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Boarding School Alumni Push for a New Kind of Abuse Investigation

Uncovering decades of allegations out of the Christian Academy of Japan, investigators tried new tactics to facilitate repentance and healing.
Boarding School Alumni Push for a New Kind of Abuse Investigation
Image: Courtesy of Deborah Rhoads
The Christian Academy of Japan student body from the 1974 yearbook.

Decades after dozens of missionary kids suffered physical and sexual abuse at the Christian Academy of Japan (CAJ), mission agency leaders associated with the Tokyo school fell prostrate on the ground to perform dogeza, Japan’s deepest form of apology.

The 13 leaders met with victims at a private retreat in Colorado last fall to hear their stories and offer a formal apology.

“On their knees, heads on their hands, sobbing,” recalled Janet Oates, a 1963 alum of the academy, which was founded in 1950 as a boarding school for missionary children. “Alumni were sobbing too … one moment of justice.”

The moment of repentance followed an unconventional abuse investigation process that involved CAJ alumni acting as consultants and advocates. Alumni like Oates pushed the school and its founding mission agencies to investigate historic abuse in the first place.

The results of the investigation were devastating—turning up 72 cases of alleged abuse from 1957 to 2001. But the recent response has brought a degree of healing for some victims and could demonstrate a new approach for other organizations facing historic abuse allegations.

A number of boarding schools for missionary children have faced records of abuse. Investigations have uncovered mistreatment and mismanagement at a New Tribes Mission school in Senegal, the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s school in Guinea, and Hillcrest School in Nigeria. Few of the 150 schools serving missionary children around the world still offer boarding.

Four years ago, CAJ alumni and survivors said they wanted accountability and an apology from the school and the six mission agencies that founded it.

At the retreat last fall where leaders apologized, “the mission reps there weren’t somebody’s assistant down the chain. It was top leadership,” said Deborah Rhoads, another alum whose two brothers were abused at the school.

Along with the school, five of CAJ’s founding organizations—Resonate Global Mission, ECC-Serve Globally, The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), WorldVenture, and One Mission Society—covered the cost of the extensive investigation, which was conducted by Telios Law and reviewed by an outside team of experts. The sixth group, SEND US, did its own narrower investigation.

Dave Hall, the CEO of TEAM, was one of the leaders at the retreat. He told CT that he felt it was important to accept responsibility even if abuse didn’t happen during his tenure.

“If we need to show up and just get punched in the face, it might be because we deserve to get punched in the face over this,” he said. “We failed as an organization. We didn’t protect kids who needed to be protected. We can’t just say, ‘That was a different generation.’ It’s maybe convenient for organizations, but it’s not very helpful or therapeutic for victims. They’re left with no one who is accepting responsibility anymore.”

The five agencies also pledged $1 million together to create a fund for counseling resources for victims.

The investigation, retreat, and other responses largely came about by the insistence of a group of tenacious alumni, several of whom met regularly and gave thousands of hours to the multiyear process. Though initially skeptical of the outside firm the mission agencies hired, those alumni also consulted with investigators throughout the process, addressing ongoing concerns and ensuring sensitivity.

“In the Southern Baptist denomination or … the US gymnastic committee, what happens is that allegations are brought forward and an investigation commences, and the people who brought the allegations are reduced to witnesses only,” Brenda Seat, a survivor and an alumna of CAJ, told CT. “They are not allowed to choose who the investigators are going to be. They don’t have any input into what law firms are going to be used.”

In 2017, alumni began sharing accounts of abuse they experienced decades earlier on a private Facebook page. The school initiated an investigation in 2019, after alumni like Oates gathered multiple first-person accounts of abuse and sent them to the school. The school and mission agencies hired Telios Law to investigate.

Rhoads said survivors were “reactive,” “distrustful,” and “angry” after so many years of neglect and betrayal by authorities. That made communication between the sides difficult sometimes. Rhoads, Seat, and Oates tried to bridge the divides as alumni representatives.

Rhoads created a presentation for investigators, mission agency leaders, and others to help them understand the history of the school and what cultural factors contributed to the perpetuation of abuse. Alumni later noted in a statement a culture where “obedience, sacrifice, silence, and endurance were expected of women and especially children.”

The investigation had the institutions and survivors “inching out on ice on both sides,” said Rhoads. Because the alumni representatives maintained communication with the investigators throughout the process, over time they developed a more trusting relationship with the coordinating investigator at Telios, Theresa Sidebotham—herself a fellow missionary kid. These alumni gave real-time feedback to investigators when tensions flared with survivors.

Rhoads “flagged one or two situations that were getting pretty messy with misunderstandings and miscommunications,” Sidebotham said.

When certain investigators were acting too much like FBI agents toward people recounting childhood trauma, the alumni representatives shared that with Sidebotham. Seat explained how difficult it is for adults to recount childhood abuse; as children they might not have even understood what was happening to them. The process is delicate and requires an interviewer “trained to do that kind of interviewing,” she said.

