Ungodly abuse: The lasting torment of the New Tribes missionary kids

The accused sexual predators are living freely in communities around the U.S., their sordid pasts known only to a few.

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By Kate Snow, Aliza Nadi and Rich Schapiro

When the clock struck 8 p.m. inside the Aritao boarding school in the Philippines, the children would gather in a common area for their evening routine.

A nightly devotional. A Bible reading. Prayers.

The children were the sons and daughters of American evangelical missionaries. The sessions were led by mission caretakers known as the "dorm dad" and "dorm mom."

When the prayers were over, the boys and girls as young as 6 would march off to bed. Sometimes, the dorm dad would trail behind the girls, slip into their rooms and do ungodly things to them in the dead of night.

He would put "his hands under the covers and would touch me," recalled Joy Drake, who says the sexual abuse started when she was 9.

"I would pretend that I was sleeping because I was terrified that he would get angry or something worse would happen if I moved. So I'd hold my breath and wait till it was over."

Joy DrakeNBC News

The Aritao school was run by a Florida-based group formerly known as New Tribes Mission, one of the largest Christian missionary organizations in the world.

New Tribes missionaries have operated in more than a dozen countries, spreading the gospel in some of the most remote corners of the globe.

Devoting one's life to God in this way requires a particular sacrifice. Missionary parents would often go several weeks in the field without seeing their young children, leaving them in the care of New Tribes boarding schools in places like the Philippines, Senegal and Brazil.

Some of the schools, former students say, employed missionaries who were like wolves in sheep's clothing.

In interviews with NBC News, more than a half-dozen women said they were sexually abused by New Tribes staffers while attending the mission schools in the 1980s and '90s.

The women say New Tribes covered up the abuse for years and scared the victims into silence by telling stories of Africans going to hell or missionaries ending up in foreign prisons if the allegations ever got out.

The organization, after facing pressure from abuse survivors, did eventually commission an independent, pull-no-punches probe of one of its schools, in Senegal. The 2010 report painted a damning portrait of New Tribes, accusing the organization of creating a culture of systemic abuse that included sexual harassment and abuse of more than 20 children.

But the report, released long before the #MeToo movement triggered a national reckoning over the abuse of women and girls, garnered little attention.

Nearly a decade later, the accused sexual predators are living freely in communities around the U.S., their sordid pasts known only to a few.

Because the alleged abuse took place overseas and was never reported to local law enforcement authorities, the men have never stepped foot in a jail or appeared on any sex offender registry.

Jaasiel MashekNBC News

"The scariest thing is thinking that they're still out there," said Jaasiel Mashek, 38, who says she was abused by the dorm dad at the Philippines school. "Who knows what has happened since they've been back?"

NBC News tracked down one of the accused pedophiles to a tiny town in Georgia, where he has given sermons at a local church. The man, David Brooks, was identified in the Senegal report as the school's most prolific perpetrator of sexual abuse, preying on one girl alone more than 50 times. Brooks declined to comment to NBC News.

"I feel that in so many ways justice has failed," said Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor who leads Grace (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), the organization that investigated the New Tribes school in Senegal and that focuses on rooting out abuse in Christian organizations.

"You have individuals who physically and sexually abused children who have gone on to live quote-unquote 'normal lives.' You have an organization that had to deal with some press and people talking about it but in large part has moved on and continues to do their work around the world."

"And then," added Tchividjian, who is a grandson of the evangelist Billy Graham, "you've got the scores and scores of missionary kids. So many of them are struggling to get by in life, struggling to comprehend, why is this man who sexually abused me not in jail, not in prison? Why is this man serving in church, living what appears to be a normal life?"

Silent no more

Missionary kids. That's what they call themselves.

They grew up overseas, in exotic environments and often strict boarding schools, many seeing their parents only in sporadic bursts.

Some missionary kids had glorious childhoods filled with adventure and close friends, surrounded by caring, supportive adults. But others had a very different, darker experience, where they suffered abuse that was physical, emotional and sometimes sexual.

Several missionary groups, not just New Tribes, have been battling to keep a lid on their own ugly pasts, according to Tchividjian. He said he's "lost count" of the number of people who have reached out to him with stories of physical and sexual abuse within various mission organizations.

"I think high-risk offenders are drawn to that environment because these groups are often in desperate need of staff, there's minimal accountability and significant numbers of vulnerable people," Tchividjian said. "That's a perfect recipe for a sexual offender."

