The former sect child who helped expose paedophiles

Stuff, New Zealand/May 18, 2024

By Steve Kilgallon

Colin Mee, who grew up in a sect and escaped in his adulthood, has helped authorities catch sexual offenders within that sect.

The New Tribes Mission wanted to ‘plant’ churches in far flung communities. But missionary kids, including Kiwis, were subject to abuse. Colin Mee was one of them. Steve Kilgallon reports.

It was an unusual childhood.

At 12 years old, Colin Mee found himself transplanted from suburban Christchurch to an evangelical Christian school in the remote Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), rife with racism, emotional, physical and (he later discovered) sexual abuse.

He remembers thinking ‘What are we doing here?’. He asked his dad why they didn’t go home. His dad replied: “Because we are doing good work.”

Not just good work, but God’s work, his father believed. Colin’s parents Michael and Mary were committed members of the obscure New Tribes Mission (NTM) sect, whose goal was to reach remote communities, convert them, and teach the Bible as a literal truth.

When his family arrived in PNG in 1976, shortly after it gained independence, Mee says his highly-controlling father was convinced God was speaking directly to him, while his mother had suffered post-natal depression and a breakdown. It would be another 30 years before NTM’s long history of sexual abuse of its own children - so-called Missionary Kids, or MKs - would be uncovered.

So Colin felt alone, very alone, in thinking that this was a strange world.

NTM was founded in the United States in 1942, then began “planting” churches in countries as diverse as Brazil, Senegal, and the Phillippines. Its in-house magazine was entitled Black Gold - black, a crude reference to the ethnicity of those it wanted to convert, and gold, because it was ‘mining’ their souls for God.

It arrived in PNG in 1950, and opened a boarding school at Lapilo, south of Goroka, in 1965. Since then it’s expanded to a substantial base with shops, gym and a helicopter.

When Mee arrived in 1976, it was rough and spartan. The camp had New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, Brits, and a German, but the dominant and ruling group were the Americans. “It was made extremely clear that we were there to work, to do what they told us, and if we objected then we could just bugger off home, and everything would be confiscated.”

Kids were considered a distraction from their parents’ religious work. Colin says they were always told: “Don’t complain, otherwise your parents will go home, and black souls will go to hell because of it.”

While their parents were away evangelising, the kids boarded, and were taught an American curriculum, led by a headteacher Mee says believed black people were educationally sub-normal - and yet they were in a black country. “So what are we doing there?” he thought.

So what were they doing there? His parents, both British, moved first to Canada, then Christchurch, where Mee was born. When he was five, they joined a Baptist church. “Then the lightbulb moment happened … all of a sudden, it was all they ever talked about.”

When he was 10, his parents went to a religious conference in Nelson, and decided to become missionaries. “I remember bursting into tears thinking ‘life is over now’. I was embarrassed. I guess I was agnostic.”

They sold their home, and as New Zealand welcomed people for the 1974 Commonwealth Games, they left for a religious boot camp at the Mission’s Australian base in Rooty Hill, western Sydney. Mee remembers rows of huts, split into four living quarters with partial partitions, and no running water. “It was grim … I thought, ‘What the hell have we come to?’.” There was a high turnover, with students often doing moonlit flits.

He says he began to see the innate racism of the organisation; the Americans took the best accommodation, and advocated for those in inter-racial marriages to divorce. Mee says he later spoke to one Māori leader who walked away as a result.

After a year, the family returned to New Zealand, to what was briefly the mission’s base in this country, a dairy farm at Clydesdale, in the Manawatū, then were sent on their overseas mission.

But Michael Mee was too valuable for evangelical work - instead, he was appointed the mission book-keeper and the family stayed on the base.

They were also appointed dorm parents, usually to the outcasts, with mental health issues, who urinated and even defecated in their beds. His father, says Mee, beat one boy while he was naked, and told him about it. Another dorm parent told him how he had groped young girls. He could hear kids screaming as they were physically beaten; he says the Americans believed it broke children’s wills, so they became compliant.

Mee isolated himself, refusing to take part in most church activities and studying by correspondence for his School Certificate. He’d take off for days at a time on a plane with a pilot friend. With a deepening estrangement from his father, he was also forced to fend mostly for himself, and worked in the camp printshop, and made and sold coffins.

After six years, his parents were allowed a break. They went to England with his two sisters, leaving Colin to board in Christchurch, where he became a cardiac nurse with a sideline in writing gags for radio hosts. Going home, he says, was “nice”. “I wasn’t being beaten up, abused and cheated and stolen from.”

