Promises of Change Are Not Evidence of Change: On ABWE, the Pii Report, and Christianity Today

This past weekend Christianity Today published an article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra titled Missionary Donn Ketcham Abused 18 Children. Here’s Why He Wasn’t Stopped. This article was written in response the release of a report created by Professional Investigators International (Pii) on their investigation of the sexual abuse allegations that had dogged the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) since the early 2000s. If you’re a longtime reader, this will sound familiar. If you’re not, I’ll fill you in in a moment. But for now, let me just state that Christianity Today needs to raise its bar for measuring good faith sexual abuse prevention efforts.

In 1989, a 14-year-old missionary kid visiting home from Bangladesh told the pastor at her home church that Donn Ketcham, a missionary doctor who had been in Bangladesh with ABWE since 1964, had sexually abused her. The girl’s pastor handed her over to Ketcham’s boss, who took her back to Bangladesh and confronted Ketcham, who confessed. Both Ketcham and the girl were made to sign confessions of adultery. Ketcham was let go from ABWE, with a vague reference to “sexual immorality” as an explanation, and returned to the United States where he taught Sunday school and continued to practice medicine until 2012. No one with ABWE reported Ketcham’s abuse or asked whether he had additional victims.

By the early 2000s, a number of additional now-grown missionary kids came forward with allegations of abuse. ABWE initially promised to look into matters and began its own investigation. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the missionary kids started a blog in 2011. Two months later, ABWE hired Boz Tchvidjian’s organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) to conduct an investigation, but ABWE fired GRACE after two years, claiming that there were irregularities in the investigation. For its part, GRACE claimed that ABWE had continually refused to comply with their requests for various records. ABWE then hired Pii to finish the investigation, which now, after five years, is complete.

According to the Christianity Today article:

In February 2013, after two years of investigation, ABWE fired GRACE, alleging “a myriad of investigative flaws.” Pii was hired as a replacement, a move that alarmed victims.

. . .

In turn, GRACE charged ABWE with “repeated objections to providing requested documents” and “failing to provide GRACE with access to crucial witnesses.”

Pii stated that it was “plagued by the same behaviors.”

ABWE’s legal coordinator Nancy Anderson lied about and hid the existence of hundreds of documents pertaining to Ketcham at the direction of ABWE attorney Robert Showers, according to the Pii report. After Showers was removed in 2014, Pii investigators were able to access more than 7,000 additional pages of evidence.

What’s odd is that in spite of this obstruction, Zylstra finishes with the following:

ABWE has worked to create a transparent culture and a policy that “will not accept even a hint of a mistake when it comes to child abuse.”

A quarter-century ago, the process was “far too informal,” said Cockrell [interim president of ABWE]. “We have worked very hard at changing the culture from that perspective. There is a different culture on the field today. There is a different culture in the home office today, for that matter.”

Instead of dealing with whispers of abuse “in house”—in the family-like environment on the field—allegations are to be immediately reported to the home office, he said.

Policies aren’t much good without the right personnel to enforce them, which ABWE believes are now in place. “There was inadequate training taking place in those days for those who were responsible, and the investigation revealed there were people who knew about the abuse,” Cockrell told CT. “They did not follow up on the abuse, and that is totally unacceptable today.”

The Pii report exposed “how much harm and damage was done to the victims,” said Cockrell.

“Our greatest is concern is that we do everything we can to assist and help victims at this stage,” he said. “It is our hope that God will allow us to fix some things.”

So let’s get this straight. ABWE engaged in obstruction throughout both GRACE and Pii’s investigations, and yet Zylstra is ready to accept interim ABWE president Al Cockrell’s word that ABWE has everything fixed now? Yes, ABWE attorney Robert Showers “was removed” in 2014, but Cockrell was also interim president from 2011 until 2013, during the entire period of the obstruction of the GRACE investigation, and was on the board before that time. This isn’t new leadership. It’s the same leadership that was in place during much of the obstruction, and even before that. The Pii report does not fault Cockrell for the obstruction, but it also finds that Cockrell allowed Showers to retain his position even though he knew there was a conflict of interest. This should be concerning.

And it just so happens that the moderators of the Bangladesh MK blog, themselves among Ketcham’s victims, find exactly this highly troubling. Zylstra quotes a brief preliminary response from the Bangladesh MK blog moderators in her article; this response states only that the victims were still reading and processing the report. Zylstra does not include any quotes from Ketcham’s victims, while quoting Cockrell extensively. The Bangladesh MK blog moderators issued a more complete statement on May 10th, the day Zylstra’s article was published. In that statement they were highly critical of ABWE. As of this writing, Zylstra’s article does not yet include an update linking to this statement.

Note: Since publishing this piece, I have been informed that Zylstra did not reach out to the Bangladesh MK blog moderators in any way while writing her article, instead quoting a Mother’s Day message from the group’s Facebook page in a way that made it sound as though they were pleased with the findings of the Pii report and the direction of ABWE. When the blog moderators contacted Zylstra she offered to swap the quote out for a new one. They gave her a brief quote stating that they were still reading the report, but asked that it be added to the end as an addendum so that what she originally wrote would be retained for clarity. Instead, Zylstra edited the article itself and labeled the quote the group’s “official statement,” which it is not. The article has still not been updated to include the group’s actual official statement, and their perspective is thus wholly absent from an article that instead relies heavily on quotes from ABWE leadership. 

