When Church Groups Go Too Far

From the Baptist 10 charged with child kidnapping in Haiti to a Connecticut man accused of sexually abusing Haitian boys, U.S. missionaries are in trouble—and undersupervised—abroad.

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While the world’s attention is focused on 10 Baptist missionaries from Idaho charged with trafficking Haitian children, a less-noticed case of child sex abuse by a Catholic missionary in Haiti is unfolding in federal court in Connecticut—and calling attention to the larger, international problem of American missionaries operating abroad without oversight.

Douglas Perlitz, 39, a pastoral minister and celebrated alumnus of Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, is charged with forcing 18 boys into sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter, money, cell phones, electronic devices, shoes, clothes, and other items, while he ran a boarding school for street children in Cap-Haitien from 1998 to 2008. Perlitz has pleaded not guilty to 19 felony counts of travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct and engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places.

Many missionaries “are not answerable to legal authorities, and you’re also not answerable to the people in your church world,” said UPenn religion expert Anthea Butler.

The Perlitz case highlights how missionaries operating with a divine imprimatur can hold unique sway over potential victims, and are often inadequately supervised by their sponsors in the United States.

Elizabeth McAlister, associate professor of religion at Wesleyan University and an expert on Haiti, said that child sex abuse there, including the targeting of boys by Roman Catholic priests, “has a long history from the slavery period to the Roman Catholic educational system through the continued economic and political downward spiral in Haiti.”

“The weak government,” she added, “doesn’t have capacity to do oversight ... It’s a perfect storm for kids to be vulnerable.”

Staff at Fairfield University, including the former director of campus ministry, Rev. Paul Carrier, had ties to Perlitz’s charity and helped raise money for it. When Perlitz was first charged last December, the university issued a statement calling the charges “shocking and very troubling.” In an editorial, Fairfield’s student newspaper, The Mirror, criticized the institution’s refusal to take responsibility for its role, arguing it “should not distance itself from the pain and hurt it may have had a hand in causing.”

“They are negligent,” Paul Kendrick, a priest abuse survivor advocate and Fairfield alumnus who has written extensively about the case for The Mirror, told The Daily Beast.

The Perlitz case and the media scrum around New Life Children’s Refuge, the group founded by the detained Idaho Baptist missionaries, has been a “wake-up call” for other mission organizations to tighten background checks of volunteers and compliance with local requirements, said McAlister. The leader of New Life, Laura Silsby, had a history of legal troubles arising from her for-profit business, the Personal Shopper Web site, and her home had been foreclosed. The group didn’t have the paperwork required to take the children out of the country under Haitian law.

Yet in the evangelical world, missionaries frequently operate without oversight from sponsoring churches. The exhortation of evangelical organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention—to go forth to all nations to preach the gospel—can lead to naive or inadequately trained missionaries finding themselves in more complicated situations than they anticipated. While New Life was launched from a Southern Baptist church in Idaho, the denomination, which has pleaded for greater U.S. diplomatic intervention to secure the detainees’ release, has also claimed it was never overseeing the missionaries’ activities.

Louis Moore, a longtime religion reporter, questions on his blog whether “Southern Baptist leaders [are] truly preparing these hordes for the inevitable conflicts and difficulties” encountered by volunteer missionaries, including violating the bans some countries have on evangelizing. The International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention did not respond to a request from The Daily Beast for comment.

While the U.S. State Department has launched initiatives to combat child trafficking, it does not issue specific regulations or guidance for the activities of American missionaries abroad. In part, that’s because the First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating the internal activities of churches, apart from prosecutions for civil or criminal wrongdoing. Efforts to more tightly regulate U.S. missionaries abroad would likely trigger an outcry from religious groups raising religious freedom concerns.

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The United Nations children’s organization, UNICEF, works with governments around the world to encourage adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But the United States is one of only two countries that has not ratified the Convention, due to objections primarily from the religious right.

Still, some religious groups have stricter standards for international volunteers than others. World Vision, an evangelical organization that performs relief and development, but not missionary work, adheres to the Red Cross code of conduct as well as the Sphere Standards, adopted by humanitarian organizations to ensure the dignity and human rights of aid recipients, said Amy Parodi, a World Vision spokesperson. “I’m sure the missionaries down there have their hearts in the right place, but weren’t aware of all the ramifications of what they were doing, and ended up making serious mistakes,” she said. “The standards are in place so people’s good intentions are carried out in appropriate ways and do good.”

Many missionaries are not trained according to these standards. The increase in short “immersion” mission trips by evangelicals, and the decline of long-term missionary assignments, leads to the potential for mistakes and abuse, said Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania.

When long-term assignments were the norm, Butler told The Daily Beast, missionaries were stationed in one place for an extended period and reported back regularly to their sponsoring church. But frequently immersion missionaries “are not answerable to legal authorities, and you’re also not answerable to the people in your church world.”

People on short-term immersion trips, said Butler, have “a sense of doing the Great Commission.” Evangelicals are motivated to do this missionary work, she added, because they think, “I want to bring the Gospel to the heathens; we want to bring our civilization to everybody; and it’s a calling that’s about me—I get to be this person who is on the field from God.”

While the catastrophic earthquake has focused attention on Haiti, the potential for missionary mistakes and abuses exists across the globe. Haiti “is often seen as a singular case,” said McAlister, “but I actually think that’s a mistake. We need to see Haiti as perhaps an exaggeration of forces and dynamics that are at work elsewhere in the world where the political and economic systems are working to disadvantage a country or a region or group.”

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Sarah Posner is associate editor of Religion Dispatches and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, and many other publications.