Guest post by Sherryn Anderson from Glorious Publication
Editor’s note: This article was shared with us once the allegations of possible past sexual abuse of children on a mission trip by Vaughn Ohlman was exposed. This is, unfortunately, how these things happen all too commonly in religious organizations.
This story is based on real events from interviews with the survivors. All names have been changed.
I thought I’d forgiven him. As a man, I had the courage to walk this path and God had healed me from this pain. I was certain. Then I heard a“ping” on my phone. It was a notification on a friend’s Facebook page from HIM. Rage and shame and overwhelming pain washed over me. It was followed instantly by rapid thoughts: “My son is in my profile picture with me!” “Has he been following me?” “Does he know where I live?” “Is he fondling my children with his disgusting voyeuristic eyes like he did to me so many years ago?” In a fit of visceral nausea I was transported back to that summer in the jungle.
I was born and raised in a community of 150 -200 people in Peru. Along with my parents, my missionary community raised me. While most were not related by blood or marriage, every adult was an “aunt” or an “uncle”, and we were welcome in every home. As children we ran about in packs playing and swimming and exploring our jungle home to our hearts’ content. Everybody knew everybody, we were a large extended family. The adults took it upon themselves to raise us as a “village” and for the most part we felt truly safe and cared for.
Newcomers were a novelty. The adults were in a scurry, news had spread that we would be getting a new teacher. A male teacher for an elementary school class was unheard of. As kids we watched for the truck fetching him from town to drive through the gate and ran behind it’s dusty path until it reached his house — wanting to be the first to catch a glimpse of this new teacher.
His name was “Bob”. He was young, in his 20’s and had a scraggly beard. Most men on the mission base did not have beards, but in a way it made him more interesting. I was excited for the school year to begin — a young male teacher would bring energy to the classroom that had been lacking for young boys.
On hot days my band of brothers and I would try to convince an adult to take us to the lake to swim. We could all swim well enough, but the rules of the mission base were that an adult had to accompany anyone under the age of ten. Imagine our surprise and delight when the new teacher asked us if we’d like to go swimming! We had found our “adult”! He took us swimming nearly every day.
On one particularly hot day, instead of walking down the blistering concrete ramp where the families with small children swim, we headed down the slippery banks to “Big Root”, a giant ficus tree at the edge of the lake. Big Root was secluded by dense over brush with gigantic primordial looking roots that emerge from deep water. Climbing its branches and diving into deep water was a favorite testing ground of the brave.
“Hey, have you ever skinny dipped? You know, taken your clothes off and gone for a swim?” Asked Bob, “it’s a lot of fun!” he added. He stripped naked and dove into the muddy water. The rest of us boys, not wanting to appear “unmanly”, also took off our clothes and followed suit. During the course of the splashes and hollers of a rowdy “Marco Polo” game, I swam too close to him. I felt his erect penis touch my body and he grinned widely and said “you know what that is, don’t you?”
I didn’t fully know what “that” was… I was nine! But what I did know was that I wanted to get away from him. Fast. I got out of the water and quickly grabbed my clothes and ran home. Shame at the thought of touching him — letting him touch me- had so filled me by the time I reached home that I didn’t dare tell my parents, or anyone else.
School started. Bob was the PE teacher for the upper elementary school grades. After PE he required all of the students to shower. Since he was a single man and lived near the school, he kindly opened his home to allow the boys to shower there instead of making them walk home. He had a system for showering in the most efficient manner possible. The boys would undress downstairs. They would then line up and run up the stairs naked when it was their turn to shower, then run back down the stairs naked to put their clothes on. I politely declined from the first, as I lived nearby and was traumatized from the swimming incident. The rest of the boys in the class did not live near enough to the school to have time to take the required shower and return to school on time for class. Bob always supervised the changing and was often naked himself and visibly aroused. Sometimes Bob would shower with the boys as well. One of my friends was told to shower in a separate room. He was warned to not make any noise and to hide if anyone came in, so that he would not be seen naked. To this day, he does not know why he was told to do this, but intuitively felt that there was something wrong about it. The showering aspect of PE was widely known among the students, however it was never reported to the parents. Some of the boys were likely too young to know that there was anything “wrong” with the situation. Grown men shower in communal locker rooms, maybe they felt “mature”. Others likely did not speak from the shame of believing that they were doing something wrong, or possibly because they didn’t want to get their teacher in trouble. After all, he was “helping them out”.
