CLEVELAND, March 20 (RNS) -- While their parents were out saving souls in remoteAfrican villages in 1974, four little girls were losing their childhoodsat the Ivory Coast Academy in Bouake. They muffled their cries then;only now are they and many others like them being heard by evangelicalmissionary organizations that for so long preached forgive and forget.

Several nights a week, during that school year almost three decadesago, dorm parent Carl Schumacher would lead devotional prayers, thencome into the girls' sleeping area, linger over the beds of fouryoungsters and allegedly sexually molest 8-year-old Annette McNeill,8-year-old Marcia MacLeod and two other girls.

Stories like this one have been whispered about in the halls ofmission agencies and Christian colleges for decades in an evangelicalcommunity unwilling to admit that such abuse could occur.

Even after an independent commission of inquiry found in 1998 thatmore than a dozen children of missionaries assigned by the GospelMissionary Union were abused from 1950 to 1971 in Guinea, theorganization did not offer counseling to the victims. Now, two of thegirls abused in 1974 at the Gospel Missionary dorm on the Ivory Coastsay they find leaders of the more than century-old mission agencyunmoved by their pleas for help.

The Rev. Carl McMindes, Gospel Missionary president, declined torespond to the allegations. "That area is being worked on currently, andI'm not free to give any information," he said.

Church documents and scores of interviews with former missionarykids, their parents, mission officials, researchers and abuse counselorsshow that the problem cannot be dismissed as isolated or unprovenincidents.

Moreover, a growing body of evidence indicates a significant turningpoint in the way American Protestantism responds to sexual abuse of thechildren of missionaries.

In a breakthrough study of former missionary kids, 7 percent of asample of more than 600 missionary children said they were sexuallyabused.

And some missionary organizations are beginning to listen to theirpleas for help.

The evidence of change includes:

-- Statements from Annette McNeill and Marcia MacLeod, who say theywere molested as children on the Ivory Coast. They agreed to talk aftera lifetime of dealing with the effects of sexual abuse and of beingignored, they say, as adults by the Gospel Missionary Union and theinternational group that requires mission agencies to set ethicalstandards.

-- An inquiry launched in February by the Presbyterian Church (USA),one of the largest providers of foreign missionaries. The church isinvestigating the allegations of at least 20 people, including eightdaughters of mission workers, who say they were sexually abused in theCongo between 1945 and 1978.

-- Child protection policies instituted by several mission agenciesafter a story by The Plain Dealer of Cleveland 2 1/2 years ago disclosedhow the Christian and Missionary Alliance found that seven missionarieshad physically and sexually abused scores of children more than 20 yearsago at a school in Guinea.

Silence surrounding abuse created decades of suffering formissionary children and the parents who cared for them through divorces,attempted suicides and bouts of depression.

Sexual abuse can be most damaging to a child "when it occurs over anextended period of time from circumstances which they can't escape,"said Richard Dobbins, president of Akron, Ohio-based Emerge Ministries. However, some missionary kids are no longer silent.

"The thing that creates the anger is by saying no and not helpingus, and shoving the situation under the rug, in my mind, has said to me,`I'm worthless. I'm not worth caring about,"' Marcia MacLeod, now MarciaFoulds, said of the Gospel Missionary response. "When push comes toshove, you don't live what you preach."

No electricity. No phones. 120-degree heat. Sleeping outside on armycots, with the constant threat of their hands falling to the ground andinto the path of a scorpion. Those were givens in the life chosen byKathryn and Larry McNeill, who were married on the mission field in WestAfrica in 1956.

But the greatest sacrifice the McNeills and generations ofmissionary parents made in the 1950s, '60s and '70s was to send theirchildren to boarding school beginning at age 6. Mission agenciesrequired families to give up their children for nine months a year sothe parents could work unimpeded in the fields of the Lord.

Today, Kathryn McNeill of Wheaton, Ill., grows upset at the memoryof the rugged two-day trip from Warsala, Mali, then having to saygoodbye to her three children at the missionary school compound inBouake in the 1970s.

"You hug them and say, `We'll see you,' and when they're gone youcry,"' she said. "You adjust to snakes and scorpions. ... The children-- that was by far the hardest."

For young girls such as the McNeills' daughter, Annette, and MarciaMacLeod, the dorm parents at the missionary school would become theirsecond fathers, their second mothers. Even today, former missionary kidsstill call their old dorm parents by the affectionate terms "aunt" and"uncle."

But no one was more vulnerable than a missionary child, separatedfrom their parents by hundreds of miles of difficult terrain.

There was nothing those 8-year-old girls could do during the 1973-74school year except cower in their beds those nights they heard CarlSchumacher's footsteps coming down the hall.

The Gospel Missionary Union dorm was a separate building in theschool compound. Annette, Marcia and two other girls slept two-to-a-roomin the simple, tin-roofed building. Neither of the other girls could bereached for this story.

Annette and Marcia said they were taught not to alarm their parentsabout events at school. "We would disrupt God's work, the work of thekingdom, for our own little problems," recalled Annette, now of suburbanChicago, whose married last name is Keadle.

For months, the two girls said, Schumacher would come into theirrooms several nights a week and touch them below the waist under thepretext of tucking them in at night.

"Four of us were molested on a regular basis," said McNeill Keadle."His hands were always inside our pajamas."

In a 1995 letter to Gospel Missionary board members, the Rev. DickDarr of Akron, Ohio, GMU president emeritus, said a third victim, one ofthe other girls, reported that Schumacher not only put his hands insideher panties, but would also come into the girls' shower room andtowel-dry their private parts.

It was not until the girls went home for Easter break in 1974 thatone of the girls told her parents. When confronted by their parents, thethree other girls confirmed the story.

Three fathers went to the school to confront Schumacher. Afterinitially denying the abuse, Schumacher confessed, said two of thefathers, Allan MacLeod and Larry McNeill. "He broke down and wept. Heasked us to forgive him," Larry McNeill said.

For its part, the mission did forgive him. Officials also agreed tohis plea to remain at the Ivory Coast Academy until the end of theschool year to spare him the embarrassment of leaving in shame, theMcNeills said. A woman was brought in from the field to oversee thegirls' wing.

It was never to be spoken of again.