Missionary doctor’s secret sins: Decades of alleged abuse and cover-up

Dr. Donn Ketcham, Kim James
Dr. Donn Ketcham and Kim James in Bangladesh. (Courtesy photo)

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Kim James said she was a 12-year-old missionary kid — an MK, as they were called — when the sexual abuse started at a Baptist mission camp in Bangladesh.

"I am out to tell the world after all these years," James told Target 8, speaking publicly about the allegations for the first time. "The truth must be known."

Her alleged molester, Dr. Donn Ketcham, came from a church in the city of Wyoming. Then 58, he was a surgeon, family doctor and religious leader at the mission compound in a Bangladesh jungle.

He has admitted to "perverted sin" with her.

James was the first woman to come forward with allegations of sexual assault against the missionary doctor in 1989. Twenty-two more women would follow her example. Many of them call James a hero.

The accusations never led to charges because they were covered up, and because of where they reportedly happened and how long ago — in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Now, James and other alleged victims told Target 8 they hope new allegations made by a woman in Ottawa County could finally lead to criminal charges.

Ottawa County detectives said they believe there could be more local victims.

Even if Ketcham is charged, his accusers from years back said it won't end their lifelong trauma.

He took "my life, my dignity, my soul, it just felt like everything," James said.

And that was before Baptist mission leaders told James to sign a confession that she was as much to blame as Ketcham for what they called a sexual relationship. She was 14 at the time.

"They told me what to write," she said.

Kim James, Dr. Donn Ketcham.
Kim James.

James, now 42 and living in Mishawaka, Ind., said she has tried to kill herself five times, took to cutting herself, suffered an eating disorder, has been through a lifetime of counseling, lived for a time in a homeless shelter and has never married.

"I still struggle with this even today," she said. "It's just a battle."

She turned away from her church, holding God at least partially to blame:

"He sent my parents to that mission field."

UNDER THE GUISE OF MEDICINE

Much of the Ketcham story is told in a 280-page report released in March by ABWE, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.

The highly critical report details years of alleged sexual abuse by Ketcham — 18 children and five women, all missionaries or missionary children, listed as victims — all while he served in Bangladesh for ABWE through the 1980s.

>>PDF: ABWE report summary

Much of the alleged abuse happened under the guise of medicine — physical exams that victims and investigators say went way too far.

"As a child, you don't know exactly what's going on, but I knew that he was getting turned on and I could feel it," said Sheryl Petrovich of Grand Rapids, who told Target 8 that Ketcham sexually abused her in the 1970s.

The allegations from Bangladesh include victims who said Ketcham drugged them first.

"It's a pretty scary feeling even at this age when it was so long ago, and you wonder, you just wonder: How often? How much? What happened?" said Diana Durrill of Denver, who said he molested her in the 1980s.

The March report also details the cover-up by ABWE mission leaders that spanned decades and how the mission failed to notify police or the state of Michigan after Ketcham admitted to a sexual relationship with Kim James in 1989.

"I thought they'd take his license away and I was kind of shocked that they didn't, that he was still working," she said.

In 1989, after Ketcham was forced to leave the mission, he started practicing medicine in Allendale — first at Campustowne Family Medicine and later at Allendale Family Practice. He stayed there until the state forced him to surrender his license four years ago after finally learning of the abuse allegations.

Officials at Campustowne and Allendale Family Practice said they didn't learn about the allegations until after he left.

Ottawa County sheriff's detectives said the new allegation — that he molested a 5-year-old girl during a physical exam — happened while he worked at Campustowne. The alleged victim told police he touched her inappropriately in 1999, 10 years after he left the mission.

DOCTOR'S RESPONSE: DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ

The ABWE report does not identify the victims in Bangladesh, nor does it include the words of James, who said she was afraid to talk to investigators.

The ABWE report also doesn't include a response from Ketcham, who refused to talk with investigators.

Target 8 found Ketcham, now 85, living in the city of Wyoming.

Donn Ketcham
Donn Ketcham. (Aug. 1, 2016)

"My only comment is don't believe everything you read in the papers," he told Target 8 last week.

