Returning to Kamp Kanakuk: Is this new expose a work of journalism, theology or both?

Get Religion

March 29, 2021

By Terry Mattingly

Readers with long memories will recall that, when the Internet arrived it had an immediate impact on important subjects that rarely received adequate coverage in mainstream media.

Take religion, for example. The lower cost of publishing online led to an explosion of forums, listservs, newsletters, online “radio” channels, podcasts and weblogs. Some failed or evolved into new forms — consider the long and complicated histories of Beliefnet and Patheos — and others became, well, normal.

Now, in the “cancel culture” era, it’s clear that another example of online evolution is affecting serious coverage of religion, as well as other complicated topics.

I am referring to the controversies surrounding Substack and the myriad newsletters and alternative publications thriving there. For a sample of the fea paranoia surrounding Substack, click into this thread from a professor at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry or read between the lines of this Washington Post column: “The Substack controversy’s bigger story.” Here is a sample of that:

Substack is a start-up for self-publishing email newsletters: Writers decide how often to write and whether and how much to charge; Substack sends the newsletters and collects any fees. The ease of use has made it popular with journalists. …

Some of the most prolific users are heterodox political writers who had found mainstream publications an increasingly poor fit. A number quickly rose to the top of the Substack leader boards. This attracted the gimlet eye of the cancelers: Other online writers — some of whom had their own Substack newsletters — have leveled accusations of transphobia and other offenses. A nascent boycott aims to pressure Substack into deplatforming the alleged offenders. Reportedly, their campaign is having some effect.

“Heterodox” is an interesting word. It appears, in this context, to define the work of various kinds of conservatives or, even worse, free thinkers (Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss, for example) who accuse many “liberals” or “progressives” of turning dangerously illiberal.

This brings me to this weekend’s must-read missive from Nancy and David French, care of The Dispatch, an alternative conservative online publication that is thriving in this new online environment. Here is the dramatic double-decker headline atop this long feature:

‘They Aren’t Who You Think They Are’

The inside story of how Kanakuk — one of America’s largest Christian camps — enabled horrific abuse.

It helps to know, because of the complex legal issues examined in this piece, that David French is a Harvard Law graduate (best known for his First Amendment work on religious liberty cases), while Nancy French is a writer-researcher best known for “ghosting” bestsellers and her op-ed essays in major publications.

In the context of the debates about Substack, many will ask a blunt question about this long feature: What, precisely, is this? Is it a work of investigative journalism from a “news publication”? Is it an opinion piece from two Christians who are deeply concerned about issues that continue to loom over the Kanakuk scandals? Critics will, of course, call it a “hit” piece.

I bring it up, here at GetReligion, because (a) it is gripping reading, (b) the subject material remains important and (c) news consumers who care about religion-beat work can expect to see more work of this kind emerge in digital spaces such as Substack — often on topics avoided by mainstream outlets. Think of this a variation on many recent Clemente Lisi posts here at GetReligion about the crucial role that alternative news publications have played in coverage of Catholic scandals.

It’s important to note that the goal of this Dispatch piece is to dig deeper into a scandal that was, to some degree, covered by several other newsrooms in the past. For more information, see the helpful context in this Christianity Today piece: “Kanakuk Kamps Abuse Reexamined In New Report.

So why this Dispatch update — after a decade — about the sins and crimes of serial pedophile Pete Newman and the powerful people (well known in some corners of evangelicalism) those who defended him? David and Nancy French put it this way:

The true dimensions of the worst Christian sex abuse scandal you’ve never heard of have long been largely unknown. Newman’s initial arrest and sentencing received little media attention. Few reporters knew about the camp’s size or importance. They were unfamiliar with Joe White. Moreover, the limited scope of the guilty plea concealed the sheer scale of the abuse. The resulting civil lawsuits received little attention, and nondisclosure agreements silenced victims and kept evidence under seal.

Following Newman’s conviction, the narrative from the camp was relatively simple. They had been shocked to find a bad apple in their midst. They had fired him immediately, promptly reported his wrongdoing to the authorities, and then implemented new “industry-leading” protective measures to protect the children who attend the camp. The camp’s worst moment became a catalyst for positive change, and now, its leaders maintain, it leads the way in caring for kids.

The truth is far more complex.

Looking at the piece as a whole, it is clear that the Big Idea here is that some Christian leaders are using nondisclosure agreements to prevent their followers from knowing all the details of scandals of this kind.

It is possible to view this issue from a purely legal perspective. But that isn’t the drive that is at the heart of this Dispatch piece. No, there are ethical and theological issues in play here, as this lengthy passage makes clear:

Why? Why shine the light on a scandal that’s now 10 years old? There are some who told us this attention is “unfair,” that it’s ungracious or unforgiving of people who’ve done so much good. Many thousands of kids, after all, count their days at Kanakuk as among the best days of their lives.

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.

When we approached Newman’s supervisor, Kris Cooper, for an interview, his attorney responded with a telling statement. “The best forum for these cases,” he wrote “is a court of law—not the church or mainstream media. The key point in all sexual abuse cases is the quality and extent of the evidence or lack thereof. As such, the courts … have a well-established body of law that filters through what is a legitimate sexual abuse claim and what is not. Neither the church nor the media have the proper framework in place to do that. The courts do.”

Wait a minute. The CHURCH — broadly defined — has no need to seek the truth about the sins of its leaders? There is no need for shepherds to protect their flocks to the best of their abilities?

This is where the essay, to be blunt, begins preaching on a topic that is both legal and, well, biblical.

“… The church always has a role in holding its own members accountable for their actions. … No institution — especially no Christian institution — should bind its victims to codes of silence. Once it has paid money, it should leave decisions about privacy in the hands of the victims, guarding their identities and the details of their abuse unless and until the victim chooses to speak.

Where does this kind of language fall, in terms of the frameworks of contemporary journalism? As stated earlier, what IS this essay?

Whatever it is, we can expect to see more of it in the digital marketplace. Some people (left and right) will welcome that. Some people (left and right) will be appalled.

Stay tuned.

FIRST IMAGE: Mugshot posted by The Turner Report.