By DENISE R. FREELAND
News Leader Staff Writer
A documentary featuring Minerva High School French teacher Dianne Darr Couts is scheduled to be shown in Minerva, May 26. "All God's Children: The Ultimate Sacrifice" tells the stories of children from three families who were abused at a school for missionaries' children in Africa, and their efforts to confront those responsible.
Couts and her three brothers attended the Christian and Missionary Alliance boarding school in Mamou, Guinea, in the 1960s, as was required of all missionaries' children at that time. Couts attended the school in grades six through nine, while her brothers attended from first through eighth grade.
The dormitory and the school were strictly separated, Couts said, and abuse occurrred in both, ranging from the dorm mother who beat children with the buckle end of a belt for whispering during rest time, and the first- and second-grade teacher who picked children up by their ears and refused to let them go to the bathroom until they urinated in their seats, to the dorm father who molested a young girl nightly.
Couts said, because she was older when she came to the Mamou school, she "escaped the brunt" of the abuse; however, her younger brothers spent many more years at the school, with the result that the youngest, Rich Darr, suffered from severe performance anxiety as an adult and spent many years in intensive counseling.
"I survived by being good and being smart and toeing the line and trying to avoid trouble," said Couts, "but what ended up happening is we older kids kind of sheltered, and protected, and mopped up damage for the littler ones."
In the early 1990s, two of Couts' brothers and three other former students formed the Mamou Steering Committee, with the goal of putting pressure on C&MA to meet with them to discuss abuse at the Mamou school. In 1995, after achieving minimal progess, the committee received a message from C&MA saying its personnel was too busy to meet with the steering committee due to the church's approaching international convention in Pittsburgh.
With assistance and advice from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the Mamou Steering Committee traveled to the C&MA convention, passing out flyers on the sidewalk during its opening session. On the second day, the group held a press conference, telling their stories to print and broadcast journalists, followed by a prayer vigil.
"People got in our faces," Couts said, as the seven people stood in a semicircle, praying and holding crosses.
C&MA members accused them of trying to destroy the church; however, Couts recalls, with tears in her eyes, that one woman stood with them, later telling them her nephew had been abused by his pastor and she wanted them to know she cared.
Many others were not so compassionate, Couts said, explaining the response was often, "Shhh, you'll hurt the church," "He's old now; let's not put him through that," or "If you had a strong faith, this wouldn't bother you."
Couts is still outraged by these attitudes, saying, "It's not that the victims are against forgiveness. The victims are against forgiveness as the solution to the problem, because, if all the victims forgive, then nothing has to change; the issues don't have to be addressed. . . . You get to be traumatized as a child, and then when you're an adult and it starts to impact you, you get to forgive, and we, the organization, don't have to change."
Following the Pittsburgh conference, the committee, in cooperation with C&MA, formed a five-member independent commission of inquiry, which sent letters to all past students of Mamou. The 80 responses the commission received were "like carbon copies of each other," Couts said, noting that most of the former students had not seen each other since they were 15 or 16 years old.
The findings were published, and C&MA held a retreat in Atlanta in 1997, flying in former students and spouses in, and apologized to them.
The former Mamou students have used the knowledge they gained from confronting C&MA to help others, mentoring abuse victims from a Presbyterian church missionary boarding school in Congo who exposed a man who molested girls there and in churches in the U.S., and also victims from a Methodist boarding school in Africa.
More recently, Couts' brothers were hunting in Africa and stayed with a C&MA missionary whose mother had attended the Mamou school. The missionary thanked the Darrs, saying that because of their efforts, his children did not have to attend a boarding school and could live at home and attend the nearby American school.
"You feel like you've changed the world," said Couts. "Look at all the kids we've saved. They would not listen to reason, until we stood in Pittsburgh and the newspaper and the tv came out."
The years Couts spent avoiding abuse at Mamou still affect her today.
"I'm afraid. I'm way more afraid than I should be, and I'm very much organized and on top of things, because I don't want to get into trouble. . . . Our home was not like that, but those experiences made me wary and afraid, and I don't need to be afraid," she said, adding with a smile, "I'm getting better at it."
"All God's Children" will be shown Tuesday, May 26, at 3 p.m. in the high-school auditeria. More information and clips from the movie can be found at www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com.