When asked if that meant 23 alleged victims were lying, he said: "I did not say that."

He refused further comment.

More than 25 years after the alleged abuse in Bangladesh, the women are living across the U.S., in places like Denver, Seattle and Grand Rapids. Target 8 sat down with five of them, who spoke publicly for the first time.

UNCLE DONN — DOCTOR, PREACHER

Diana Durrill, who lives outside Denver, is James' sister. She said she also is among the victims of the man known as Uncle Donn. Uncle is what the MKs, the missionary kids, called all the missionary men in Bangladesh.

"He was just good-natured and a lot of fun, and very likeable," Durrill said.

Dr. Donn Ketcham
Dr. Donn Ketcham preaches in Bangladesh. (Undated courtesy photo)

Uncle Donn was more than a doctor. He also preached and had lots of charisma.

"A big, booming voice, loved to lead the singing of hymns," said Tamara Rice, who now lives in Seattle and said she was also a victim of the doctor.

But there was more to Uncle Donn — a pedigree.

"He actually had this huge sort of Baptist cred, just with his name," Rice said.

His late father, Robert T. Ketcham, was a well-known Baptist pastor — so big that the welcome center at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids is named after him. If Baptists had a Hall of Fame, he'd be in it.

Malumghat Christian Hospital, Dr. Donn Ketcham
Malumghat Christian Hospital at the Baptist missionary compound in Bangladesh. (Undated courtesy photo)

Dr. Ketcham joined the mission field in then-East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1961. He helped build a small hospital in the middle of the jungle, aimed at saving lives and souls.

The missionaries lived in a small compound, sent there by churches from all over the U.S., with their kids, the MKs. The MKs played in the jungle, rode elephants, kept pet monkeys.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful childhood," Durrill said. "I think even in the midst of some of the dark things that took place, as a kid, you're really unaware of how dark it really was."

KIM JAMES' STORY

James was 8 or 9 years old when her family moved from northern Indiana to Bangladesh in the early 1980s. Her dad was a handyman and kept the hospital running.

Tamra Rice, Dr. Donn Ketcham
Tamara Rice.

"She was sweet, fun, really light-hearted, really happy-go-lucky little girl and loved everybody," said Rice, who lived at the mission at the same time as James. "I think in his mind that was an easy target."

Before long, Uncle Donn took an interest in James.

"He kind of took on as my grandpa, a feel for him being my grandpa and filling that void," James said.

He tutored her in math and even let her in the OR during surgeries.

"Always told me I was special," she said.

As he did with many of the MKs, he gave her a nickname. Hers was mugwump.

"As an adult looking back, all the signs were there that he was grooming her," said Rice.

James has said the abuse started when she was 12 and went on for almost two years — in his office and at his home on the missionary compound.

She kept quiet until she was home for the summer. At her church in Mishawaka, she told her pastor — in July 1989. She was 14.

"I said, 'Is it right when someone does this or this or this to a person?' Next thing I remember is he dropped his pen," she recalled.

What happened next is almost unbelievable.

A TRIP TO BANGLADESH AND A CONFESSION

Days after James told her pastor about her relationship with her missionary doctor, two Baptist missionary leaders, Russell Ebersole and Russell Lloyd, flew to Chicago. They found her at Great America amusement park. James and her sisters were home for the summer and her parents still in Bangladesh. Without telling her parents why, the two missionary leaders flew her to Bangladesh.

"We had no clue what was going on," James' father told Target 8.

James said she'll never forget that flight.

"I got up a couple times and went and just hung out in the bathroom, was staring out one of the windows, where the food was, and was crying. And some lady asked me what was wrong: 'Are you OK?' And I almost told those two gentlemen kidnapped me," she said.

During the trip, she said, they told her to write her confession of a "physical relationship with Dr. Donn that transgressed God's word and that was not pleasing to Him."

"I just thought, 'Well, this is the way God would want me to be sorry for my sin,'" she said.

When they reached Bangladesh, the two missionary leaders made her confront the doctor — along with his wife, Kitty. James' parents were in the room.