Buying a plot in Sumner, he cleared the section, worked the land, bought a goat, and lived self-sufficiently while working night shifts. A first marriage ended in divorce; he then met his partner Jo, who helped him explore the damage of his childhood as it returned to haunt him in his forties. As he slowly told Jo his life story, she says, “He realised he wasn’t the crazy one, he wasn’t the only one who saw it this way”. “There were kids all over the world who had the same experience. He wasn’t alone.”

Online, Mee discovered other NTM kids. He contacted several from New Zealand who disclosed their sexual abuse to him. He established there had been seven paedophiles at Goroka, including a New Zealander later jailed for sexual offending.

It deepened the split with his family. He had a heated debate with his father, whom he recalls saying, “Why are you sniffing around ruining the reputations of Godly men?”, while his mother told him church-based abusers should be forgiven, but secular abusers jailed. He stopped speaking to them; Michael died in 2016, Mary in 2023.

Colin wrote to Barack Obama, to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, to New Zealand and Australian embassies. He got a nice letter back from the White House. He spoke to a US special agent to help compile a list of possible American paedophiles still living offshore. He contacted a British charity about one offender, and helped with the location and arrest of NTM missionary Warren Scott Kennell, who was jailed for 58 years in the US in 2014 for filming himself sexually abusing indigenous girls in Brazil.

A global movement began when six women went on camera with the NBC network in the US in 2009 to detail their abuse at the now-closed Fanda boarding school in Senegal, and established a support network, the Fanda Eagles.

That finally stung the NTM leadership into action, commissioning a group called GRACE to conduct an investigation into Fanda. The resulting report - which found 27 survivors of sexual abuse and 35 of physical and emotional abuse by at least 12 perpetrators - went undisputed by NTM leadership. It also found complaints dating to the 1980s, without any real action in response, and a 1997 internal investigation by NTM was adjudged “wholly incomplete and inadequate”. And, like Mee, it found Fanda children were warned that telling their parents would distract their missionary work and mean Africans would go to hell.

NTM leader Larry Brown promised its philosophy had changed, issued a general letter of apology and promised a “tectonic shift” in approach.

But when it came to commissioning further reports about abuse around the rest of the world, including Papua New Guinea, NTM hired an organisation called iHART, with direct links to NTM, to investigate. The mother of two US survivors told Stuff Grace’s reports were “very honest”, but iHART’s, delivered between 2011 and 2014, were “very sanitised ... boilerplate”, and left survivors feeling betrayed.

She recalls her shock at realising it wasn’t just her children who were abused. “My heart was just broken, not only from my own daughters but the countless others that felt neglected and abandoned.”

Colin Mee considered the iHART reports a “sham” and refused to participate.

Instead, he wrote to every Baptist church in New Zealand - worried they might be funding NTM and providing recruits. Hardly any replied. However, Crossview Australia - the new name for NTM across the Tasman - did, threatening legal action.

In New Zealand, NTM is now called Ethnos360. Its website suggests it has about 20 missionaries in the field, with links to donate to their work. Ethnos360’s New Zealand director Trevor Clarke didn’t respond to a series of specific questions but instead directed Stuff to the global body’s extensive child safety policy, adding “I trust that gives you all you need to, as you say, ‘offer balance and some insight’ into how the organisation operates these days.”

Their microscopic presence in New Zealand means NTM has had little attention: the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care, which studied abuse in religious institutions, has had no interaction with the group or any survivors.

At 50, Colin Mee retired, for a quiet life of gardening, cycling and photography with Jo and his dog Sam. “I wanted the childhood at the end of my life. I’d had enough. Standing in a basement making coffins isn’t a childhood.”

He seems at ease now, and we have an engaging four-hour conversation, full of yarns about a life less ordinary. “If my story stops someone being sucked into this nonsense, then it’s worth it,” he says.

‘I didn’t sign up for this’

Over in Sweden, it’s Máire Skogstjärna’s birthday, and our online interview pauses for a moment as one of her daughters drops by to greet her.

Skogstjärna has a photograph of her 11th birthday, with her family around her, a birthday cake before her.

But it was the only one she celebrated with them in eight years, because she was sent away to an NTM boarding school in Panama while her parents were on a mission five hours away in a remote community near the Costa Rican border.

At boarding school, she was physically beaten, molested by older students, and when she was 16 years old, raped by a surgeon who was treating her for a catastrophic knee injury sustained in a baseball game. Traumatised, she began a relationship with a boy five years older, fell pregnant, and was effectively shunned by the Mission, causing her to return home to a New Zealand she barely knew.

“I was over 40 years old before I realised that it wasn’t my fault,” she says. “The #MeToo thing was how long it took me to realise that.”