The boys who stood up to Bob never told their parents. When challenged, Bob had a way of looking at them that struck deep fear into their hearts. One of my friends said that the time he stood up to Bob was the first time he had ever been afraid of an adult. There were numerous rumors among the students of physical confrontations between him and older boys, but nothing was ever said to parents. Bob had a way of silencing his victims. We quickly learned that even though he frequently offered to do us “favors” (giving us rides, etc), they were never without a cost.
Bob’s behavior was not limited exclusively to his interaction with boys. He was also inappropriate in his comments and behavior around young girls and the non English speaking housekeepers. The housekeepers are a vulnerable population as they typically speak and understand little to no English and are hired to cook meals and clean in the households on the mission base. A job on the mission base with a Christian family was considered prestigious as it was considered “safe” and paid much better in comparison to jobs that were available to the women in town. One of my friends was walking in front of Bob’s house. Bob called out to him from his screened window, as he stopped to answer Bob, he realized that not only was Bob standing in front of the full height window completely naked. His Peruvian housekeeper was standing right in front of him, likely mortified by the act of her Christian employer.
I continued to hang out with Bob because he was cool. He paid attention to me and made me feel special. Dirty, but special. He was always inviting me to do cool things. I watched him catch and cook an iguana … what kid is going to turn THAT down? Yet as mentioned before, nothing came without a cost, and my price for feeling special was feeling shame and self loathing.
A silent veil of mistrust and discord spread through the school. Parents could feel it and began to ask questions, but we never gave direct answers. We were raised to respect and obey our elders… especially our teachers! We would never admit to our parents that we had been disobedient. We also had variety of individual reasons that prevented us from not telling our parents or other teachers about Bob.
It wasn’t until a class reunion sixteen years later that we finally talked about it. The guys were all sitting around, many of us husbands, a few of us already fathers. Someone mentioned “Bob” and said off hand, “Did any of you ever think that it was strange, the whole showering thing?” Stories poured out one after another after another. Stories of inappropriate touching, comments, and other behavior that we all knew to be inappropriate as adults but found confusing as children. We realized that we had been groomed. We had been abused. We had all been victims of a child predator. A few had the courage to speak with their families for healing. A few had been to counseling. A few had lost their relationships. A few had lost their Faith. Most of us had not spoken about it in sixteen years, but now the dam had broken.
One of us contacted the mission organization that had hired Bob. The mission reached out not only to him, but to all of the victims and offered apologies and counseling. That was the point where we were given the opportunity to stop being victims and become proactive in our recovery.
We had each others’ backs. We leaned in and became stronger in our shared pain. We vowed to not let this affect our children. We realized that if a tree falls in the jungle and no one is around to hear it, yes, it definitely makes a sound.
A personal note from the author:
My most heart felt sorrow, thanks, and admiration goes out to the adults who were the children portrayed in this story. Thank you for your outstanding courage to start this conversation within our community and for allowing me to tell your story. I only wish that I had known… and was in a position to do something to help you, my friends, at that time.
“Bob” is a real person and the events in the story have been confirmed by a number of his victims. He was a missionary school teacher in Peru during the years of 1986–1989. He also “served” in later years as a missionary and possibly a school teacher in Cameroon and Belgium. He currently hosts youth retreats as a ministry leader of a different sect, and has written several books. When the missionary organization mentioned in this story became aware of the allegations, they reached out to the victims and offered an apology and reparations in a spirit of compassion, humility and kindness. “Bob” was also contacted by the organization. However, since these specific crimes against children occurred in a foreign country, and a significant period of time had passed, he was not able to be prosecuted.
See the following links for ways to protect your children and your church community from child predators:
The Child Protection Safety Network: http://www.childsafetyprotectionnetwork.org/
A site specifically for missionary children who have been victims of abuse: http://mksafetynet.org/
RAINN: a sexual abuse site for the general public with information on resources, education, prevention, as well as where and how to report sexual abuse: https://www.rainn.org/
Always report sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
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