Here is an excerpt from the Bangladesh MK blog moderators’ official statement:

RE: ABWE’s Obstruction of the Investigation: It would be easy for the current leadership and board at ABWE to feel good that they were not in leadership in 1989, as the report exposes terrible mishandling by those who were. However, we believe current ABWE leaders must examine what role they’ve personally played in wounding the victims too. According to the report, ABWE’s “obstruction” and delay of the investigation continued until as recently as 2014 and potentially 2015. (See Pii Report pages 130-142.)

Zylstra may be willing to accept the ABWE leadership’s statement that everything is in order now, but the victims of ABWE’s failure to protect children from abuse at the hands of its sponsored missionaries are not so ready to uncritically accept the organization’s current assurances. And it sounds as though they have good reason.

Here’s another bit from the group’s statement:

RE: ABWE’s Ongoing Disregard for Reporting Laws: In the process of the investigation, Pii uncovered three other alleged child abusers. (See page 136 of the Pii report.) ABWE delayed reporting one for over four months in 2013 and, according to the report, Pii has yet to receive confirmation that ABWE properly reported the other two. . . . It’s disturbing that Pii discovered ABWE was still not properly reporting allegations of abuse as of 2013—two years after ABWE promised the over 4,000 churches who support them that they had adopted child protection “best practices.” . . . ABWE claims they’ve changed, but it’s a really tough sell at this point. Who believes it anymore?

Check this out, from page 136 of the report:

July 31, 2013: Pii notified the ABWE legal team, Robert Showers and Nancy Anderson, of an additional alleged child abuser discovered in the course of the investigation. The notification was delivered as instructed by ABWE and for the purpose of allowing ABWE to report the alleged abuse to authorities. Pii requested permission to investigate the matter on January 1, 2014, which request was denied by Robert Showers. The ABWE Board Meeting, Special Meeting, March 29, 2011, state: “It was confirmed that the ABWE Child Protection Policy approved by the Board in November 2010 addresses the issue of mandatory reporting for child abuse offenses.” However, ABWE did not notify Pennsylvania authorities until December 3, 2013, just over 4 months later. Pii additionally notified the ABWE legal team of another alleged child abuser on November 13, 2013, and a third on December 30, 2013. To date, Pii has not received confirmation from ABWE that the proper authorities have been notified. Rather, ABWE stated that interviews were being conducted to determine whether or not to make such a report. The Pennsylvania Code, Subchapter E, Section 21.502 states that, “Oral reports of suspected child abuse shall be made immediately by telephone…” and that “Written reports shall be made within 48 hours after the oral report is made by telephone…”

This was after ABWE had created its interim policy for child protection.

Let me finish by making two specific points. In my reading, it appears that the moderators of the Bangladesh MK blog and many of the other victims they are in contact with do not feel that ABWE’s current assurances that they have corrected their child protection policies can be trusted, given that even in the last five years, during GRACE and Pii’s investigations, ABWE carried out obstruction and failed to notify authorities of new abuse allegations as required by law. ABWE has remained under the same leadership throughout this period.

It could be that interim ABWE president Al Cockrell is completely genuine in wanting change. It is hard to know, though, whether the change he is speaking of now is any different from the change he spoke of before and during the obstruction and before and during the failure to report new child abuse allegations as required by law. All of this undermines Cockrell’s assurances that the ABWE has changed, and that the organization now has sound child protection policies. While I can’t speak for Ketcham’s victims, it seems to me that Cockrell would do well to admit that the ABWE’s problems with reporting and covering up abuse continued throughout the investigation period and accept responsibility for that.

And now my second point. I truly wish Zylstra, the Christianity Today article author, and been able to draw some of the above questions out in her article. The piece would have been much tighter and more interesting if the complexities at play in the current leadership hadn’t been so brushed over. I worry that there is too much willingness, in evangelical circles, to accept promises of change as evidence of change. There is a willingness to be entirely too uncritical when addressing solutions to systemic problems that have beset Christian organizations. To me, Zylstra’s article feels like a missed opportunity.

***

Addendum

After writing the above, I found several additional bits to highlight. The first deals with the child protection policies ABWE created during the period when they were under investigation. This is from the Pii report, pages 132-133:

January, 2012: ABWE INTERIM PROTOCOL FOR CHILD PROTECTION INVESTIGATIONS, Effective January 2012, states, “For allegations leveled against an ABWE MK or ABWE missionary, if the evidence has reached a level of reasonable belief it occurred, the Child Safety Team will turn over the investigation to an independent Fact Finding Investigative Team (presently headed by Rob Showers, at Simms Showers LLP) … to investigate the claims. … The ABWE Child Safety Team will make decisions about reporting allegations to the proper authorities…”

NOTE: These procedures may be in violation of the Pennsylvania abuse reporting statute, The Pennsylvania Code, Subchapter E, Section 21.502, quoted below. Pii recommends that ABWE undertake a thorough review of its Child Protection Policies to determine their compliance with relevant law.

