Kanakuk survivors testify to support Seitz abuse bill

Branson News [Hollister, MO]

February 17, 2023

By Jason Wert

Survivors and family members of victims of sexual abuse at Kanakuk camps testified at a hearing before the Missouri House Judiciary Committee regarding a bill proposed by local state Rep. Brian Seitz to change laws to help survivors of childhood sexual assault.

The bill, H.B. 367, creates a cause of action for vulnerable victims to allow filing civil actions at any time before the victim is 55-years-old, and for situations which had been dismissed because of statute of limitation issues before the passage of the bill to be revived.

“This legislation is most serious,” Rep. Seitz said in his testimony. “Through no fault of their own, children and/or the medically disabled who have been abused in the past are being abused again by not being able to hold their perpetrators to account in civil actions.”

Seitz referred to the victims of Kanakuk who would be testifying.

“I bring this bill forward because these horrors have even perpetrated my district,” Seitz said. “House bill 367 cannot stop these events, but will allow for these children who are now adults, to call the people, and I use that term loosely, to be held to account and creates a path for civil actions to benefit the survivors and provide some form of restitution and accountability.”

Elizabeth Carlock Phillips testified before the committee on behalf of her brother, Trey Carlock, who committed suicide in 2019 following his abuse at Kanakuk at the hands of child molester Pete Newman, who is serving two life terms plus 30 years in a Jefferson City prison.

Phillips said the non-disclosure agreement her brother had to sign as part of his settlement with Kanakuk left him to where he was afraid to speak about the incident even in a therapeutic setting.

“I used to refer to him as a survivor,” Phillips testified. “But he didn’t survive past the age of 29, so now I refer to him as a victim, and I’m trying to be his voice. My family chose to name Kanakuk abuse in his obituary, since then we have heard from countless Kanakuk victim families.

“Three years later the Kanakuk survivors community is connected and knows of more than 170 victims spanning from the 1950s to today, with allegations against 50 unique perpetrators. Kanakuk has failed children for decades.”

Phillips said the current statute of limitations has a traumatic impact on survivors.

“It’s time to stop the clock for child sex abuse survivors,” Phillips said. “Don’t rush them into civil litigation like my brother. A short statute of limitations can be lethal as my family knows, and another form of rape.”

Phillips pointed out research into neurotrauma and said it shows the current age limitation under Missouri law of 31-years-old for the victim of the abuse is arbitrary and without scientific support.

“The average age of disclosure is 52,” Phillips said. “Missouri currently stops the clock at 31-years-old, and you’re pushing child rape victims, forcing them to sprint a race when they’re struggling just ot survive and heal.” 

“This is not fair, and it makes justice impossible.”

Evan Hoffpauir, a victim of Pete Newman, said the trauma and embarrassment caused him to hide what had happened to him.

“No one deserves to carry the amount of shame that I experienced as a sexual abuse victim,” Hoffpauir said.

He testified he tried to move forward in life, including getting a college degree, getting married, and getting involved in his community. However, even though he accomplished all of those things, he could never get out from under the weight of his trauma, and after spending years believing Kanakuk’s claims they did not know about Newman’s abuse, discovered Kanakuk had known about Newman’s actions.

“[Kanakuk] stated they fired Newman as soon as they were aware of his abusive behaviors and he acted alone,” Hoffpauir testified. “But in 2021, I saw video evidence that Kanakuk Kamps knew of Newman’s predatory actions as far back at 1999, the year that I had met him, and they failed to act appropriately to protect myself and many other victims.”

Hoffpauir said finding out this information helped him to finally tell his family about the abuse in 2022. He said he sought legal help to hold his abusers accountable, but Missouri law denied him the opportunity to pursue justice.

“As I sought out legal action in an effort to hold my enablers accountable I was crushed to find out I was a few years past the Missouri statute of limitations,” Hoffpauir said. “The law was telling me there was nothing to be done about it, and the clock had run out on me.

“The current civil statute laws only protect the perpetrator. Many victims fight for years amidst trauma, depression, suicidal thoughts, and shame, and it takes them years to be ready to tell their stories, if ever, and not all even survive.”