Jaasiel Mashek, in a plaid dress, stands inside the Aritao boarding school in the Philippines, August 1989.JCL

The former students who spoke to NBC News said a "culture of silence" was built into their childhoods. Their reluctance to speak out spanned decades. But more and more are stepping out of the shadows.

Those little boarding school girls are now grown women — teachers and nurses and youth mentors, some of them with daughters of their own. Five former New Tribes students spoke to the "Today" show, telling their stories to a national TV audience for the first time.

They want the world to know what they suffered through as missionary kids so no one else ever has to.

"If we don't speak up, it's going to keep happening," Mashek said. "And we're going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It's got to stop."

"Gamble all for Christ"

Founded in 1942, New Tribes Mission set out to bring Christianity to the world's most isolated communities — no matter the risks.

"By unflinching determination we hazard our lives and gamble all for Christ until we have reached the last tribe regardless of where that tribe might be," the group said in the May 1943 issue of its official magazine, "Brown Gold."

Missionaries flooded countries in Asia, Africa, South America and beyond. Many of them brought with them not just the teachings of Jesus Christ. Missionary parents also brought their children.

Bonnie CheshireNBC News

Bonnie Cheshire was just 2 when she arrived in Senegal with her parents, both New Tribes missionaries, in 1981. She grew up in a river village surrounded by forest and miles away from a major city.

"It was an amazing life. It was absolute freedom," Cheshire said. "Outside all day, in trees all day."

By age 6, she was living with other children of New Tribes missionaries at the Fanda school where boys and girls were split into separate rooms. There was a "big girls" room and a "little girls" room, each one accommodating about six to eight girls.

Like all of the New Tribe boarding schools, American missionaries who were not sent out in the field were assigned to take care of the children and lead them in Bible study and prayer.

Brooks and his wife held the role of Fanda dorm parents in the mid-1980s, according to the Grace report.

Cheshire said Brooks would sometimes play the "seashell game" when he was alone with the children outside, hiding a shell in his bathing suit and urging the girls to find it.

Soon he was also showing up in her room late at night, Cheshire said. "You need to find a way to relax to go to sleep," she recalls him telling her.

Brooks would then start touching her, Cheshire said, noting that she was 7 when the abuse started. It seemed innocent at first, she said, but became anything but.

"I knew that it was not right," Cheshire said.

David Brooks in 1986.

Kari Mikitson said she was 8 when Brooks began appearing at her bedside to tuck her in at night. Mikitson said she had only one roommate at the time — Brooks' own daughter — but that didn't deter him.

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"She would fall asleep, and he would just sit on my bed and stay too long," Mikitson recalled.

After molesting her, Mikitson said, Brooks would tell her it was "our secret."

For years, Mikitson dared not speak up. She and the other former students said they were taught reporting negative things could jeopardize their parents' work and strip the locals of the chance to have their souls saved.

"Deeply religious organizations are great places for pedophiles to hide," she said. "The culture of silence was built into the training. Do not gossip, do not speak about anything that doesn't edify. It's just a recipe for abuse."

Mikitson said Brooks abused her for roughly one year. Cheshire said he preyed on her for two years.

They had no way of knowing that other young girls were being allegedly sexually assaulted at a different New Tribes school thousands of miles away.

"It was a hell I still live with"

Prowling the dorms at the boarding school in Aritao, Philippines, was a different man with a similar predilection for young girls.

Jaasiel Mashek says she was only 6 when a dorm dad named Les Emory began preying on her.

Mashek told NBC News that she still remembers heading to her bedroom and seeing "Uncle Les" sitting nearby and "waiting for us."

She says she was too young to remember details of the abuse but Emory sent her a letter in 1993 admitting that he had molested her.

Jaasiel Mashek in 1986.JCL

"I need to send this letter to you and beg your forgiveness for my sin against you," he wrote. "Please forgive me for letting my desires control me."

For Joy Drake, the details of the attacks have been seared into her memory. She was a few years older than Mashek when she says Emory began sneaking into her room late at night, setting a chair next to her bottom bunk bed and touching her sexually.

Drake says she became so desperate to avoid the attacks that she sometimes went to sleep in an upper shelf of her closet. "I'd put my blanket and my pillow up there and sleep up there in the cupboard, because I didn't want to be in bed," Drake said. "And I figured it would be hard for him to find me in the dark."

Another former student, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was 11 when Emory would show up in her room and watch her undress. The woman said she and her friends eventually ditched their own rooms and moved in with one another in an effort to deter the creepy ogling.

"I didn't feel safe so I wanted to be with my friends," she said.

