Child abuse at an evangelical summer camp

The sexual abuse of minors is an extremely ugly thing that rightly arouses great anger among people. This is likely one reason why the QAnon movement has latched on to that topic to recruit followers, by claiming that there is a vast pedophile ring operating at the highest levels of government and celebrity culture. Once they are hooked, they can be drawn iton the vastly bigger conspiracy theory. But curiously, they do not target institutions that have well-documented cases of rampant pedophilia, such as the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts, probably because they are not considered part of the ‘elites’ and thus do not fit into the broader narrative that QAnon seeks to promote.

Now David French and Nancy French have a very disturbing article in the conservative Christian publication The Dispatch that discusses in graphic detail the sexual abuse of children that took place over many years in an evangelical Christian summer camp known as Kanakuk, where the people in charge of the camp did little to stop it despite being alerted to the problem by some parents. The article says that although the main perpetrator Pete Newman was sent to prison ten years ago, the people in charge then, especially Joe White, are still in charge.

The first thing you need to know about Pete Newman is that people loved him. He has olive skin, dark hair, and thick eyebrows that generated good-natured “unibrow” teasing. Girls wanted to date him, guys wanted to be him, and children wanted to follow him.

He was a camp director at Kanakuk Kamps, one of the largest Christian camps in the world. Kanakuk is an immense operation. Since its founding in 1926, it claims to have served more than 450,000 campers. Its main campus is located outside of Branson, Missouri, but it has international reach. Every summer approximately 20,000 kids pass through its gates, and the institution is particularly prominent with the Evangelical elite. 

Newman was the camp’s rock star. A person who went to Auburn University with Newman said, memorably, “If Jesus and Pete walked into a room, I’m not sure who the kids would have worshiped.” “Pete Newman is the most thorough relationship builder with kids in Kanakuk history,” Kanakuk chief executive officer Joe White once said. “This guy has a raging love for God and it spills over constantly to the kids at kamp.”

White himself has long been a popular, charismatic figure in American Evangelicalism. (We reached out to White, and he declined to comment.) He has inspired intense devotion from campers, employees, and parents. Outside of camp, he’s known for a particular and vivid public presentation where he builds and carries a cross on stage to illustrate the crucifixion of Christ.

Kanakuk and White promoted Newman relentlessly, both within the organization and to the public at large. Newman rose through the ranks from camp counselor to camp director. It sent him on the road to recruit campers and to raise money. According to former members of the camp community, parents would sometimes compete for a coveted honor—hosting Newman in their home. 

He was also a superpredator. He groomed and abused boys in their own homes. He groomed and abused boys at camp. In fact, he abused boys across the world. On June 9, 2010, he pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexually abusing boys. He received a sentence of two life terms, plus 30 years. His guilty plea was but the tip of a terrible iceberg. A civil complaint alleges that there were at least 57 victims, but the prosecutor in his case estimates that the real number could be in the “hundreds.”

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.

The scant media attention—combined with NDAs—means that we still don’t know the true number of legal actions against the camp or the true extent of Newman’s abuse. An unknown number of victims have filed an unknown number of lawsuits filled with unknown evidence that have resulted in unknown numbers of settlements for an unknown amount of money. We do, however, have a far more complete account of what happened at Kanakuk, and we’re sharing that account today.

Ah yes, the always popular ‘one bad apple’ excuse, that allows avoidance of acknowledging a systemic problem. The article then goes into details about how Newman groomed and abused his victims. It is sickening. The people running the camp used Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to keep a lid on the story. But one abuse victim and his family resisted the pressure to sign the NDA and because of them, the story is coming out, with more shocking details about all the abusers and the efforts of the camp leaders to shield them.

During legal proceedings following Newman’s termination, families were shocked to discover White’s accommodation of another pedophile.  In 2000, Robert John Morgan, a pilot who flew White to various engagements, admitted to sodomizing his own daughter beginning at age 5.  White gave him housing at Kanakuk during the off-season while awaiting trial.  In front of Morgan’s daughter—a Kanakuk camper—White asked the judge not to imprison him, saying he had confidence “rehabilitation on this side of prison walls is much more healthy for him than rehabilitation behind prison walls.”

White also stated he would “trust [Morgan] around my daughters,” before the judge sentenced Morgan to 10 years for statutory sodomy.

Experts are not convinced the camp has come clean. “Kanakuk Kamp and Joe White have much to answer for,” said Dawn Hawkins, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

“When entire organizations foster, allow, and even encourage exploitation to occur, we cannot step back and say enough has been done when a lone perpetrator is caught and apprehended,” Hawkins said. “As we know, there wasn’t just one bad actor at Kanakuk. Institutional abuse happens because multiple levels of leadership and the very structure of the organization itself becomes a haven for predators—they are given access to their intended prey, and they are given positions of trust and leadership. The time is up for institutional abuse and exploitation to continue to be swept under the proverbial rug. Until the organizations, corporations, and institutions are held accountable for their hand in the sexual exploitation and trauma of countless men, women, and children, full justice will not be served.”

Vice News has a disturbing episode about the rampant child sexual abuse that occurred at Kanakuk and talks with that victim and his family who have experienced all manner of legal harassment because of their refusal to sign an NDA.

These camps are apparently a big money-making operation and they still running with many of the same people still in charge, and Christian parents are still sending their children to them, which is astounding to me. With luck, the new disclosures might shut down this operation or at least charge the people who tolerated this abuse.


  1. K says

    David and Nancy French hitched themselves to the Sarah Palin train; Nancy French ghostwrote at least one book and kept up Bristol Palin’s blog on Patheos. In addition, the Frenchs adopted a non-white child--that they make sure to remind that’s she’s “not as good as” the white kids.

    That aside, who is surprised that an evangelical camp is a place of extreme sexual abuse?

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