Screenshot 2023-01-13 at 1.50.18 PM


Reporting the Truth.
Restoring the Church.

EXCLUSIVE: Whistleblowers Say Voice of the Martyrs President Put Optics Over Needs of Persecuted Christians

By Rebecca Hopkins
cole richards voice martyrs VOM optics
Cole Richards, president of The Voice of the Martyrs, in a promotional image. (Screengrab)

In 2016, Voice of the Martyrs was nearing 50 years of ministry to persecuted Christians worldwide, but behind closed doors, it was dealing with a controversy that was threatening to become public. And several former VOM staff said that Cole Richards, now VOM president, was focused on managing VOM’s image at the expense of orphans in Nigeria.

“Impression management was almost always part of the equation during crisis conversations with (Richards),” said Jason Peters, VOM’s former chief of connection.

Peters is one of 10 former VOM staff who spoke exclusively to The Roys Report (TRR), alleging Richards leads in a toxic way. In our last article, TRR reported whistleblowers’ concerns about Richards’ missions background, his rise to the presidency, and his treatment of employees who voice dissent. In this article, we detail instances in which whistleblowers say Richards put VOM’s public image above care for persecuted Christians.

TRR reached out to Richards for comment, and he provided written answers to several rounds of questions and agreed to a Zoom interview.

Richards is a pseudonym that the VOM president uses professionally, citing security reasons because of the work he does in countries hostile to Christianity.

Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $50 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “Ghosted: An American Story” by Nancy French. To donate, click here.

nigeria optics
Social media post regarding Voice of the Martyrs work in Nigeria. (Photo :Instagram)

’Optics’ in focus amid unhealthy conditions at orphanage

VOM was founded in 1967 by “Tortured for Christ” author and pastor Richard Wurmbrand. In 2017, VOM made headlines for its involvement in a Nigerian orphanage accused of mismanaging funds and providing abysmal care.

A separate organization, VOM-Nigeria, ran the orphanage, called the Stephen’s Center. But VOM funded the Stephen’s Center with millions of dollars most years, according to Nick Gray, former deputy regional director for South Asia. (VOM spokesperson Jon Wilke disputes these numbers. He says between 2006 and 2016, on average, VOM spent $226,175 annually, with a total of $2,487,922. Funding never exceeded $420,000 in any single year, Wilke says.)

Richards, then-vice president of VOM’s international ministry, knew of allegations of poor conditions at the orphanage for years, said Jason Peters, VOM’s former chief of connection.

Richards also confirmed this fact.

In two emailed statements to TRR, Richards said that in 2011, he and several other VOM leaders knew of “standard of care” problems and financial mismanagement. He said VOM started working with the Stephen’s Center manager to lower the number of students there.

Then, after Richards visited the Stephen’s Center in 2012, he said VOM funded many improvements including “more and better food for the students, better bedding for them to sleep on and improvements in the educational resources the children had access to.”

stephen centre
Entrance to the Stephen Centre in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

But two years later, Peters said, he went to Nigeria and witnessed “severe” overcrowding, unhealthy conditions, and lack of integrity among leaders at the Stephen’s Center. Peters said he reported the conditions to Richards. But in discussions with Peters, Richards focused on the “optics” of the situation rather than making changes to funding or the ministry there, Peters said.

“We knew it was not good work, but we worried about how to end VOM’s support in a way that would save face for the organization,” Peters said.

The same year, Merv Knight, a former board member, also emailed concerns about the orphanage to Richards.

“If those who support the orphanage were to see the bare naked truth of the conditions it would not surprise me if we faced strong criticism and a falling away of support,” Knight wrote. “If the brakes are not applied now, even though it will create some difficulties and some anguish, it will continue to rush along to what could be a greater disaster.”

In January 2016, American pastor Dan Horn visited Nigeria, saw the conditions, and documented abuses, which he then shared with VOM.

According to Horn’s website, VOM denied the abuses for a year and were “more interested in covering up what had gone on instead of resolving it.” So, in 2017, Horn published a video documenting the allegations.

Richards countered in his emailed statements to TRR, saying VOM did see some changes over the years.

