Catching American sex offenders overseas

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Siren - courtesy of Shinichi Higashi via Flickr

Siren - courtesy of Shinichi Higashi via Flickr

I settled into a window seat of the plane and suddenly found myself in tears.

Last weekend, I had the distinct privilege of meeting with some of the most amazing people on the face of the earth. They gathered together because each had been sexually abused while growing up overseas as children of missionaries. Adding to their pain is the horrific reality that other missionaries perpetrated most of these crimes. To make matters worse, many of these survivors have been re-traumatized by mission agencies that prefer that they remain silent and fade into the darkness. I look forward to devoting a future post to these heroes and what they are teaching me about pain, betrayal, isolation, disappointment, authenticity, joy, hope … the list can go on and on.

As I sat in the plane staring out the window, hoping that nobody would notice my tears, I found myself recalling my work on two independent investigations related to child sexual abuse on the mission field. Dozens of painful memories of interviews with abuse survivors flooded my mind. Their tears, their pain, their tears, their confusion, their tears, their betrayal, their tears, their isolation, their tears, their ongoing disappointments, their tears, their feelings of worthlessness, their tears, and … more tears. My colleagues and I often lament that each of us lost a part of our soul during those agonizing investigations as we confronted the dark underbelly of the professing Christian community.

One of the darkest spots of that underbelly is the silence of missionaries who suspect others of victimizing children, but choose to remain silent and fail to report the crime. Tragically, such silence is all too common. Once in awhile, suspecting missionaries might step forward to voice a concern, only to be intimidated into silence by the leadership. In the meantime, the lives and souls of little ones living in a faraway land are being decimated. The horror of this silence has stayed with me for many years. Can anything be done about overseas American cultures that ignore the suspected sexual abuse of children?

Siren - courtesy of Shinichi Higashi via Flickr

Siren – courtesy of Shinichi Higashi via Flickr

As I pondered this question, I realized that this same culture of silence in response to suspected child abuse was the norm in the U.S. until about fifty years ago. Because many professionals failed to report suspected abuse, child advocates and legislators worked together to pass the first mandated reporting law in 1964. Today, all fifty states and the federal government have passed some form of mandated reporting law that requires certain enumerated adults to report suspected child abuse or face criminal prosecution. These laws dramatically increased the number of suspected abuse reports with a correspondingly high percentage of substantiated findings. Simply put, domestic mandated reporting laws continue to help expose child abuse, prosecute offenders, and protect vulnerable children from ongoing harm.

Because these domestic mandated reporting laws have compelled many who may have remained silent instead of reporting, I began to wonder if any such laws applied to Americans who live or travel overseas. There are none. I decided to do something to change that gaping hole in international child protection.

This past month, I published a law review article in the UMKC Law Review entitled, “Catching American Sex Offenders Overseas: A Proposal for a Federal International Mandated Reporting Law.” This article points out that child sexual abuse is against the law in every jurisdiction of this country. To assist with enforcement, each jurisdiction has also adopted mandated reporting systems for its citizens. Similarly, federal law makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to sexually abuse a child overseas. Unlike in state jurisdictions, there is not a corresponding mandated reporting law that assists with the enforcement of this federal law.

When Americans leave this country, they currently have no legal obligation to report suspected child abuse. As a result, it is difficult for U.S. authorities to identify, investigate, and prosecute Americans who go overseas to sexually victimize children. The proposed law simply expands the mandated reporting laws that already exist in all 50 states to citizens who are overseas. Leaving the country should never exempt citizens from protecting children by requiring them to report other citizens who violate U.S. law. Children who are overseas are no less valuable than those in the United States.

As the plane descended and my tears dried, I realized that tears alone are an inadequate response to the courageous lives of so many who were abused overseas in cultures that often embraced a deadly silence. What if we could do more? What if faith communities from all over the world joined hands with politicians from both sides of the aisle and worked together to pass a law that protects children overseas by mandating an end to silence as an acceptable response to suspected abuse? Such a response may finally demonstrate that we have listened and learned from those we should have protected and cherished.

Perhaps we should start by finding a hand to join and a Congressional representative to call.



  • Raz

    Thank you, Boz, for again being a courageous trailblazer. You are a gift to our community. Your proposal for an international mandated reporting law is excellent … we need this!!

  • ben in oakland

    It is bad enough that there are clergy and so-called religious who sexually abuse children. They are disgusting people who have not one excuse for doing what they do.

    It is far worse to me that there are higher ups who know about the abuse, and feel that a “scandal in the church” is of much greater importance than inflicting direct harm on children that will follow them, most likely, for the rest of their lives. bishop finn, I’m talking to you.

    And then you have the real pervs, such as Belgian Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who stated that he saw “nothing wrong with taking comfort with children”. I guess because “taking comfort” with grown adults is a sin– or something.

    This is neither a minor nor a new problem. A book by Karen Liebreich, entitled “Fallen Order”, is a well researched history of sexual abuse and cover-up in The catholic Church in Italy 400 years ago.

    Google “youth minister sex abuse” for a REAL eye-opener.