Escaping the abuse was nearly impossible for Kelly Emory. Les Emory is her father.

Kelly says her dad raped and molested her for three years starting at age 6. She says she was also forced to endure the horror of being in the same room as her father sexually abused her roommates inside the Aritao dorm.

Kelly Emory, daughter of Leslie Emory.NBC News

"I had to pretend I was sleeping," Kelly said. "It was a hell I still live with."

Kelly said nothing about her father's attacks until she was 15. In March 1993, with Kelly struggling in school and wrestling with thoughts of suicide, she says she told her dorm mother.

The woman reported the allegations, Kelly said, and days later three New Tribes field leaders showed up at the school to question her.

"They asked me to describe what had happened, and I told them," Kelly said. "And they told me to not say anything. It was my duty to protect my family, to protect my dad, and if I did say anything, if I did tell anybody anything, my dad would be thrown in a Filipino jail."

Within a week, Kelly said, her family was shipped out of the Philippines and flown to Missouri to attend therapy sessions with a mission counselor.

"After two weeks we were pronounced healed and whole," Kelly said. "Those were their words."

Emory was ordered to leave the mission, Kelly said, but the real reason for the family's sudden relocation was kept secret from all but a few in the organization.

"You try to do the right thing," Kelly said. "We got shushed and rushed out of the country. They made us all stay quiet. They silenced us."

"When I found out I wasn't the only one, my life did a 180"

Kari Mikitson's family left Senegal in the late 1980s when she was 11. Not long after they settled in Colorado, Mikitson confided in her sister and then told her parents about the abuse.

Mikitson's father, John, said he called New Tribes around 1989 to report Brooks, and the response left him stunned.

"You are going to ruin this man's ministry if you keep talking about this," he said he was told.

"They wanted to defend this perpetrator, not our daughter," John Mikitson said in an interview. "I can only assume their focus was keeping the ministry alive."

Brooks was removed from the organization by 1990, a spokesperson said.

According to 1992 New Tribe field committee notes obtained by the Grace investigators, the group did have a policy on child sexual abuse that expressly stated allegations should not be reported to police and imposed different guidelines for different kinds of acts:

"If it is a homosexual act with a child, the person will be dismissed immediately and may never be considered for membership in the mission again. If it is a heterosexual act the person will be dismissed immediately but could be considered for ministry again in the future depending on the case. If it occurs in the field, it is not necessary to report it to the Senegalese or U.S. authorities. It must be investigated as not doing so could be ruinous for the mission."

Kari MikitsonNBC News

Even if New Tribes had reported abuse to American authorities in the early 1990s, there was little that law enforcement could do. It wasn't until Congress passed the Protect Act in 2003 that the U.S. government could prosecute Americans for sex crimes committed overseas without going through the onerous and often impossible task of proving the suspect had traveled to that country for the purpose of abusing kids.

The Mikitson family ultimately dropped the matter, but roughly 20 years later, it came roaring back when Kari Mikitson moved back to Senegal.

She met up with her childhood best friend for the first time in years, and when Brooks came up in conversation, Mikitson said she learned she wasn't the only one harboring a painful secret.

"When I found out I wasn't the only one, my life did a 180 instantly," Mikitson said. "For the first time I realized this was not my shame, it was this man's. I felt powerful when I learned this."

Mikitson and Cheshire launched a blog in 2009 with twin goals: to create a network for abuse survivors and pressure New Tribes into acknowledging its sins.

"I made it clear on the blog — I wanted a genuine apology," Mikitson said. "I was not looking for money. This was not a shakedown. I wanted genuine repentance, in the words of evangelical Christianity."

The blog quickly attracted attention, and soon people who had attended New Tribes boarding schools around the world were detailing their own stories of sexual abuse. Mikitson said she received reports about schools in more than a dozen countries.

The dorm of the Aritao boarding school in the Philippines in 1988.

With the blog gaining in popularity, the organization invited Mikitson to its headquarters in Sanford, Florida, for a face-to-face meeting with board members.

Mikitson says she wasn't satisfied by the response from the New Tribes officials, but they ultimately hired Grace to investigate abuses at the school in Fanda, Senegal.

The report surprised Mikitson and other survivors with its unvarnished account of the child sexual abuse at the school, identifying seven alleged perpetrators by name and outlining in excruciating detail the acts they carried out.

"David Brooks often talked with these children about his close walk with the Lord while simultaneously sexually abusing them," the report says. "He told these children not to tell, because bad things would happen and no one would believe them."

