The Dispatch [blog]
April 27, 2021
By Nancy French
Last month, my husband David French and I published a report describing how one of the largest Christian camps in the world reacted to repeated red flag warnings about the inappropriate behavior of a counselor in ways that we described as troubling and inadequate. Pete Newman, who had been a Kanakuk Kamps director, was convicted in 2010 on seven counts of sexually abusing young boys and is now serving two consecutive life sentences plus 30 years.
However, no camp leadership has resigned, been fired, or been held accountable for their inaction towards a decade of Newman’s nudity and parental complaints, even though they promoted Newman and made him the focal point of promotional materials.
Though this is one of the worst Christian sex abuse scandals in American history, the story had never garnered much attention. Based on civil suits—Kanakuk President and COO Doug Goodwin couldn’t even guess how many had been filed—we knew there were more victims. The prosecutor estimated the total number of victims could be in the “hundreds,” and NDAs prevented most of the plaintiffs from sharing their stories.
Every summer, parents entrust 20,000 children to leadership with a history of turning a blind eye to predation, because there was no way of easily discovering the history.
The investigation continues. Since the publication of our first article, I have learned more from sources who have come forward daily—even hourly—with additional details.
This new information adds to the already substantial body of evidence that camp leaders sought to downplay evidence of wrongdoing, even if doing so added to the trauma of those who’d been abused and made additional camper abuse more likely. Among the new details:
- Newman confessed after a Texas Kanakuk father confronted Newman and threatened to call the FBI.
- Joe White discouraged the whistleblower from informing law enforcement of Newman’s crimes.
- Newman allegedly created pornographic materials of children.
- Experts now say the FBI should launch an investigation into possible child trafficking.
Let’s start with the most frequently asked question stemming from our original article.
How Did Newman Finally Get Caught?
In “They Aren’t Who You Think They Are,” David and I detailed Kanakuk leadership’s awareness of a series of incidents in which Newman was nude with children. We also documented Kanakuk’s lack of action, even after several parental complaints.
However, we couldn’t report with precision why Newman finally confessed to abusing children and said so in that original story.
“In 2009, Newman’s Kanakuk story came to an end,” we wrote. “For reasons that remain unclear, Newman finally confessed his crimes to White, Goodwin, and Cooper, the senior leadership at the camp.”
Our problem wasn’t a lack of information, it was an abundance. I had heard multiple, conflicting accounts of the events that led to Newman’s confession:
- Doug Goodwin said the camp received “specific but limited information” about Newman’s abuse that caused them to confront Newman in 2009.
- Joe White, Kanakuk’s chief executive officer, stated that “Doug Goodwin, Kris Cooper, and I were informed via attorney letter of accusations of sexual misconduct a few years prior. We met with Pete and he confessed” to various abusive activities.
- A Texas victim’s father said Kanakuk told him a lawyer representing another victim arrived at the camp and caused Newman to confess.
- A different victim’s parent—in a police statement dated July 2, 2009—said Newman’s supervisor Kris Cooper told them that “Kanakuk first learned there was an issue when a ‘hotline’ was called by a 19 year-old-boy, reporting Pete for inappropriate sexual contact with him.”
- Others recall being told that Pete confessed after a parent complained about “inappropriate text messages” to campers.
- A Kanakuk employee told me an attorney recorded a phone call with Pete during which the counselor made incriminating statements.
- Another camp insider remembered it differently. “There was a mom who drove by somebody’s house and saw Newman in a hot tub with boys. I don’t think that person called the cops. Maybe she called someone else’s mom and said, ‘Why is your son over there? Or is your son over there or is he supposed to be?’” This maternal concern is what she believed forced Pete’s confession, but she wasn’t sure. “You might want to confirm that.”
While that original article was filled with detailed reporting from court records, depositions, dozens of interviews with victims and their advocates, and recorded conversations with individuals involved with the camp and with knowledge of the history of inappropriate conduct, we couldn’t provide a corroborated account of what, exactly, led to Newman’s confession. So we didn’t.