  • what’s frustrating is when abuse is suspected and reported yet missions agencies don’t want to be bothered by it.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    This is something desperately needed! Thank you!!
    I also wish that missions, churches, and schools who purposely send known sexual offenders overseas would be held accountable for doing so. Why is it okay for religious ministries to send known perpetrators to other countries and place them in positions where they can potentially offend without consequences? How can this be justified?

  • Tom

    Not a bad idea. But it’s hard enough to oversee domestically, so there’s some real enforcement issues.

    But here’s the other side. You’ve heard of “extraordinary renditions” of suspected terrorists. It’s also happening to suspected sex offenders; coordinated by the US Federal Marshals Fugitive Task Force. I know this because it happened to a friend of mine, a US citizen working as a missionary. He was kidnapped by his own gov’t, imprisoned overseas, two months in US detention, and extradited to the state where the complaint originated. That complaint consisted of one phone call to a detective (who never followed up), from an out-of-state person who has never shown for deposition. The case is baseless. My friend’s mission conducted an investigation, but there was no case. All based on admitted recovered memories encouraged by a mother with border-line personality disorder. After a year, this patient man is still waiting for a court date from the DA. You want to cry Boz, cry about…

  • Tom

    This is the down-side of over eager DAs and poorly designed policies that lack oversight and common sense. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s writing about tyranny?

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    Are hope you aren’t that kind of tyrant. My biggest problem here is your association of missionaries and sexually predatory Americans overseas. You have no data on the prevalence of missionary abuse, and if asked for a comparison with non-religious expats, you’d be in deeper trouble. I’m not saying abuse doesn’t happen in missions. But I’m questioning your artistic skills, that is, painting everyone with the same…

  • Tom

    Yea, we’ve got some work to do with the 1,000 character thing…

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I do not know your friend’s story, so want to be cautious in how I respond, however, I have found that it is incredibly hard for cases to ever result in an arrest even when their is overwhelming evidence. There can even be a confession on the perpetrator’s part and that is often not enough for prosecution.
    As for the “mission” conducting an investigation? They are not equipped to do such a thing. That is something that should be handled by people trained to be objective and follow the evidence, rather than someone who has some sort of agenda.
    I have personally experienced missions conducting their own investigations – twice. Both times, the perpetrator readily admitted to sexual assault and both times, the mission AFTER hearing the confession, declared the men innocent.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    How does proposing practical basic protection of children compare to tyranny?? Did you read the proposal?

  • Oscar

    Better than data, I have personal experience of U.S. missionaries abusing children out of U.S. boarders. My parents were members of a mission investigated by GRACE. The boarding school in the years I was present had 6 child sex offenders. One bragged about his exploits, so it was hardly secret, but his targets were non U.S. little girls, so it didn’t matter.
    And this was the problem, many of the American men were also rabid racists who enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond. They treated any non American as a second class citizen, including their colleagues.
    The damage they did to the image of good U.S. citizens was immense and it has repercussions decades latter.
    Any move to stop this disgrace is a move in the right direction. A citizen of some small country who offends internationally is bad enough, but for a citizen of arguably the most powerful country doing the same makes waves that causes major problems and resentment. Resentment that can prove disastrous.

  • Oscar

    Perhaps this scenario:

    A fellow countrymen is known to be overseas and sexually abusing children. The choice is to do nothing or report it. The former option is taken.

    A decade down the track, one of his rape victims is now grown up. He bears a deep resentment against all men from the offenders country, but now he is a terrorist with a debt to be repaid.
    He achieves his aim and many die.

    Still willing to take the gamble that this will never happen and not report a criminal?

  • Jeff Taylor


    After you look for data and prevalence, let me tell you about my nine-year-old sister, and what a U.S. missionary did to her overseas. Americans love statistics. Hopefully the stats you find will raise my sister’s case to a level sufficient to merit your time and attention.

  • Shary Hauber

    Thank you Boz for being with us at the MKSN conference. For giving yourself to be one of us. For your tears mixed with ours. Thank you does not express it well enough there are no words.

    Yes we all need to work to make mandatory reporting law for all US citizens where ever they are in the world.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    (((hugs))) to you and your sister. I was an MK at nine yo and know the hell. Our mission knew about at least one of the offenders. They investigated themselves, after he publicly confessed, and found him not guilty. They fired every other missionary on that field and kept him knowing that he was an offender. They also fired the one man from the mission board, who had concerns about keeping an offender on the mission field.
    Am so sorry about what happened to your sister. She isn’t a statistic. She most definitely deserved and deserves to be protected and loved. I’m so sorry that didn’t happen.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    Oscar, my heart breaks for you and your peers each time I hear bits of your story. I’m so sorry for what you experienced. For what it is worth, I believe you and hurt with you.
    I KNOW these things happen. I saw it myself as an MK – complete with the racism, prejudices, and abuse.
    I also know a current, self confessed offender who is currently a missionary in South America. Many know about him, including his mission board, yet it simply doesn’t matter. His mission board simply doesn’t care. His work as a missionary is more important than those he may sexually abuse.
    It is sickening.