“We worked hard—doing everything in our power—to improve the situation for the orphans served by our partner organization (VOCM Nigeria’s “Stephen’s Center”) for several years,” Richards wrote. “We had many successes in doing so, and hundreds of orphans were served well during those years. Our staff regularly visited the center to evaluate standards and help our partners implement improvements.”

In June 2016—five years after Richards said he first knew of poor living conditions—VOM stopped funding the orphanage, Richards claimed. He added that former VOM President Jim Dau announced the change at a gathering of the International Christian Association (ICA).

But the June 2016 timeline isn’t accurate, according to numerous former VOM employees who spoke with TRR.

Former regional director Joe Hill said that in late July 2016, VOM was still funding the Stephen’s Center, and he spoke with Richards at that time about whether to continue the funding.

Similarly, former regional director Sean Paton told TRR, “They’d been dragging their feet for a while and then pulled out in earnest when the Dan Horn stuff emerged, and then started doctoring and ‘back dating’ their withdrawal.”

(Hill and Paton are pseudonyms the two men use because they work in countries with high risk of persecution. TRR confirmed their identities with former VOM field leader Derrick Stewart.)

Jason Peters said he was at the October 2016 ICA conference when Dau told Isaac Newton, who was running the Stephen’s Center, that VOM was ending its funding. Richards said he was not at that meeting due to a medical emergency. Peters provided photos to TRR showing Newton at the conference.

voice martyrs VOM optics
Isaac Newton (right) of the Stephen Centre in Nigeria attends an International Christian Association conference with Voice of the Martyrs staff in October 2016. (Photo Courtesy of Jason Peters)

“Isaac came to ICA general assembly in October and had no clue his project was done,” Peters said. “He was crying.”

Nick Gray, former deputy regional director for South Asia, said Richards pushed “talking points” that blamed the leadership in Nigeria, said VOM’s “hands were clean,” but in a way that showed no compassion for victims.

“Dan Horn was painted as the evil one, Isaac as the predator, and Cole as the savior,” Gray said. 

Both Peters and Paton said the only reason VOM cut off funding to the Stephen’s Center was because of public exposure in 2016-2017, due to Horn’s advocacy.

“What happened during those two-plus years when VOM knew there were serious issues?” Peters said. “Only God knows.”

TRR asked VOM for documentation of the efforts VOM made to investigate the abuses at the Stephen’s Center. We also asked for the results of an “outside child safety ministry to evaluate the methodology of VOM’s work in Nigeria and advise our staff in best practices,” which was mentioned in a 2017 VOM public statement.

Richards responded to the request by referring to his earlier comment that VOM made changes over the years but did not provide documentation.

nigeria voice martyrs
Image of the Stephen Centre in Abeokuta, Nigeria, posted Oct. 5, 2016. (Photo: Facebook)

 ‘Willing to lie’ to keep image ‘squeaky clean’

In 2019, Paton said he visited a safe house for vulnerable women in Kenya, run by VOM Finland, a separate organization. Paton noticed that a non-VOM missionary man with a rumored past frequently stayed there, and Paton grew concerned.

Right after Paton returned to the United States, he said a woman from a different mission organization alerted VOM of allegations of sexual misconduct by this same missionary. Paton said he asked Richards to tell VOM Finland leaders of the concerns during upcoming meetings Richards was attending. Paton said he never heard whether Richards had that conversation.

However, the following April, the woman warned VOM again, along with three other organizations, in an email that TRR obtained. A few days later, Richards emailed other VOM leaders to say this was the first he’d heard of the allegations and that he would launch an internal investigation, according to VOM’s protocol.

Six hours later, Richards crafted an email to the other ministries to say he concluded his investigation.

His conclusion was that the man had never been a VOM employee, contractor, partner, nor acted on VOM’s behalf, but that VOM had made donations to the man’s ministry.

Richards sent the email to VOM leaders first, including Paton, before sending it to anyone else. Richards wrote that VOM had only just heard of the allegation in April 2020, and had no prior knowledge from any victims.