Now, we can.
Toby Neugebauer is the parent of Kanakuk campers and a longtime supporter of the camp. He tells us that he confronted Pete Newman directly and afterward had a series of disturbing conversations with Joe White. Two members of Neugebauer’s family have corroborated the details of his account and tell me they were told of his efforts contemporaneously: his wife and his father, who is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I asked Joe White about Neugebauer’s account on April 12, but neither White nor his attorney were willing to provide information.
This is what I learned.
Neugebauer, the co-founder of Quantum Energy Partners and Banzai Capital Group, sent his kids to Kanakuk Kamps for years and sponsored dozens of other children, especially children of people in ministry. “I believe in summer camps,” he told me in a phone interview. “Kanakuk is a great place, a special place. Some of the greatest people I know have worked there.”
Neugebauer’s involvement in the camp increased to the point where he says he discussed a plan with White to extend the camp’s legacy, provide a retirement plan for the Whites, and help find White a successor. At the time, he believed that successor could be Pete Newman, who was the well-loved and respected camp director, held up by White as a role model. “Pete Newman is the most thorough relationship builder with kids in Kanakuk history,” Joe White once said in advertising for a father-son retreat. “This guy has a raging love for God and it spills over constantly to the kids at kamp.”
Neugebauer proposed forming a nonprofit to buy the camp.
“But I was shocked at the amount of money Joe wanted the nonprofit to pay him for the camp,” Neugebauer said. After hearing the massive sum White requested for the nonprofit purchase, Neugebauer realized this would not be a financially responsible decision.
“My impression after my interactions with the camp was this,” he told me during a phone interview. “Kanakuk wasn’t a ministry, it was a very big business.”
However, he continued in his efforts to help find an eventual successor to White.
“I took Pete to New York with [Newman’s wife]. I was in advanced discussions with them. All I was trying to do was, Hey, let’s come up with a solution for you and Joe White for long-term planning,” he said. “I wanted to extend Joe’s legacy.”
This planning came to a halt in 2009, when Newman invited one of Neugebauer’s sponsored children to a Kanakuk-related retreat in Alabama. Neugebauer—believing the retreat would be beneficial for the boy—allowed him to use his frequent flier miles to make the trip more affordable. The retreat required travel beginning February 20, 2009.
(Neugebauer confirmed the dates by combing through archived emails; Neugebauer’s wife, Melissa, corroborated the timing of these events by consulting her journals from that period.)
The boy claimed that during that retreat, Newman attempted “to shower and sleep naked in the hotel bed” with him, but the boy successfully resisted. The boy’s mother reached Neugebauer while Neugebauer was traveling on business in Europe and told him what her son had experienced.
“I’ll never forget that call,” Neugebauer said, saying he knew the 13-year-old child to be honest. “It was the worst 24 hours of my life. If you can’t trust Kanakuk, who the hell can you trust?”
Neugebauer returned to East Texas, where he spent a family weekend with his father, Randy, who was then serving in Congress. After consulting with his father, Neugebauer called Newman to confront him.
“Pete, my dad’s standing right here, and I’m going to let you go tell [your wife] and to say goodbye to your child for the last time before you’ll be in custody. If you haven’t come clean and turned yourself in by the next morning, I assure you, the FBI is coming to pick you up.”
Newman pleaded for another chance.
“Toby, I’ll never do it again,” Neugebauer told me Newman begged. “You’ll be my accountability partner. It was just one time.”
Newman’s “accountability” approach to wrongdoing had been used before. In 2003, Kanakuk had used this “accountability” strategy with Newman after the camp discovered he’d been swimming and four-wheeling nude with campers and had received parental complaints. White and Cooper were concerned enough to write a corrective action memorandum that outlined a series of limits on Newman’s activities, including requiring him to spend considerable time with one of his supervisors, Will Cunningham.