  • Bethany

    sounds like the missionary perp exposed here:

    I hope that his board and his supporting churches will hold him accountable. He has gotten away with this for far too long.

  • paula

    This is such a sadly familiar tale. Catholic priests, Canadian schools for native peoples — until our churches realize they are as likely to harbor child abusers as any other group of human beings — perhaps more so, this will continue. We need to have the humility to let others look at us, and look into our institutional life..

    Most American churches now have strict safe-child rules because without them they cannot be insured. No child is left in the care of an adult without a second adult, a window into the room — and all the other protections afforded in a school. These rules need to be in place across the life of the church.

  • Tom

    Jeff, There’s too much pain in your words for me to add words that might wound. I am sorry for your sister, you, your family. As much as I think that we need to pay attention to statistics, people are not statistics. Your sister is much more than a number.

  • Tom

    It’s curious. Bias and faulty forensics do concern me. But directly questioning a victim’s story would set this blog ablaze. So I try to be respectful of personal stories. Yet, I sense a reluctant to accept this account. And no one here has offered the slightest condolence. LtbaS, your reservations are perfectly legitimate, but all those bases are covered, I assure you. What I see is a narrative that most on this blog aren’t comfortable with, and so the temptation is to reject it. Isn’t that what you are accusing these missions and churches of doing? Not listening? And that’s why C.S. Lewis and tyranny is a relevant topic here.

  • Oscar

    If I can be so bold. If this person is a U.S. citizen, report him to ICE which is a department of Homeland Security Dept. They acted on a tip on an offender in South America recently that I know of and he is now doing a 58 year sentence.
    If he is an Australian or Kiwi, the respective forces will be interested and I assume the Canadians will be in the same boat (however returning from South America can mean going via the U.S,, so alert ICE anyway).
    If a British citizen, the paperwork getting any action is mind boggling, but there are creative ways of getting action.

  • Oscar

    Alas I can’t open the link.

    But from my experience with other missions of similar persuasion, I doubt much has been done and he is very unlikely to be in jail.

    As per my post above, I suggest you report him to the appropriate authorities, before he does any more damage.

  • Perhaps the reason you have not received condolences is that your account is difficult to follow and thus difficult to know exactly what happened.

    You wrote: ” That complaint consisted of one phone call to a detective (who never followed up), from an out-of-state person who has never shown for deposition.”

    So there was a complaint that never went anywhere. The detective got a phone call, but never followed up. I can’t figure out why, if there was no follow up to the phone call, there was a deposition. Or was the deposition about a different case?

    If the detective didn’t even follow up on the original complaint, who notified the DA? Why were charges filed?

    Perhaps a more clearly worded account, one which is easier to understand, might generate more sympathy. Right now, I have no idea what is supposed to have happened.

  • Tom

    Weird, huh? Sorry this must be so cryptic, but those are the details. How does this happen? How does an int’l snatch-and-grab proceed on such thin data? I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to track down American sex predators, but if this is how the process works, we are indeed talking about tyranny.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    Thank you for the information about the Dept. of Homeland Security!

  • Learning to be a survivor

    Agreeing with Rebecca Prewitt, It is hard to understand what happened in this case. it is hard to imagine the accusations resulting in an arrest without evidence substantiating the allegation and what happened afterwards. T
    There are so many steps that result in an arrest warrant, that it is hard to imagine that thee was not plenty of substation evidence.

  • Oscar

    I have no knowledge of the case mentioned.
    However the one I’ve mentioned, the offender landed in the U.S, and had images of himself raping on his computer and other images. Case closed.

    His mission issued a statement that they were looking in to the case to see if he committed the crime during his own time or while on “duty”. They were unable to provide any details of any assistance provided to victims, because they gave no assistance but they did remove the offender from their website very quickly.

    The offender was heading to a childrens camp in the U.S., when detained. He would have got there if some brave person hadn’t spoken out and God knows what damage he would have achieved.

  • Tom

    LtbaS, Yes, “hard to understand,” but I do know what I’m talking about. I imagine there were numerous steps to involve embassy personnel, other gov’ts, etc. The logistics must have cost thousands. But no basis except about 2 lines off a police phone record.

    By the way, has anyone seen my original post? Looks like it was deleted. Boz?

  • ColleenInWis

    With all respect for you and your friend, Tom, I ask if you’ve heard both sides of the story or only your friend’s account of what has happened. If you are involved closely, enough to have evidence of everything you assert here, good for you– stand by your friend. If you are just going by hearsay, is that trustworthy ground on which to base a conclusion? Those of us reading your words have no way of knowing the quality of the evidence, so please bear with us if we are not trusting toward a perfect stranger.

  • Tom

    Colleen, I respect your skepticism. I’d wonder the same things. Two responses. First, this isn’t second hand information and there was a mission investigation that was thorough and competent. Second, has anyone ever asked the same questions of people appearing in this blog who claim to be survivors sexual abuse? Do you think that’s speaks of a double standard?