Paton replied to Richards in an email that Richards had been informed of the allegations the previous year. Paton said he also told Richards that Paton had texted the woman bringing allegations in 2019, saying Paton had informed his leaders of the issue.

cole richards VOM optics
On Apr. 5, 2024, Cole Richards (center) speaks at a conference hosted by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. (Photo: Facebook)

As a result, Paton said Richards didn’t send that email to the other ministries. Richards then suggested closing the Kenyan guest house, but relented when Paton said the action was too drastic and would harm vulnerable women.

Paton said the interactions showed that Richards’ instinct is to protect the ministry, rather than vulnerable populations. 

“It was just that posture of always thinking of myself first, always covering my own rear end, not thinking about persecuted peoples, and willing to lie knowingly to make sure that the image stayed squeaky clean,” Paton said, describing Richards’ communications.

Richards told TRR that VOM didn’t uncover any evidence that the man had harmed anyone, but that VOM “broke relationship” after learning he had failed to “follow standards we require of ministry partners.”

In our next article, we’ll report on Voice of the Martyrs employees who questioned a budget crisis and subsequently lost their jobs.

Correction: This article has been updated to add a spokesperson’s statement disputing a stated funding amount, and to accurately state that Richards did not attend a 2016 meeting.

Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist based in Colorado.



Keep in touch with Julie and get updates in your inbox!

Don’t worry we won’t spam you.

More to explore

15 Responses

  1. There seems to be a real pattern emerging with VOM leadership caring more about “optics” than the people who have experienced abuse. Ten years ago a serious problem was brewing at VOM HQ, but then, after executive Tom White took his own life – that serious problem quickly melted away and VOM, business went on as before.

    See article: Voice of the Marytrs’ Tom White’s Suicide Confirmed; Molestation Case Closed – By Nicola Menzie, Christian Post Reporter Friday, August 24, 2012
    An even more painful article to read is Wade Burleson’s open letter to the young girl. Wayback Link:

    Where there’s smoke there is most likely a fire. I have even heard stories about how Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand were harmed by the very organization they founded. In my opinion the entire VOM culture deserves to be examined.

  2. I’m heartbroken to hear of this. I’ve supported VOM in the past. They seem to have good men on board who are trying to fix things, so maybe there’s hope for the organization. A leadership shakeup might be just the right thing. I pray they succeed.

    1. Or VOM is nearing the end of its life cycle.
      Organizations and Causes have finite lifespans, too.
      There is a reason “rags to riches to rags in three generations” is a proverb in both English and Chinese.

  3. Dear Friends, funding someone from your church to work overseas provides personal accountability. An organization like VOM however takes money from one country and gives it to people in another country. There is no accountability in that. Just like KP Yohannan who received millions in donations and built himself a tidy little empire in India.

    I myself would never give a penny to VOM because they used the story AND UNALTERED VOICE of a PERSONAL FRIEND OF MINE without his consent in a sensationalized fund raising video shown across North America. That’s correct. I worked closely with someone VOM marginally funded then profited off of. VOM used my friend for their fund raising purposes, gave him less than you’d spend on your pet in a single year and the video made his persecution worse after local officials discovered it. We wrote to leaders of VOM at the time- crickets. This story disgusts and angers me every time I think of it.

    Stop giving to huge “Christian” organizations. VOM included. Stop supporting orphanages, the number of children abused in them is sky high (know this from first hand experience overseas as well). Support people you know personally. Don’t know anyone? Contact a mission organization which makes disciples abroad, request names of individuals who work with that org (there’s probably even someone from your home state) and get to know them before giving.

    1. Exactly 7 years ago to the date this was published, I went public with my own personal VOM story from over 20 years ago now. Someone with the exact same first name stated the same thing as this Saeng does now in a comment to my story. I was going to repeat it here but it looks like this has already happened. This has got to be more than a coincidence.

      Here is an excerpt: “Secondly, a local martyr from our country was made the poster child of a VOM video. The brother in question had been in prison for over ten years, was a villager and did not have the political nor international savvy to understand what would happen when he was featured him in such a movie. All he knew was that VOM had given money to his wife while he was in prison so he felt indebted. (I will add that this money should never have been given in the first place, as it fueled local suspicions that Christians are just for hire by overseas donors).

