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

Several nights a week, during that school year almost three decades ago, dorm parent Carl Schumacher would lead devotional prayers, then come into the girls' sleeping area, linger over the beds of four youngsters 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 of mission agencies and Christian colleges for decades in an evangelical community unwilling to admit that such abuse could occur.

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

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

Church documents and scores of interviews with former missionary kids, their parents, mission officials, researchers and abuse counselors show that the problem cannot be dismissed as isolated or unproven incidents.

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

In a breakthrough study of former missionary kids, 7 percent of a sample of more than 600 missionary children said they were sexually abused.

And some missionary organizations are beginning to listen to their pleas for help.

The evidence of change includes:

-- Statements from Annette McNeill and Marcia MacLeod, who say they were molested as children on the Ivory Coast. They agreed to talk after a lifetime of dealing with the effects of sexual abuse and of being ignored, they say, as adults by the Gospel Missionary Union and the international group that requires mission agencies to set ethical standards.

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

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

Silence surrounding abuse created decades of suffering for missionary 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 an extended 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 helping us, 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 Marcia Foulds, said of the Gospel Missionary response. "When push comes to shove, you don't live what you preach."

No electricity. No phones. 120-degree heat. Sleeping outside on army cots, with the constant threat of their hands falling to the ground and into the path of a scorpion. Those were givens in the life chosen by Kathryn and Larry McNeill, who were married on the mission field in West Africa in 1956.

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

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

"You hug them and say, `We'll see you,' and when they're gone you cry,"' 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 Marcia MacLeod, the dorm parents at the missionary school would become their second fathers, their second mothers. Even today, former missionary kids still call their old dorm parents by the affectionate terms "aunt" and "uncle."

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

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

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

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

For months, the two girls said, Schumacher would come into their rooms several nights a week and touch them below the waist under the pretext 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. Dick Darr of Akron, Ohio, GMU president emeritus, said a third victim, one of the other girls, reported that Schumacher not only put his hands inside her panties, but would also come into the girls' shower room and towel-dry their private parts.

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

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

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

It was never to be spoken of again.

"Most of us had been raised in conservative Christian churches. You keep matters like this out of the hands of unbelievers as much as possible," Larry McNeill said. "We were hoping he would be restored to victory."

Schumacher has never been charged with a crime. He declined to respond to the allegations of abuse.

Two years after the abuse, sexual images haunted Annette. Sometimes an arm or a leg twitched uncontrollably. She constantly washed her hands; she would spend an hour trying to line up her textbook just so with the straight edges of a table.

Still the fifth-grader could not feel clean, or get her life in order.

One day, Meryle MacLeod, Marcia's mother, discovered Annette sitting motionless on her bed at the Ivory Coast Academy, foaming at the mouth. She rushed Annette to a French hospital, where she was initially misdiagnosed as having epilepsy.

When she was returned to her parents, she would occasionally appear comatose, needing care 24 hours a day.

"For hours I wouldn't be able to speak," McNeill Keadle said. "Sometimes I wouldn't be able to move."

For most of her life, McNeill Keadle suffered from low self-esteem that led her into a short-lived unhappy first marriage and a deep-seated distrust of men.

MacLeod Foulds, now of British Columbia, also had a failed first marriage. She said for years she buried within her the terror she could not understand as a child. Then she snapped.

As she continues in her recovery, all she asks for from the Gospel Missionary Union is an apology and help with her counseling bills. She also dreams about being a voice of conscience to the board of the Gospel Missionary Union.

Meanwhile, Carl Schumacher would go on to become a field representative for Gospel Missionary Union, visiting churches, conferences and schools as a recruiter for the mission agency. He is retired, living in Arkansas.

Schumacher declined to answer questions about the alleged abuse. "That was taken care of, and I just don't want to get into it again," he said.

Asked whether he sexually molested the four girls, Schumacher said, "I'm not answering that."

While they hoped for comfort and understanding, some abuse victims and their parents encountered only deeper wounds as the mission agency turned away in their time of need.

From 1993 on, Gospel Missionary officials would hear several reports about abuse at the Ivory Coast Academy, but according to some of the victims did not launch a formal investigation or offer counseling.

McMindes said there is no dispute that "something happened that shouldn't have" at the Ivory Coast Academy, and Gospel Missionary is working to "bring a proper resolution."

However, parents who have devoted their lives in service to the missionary organization cannot understand why, in their opinion, Gospel Missionary has consistently turned its back on their children.

In the Bible, Jesus embraces people who are hurting, and comforts them by his side.

"Christ did that," Kathryn McNeill said. "Why should we do less?"

The willingness of alleged abuse victims such as McNeill Keadle and MacLeod Foulds to come forward has punctured the veil of silence surrounding abuse issues among evangelicals.

The breakthrough occurred in 1996 when the Christian and Missionary Alliance agreed to the independent investigation of Mamou. Calling more than 80 witnesses, the church and commission found seven missionaries guilty of abusing scores of students.

Some churches and agencies made changes.

One of the largest mission agencies, The Evangelical Alliance Mission, or TEAM, came up with its own child protection policy.

The Presbyterians have set up a commission to investigate allegations by at least 20 people who said they were sexually abused between 1945 and 1978 in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The church also announced that it had provided pastoral care counselors to the victims and agreed to pay as much as $15,000 per person for individual counseling.

And in the absence of action by Gospel Missionary Union, Conservative Baptist International took on the abuse allegations at the Ivory Coast Academy.

"Although it allegedly occurred in a GMU dorm against GMU missionary children by a GMU missionary, it did happen on the campus of a CBI school. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to act according to our core values as a mission," said Conservative Baptist Executive Director Hans W. Finzel.

On March 30, professional mediators are scheduled to meet separately with the victims and officials of the Gospel Missionary Union and Conservative Baptists. After they meet with both parties, the mediators will suggest a plan of action.

Nearly everyone involved said there is a lot of work still to be done in getting the evangelical community to confront issues of sexual abuse.

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