“It wasn’t one time. It’s never one time,” Neugebauer recalls telling Newman, insisting on the confession. Neugebauer told me he did not believe that strategy would deal with Newman’s predation effectively.
Newman confessed to his superiors at the camp, and Kanakuk later fired him.
Vicki Morgan, who was Joe White’s secretary from 2005 until 2012, remembered Neugebauer as a Kanakuk parent.
“I remember hearing about Pete doing ‘something inappropriate’ toward [name redacted],” she told me in a phone interview. The child she named was the same child Neugebauer helped send on the ill-fated retreat. Morgan says the incident involving the camper preceded Newman’s confession.
Neugebauer’s account also lines up with court testimony, which indicates Newman was fired on March 10, 2009, but does not explain why Kanakuk insisted the catalyst for the confession was a letter from an attorney. It is possible, considering the large number of Newman victims, that several catalyzing events occurred at generally the same time.
A Series of Disturbing Conversations with Joe White
After Newman’s confession, Neugebauer contacted Kanakuk leadership. “I immediately reached out to Joe White,” Neugebauer told me. These conversations left him with a distinctively negative impression. “My perception was that Joe was ‘camp first, victims second.’ We had several fights where I begged, pleaded and demanded he do the right thing.”
According to Neugebauer, White said, “Toby, get on board. The devil’s trying to get us.” In his effort to minimize the problem, White claimed it was one incident with one person.
“But it was not just one scoutmaster and it was never just one priest,” Neugebauer told me, referring to the massive sex abuse cover-ups in the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. He believed other predators could be at the camp, as well as other victims. Neugebauer wanted Kanakuk to bring in professionals to do an investigation to properly identify all victims.
Neugebauer says White refused to support an independent investigation and evaluation of the camp by an outside source. Instead, White encouraged Neugebauer to forgive Newman and to “protect the camp” without calling the authorities, according to Neugebauer.
Neugebauer also said White argued that if Neugebauer’s family or the boy’s family went against Kanakuk, they would be doing “the devil’s bidding.”
“They always used the same line,” he said, “that I was doing ‘the devil’s bidding.’”
Neugebauer noted that White did not have what he perceived to be the “normal” reactions of a person learning of the abuse for the first time, because White did not want to involve law enforcement.
“In my experience, a person learning of it [for the first time] would’ve had a different reaction,” he said. “If a person you’d employed to take care of children actually abused them, you would be the one who calls the police on Pete. But Joe did not have that reaction.”
What Did Kanakuk Do in Response to the Confession?
“On March 10th, at 11 a.m., I met with Doug Goodwin and Joe White,” wrote Kris Cooper, in a statement. Newman eventually admitted to fondling campers, having them manually stimulate him, and other behavior related to nudity and hot tub “jetting.”
What was the camp’s response? Cooper plainly states it: They sent Newman away.
“We told Pete he could no longer work at Kamp and that he needed to leave Branson that day,” Cooper said. “We took his cell phone, his computer, his files and locked his office.”
The camp did not initially disclose the cause for Newman’s termination.
“Pete Newman is no longer with Kanakuk Kamps,” Joe White wrote March 16 in an email to Kanakuk families. “He is dealing with a personal family crisis. He has asked that you respect his privacy and not contact him or his family, but that you keep him in your prayers.”
The e-mail did not mention Newman’s sex abuse, law enforcement, or any investigations. It also implied Newman left voluntarily instead of being terminated.
In late May, a full two months after Newman confessed, summer counselors were told Newman was still associated with the camp. One counselor told me that camp director Collin Sparks explained Newman’s absence by saying some overly sensitive families who didn’t “get who Pete was” had complained and caused “Pete to have to take a little time away, but he’ll be here soon.”
The timeline below, drawn from court documents, indicates a troubling delay between Neugebauer’s call to Pete Newman, the camp’s reporting to authorities, and Newman’s arrest.
On March 10, Newman confessed and gave White, Goodwin, and Cooper a list of victims’ names.
