Christianity Today [Carol Stream IL]
March 28, 2021
By Kate Shellnut
Eleven years later, an investigation by David and Nancy French plus a site for victims try to grasp the extent of predatory behavior by a longtime camp director.
Former Kanakuk director Pete Newman has been in prison since 2010 for abusing boys from the popular Christian summer camp, but a recent report and petition say the public still doesn’t know the extent of the child sex abuse that went on there.
While 19 victims were identified in the initial investigation against Newman, a civil complaint tallied at least 57, and a prosecutor in the case estimates there could be hundreds over Newman’s 15 years at the Missouri camp, according to a report published Sunday by David French and Nancy French through the conservative outlet The Dispatch.
The Frenches’ investigation noted how the number of Kanakuk victims who have come forward over the years remains unknown. Many have been settled complaints with non-disclosure agreements, which do not permit victims to speak out about what happened to them. A twelfth anonymous victim (John Doe XII) filed a lawsuit this year.
“The nondisclosure agreements prevent victims and their families from seeking healing by connecting with other victims and sharing their stories, whether in private or in public,” organizers said. The site lists five men affiliated with Kanakuk who have been convicted of sexual crimes against children.
The Dispatch detailed Newman’s behavior as a “superpredator” at the camp. Newman was known to play sports and ride four-wheelers naked with campers, conduct “hot tub Bible studies,” and hold one-on-one sleepovers, according to the report, which includes extensive testimony from victims. He groomed children by talking about sexual topics from a Christian perspective before abusing them.
Newman’s inappropriate and abusive camp activities came up in local media stories around his arrest and subsequent lawsuits, but hadn’t been collected by a national outlet. One parent of a victim, who began a blog in 2013 when her son disclosed that he too had been abused, posted for the first time in years in response to the Frenches’ coverage: “At last, the story is being told.”
Kanakuk continues to rank among the best-known Christian camps in the country and serves over 20,000 kids a summer. The press page on its website now leads with a link to a 322-word statement on abuse, which describes the Newman case without mentioning his name and apologizes to victims and their families. The response twice references Newman’s deception and features Kanakuk’s new child protection plan.
Though Newman was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 30 years in prison more than a decade ago, Kanakuk families are still facing the lasting trauma of his abuse—sadly, one victim died by suicide in 2019—and grappling with the lack of accountability from camp leadership, particularly founder Joe White, the Frenches wrote.
In legal filings, victims’ families claimed that what should have been warning signs—his deep connections with boys, including continuing to text, write, and visit them, and hanging out with them rather than with fellow counselors—were celebrated as Christian relationship-building. The camp continued to promote Newman despite reports from parents of inappropriate and concerning behavior, including in the nude, dating back to 1999.
Kanakuk says in a statement on its site, “… no one at Kanakuk knew that any criminal activity was being committed, and no charges for failure to report were ever filed against any Kanakuk staff.”
The advocates behind Facts About Kanakuk say the same leaders who failed to address abuse remain at the helm “without repentance, without accountability, and without transparency,” and that the scandals “never received the attention needed to bring about real change. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and significant financial settlements have concealed the truth in order to preserve a ministry brand and economic engine.”
When asked why they were looking into the Kanakuk case, the Frenches said:
The response is simple. There is no statute of limitations on truth. While there are limitations on legal processes, there are not statutes of limitation for individual and institutional accountability. A false narrative has circulated about Kanakuk for a decade, and parents have sent children to the camp without knowledge of its history or access to material facts.
Nobody resigned as a result of the failure to stop a decade of abuse. There was no disciplinary action against any of Newman’s supervisors, and Joe White is still the head of the camp today.
Kanakuk is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, and White’s family along with the camp’s president make up a majority of its seven-member board, Ministry Watch reported.
In a handful of states, camps aren’t required to comply with the same regulatory standards as schools and daycares. Kanakuk set out to become an industry leader on the issue of abuse when it launched its own child protection program after Newman’s case.
It has since put on child protection training seminars for leaders from more than 450 fellow Christian camps and ministry organizations. Rich Brashler, the longtime risk management coordinator at Kanakuk, continues to speak at events around preventing and responding to abuse at summer camp.
Kanakuk now lists detailed guidelines on the types of contact, interaction, and conversations staff members can have with campers. Among them: no lap-sitting, sexual jokes, innuendoes, remarks about a camper’s physique, individual secrets, or bathroom humor. “All one-on-one interactions with kampers must be done in a public place with others visible,” the guidelines state. “Private one-on-one interactions or meetings are not allowed. A third person is always encouraged in these settings.”
Statistics show children who suffer sexual abuse are more likely to do so at the hands of someone they know, such as a neighbor, coach, teacher, and doctor. Christian organizations are becoming more aware of how predators may target their churches and ministries because of the system of trust and access to children.
Young Christians are more likely to identify bad behavior as abuse and less likely to condone it; Lifeway Research found that churchgoers under 35 are twice as likely as older generations to leave a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously.
Still, it can take years or decades for a victim to disclose abuse they experience as a child, if they come forward at all.
“Only 23% to 33% of victims disclose their sexual abuse during childhood, and only 6% to 15% of victims ever disclose those assaults to law enforcement. Males are more reluctant and take longer to make full disclosures,” wrote the Facts About Kanakuk site, citing statistics from the National Think Tank for Child Protection. “The extent of damage done to campers who attended Kanakuk Kamps and its programs will likely not be known for many years.”