One of the ABWE leaders detailed the trip in a diary, "Journey to Bangladesh," that reads more like a romance novel — how the doctor had become James' "secret lover" who "satisfied her intensifying sexual desires."

"They had me apologize to him, I apologized to him," James said. "My parents even hugged the Ketchams and especially Donn. Instead of my dad punching his lights out, he just hugged him and said, 'I forgive you.'"

Her parents said the mission leaders told them only that Ketcham had touched her inappropriately. They said they didn't learn until years later how far she said it had gone.

Dr. Donn Ketcham, Kim James
Dr. Ketcham and Kim James in Bangladesh. (Courtesy photo)

James also told Ketcham she forgave him.

"In a way, I had loved him, so it's hard to not forgive someone that you had learned to love," she said.

She remembers Ketcham apologizing, but not his exact words.

What James didn't know was that the Baptist leaders pulled Ketcham's wife aside privately.

"Clarified to her that Donn had not seduced (the girl) but that she had been a willing partner," according to the diary kept by one of the Baptist missionary leaders.

"A seductress," her sister, Diana Durrill, said. "I think that they were painting her as being flirtatious and friendly and therefore we have this man who had no ability to control his impulses."

DOCTOR'S ADMISSION, THEN SILENCE

Ketcham admitted to "heavy petting" and later didn't deny that he had French kissed the girl, but denied having sex with her. He has also denied molesting anybody else.

ABWE quickly dismissed Ketcham from the mission.

"I was told not to speak about it, ever," James said. "My parents were told not to speak to me about it. I wasn't allowed to talk to my sisters. We weren't allowed to talk about it."

"So nobody discussed it," her dad said. "Nobody. It was never brought up."

Other women said the secrecy kept them from coming forward.

"I knew one thing," said Tamara Rice, one of those women. "What you didn't want to be was a victim, and that you did not want to be tied in any way to Donn Ketcham and that this did not go well for you if you were."

Documents back then show mission leaders were in mourning for their doctor. They asked churches to support him and help with his counseling.

But there would be no offer of counseling for James — at least not then, she and her family said. Within a year, James and her family said she tried to kill herself in Bangladesh with pills.

James said she finally asked ABWE for help 12 years later, in 2001, leading her to sign a confidentiality agreement with Ketcham in exchange for $26,500, records show.

She said ABWE leaders took her into their homes in the U.S.

"For 22 months, they kept me kind of hidden out at different places throughout the states, like in North Carolina, in Ohio and Pennsylvania, going back and forth between the three," James said.

Her family said they weren't allowed to talk to her on the phone without an ABWE official also on the line.

Then, they said, ABWE told them they didn't know where she was.

"Finally I felt like they got sick of me, sick of dealing with me, so they dumped me off at like a women's homeless shelter type thing," James said.

An official at the shelter in Asheville, N.C., confirmed James was there from August 2004 to January 2005.

"We couldn't track her down, we couldn't find her, we couldn't get anyone to tell us anything about her," her sister said.

"Then, I felt like trash," James said. "I just felt like they were done, done with me. They didn't want to try to help me anymore, so I came back home."

What she didn't know was that four years earlier, in 2002, seven or eight former MKs, all women, met for a reunion at the ABWE office in Pennsylvania. They started trading stories -- about what they say Dr. Ketcham had done to them in Bangladesh, some as long ago as the 1960s.

GRAND RAPIDS VICTIM: 'DOING THINGS HE SHOULDN'T DO'

Sheryl Petrovich, of Grand Rapids, said she was part of that reunion.

Sheryl Petrovich, Dr. Donn Ketcham
Sheryl Petrovich.

She was born on the compound in 1961 and grew up there with her missionary family. She said Uncle Donn violated her during physical exams, starting when she was 5 or 6.

"A lot of bad memories," Petrovich said. "I remember my mom sitting in the corner of the room often and he would have his back to her, doing things that he shouldn't do."

The allegation is strikingly similar to the recent allegations raised by a woman in Allendale.

Petrovich said she has gone through years of counseling. She's held onto her faith in God, but is no longer a Baptist.