Keith Dygert, another victim of Kanakuk abuse, called Seitz’s bill “a bill that would truly be a massive step forward in protecting the victims of sexual abuse” in Missouri. He said he grew up in Branson near Kanakuk and wanted to go there but his family couldn’t afford it. Then Pete Newman came to his school to promote a year-round ministry run by Kanakuk and began grooming Dygert for abuse.

“It hardly took any time at all for Pete for start sexually abusing me,” Dygert testified. “As a 7th grader, I didn’t even understand I was being abused. Pete was articulate. He was skilled, personable, friendly, outgoing, and passionate. Kanakuk has several camps, and the one Pete was in charge of was always sold out. He was one of the top faces of Kanakuk, perhaps only second to CEO and owner Joe White, who still runs the camp to this very day.”

Dygert testified White and leadership at Kanakuk had caught Newman engaging in sexual abuse of children at least three times before his arrest and despite being mandatory reporters in Taney County there is no evidence Kanakuk leaders reported these situations to law enforcement or any government authority. He also said the camp leaders took steps to protect Newman.

“Joe White continued to promote Pete and bury complaints of those outside the camp who had witnessed suspicious behavior,” Dygert said. 

Jody Jones testified about her abuse at Kanakuk, and how the camp staff contacted her mother and encouraged her not to reach out to authorities.

“The most pressing issue I remember was ‘we have to tell your parents,’” Jones said. “No one suggested we call the authorities, or that it’s a felony, or we should let someone know who has real authority to do something about it. So they told my mother about the abuse, and she said they encouraged her not to call the authorities because it would be traumatic and hard for a young girl to go through.”

Jones said her abuser was fired by Kanakuk, but law enforcement was not called even after her abuser admitted he had committed the crime. She said not only was he welcomed back to Kanakuk in 2017, having posted a photo of himself and CEO Joe White at the camp on Facebook, but he has also worked in Kanakuk’s KLIFE, three different schools, and has been a girls volleyball coach.

“Kamp didn’t help to hold him accountable in my eyes,” Jones said. 

Several witnesses also appeared before the committee to oppose the changes within Seitz’s bill.

Michael Essma of the Kansas City law firm Shook, Hardy, and Bacon testified on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association. He testified about statutes of limitations being a benefit because memories can fade over time, and of his concerns about reviving claims which had been ended because of the current statute.

“The retroactivity of the legislation is particularly concerning because of how it impacts organizations that rely on the law,” Essma said. “When a statute of limitations is extended prospectively, organizations can make rational and appropriate decisions to reduce their liability exposure. If a non-profit organization or business knows Missouri has eliminated its statute of limitations for a particular type of claim, it can adopt an appropriate retention policy.”

Under questioning from legislators, Essma said his client’s concern is mostly focused on the retroactivity of the bill.

Rich AuBuchon, a registered lobbyist for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, and Missouri Civil Justice Reform Coalition, also spoke against the bill but wanted to claim at the start of his testimony his issue was not about the subject matter which brought forth the measure.

“Let me start by saying that I am not here to protect some sex offender,” AuBuchon said.

He said the bill itself is unconstitutional and that is why he was testifying against the bill.

“What you see here is bringing a claim for 55 years, and a reviver action, bringing them back from where they were no longer, and that’s a violation of due process,” AuBuchon said. “The acts perpetrated upon these people are wrong. We agree with that. It shouldn’t have been done. There is a criminal sanction for those folks. What we see here, though, is forgetting about our Constitution. 

“Even defendants in this particular case, no matter how abhorrent, have a right to due process in the state of Missouri, and our job is to preserve the right to due process.”

Jessica Seitz of Missouri KidsFirst was the last to testify. She noted Missouri in 2018 removed the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse on the criminal side, and testified it was time to catch up on the civil side of the law.

The next step for Seitz’s bill is an executive session hearing before a vote of the committee. Sources tell the Branson Tri-Lakes News committee members are split on whether to pass the bill.