Springfield News-Leader [Springfield MO]
February 25, 2022
By Gregory J. Holman
“We’re very let down by this open letter from Joe White,” said a 34-year-old Branson man who says he was abused by a former Kanakuk counselor now in state prison serving two life sentences.
Kanakuk camp near Branson went public late Friday with a new statement aiming to redefine its relationship with people who say they are survivors of sexual abuse that took place at the Christian summer camp.
For more than a decade, the camp has been under scrutiny for reports of sexual abuse. As the News-Leader reported in 2010, a charismatic former camp counselor, Peter Newman, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing boys and is now serving two life sentences in Missouri prisons, plus 30 years.
Eleven months ago, Kanakuk was again in the spotlight due to new reporting by journalists Nancy French and David French published by The Dispatch, a conservative-leaning news site. Much of their reporting focused on what camp leaders knew about Newman’s behavior, and when, and how they responded once alerted to the abuse. Since then, people who identify as victims or family members have gone on television and other news outlets to express their concerns.
In their latest comments, Kanakuk leaders said they were “forever sorry for the pain inflicted on victims and their families” and that they “desire to support victims and help them in their healing journey.”
The new comments had been expected for about a week, as an older statement dubbed “Our Response” had been taken down recently from the camp’s website, with a promise to “update this page soon.”
When that update went live around 5:45 p.m. Friday, it included a suggestion that abused former campers reach out to the camp via email or that they seek services from third-party organizations like RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, founded in 1994.
In an open letter to victims attributed to camp owner Joe White, which was attached to the new statement, White also said that he had “learned that some victims feel muted and afraid to share their stories” and said he was “so sorry that we have added confusion and frustration when we have spoken on this topic.”
White also wrote, “By God’s grace, I have had the opportunity to speak with several brave victims. Listening to the pain and anger is tearful, heart-wrenching, and humbling, but I am forever grateful for the privilege to share my sincere sorrow.”
Those who identify as abuse survivors have said Kanakuk asked them to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of settlements. They have complained that these NDAs “silence” victims, who fear legal consequences if they make their experiences of sex abuse public.
White wrote in his open letter to victims posted Friday night, “The freedom to tell your story should not be a question — and to us, it’s not. I am opposed to any legal maneuver or action meant to suppress the voice of victims. Since most agreements involve insurance companies who may choose to defend their interests, you should keep the terms of your settlement confidential.”
Response to new Kanakuk comments: ‘We’re very let down’
These and other aspects of Kanakuk’s new comments about its “response to abuse and child safety” fell short of what is needed, “survivor community” members told the News-Leader on Friday.
Kanakuk’s latest statement didn’t line up with demands survivors recently sent to the camp and its leaders, they said. Represented by an activist group called No More Victims LLC that reportedly includes just “a small fraction” of those who say they were abused, the survivors wrote an unsigned open letter two weeks ago, addressed to Kanakuk owner White.
Their letter came just shy of a year after No More Victims began sponsoring a website, Facts About Kanakuk, devoted to documenting allegations about child sex abuse linked to Kanakuk. No More Victims and its website, whose owner-publisher has not been made public, alleges the camp has hosted other sexual predators in addition to former counselor Newman.
In its open letter from Feb. 10, No More Victims made three demands of White and his camp, as the News-Leader reported:
First, that the nationally-known evangelical camp agree to an outside investigation conducted by a law firm. An investigation would have a goal of documenting numerous abuse accusations the letter says have been kept secret to date and would create accountability among camp leaders.
Second, No More Victims demanded that Kanakuk “admit to known failures” including “dismissing clear signs of predatory behavior and child sexual abuse, as well as covering up said abuses once known.” After Newman was convicted, allegations emerged in civil lawsuits against Kanakuk that indicated camp leaders were aware of Newman’s activities before he was criminally convicted.
Those included incidents reported in 1999 and 2003 during which Newman reportedly had naked conversations with underage “kampers” and engaged in “hot tub Bible studies” with minors in his care, according to a lengthy 2021 report by Nancy French and David French published by The Dispatch.
Third, No More Victims demanded that Kanakuk completely release all victims from non-disclosure agreements that victims and their families said amounted to a cover-up by the camp.
But Kanakuk didn’t accede to the survivors’ demands in its latest comments, survivors say.
No More Victims posted an official response a few hours after the camp’s statement went live, stating “The February 25, 2022 statements made by Kanakuk Kamps and Letter From Joe White have not responded to the survivors’ pleas for accountability nor provided us with any remedies that prioritize our healing, our stories, and our desire to make the world safer for children everywhere.”
