelical circles regarding child abuse, but the denomination did not stop there. In a recently released final report of the Mamou investigation, the Alliance has pledged to set up by September 2000 an advocacy network for missionary children designed to provide safe places to report abuse and is setting up a Sensitive Issues Consultative Group to care for abuse victims.
___At the weekend retreat, Alliance officials expressed sorrow for the abuse at the school and their initial disbelief that such horrific acts could have happened in their denomination.
___"To all of you-- Mamou alumni, parents and spouses-- we not only apologize for having failed you, but we humbly ask for your forgiveness," said Alliance President Peter Nanfelt.
___For activist alumni who remembered the years church leaders and other missionaries would greet them with silence or anger at resurrecting the sins of the past, the admission of responsibility was extraordinary.
___"It had the six words I have been looking for from the Alliance for years: 'I have sinned. Please forgive me.'" said Robert Neudorf, a Mamou alumnus from Canada.
___At the meeting, the talk was of Mamou but the pine trees surrounding the United Methodist Simpsonwood Conference and Retreat Center in this northern Atlanta suburb evoked memories of Dalaba, a camp near Mamou in Guinea where missionary parents could take their children on breaks from the school.
___In small group meetings and open forums, alumni traded stories of their lives during and after Mamou. One man recalled wearing five pairs of underpants to blunt the beatings, while a woman said that would have done her no good because she was beaten all over her body.
___In testimony to the lingering effects of Mamou, particularly their sense of abandonment as children, alumni at the retreat spoke of being on their third and fourth marriages. One father talked of waking up five or six times a night when his child turned 6 out of fear the child was dead. Age 6 was when many children were first sent to Mamou.
___One could almost compare the boarding school to a prison "except prisoners aren't terrorized and they're not little kids," said U.S. alumnus Keith Beardslee.
___Returning to their childhood to acknowledge the suffering they kept buried inside has helped them recover from years of pain that often surfaced in self-destructive ways, many alumni said.
___"Being here this weekend, I have seen the depths of the silence and what it has done to us," said Sheryl Ajas, a Canadian alumnus. "I'm not alone. That's a tremendous discovery for me."
___In one of her first visits to a church in years, she would read part of the liturgy at the concluding worship service.
___"Before you can move on, the truth has to come out," Darr said. "The sharing of stories breaks the denial."
___For parents who made the sacrifice of sending their children to boarding school so they could preach the gospel in remote regions of Africa, hearing the stories of their sons and daughters being victimized was especially wrenching.
___"We thought, 'It can't be, it can't be," said Hazel Neudorf, weeping as she revealed that even coming here this weekend she held out the faintest hope "way deep down in my heart that maybe it isn't true. But it's true."
___Dick Darr of Akron, who sent four of his children to Mamou, said the church "came through" for the alumni by bringing the former students together at the weekend retreat and apologizing to them.
___"I think the Alliance has gone a long way in trying to do us right," he said.
___Richard Darr, Dick's son and David's brother, was sexually and physically abused at Mamou. Now a minister, he said it is unreasonable to expect a three-day retreat to bring "closure."
___"It's not going to happen that way," Richard Darr said. "For many of us, this will be a lifelong process."
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