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PC(USA) named in lawsuit by alleged victim of sexual abuse on mission field in 1988

December 16, 2010

LOUISVILLE

A California man has filed a lawsuit against the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), saying that in 1988 he was a victim of sexual abuse at a church-run hostel in Africa for the children of missionaries, and that the church should have done more to prevent that abuse.

Sean Coppedge, the son of former Presbyterian missionaries in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is alleging that those running the Methodist-Presbyterian Hostel in Kinshasa knew of an allegation that the son of another Presbyterian missionary couple had earlier fondled a boy at the hostel. But the teenager accused of the abuse was allowed to return to the hostel despite that accusation, and subsequently that older teenager abused Coppedge as well, he alleges in the lawsuit.

Coppedge filed the lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville, Ky., the city where the PC(USA) has its national offices. The lawsuit seeks damages for emotional distress, lost wages, the cost of counseling, and other injuries. And it states that the denomination had received reports before 1988 of alleged abuse of the children of missionaries and that it “knew or should have known … that its mission children were vulnerable to sexual abuse.”

Asked for the denomination’s response to the lawsuit, Barry Creech, a spokesman for the PC(USA), said by e-mail that "we are reviewing the complaint and we will respond to it at the appropriate time."

The situation at the Kinshasa hostel is one of many referred to in a detailed, painful, 546-page report that an Independent Abuse Review Panel released in October. That review panel spent years investigating possible cases of physical and sexual abuse involving the children of missionaries serving in Africa and Asia from the 1950s through the 1980s, and publicly named six people, including Presbyterian ministers, that the panel determined had abused children.

That abuse panel report is the second investigative report on sexual abuse involving the children of missionaries that the PC(USA) has issued this decade. A report in 2002 from an Independent Committee of Inquiry found “overwhelming” evidence that a now-deceased Presbyterian minister and missionary sexually abused at least 22 girls and women over nearly a 40-year period, both in Africa and in the United States, from 1946 through 1985. Some of that abuse took place at a boarding school for missionary children.

And in some cases, the report found, allegations of abuse involving the missionary were brought to the attention of Presbyterian officials – including at the Nashville offices of the Board of World Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

That 2002 report does not name the perpetrator. But eight women brought accusations of abuse in Grace Presbytery in Texas against William Pruitt, a former missionary in the Congo who went on to work as an associate minister for Highland Presbyterian Church. Pruitt, who denied the charges, died in 1999.

That earlier inquiry committee also determined a male Methodist missionary had abused some children of Presbyterian missionaries who attended the American School of Kinshasa from 1968 to 1970 – abuse that allegedly occurred at the same hostel in Kinshasa to which Coppedge’s lawsuit refers. The 2002 report states that a male Methodist missionary had “inappropriate sexual contact” with younger female children during story-time, sexually abused an adolescent girl, and once drove so fast that a Presbyterian girl fell out of the van “and suffered serious physical injury.”

In the wake of that report, Presbyterian officials began to get word of possible abuse in other settings involving missionary children, so it convened a second investigative panel.

In October, top PC(USA) leaders publicly released the second panel’s findings and apologized to the victims. The denomination also has in recent years made a series of policy changes to strengthen its procedures for responding to sexual misconduct, and has encouraged victims of abuse to come forward.

Coppedge’s lawsuit does not directly name the person who he claims abused him. But it states that he was an unnamed victim from the Kinshasa hostel whose alleged abuse, around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1988, was described in the Independent Abuse Review Panel report.

The independent abuse panel’s report alleges that a teenage son of Presbyterian missionaries – a teenager that the abuse panel publicly names in its report – had sexually abused at least two other boys at the Methodist-Presbyterian Hostel associated with the American School of Kinshasa, fondling their genitals in the middle of the night. The report also states that both victims immediately told the hostel’s house parents what had happened and that in both instances a house parent drove the teenager home to his own parents in the middle of the night, even though such late-night travel was considered dangerous in Kinshasa.

Despite that, however, the teenager later was allowed to return to the hostel, and he subsequently abused at least one of those boys again, the report alleges.

The report also states that over time the teenager “cornered” the two boys at various places around the school and “initiated unwelcomed conversations” about sexual matters. The victims described the behavior as “stalking … sly, manipulative, degrading and constant,” the report states. But they did not report it because they felt “betrayed,” as they had told responsible adults earlier about the alleged abuse, and the teenager had still been permitted to return to the hostel.

One of the victims said the hostel parents “had betrayed me when it was cut and dried. Why would they believe me now?” the report states.

It also states that when the teenager accused of the abuse returned to the United States, the PC(USA) appointed him as a volunteer in mission, serving at a YMCA program in Scotland. It says that he also worked with a Boy Scout troop in Orlando and at a Christian camp for children in Georgia, and that he spent time at Presbyterian College in South Carolina.

The review panel says it identified the teenager publicly in its report, even though he was a minor when the abuse allegedly occurred, because he was at least 16 at the time of the offenses, he selected smaller, younger victims; and his behavior demonstrated “purposefulness and planning.”

The report also states that “some missionary parents, at the time, viewed the behavior as abusive and took steps to try to protect” other children of missionaries “who they thought were at risk.”

The panel concluded that two governing boards of the hostel had failed to protect children from the teenager, because some of the adults who knew of at least one of the incidents at the hostel were members of the board. “It is tragic,” the report states, that adults from the mission community did not do more to protect the hostel residents. The governing boards “had the role and the authority” to keep the teenager out of the hostel, the report states, “and they failed to do this, resulting in further abuse.”

The abuse panel’s report documented 30 cases of abuse that occurred in the mission field from 1950 to 1990.

It publicly names nine people who it determined had abused children — two in Cameroon, two in Congo, two in Ethiopia, one in Pakistan and two in Thailand. Others are named in three “need-to-know” reports as possible abusers — giving the information to denominational officials should further need to investigate those persons arise.

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