Survivors interviewed by the News-Leader Friday night shared similar views.
“We’re very let down by this open letter from Joe White,” said Keith Dygert.
Dygert, 34, is a Branson resident the News-Leader interviewed Friday night, shortly after Kanakuk posted its new comments on child sex abuse online.
He said that as an underage minor, he was abused on and off Kanakuk property by Newman, though not during the time he was formally enrolled at Kanakuk’s K-2 facility as a camper.
“To me, it’s basically a political stunt just using a lot of emotional words to act like (White) is doing the right thing,” Dygert said. The statement “hasn’t actually responded to a single one of our requests.”
For example, Kanakuk’s new statement asserted, “As soon as Kanakuk became aware of abuse, we took action, including immediate termination and reporting of the individual involved,” a claim that Dygert and others who identify as Kanakuk abuse survivors regard as false, due to claims and evidence related to civil lawsuits against the camp.
“They still say as soon as Kanakuk became aware of abuse, we took action,” Dygert said. “They were aware of abuse in 1999, and they did not take action. The action they took was to cover it up, and not report it, and promote (Newman).”
Evan Hoffpauir, 34, of Branson, says he participated in years of “Bible study” programming led by Newman at Kanakuk, and was groomed, then sexually abused by Newman from the ages of 12 to 15. Hoffpauir was never formally a camper, he told the News-Leader earlier this month, and he is not covered by a non-disclosure agreement from speaking about his experiences with the camp.
Hoffpauir sent the News-Leader a lengthy statement responding to Kanakuk’s new comments on Friday night:
“While I appreciate (Joe White’s) gesture to reach out to victims and make an attempt to apologize, this letter is not that. It’s filled with emotional language that still lacks authentic brokenness and an (admission) to failing victims and their families 12 years ago.
“There was no admittance to failing to fire Newman, no admittance to using the lawyers and insurance companies to protect their assets by using NDAs in settlements, and no admittance to ignoring the warning signs that were reported by parents and others.
“White says he wished he would have understood what he was dealing with. He knew he was dealing with an adult who was naked with children on multiple occasions. He knew exactly what he was dealing with; he chose to cover it up and do the wrong thing. That is what I need to hear.
“The letter is also confusing because it says they want victims to share openly but also say they should honor their agreements with insurance companies and not share. These companies are hired by Kanakuk with the first priority to protect Kanakuk, not children.
“This is the same type of stuff we always hear from Kanakuk.
“If he was truly heartbroken for 12.5 years, (White) should have stepped down and realized he was not fit to lead an organization that is supposed to protect children.
“White should never use his suffering in relation to the suffering of child sexual abuse victims that he enabled. That is disgusting.
“His suffering is natural, my suffering was done by the hands of someone he hired, promoted, protected, and defended. How dare he compare the two.
“White says he is grateful to share his sincere sorrow. He will never know what its like to have the sorrow of a child sexual abuse victim. He does not share my sorrow, I promise you that.”
Joe Alarcon of Amarillo, Texas says his son was abused at Kanakuk.
“I am not in a place to be able to respond to what I just read,” he said in a message to the News-Leader minutes after Kanakuk posted its new statement. “Please give me some time and I will reach back out to you.”
Awhile later, Alarcon texted the News-Leader:
“Joe taking the position and advising victims to follow the terms of their agreement does the opposite of releasing them from NDAs,” Alarcon said. “He just enforced the NDAs.”
Alarcon also said in a separate message, “We were clear in the open letter … no mention of an independent investigation, and no one is stepping down. Where is the accountability? This letter makes it worse and harder for victims to speak, because Kanakuk makes specific statements about keeping the terms of their agreement.”
Blake Fusch, 42, of Dallas, Texas, told the News-Leader on Friday that he thought White was releasing victims from the NDAs with White’s open letter. “I probably need to read it again or maybe even with a lawyer, but in my opinion, that statement basically said that victims can tell their stories.”
He added, “I don’t think this is going to happen overnight. I don’t think everything’s going to change all of a sudden.”
Fusch said he was abused in 1994, before Newman began working at the camp. “My story was before Pete Newman, and Joe (White) knew about it.”
Fusch said he is not covered by a non-disclosure agreement.
The News-Leader made numerous attempts by phone and email to arrange an interview with White this week before the statement was released, and contacted White and a general email inbox after the new statement was issued Friday night with a set of detailed written questions, among them a request that White respond to some of Hoffpauir and Alarcon’s comments.
White and Kanakuk officials did not respond.