Investigators allowed survivors to bring a support person to interviews. Rhoads went with her brother and knew by looking at him when to ask for a break for water or a walk. They also allowed interviewees to bring a recording device to have their own record of the conversation.

“Imagine being a 9- or 10-year-old molested by your teacher, then you’re 65; how do you talk about that? Your memories begin to blur a little bit. … At some level the investigators had to be really pointed—‘Are you sure that’s what happened? Tell me again,’” Rhoads said.

“Some said, ‘That was an interrogation.’ There is a subtle difference in what that feels like emotionally.” But some survivors appreciated the interviews “because it put words to something they hadn’t articulated.”

For the survivors, Rhoads and the others worked to set expectations of what the investigation could accomplish—like that the final report might not include that person’s particular story or describe their story as “corroborated.” She and the other representatives reached out to alumni about doing interviews with investigators, so investigators got more cooperation than they might have otherwise.

Organizations have a hard time making investigations by outside firms like Telios truly independent because the organization is the one paying for it; the organization is the law firm’s client rather than victims’.

In this case, the Telios investigators assembled an independent panel of child abuse experts who would review the findings and offer recommendations based on the report. Sidebotham doesn’t think a review panel is “practical except with a really big investigation.” But she said it serves as a “corrective for one’s own possible bias.”

For this investigation, “there were a lot of curtains. We couldn’t see into stuff,” said TEAM’s Hall. “We were just paying the bills. I don’t think I have a clue who was on that council.”

Telios released its report in 2021, uncovering 72 cases of alleged abuse over 44 years. Most of the allegations were of sexual abuse but also included physical abuse, emotional abuse, and child-on-child abuse.

The investigators said 25 cases of sexual abuse were substantiated by a preponderance of evidence. The substantiated cases involved four CAJ teachers and administrators—including 18 involving a fourth-grade teacher in the 1960s who has since died. Victims said this teacher would openly fondle children in his classroom and in their beds when he served as a dorm parent.

Victims who reported their abuse as students rarely saw action, and they were sometimes punished. Some had their mouths washed out with soap for “lying” and were whipped with a belt. Some felt pressure to keep it secret, worried that if they reported their abuse, their parents would be sent home from the mission field.

Children felt that the mission work of their parents came before their needs. One alum in the report said going away to boarding school as elementary-age children left children with a “profound” sense of abandonment.

CAJ enacted a new child protection policy in 2002 to screen and train staff and create better reporting standards. The investigators received no reports of abuse after 2001. The school ended its boarding program in 2009, and the majority of the school’s students now are no longer children of missionaries.

When the law firm released its investigation findings in 2021, it also released a statement from alumni that outlined their response to the report, including their concerns with it.

The alumni representatives saw weaknesses, like that the report sidestepped the failures of school administrators who did not report abusers. They were frustrated with some of the standards for saying abuse was “corroborated” in the report. But overall they found it was beneficial to work with investigators rather than criticize them.

Some alumni, though, are still angry about the investigation—on one side that it was done at all and impugned the school, and on the other that not enough had been done to bring justice for survivors.

Seat argues that without the investigators, survivors like her would not have gotten a report. And without the victim representatives, the investigators would not have gotten the level of cooperation they did for interviews.

Sidebotham, who has worked on other major investigations, said it was the first time she worked with survivor representatives in the process itself—giving feedback on interview styles and communication.

In some investigations, she told CT, a survivor representative might not be feasible if an investigation is “too diffuse” or if there is too much mistrust. This time, the alumni representatives met every other week for two years, Seat said.

After the report was published, the five mission agencies supporting the investigation as well as the school all issued separate public apologies for their role in perpetuating abuse at the school. The five agencies also endorsed all of the independent review panel’s recommendations, which were listed in the final report.

One of those recommendations was the retreat for survivors to meet and for mission leaders to apologize—with certain protocols set by alumni and the abuse experts. Alumni had separate hotels and arrivals from mission agency leaders, ensuring that they wouldn’t run into someone unexpected or feel trapped. The organizers also honored a request that the meetings not use religious language in official sessions, since some survivors associated that with their abuse.

Hall, the head of TEAM, said the agencies followed the alumni’s requests for the structure and format of the retreat. “We wanted to avoid any possibility that this was in reality or appearance an image management strategy,” he said.

A key from Sidebotham’s experience is for organizations to give investigators “a mandate to find out the truth,” she said. Sometimes she encounters a “defensive, ‘We’re fine,’” attitude in organizations, rather than the sense of humility that’s necessary for healing to take place.

“When the head of my mission said he believed my story, I can’t tell you how much I needed to hear that, even though he was not responsible,” said Seat, with tears. “I think that one of our learnings was that when there is true and full repentance, it really makes a difference.”

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