It appears that ABWE has since updated their policy once again, but their continued insistence during the period they were under investigation on conducting their own investigations of child abuse allegations before (and in some cases, presumably, instead of) reporting the allegations to the authorities is concerning—and as Pii suggests, out of step with state law.

Does Zylstra mention this in her Christianity Today article? No she does not. She had a perfect opportunity to push Cockrrel on the subject of ABWE’s 2012 and 2013 woefully inadequate child abuse policies and reporting systems, as outlined in Pii’s report, and to ask what evidence or assurances Cockrrel could offer that things will actually be different going forward, but she did not do so.

There’s another point where Zylstra could have pushed Cockrrel too. The ABWE website’s FAQ section on child protection and this investigation states this:

Why did ABWE terminate their contract with G.R.A.C.E.? 

Concerns from some Victims/Survivors are the primary reason ABWE decided to end its relationship with G.R.A.C.E.

The Pii report makes it clear that this is at the very least only half the story. It also ignores the fact that Ketcham’s victims at the Bangladesh MK blog and elsewhere saw the firing of GRACE very differently, and that some of these individuals refused to speak with Pii, feeling that the investigation’s independence had been compromised. In other words, firing GRACE caused distress and harm to many of Ketcham’s victims, but this is apparently not of concern to ABWE.

Check this out from page 133 of Pii’s report:

February, 2013: G.R.A.C.E. was terminated by ABWE just weeks before their final report was complete based on allegations by ABWE that they had “committed a myriad of investigative flaws.” G.R.A.C.E. pointed out in their response on February 11, 2013, that ABWE had repeatedly failed to comply with their contractual obligations to G.R.A.C.E. “These contractual breaches included repeated objections to providing requested documents and the failure to provide documents in a timely manner, if at all. ABWE further breached the contract by failing to provide G.R.A.C.E. with access to critical witnesses associated with … organization. ABWE’s contractual breaches needlessly delayed this investigation and impaired our ability to fully evaluate ABWE’s response to the crimes perpetrated by Donn Ketcham. When placed in the context of ABWE’s conduct over the past 20 months, the termination of G.R.A.C.E. strongly suggests ABWE is unwilling to have itself investigated unless the investigation is with (ABWE) control. We pray this is not the case.”

NOTE: The Pii investigation was plagued by the same behaviors until Bryan Cave and its attorneys became General Counsel, with a few exceptions outlined elsewhere in this chapter.

There’s also this, on page 134:

March 13, 2013: In the document entitled “No GRACE in Sexual Abuse Investigation of Missionary Kids,” authored by Bobby Ross, Jr., Tony Beckett, ABWE’s vice president of church relations at the time told CT (Christianity Today): “We began to realize that as trained prosecutors involved in doing investigations for a child advocacy ministry, their focus appeared to be on building a case rather than finding facts.”

In other words, it appears that GRACE was terminated not because of concerns for the victims but rather because GRACE insisted on a thorough independent investigation and ABWE wanted more control over GRACE’s findings. That Pii faced the exact same problems until Robert Showers was removed as ABWE’s legal counsel suggests that ABWE is at the very least being grossly misleading even today about the reasons they ended their contract with GRACE. And on some level they got what they wanted—the Pii report details the obstruction but lets many of the organization’s leaders off the hook, finding them innocent of wrongdoing despite this obstruction.

Speaking of Pii letting people off the hook, check this out from page 170:

Jesse Eaton
There is NOT a Preponderance of Evidence that Jesse Eaton failed in light of ABWE Principles and Practices. The evidence shows that whereas Jesse Eaton had a level of administrative responsibility throughout the Donn Ketcham matter, it also shows that he worked both within the bounds of ABWE, as an organization, and his moral commitment to fulfill those responsibilities.

And then look at this, from page 51:

c. 1985, Jesse Eaton maintained in his possession a file of the Donn Ketcham matter during the time in which he was an administrator. When that assignment ended, he “took that file out behind the mission house or whatever, the headquarters, and burned it up. And it was just, it was so full of crud, so full of nasty things … it was just a huge relief … to burn it up.”

You’ve got to admit that that is strange. The bit from page 170 is in a section where Pii goes through various ABWE employees and board members and determines who is guilty of wrongdoing and who is not. If Jesse Eaton had acted on the nasty things in his “file of the Donn Ketcham matter” rather than burning it in 1985, some of Ketcham’s victims would have been been spared what they suffered. And yet, Eaton is let off the hook, absolved of any wrongdoing.

And then there’s the barn. Oh yes, an actual barn. Check out page 127:

The investigators were told there was no “barn” in which documents were stored. There was a barn, and there were 78 linear feet of document storage, which resulted in over 1200 insightful and clarifying documents.

That such sentences even had to be typed should be reason enough to push Cockrrel and ABWE for more than just words. As the Bangladesh MK blog moderators wrote in their statement: “ABWE claims they’ve changed, but it’s a really tough sell at this point. Who believes it anymore?” Well, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra and the editorial staff at Christianity Today, for one.

You can read the full Pii report yourself here.

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