The report offered specific recommendations — including firing the alleged sexual abusers, alerting the "appropriate authorities" of their conduct, and setting up a $1 million fund to cover counseling costs for victims.

In a statement, New Tribes said it took a series of actions after the report.

"We made improvements in our child protection policies, implemented recurring child safety training for all members, and hired an independent team to review or investigate our ministry locations around the world," the statement said.

New Tribes said the organization "carried out termination and disciplinary action and set up a perpetual fund to assist victims with counseling."

The group also claimed to have reported Brooks and Emory to several authorities, but the local law enforcement offices in the mens' hometowns both told NBC News they had no idea an accused pedophile was living within their jurisdiction.

Leslie Emory pictured between 1991 and 1992.

In the case of Emory, New Tribes said it made a report to the Florida Abuse Hotline in 1993 (Emory has never lived in Florida). New Tribes said it didn't take any other action until nearly 20 years later when it contacted an FBI office in Missouri, in 2011, and the Department of Homeland Security, in 2012.

As for Brooks, New Tribes said it reported him to "state authorities in Florida" and his state of residence. The organization also said it submitted a report in person to his local sheriff's department.

But the sheriff's office in Pike County, Georgia, where records show Brooks has lived since the 1990s, said it had no record of any such report.

"If someone told us there's an accused pedophile living in our jurisdiction, that would be information we would like to know for the safety of our community," Maj. David Neal of the sheriff's office said.

New Tribes did pay for some counseling sessions, according to the women, but they came to an abrupt end after reaching a financial limit.

New Tribe's relationship with the team of investigators behind the Grace report also came to an end.

The mission went on to establish its own process, called IHART, to "research historical allegations with care and professionalism."

New Tribes hired someone to assemble a team and lead investigations into other schools. But the team has released only two reports thus far, in Bolivia and Panama, which were overseen by a special education lawyer from Colorado with a missionary background and presented before a panel that may include former New Tribes staffers prior to release.

"For some allegations, we are fairly confident that we found the truth," says the introduction of both reports. "For others, the truth is hidden in the fog of history and memory so that we could not be sure exactly what happened — the final truth will come out when God reveals the hidden things."

A now 46-year-old woman, who says she was molested by the director of the Bolivia school when she was 11, dismissed the IHART report as a half-hearted inside job.

"People were led to believe it was an impartial investigation, but, being aware of their guilt, which they are, (New Tribes Mission) would never hire independent or impartial anything, risking their own asses, and the result of this IHART investigation shows it," she said.

A child abuser speaks

Brooks and Emory, meanwhile, have gone on with their lives. More than 25 years have passed since they returned to the U.S., and neither has run afoul of the law in their hometowns.

When NBC News reached Brooks outside of his home in Williamson, Georgia, he refused to comment about the allegations. "No response whatsoever," he said.

Emory was much more willing to talk.

In a 13-minute phone interview, he was remarkably candid about his conduct in the Philippines. He admitted to molesting girls under his care, said he had undergone extensive therapy and expressed remorse for the harm he had done to the victims.

"Nobody else is involved. Nobody knew anything about it," he said. "It basically happened at night and everybody was sleeping."

Emory said he preyed on a total of eight girls, but he denied ever abusing his daughter.

Emory also said he was interviewed by a Department of Homeland Security agent around 2011 but nothing came of it.

"I am so eternally sorry for what I did to them girls and I have no excuse," he added. "Like I said, I was going through a selfish, ugly, sinful time and I pray to God that he'll keep me walking with him, so I don't think about it again."

New Tribes changed its name to Ethnos 360 in May 2017.

The Aritao boarding school in the Philippines in 1988.

The organization now operates only three boarding schools, with a total of eight students. Most of the missionaries home-school their children, a spokesperson said.

Jaasiel Mashek, one of Emory's alleged victims, said she's still troubled by the way the organization handled the allegations of abuse. "It's not just about the perpetrators, but it's the people that covered it up," she said.

Kari Mikitson, who along with Bonnie Cheshire reached a settlement with the group, said she thinks it should pay for victims' counseling costs in perpetuity. "You destroyed these lives. Rebuild them," she said. "And if it takes every penny you have, so be it."

Nearly 30 years after the attacks, Joy Drake still builds a fortress of pillows around her body when she goes to sleep, an extension of her days trying to keep away her abuser.

She said the organization's leaders didn't just fail her and her fellow abuse survivors. "They "failed to protect everybody after us. Because these men are still out there."

"I haven't lost my trust in God," she said. "I lost my trust in people that claim to be godly."

Courtney McGee contributed.