On March 16, White emailed families to tell them Newman had left to deal with a “family emergency” and to request prayers for Newman.
On March 27, Kris Cooper began calling victims’ families to alert them of the abuse.
On April 23, a Kanakuk attorney offered to meet with Taney County officials.
In May, a camp director told Kanakuk employees that Newman was dealing with hyper-sensitive parental complaints about hugging but would return soon.
On September 15, Newman was finally arrested.
In addition to uncovering information about the circumstances of Newman’s confession to the camp, I’ve also received information indicating that Newman may have created child pornography of nude and sexualized images of Kanakuk kids.
One victim’s family told me that Pete Newman had solicited nude photos of their son’s genitalia, which the young boy provided.
Another camper, who went to China on a Kanakuk-related mission trip, told me via text and phone interview that Newman took a disturbing video of boys on a mission trip in China. (Newman later admitted to abusing at least one boy on this trip.)
“Pete organized a full body massage for all the boys … and he pulls me aside before we all head into the massive room and tells me, ‘all these ladies will do a groin massage on everyone and watching the reactions of all the young guys is hilarious,’” the witness said. “He pulled his camera out when that moment happened and was video taping. At the time I just thought he found it hilarious, but in reality, what he did with that footage was probably really malicious.”
The boys allegedly recorded were ages 13 to 16. Naturally, some victims’ families worry about what happened with those recordings. There is no indication in court documents that the recordings were found on Newman’s phone when Kanakuk took his devices on March 10, 2009.
Former Taney County Prosecutor Jeff Merrell, the person who ultimately prosecuted Newman, does not recall what was found—if anything—on these devices. Telephone messages left for Taney County Detective Ronnie Roberts about what material, if any, was found on those devices went unreturned.
On April 19 , one victim’s father attempted to obtain this information by officially submitting a “Sunshine Law” request regarding the contents of Newman’s devices. According to guidelines posted by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, “The Sunshine Law requires a custodian of records to respond to a records request as soon as possible but no later than three business days after the custodian receives it.” Current Taney County prosecuting attorney William Duston responded in a timely manner and explained that “pulling the files and reviewing them will take approximately a month.”
Authorities issued a search warrant in 2009 to seize the devices after Kanakuk had them in their possession for three months.
Experts Call for FBI Investigation
Toby Neugebauer regrets not contacting federal law enforcement.
“My biggest mistake was not calling the FBI, because it involved interstate trafficking of children,” Neugebauer said, indicating the victim he’d sponsored traveled outside of his resident state of Texas to Alabama for the Kanakuk retreat.
Attorney Ben Bull, who leads the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s Law Center (which fights child sexual abuse, illegal pornography, sex trafficking, and other forms of sexual abuse and exploitation) agrees the FBI should investigate. “This scandal has the trappings of interstate trafficking of children for the purpose of sexual exploitation,” Bull told me. “The FBI should be all over this like a glove.”
In an email, attorney and author Rachael Denhollander—the former gymnast who blew the whistle on Larry Nassar and has since become a leading voice on the topic of sexual abuse—wrote, “The level of abuse and cover-up that has taken place at Kanakuk is extreme and follows well-established patterns of organized trafficking and production of child sexually abusive material (child porn).” She also wrote, “A detailed investigation not just of the abuse, but of the cover-up, needs to be undertaken immediately. Pete Newman was protected and promoted despite clear reports of sexually abusive behavior, making it extremely unlikely that he was acting alone.”
Nobody has resigned as a result of the failure to stop a decade of abuse. No disciplinary action was taken against any of Newman’s supervisors. Goodwin is now the president and COO of Kanakuk Ministries and executive director of Kanakuk’s Family Kamp. White is still the head of the camp today.
“Newman’s abuse impacted so many people,” White’s former secretary Vicki Morgan said in a phone interview. “I’m sure Kanakuk was heeding the advice of lawyers and insurance companies, but I’m disappointed because Joe hasn’t owned his mistakes.”
Nancy French is a New York Times bestselling author.