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Kanakuk The Subject of New Investigative Series by Springfield News-Leader, USA Today

A series of stories published by the Springfield News-Leader today (May 26) tells the stories of previously silent sex abuse victims and others who say Missouri-based Kanakuk Kamps did not do enough to protect them when they were campers there.

The stories were re-published the next day by USA Today.  Both USA Today and the News-Leader are owned by the media company Gannett.  USA Today has a print and digital daily readership of approximately 2.6 million.

At least two men have gone to prison for crimes committed while they were Kanakuk counselors.  Pete Newnan is serving two life sentences plus 30 years.  The prosecutor who oversaw the case of Peter Newman said the number of victims could be in the “hundreds.”  Lee Bradbury pleaded guilty in 2013 to four sex related charges involving campers at Kanakuk.   Five other men who served on Kanakuk’s staff in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, have been convicted of sex crimes perpetrated after they served on Kanakuk staff.

The three articles published today identify other questionable and “red-flag” behavior that the articles say Kanakuk leaders tolerated both before and after the sex abuse claims against Newman and others became public. 

With annual revenue topping $30 million, Kanakuk Kamps is one of the largest evangelical ministries in the nation and claims to have hosted 500,000 campers from all 50 states and 10 countries since its founding in 1926.  (MinistryWatch has written a series of stories about Kanakuk, found here.)

Many of the allegations in today’s and previous articles involve incidents from the 1990s, 2000s, and early 2010s.  Kanakuk has said it learned its lessons from these incidents and now has rigorous child protection policies in place.  However, survivor advocates say that many of the leaders of Kanakuk, including Joe White, Kanakuk’s CEO and Board Chair, have never been held fully responsible for their leadership failures.  

Survivor advocates also say that the consequences are still playing out today.  No More Victims, LLC, the group behind the Facts About Kanakuk website, said in a statement it has “received reports of eight Kanakuk victims whose deaths are suspected to be related to their abuse.”

The News-Leader said, “One Newman victim, Trey Carlock, died by suicide in 2019 shortly after settling his case with Kanakuk. His sister, Elizabeth Phillips, said her brother considered the settlement ‘blood money’ and felt so constrained by his NDA he worried he couldn’t even talk about his abuse in therapeutic settings.”

She added:  “A few days before my brother died, he told a therapist, ‘They are always going to control me and I’ll never be free,’” she said. “He was silenced to his grave.  How many victims have to die before the camp is
held accountable?

Kanakuk Kamps, headquartered in Branson, Mo., begins camp terms next week and plans to host 20,000 children this summer. With the release of today’s articles, former Kanakuk campers, staff, and sexual abuse survivors have come forward from cities that include Dallas and Amarillo, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Nashville, Tenn.; and Fayetteville, Ark. 

A petition asking Kanakuk to release dozens of sexual abuse victims and families from non-disclosure agreements has reached more than 26,000 signatures. The survivors’ latest petition also pleads for Kanakuk leadership to “admit to known failures” and to “invite an independent investigation.” The website is supported by No More Victims LLC, an organization made up of Kanakuk survivors.  A statement from the organization said it claims “to know of more than 125 victims of Kanakuk abuse with allegations against over 30 unique perpetrators within the organization, dating from the 1950s to today, all while under the White family’s leadership.”

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.