MERIDIAN, Idaho (ABP) — The sponsoring church of a 10-member Southern Baptist mission team charged with child kidnapping in Haiti has acknowledged that the group made “mistakes” and asked the Haitian government to forgive them.
“We are absolutely convinced that those who were recruited to join this mission traveled to Haiti to help, not hurt, these children,” said a statement posted Feb. 4 on the website of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho. “We are pleading to the Haitian prime minister to focus his energies on the critical tasks ahead for the country and to forgive mistakes that were made by a group of Americans trying to assist Haiti’s children.”
During a closed-door hearing Feb. 4, a Haitian court charged the Baptists, arrested Jan. 29 while trying to shuttle 33 children from an earthquake zone near Port-au-Prince to a temporary orphanage in the neighboring Dominican Republic, with child kidnapping and criminal association.
Earlier a Haitian attorney representing the Americans suggested that only one of the 10, group leader Laura Silsby, might be culpable in what prosecutors call an illegal adoption scheme.
The case now goes to an investigating judge, a legal process expected to take up to three months, prolonging media attention while Haiti attempts to recover from a Jan. 12 earthquake that left more than 200,000 people dead.
“I believe it’s a distraction for the Haitian people because they are talking more now about 10 people than they are about 1 million people suffering in the streets,” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said before the hearing.
Reuters, which had a reporter in the court session, reported that all 10 of the detainees acknowledged they had apparently violated the law when they tried to take children out of the country without proper paperwork but did not know it at the time.
Bellerive said Feb. 4 on “Larry King Live” that he hopes the Americans were acting in good faith, but they must be held accountable for breaking the law.
“I hear a lot of people asking for the government or prime minister to release those people,” Bellerive said. “Those people are not in the hands of the government. They’re in the hands of the justice.”
The prime minister said he would do what he can to see that the case moves forward in a timely manner. “At the same time, we have to respect the law,” he said. “It’s clear that those people violated the law.”
Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph told the Christian Science Monitor he thinks Haiti is sending a message that a government is in place and that anarchy will not prevail despite destruction of most government buildings in the nation’s capital.
Joseph said the group’s character would likely be considered during the upcoming trial and judgment and that “compassion” might play a role in the proceedings somewhere down the road.
The Central Valley Baptist Church statement reads in full: “We are anxious, fearful and concerned about our family members, especially the young people who are jailed in a foreign country. Obviously, we do not know details about what happened and didn’t happen on this mission. However, we are absolutely convinced that those who were recruited to join this mission traveled to Haiti to help, not hurt, these children. We are pleading to the Haitian prime minister to focus his energies on the critical tasks ahead for the country and to forgive mistakes that were made by a group of Americans trying to assist Haiti’s children.”
Each kidnapping count carries a possible sentence of five to 15 years in prison. Criminal association carries a potential sentence of three to nine years. Prosecutors decided not to pursue what could have been the most serious charge against the group, trafficking,
New Life Children’s Refuge, a non-profit organization launched last fall to start an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, shifted the effort into high gear after the Jan. 12 earthquake left as many as 300,000 children homeless. That intensified concerns about child trafficking, already a problem in Haiti even before the disaster.
While part of the mission of New Life Children’s Refuge is to provide adoption opportunities for Christian parents in the United States, the stated purpose of the mission trip was to rescue Haitian orphans abandoned on the streets, makeshift hospitals or from collapsed orphanages in Port au Prince and surrounding areas.
Haitian authorities said most of the children rounded up by the Baptist group have living parents.
The website at Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, home church to three of the 10 members of the mission team, said both of the Southern Baptist congregations “have a great reputation for being mission-minded and have had numerous members participate in mission trips around the world.”
Dillon International, a non-profit child placement agency that specializes in international adoption, says it has received many inquiries about adopting newly orphaned children in Haiti but warns that Haiti’s adoption laws are very strict. Even with a stable infrastructure in place before the earthquake the agency, which has been placing Haitian children with U.S. families since 1991, said the average waiting time for a Haitian adoption was about two years.
is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.