America’s Most Popular Christian Summer Camp Has a History of Ignoring Sex Abuse March 29, 2021

America’s Most Popular Christian Summer Camp Has a History of Ignoring Sex Abuse

Back in May, the Missouri-based Kanakuk Kamps announced that they were going to stay open over the summer. The popular Christian summer camp wasn’t going to shut down.

That was an absurd statement to make that soon into the pandemic, but it was even more shocking because they weren’t just talking about a few campers. They wanted to bring in a staff of 1,600 people (included 100 nurses and 60 doctors) and roughly 20,000 kids at any of their five locations.

You’ll never guess what happened next: There were COVID outbreaks. Lots of them.

And yet that’s not even the worst thing they’re known for. In 2013, the camp faced multiple allegations of sexual abuse by its former director Peter D. Newman. One lawsuit against the camp said Newman molested a child who was only 13. The other lawsuit said Newman abused a boy who was only 10. Both lawsuits said the abuse lasted for years.

Those incidents, by the way, weren’t isolated. In fact, Newman was in prison when those lawsuits were filed because he was found guilty of child sexual abuse in other cases:

He pleaded guilty in Taney County in 2010 to two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy, three counts of second-degree statutory sodomy and three counts of child enticement. Although the charges involved the abuse of six youths, the prosecutor told reporters after Newman’s sentencing that Newman had admitted involvement with 13 others as well.

So what were the lawsuits about, then? They went after the camp because it was believed that officials there knew about the problems involving Newman but did nothing to stop them. Camp officials released a statement at the time denying any knowledge of his actions and said, “We have never had, nor will we ever have, any tolerance for anyone who seeks to harm a child in any physical, sexual or emotional way.”

The judge felt otherwise. In one of those cases, lawyers for the victim obtained a $20 million judgment in favor of their client. Despite the size of that judgment, though, the sex abuse scandal hasn’t received all that much coverage.

In a way, the COVID drama last year may have been good for the ministry because that became the thing they were known for outside Christian circles. You have to imagine they prefer that to being known as the people who employed Newman.

But people familiar with the camp’s history clearly want the world to know about the abuse that’s been taking place — and getting covered up — for years. That story is finally being told.

Yesterday, David French and Nancy French (both conservative Christians who have been more critical than most about the Trump-y direction so many of their former allies have taken) published a lengthy account of that history at The Dispatch after speaking with a number of former campers and staffers.

Here’s a teaser:

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 [chief executive officer] 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.

And here’s one of the more disturbing passages (consider that a warning):

Sometimes with parental consent, he talked to campers about sexual sin. Unknown to parents, instead of teaching the children not to masturbate, he gave them lessons on how to do it. According to victims and Newman’s own account, he masturbated them and taught them how to masturbate him.

This sexual activity, he explained, wasn’t biblically wrong, as long as the campers avoided lusting for women or looking at porn while he molested them

There are several other incidents involving unnecessary nudity, hot tub jets, and foam pits.

Unfortunately, because of non-disclosure agreements, some of the victims weren’t able to speak about their own alleged abuse. (If that sounds a lot like what apologist Ravi Zacharias did with his victims, you’d be right.) Still, Nancy French got ahold of documents and court records which haven’t been publicized until now:

In a videotaped deposition we obtained, Joe White claimed Newman’s predation wasn’t “even on our radar.” In reality, however, Kanakuk was aware of nude activities with boys and allegations of improper contact with boys beginning a decade before his arrest.

Why post all this years after the scandal first came to light and a decade after Newman was sent to jail? Because nothing has changed.

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.

Maybe the saddest detail involves the story of a Kanakuk victim who took his own life shortly after receiving a settlement from the camp. The scandal may be over as far as the camp is concerned, but the damage done by the camp continues to haunt the victims. At what point will the Christian ministry ever pay a price for looking the other way while child after child was abused?

If the courts aren’t going to handle it, then the next best thing may be to put a massive dent in the reputation of a dangerous Christian summer camp that values souls while ignoring lives.

Christianity Today notes that victims are pushing back in their own way:

This weekend, a new website,, launched with a petition calling on the camp to release victims from NDAs so more stories of abuse at the camp can come to light.

“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.

Kanakuk has responded to all this with a brief statement saying they’re devastated by Newman’s actions while denying any knowledge of these crimes. They don’t, however, say what they plan to change moving forward — as if they’re already doing everything they need to do.

(Image via Facebook. Thanks to David G. for the link)

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