      Can you guess what happened to that brother? He was hunted down relentlessly by national authorities who made his life more miserable than ever. Last I heard -a few months ago- he is living in obscurity in a remote village unable to minister for Jesus. After all this brother went through he did NOT need American mammon-focused Christians promoting his story on the international scene. I hold VOM responsible for the suffering he and his family have endured since. I particularly hold them responsible because they USED him to raise money for their organization.”

    2. The more middlemen and links in the chain, the more opportunity for corruption somewhere along that chain.

      The bigger the organization, the more likely something will slip through the cracks and/or get lost.

      And the more chance for the Organization Tail to start wagging the Dog of its Original Purpose.

      If anything, the Godspeak and Christianese can get in the way of seeing that.

      1. The reality is that Tom White who took over what was a tiny little ministry at the time is a child molester. While I agree with you with more time passing and the bigger an org gets the more prone to corruption at some level it becomes, in this case that was not necessary. Back when there was less than 5 full time staff a CHILD MOLESTER took control and built it to over 100 staff when he killed himself. So again I ask the very logical question: what kind of an org. would a child molester build?

  4. Big surprise…NOT.

    The leadership at VOA (among many other “churches” and “ministries”) works to protect the brand and the cash cow that comes with it.

    To quote a famous movie line, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

    Yet another reason why NONES and DONES are multiplying like Catholic rabbits.

  5. Why are openness, transparency and honesty such difficult values for an organization that says it wants to honor God? Something is rotten in Denmark, as the saying goes…

  6. When you are evaluating the effectiveness of any cross-cultural enterprise you have to be aware of at least three kinds of reports coming from the recipient organization. First, is what I call “Program Line” reporting. This is reporting which is what the participant thinks is proper to tell the researcher. It is what the recipients and participants feel they are supposed to say, no matter what reality is. This is the kind of reporting that many (if not most) mission organizations are relying on to report to the donors. Second, is what I call “base line” data. This is data about the recipient and the program that is collected as close to the end product as possible. This is the kind of data reporting you can get from random interviews with orphans…or, families served…or, crusades conducted, etc. Most mission organizations do not invest the time or effort to try and get base line reporting. The third kind of reporting is what I call “vaguing out” where the reporting is so vague as to be useless.

    As a larger mission organization ages, and it has accepted program line reporting in an unqualified manner there is usually a huge wake up call in the future. It sounds as though this is what has happened to VOM. IF they had taken the time to try and get base line reporting (using third party evaluation) the corrections could have been made long before it became a huge issue in the public domain. Now, what has been “said in private” has been “shouted from the rooftops.” This will damage the reputation of VOM in the short term but if they will be humble and own the mistake they will survive in the long term.

    1. “First, is what I call “Program Line” reporting. This is reporting which is what the participant thinks is proper to tell the researcher. It is what the recipients and participants feel they are supposed to say, no matter what reality is.”

      Like the first Kremlin scene in HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries.
      Where everything is bright and sunny in Moscow while Chernobyl burns and the radiation spill plume envelops Pripyat and northern Ukraine.

  7. I’m sick and tired of ministries that make the claim that if they don’t raise enough money or if they close shop then the world and the church goes down the toilet. Many seem to believe that church history begins and ends with them.

  8. Cole Richards needs to resign for the good of VOM. But he will take the entire Ministry down with him before he will do that. It’s almost as if he has something he’s holding over the boards head. Why else let Cole keep getting a free pass like this. He’s not and never had acted like a servant of Jesus in the entire time he’s served.

    1. I am sure Cole has a bunch of dirt on the board members and know where the bodies are buried.

      So it is Mutual Assured Destruction: “If I go down, you all go down with me.”

Leave a Reply

The Roys Report seeks to foster thoughtful and respectful dialogue. Toward that end, the site requires that people register before they begin commenting. This means no anonymous comments will be allowed. Also, any comments with profanity, name-calling, and/or a nasty tone will be deleted.
MOST popular articles


Hi. We see this is the third article this month you’ve found worth reading. Great! Would you consider making a tax-deductible donation to help our journalists continue to report the truth and restore the church?

Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $50 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “Ghosted: An American Story” by Nancy French.