At 54, Skogstjärna says she’s finally come to terms with the damage sustained in childhood. She knows of former NTM kids who have committed suicide. “What I take out of this,” she says, “is that I lived to tell the tale.”

She was born in Sydney as Kerry Lou Gray, where her English mother and Kiwi father met at the Rooty Hill camp in 1967. She lived briefly in New Zealand, and was about ten months old when the family arrived in Panama via container ship. There were further short spells in England, Australia, and home in New Zealand, but otherwise, she spent the rest of her childhood until she was 16 in Panama’s populist dictatorship.

At eight, she was sent to the Escuela Hogar Misionero boarding school. As with Colin Mee, it was run by teachers and “dorm parents” drawn from the ranks of NTM missionaries. “It was the people who weren’t good enough for anything else... [so] you let them be in charge of your kids,” she says scornfully. The GRACE report concurred, saying these officials had little training.

She cried herself to sleep every night for two months. “We children were physically removed from the equation because we were in the way … of our parents saving all these ‘heathens’ from hell.”

She recalls beatings with a wooden paddle from an American dorm parent, while his wife watched; and another who whipped children with a fibreglass fishing rod so they couldn’t sit for three days. “There’s nobody to tell. If you did, well, it was alright because they were supposed to discipline us.”

She barely saw her parents: six weeks in summer, a fortnight at Christmas, with her father serving as the pastor of a small local congregation, while her mother, who had a nursing qualification, provided ad-hoc healthcare.

That parental and collective neglect culminated in a softball game on November 7, 1986. Skogstjärna was guarding second base when a batter slid in, knocking her kneecap entirely out of joint. At first, surgeons worried they would have to amputate. The orthopaedic surgeon who eventually saved her leg also groomed her, and raped her in a hotel room several times. Her father told her before he died he was instructed not to pursue legal action.

A note in the church newsletter, written by her younger sister and a friend said: “We utter a heartfelt thanks to God for saving Kerry’s leg, as He is the best doctor of all.”

Some months later, when an older boy visited their home, he had sex with her; deeply traumatised. “I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care. In the back of her mind, I knew I could get pregnant, and I did, but I didn’t care. It was someone else he was having sex with, it wasn’t me.”

She says the church effectively sent the family home in disgrace. In a report as part of the iHART inquiry into Panama, NTM admitted that, saying it was “unclear whether the shunning was by policy or not”. She also received a written apology from NTM director of personnel Brian Coombs, saying: “It grieves us that your childhood was inevitably changed”, but the iHART report itself was disappointingly equivocal about her abuse and said some of it could not be confirmed. The American advocate Stuff spoke to said Skogstjärna was dreadfully treated.

Back in New Zealand, her daughter was adopted by family friends. “I think my daughter had a better chance at life with the people who adopted her than she ever would have had with my family. I’ve never had a single regret that I let them take her. Sometimes you want to break down and cry, and scream ,‘Why did this have to happen to me?’ She’s my girl. She’s always been my girl.”

It was an open adoption; Skogstjärna was present at the birth of her third child and her daughter has visited her three times in Sweden.

After the adoption, Skogstjärna had a difficult relationship with her mother; when she saw an advertisement in a church bulletin from a family in Sweden wanting a nanny, she was there within six weeks. “I had to go, or it was jump off [Hamilton’s] Claudelands Bridge. I realised if I didn’t leave New Zealand completely, I might not make it.”

Her first two marriages were abusive and unhappy, but she has been with her third husband, Hakan, for 17 years.

She says her life has been dictated by her boarding school experience. Anxious to provide a different childhood for her kids, she’s never taken a regular full-time job. “Every choice I’ve made has been what is best for my kids. I chose my children over everything else. I hope it helps them to be well-adjusted adults, which I wasn’t.”

It’s serendipitous that we talk now. “You might laugh at this, you might not believe in God, but I told God I’d keep my mouth shut in New Zealand until my father was dead.” He passed away last October. Her mother still lives in Hamilton, but she has cut contact. It means she’s happy for us to use both her old and new names.

She’s recently made just her third visit back to New Zealand in three decades, and while it’s left her with the split emotions of the long-distance ex-pat, she was heartened by the warmth of welcome from her extended family.

“I have to see myself not as a victim, but the one who came out the other side,” she says. “I may not be all I wanted to be, but I have eight amazing children, and four grandchildren, and one due in Sweden, and three amazing grandchildren in Hamilton.”

“I didn’t sign up for any of this,” she says. “Colin didn’t sign up for any of his s... either. We had to deal with the cards dealt to us, and somehow get through today, without any say in how today looked.”

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