"I don't think there's any way of flipping a switch," she said. "It's part of you forever. Things that have happened to you in your life, decisions I've made. It just affects you, affects your children, affects your family. It just goes on and on."

Linda Walsh Zylstra, Dr. Donn Ketcham
Linda Walsh Zylstra.

Petrovich's sister, Linda Walsh Zylstra, remembers breast exams that seemed to last forever.

"I'm like 9 years old and there's comments being made about sexual development," she said.

ALLEGATIONS OF DRUGGING

Nine victims told investigators they believed Ketcham had drugged them.

Tamara Rice, who now lives in Seattle, was among them. She said she remembered feeling sick, ending up in a bed in Ketcham's home, strange sexual dreams, then feeling sore the next morning.

"For sure I was molested, just knowing now what a woman knows what a body can feel like the morning after something," Rice said. "There's not a lot of doubt now."

Rice was 8 when she moved to Bangladesh with her parents from northern Indiana. Her father was a Bible translator for the mission. She said the doctor also molested her several times during medical procedures.

"I think what he was doing to me was what he did with most of us, which was it was an opportunity, even though I was sick, it was an opportunity," Rice said.

She has since struggled with depression and anxiety. She has undergone counseling for sexual abuse and PTSD, she said.

Rice said she will never step in a Baptist church again. For a time, she was angry at God.

"I did what any teenager does when they're mad at someone: You stop speaking to them, so I stopped speaking to God," Rice said.

Rice said ABWE's cover-up kept her from healing sooner.

"In 2005, I was a mess again and had to be hospitalized because I was suicidal," she said. "By that time, ABWE had the pieces of the puzzle and I didn't."

Finally, under intense pressure from victims, who had started a blog, ABWE hired a private company, Professional Investigators International, to investigate in 2013. PII;s report detailed the cover-up — documents hidden and some burned.

"I blame them for hiding this, putting everything under the rug, trying to save face," James said.

"What good is spreading the Gospel if you're doing it over the backs of wounded children?" Rice said.

VINDICATION AND FEARS OF MORE VICTIMS

For the women, the PII report released by ABWE in March, is vindication. Some said it shows the new leaders at ABWE are moving in the right direction. ABWE leaders have issued apologies. Some said that ABWE recently started offering financial settlements.

They said they know there's nothing that can be done to the doctor for what happened to them. It happened overseas and too long ago.

"I think one of the hardest realities in our world, in our life, is that the law is not on our side, that as children we were taken overseas and we were brought outside the protection of our government during our childhood years," Durrill said.

They worry there could be other victims in Allendale, where Ketcham practiced for more than 20 years.

doama durill, dr. donn ketcham
Diana Durrill.

"The struggle for me is the institution that protected and covered up and therefore exposed an unknown number of others," Durrill said.

"I think there possibly could be a lot of victims," James said. "But I think they're scared if they are a victim. I know that feeling of being scared."

"This was a horrible tragedy and we don't know yet how many people it's affected because it's not over yet," Rice said. "The story's not done. We don't know what's been going on the last couple decades."

Some of the women said they want Ketcham to pay. The five women who spoke with Target 8 said they would cooperate with Ottawa County deputies investigating the latest allegation.

"He's not too old for jail, nobody's too old for jail, especially when you've done the kinds of things he's done," Rice said. "No one should get a free pass."

Ketcham is retired now and still living in Wyoming with his wife, Kitty.

VICTIM: 'I'M A SURVIVOR'

The women from the Bangladesh mission wonder how they would react if they ever saw him again.

"I don't know," Durrill said. "I'd probably turn around and walk away."

"I would say, 'How could you?'" Linda Walsh Zylstra said.

Tamara Rice: "I'd probably break down. I'd like to say that I'd be tough, but I probably wouldn't. "

"I wouldn't speak to him," said Sheryl Petrovich. "The thought of seeing him- I couldn't be in the same room with him. Never again. I would have nothing to say to him."

"What would you want to say?" James, the first victim to come forward, was asked.

"I will win," she said, wiping away tears. "I'm winning now. I'm a James, I'm a fighter and even though it's taken this many years, I will win. I'm a survivor."

Comments are closed.