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MinistryWatch Answers Kanakuk Demand for Retraction of Stories

Warren Cole Smith

On March 28 and March 30, 2021, MinistryWatch published three articles about Kanakuk Ministries, and related organizations.  On April 5, 2021, we received a letter from Kanakuk’s attorney demanding that we retract these articles within 10 days, or “legal action will be taken.”

MinistryWatch is committed to the highest standards of journalism.  That means that when we become aware of errors in our publication, we correct those errors.

After doing a thorough review of these articles internally, we have determined that certain aspects of those stories do require correction or clarification.  However, we also believe that most of the concerns expressed by Kanakuk’s attorneys are not concerns with errors in the articles, but with facts or opinions they do not like.  While we decline to “retract” the articles, we set forth below specific corrections and clarifications that we believe are appropriate.

The purpose of this article is to take the concerns of Kanakuk one-by-one, in the order they presented them in their letter to us, followed by our response.

“Kanakuk Financial Statements Reveal ‘Suspicious’ Pattern of Self-Dealing,” March 28, 2021

This story contained the following statement:

“In fact, Kanakuk is part of an inter-related web of at least nine non-profit organizations and ten for-profit organizations, all owned or controlled by Joe White and his wife Debbie-Jo White.”

Kanakuk’s attorney responded to this statement as follows:

“When you wrote this, you knew Kanakuk Ministries was a standalone 501 (c) (3) organization.  Mr. and Mrs. White are employed by Kanakuk Ministries and serve on its board.  You also know, or should have known, the White family donated the Kanakuk Kamp facilities to Kanakuk Ministries in 2008 but failed to mention it.  You write about long term ground leases with Kanakuk Ministries but omitted that the leases are below market value rates.  You also omitted that the financial obligations and conditions of Kanakuk Ministries are reviewed annually by the audit committee and its independent auditor (Capin Crouse).  Instead of writing the truth, you suggested there were multiple shell nonprofit corporations used in a pattern to funnel monies to Mr. and Mrs. White.  Your statements and intentional omissions are defamatory.”

While this paragraph from Kanakuk’s attorney does indeed provide additional information not contained in our original story, and which we are glad to share here, it does not challenge the accuracy of our original statement.  Further, this paragraph makes assertions that our article says or suggests things that our article, in fact, neither says nor suggests.

The bottom line:  Our original statement is true, and we will not be correcting it.

In the same article, we make the following statement:

“In addition to their salaries, Debbie-Jo White received an additional $142,738 in what is simply called ‘compensation.’  Joe White received an additional $41,909 in ‘compensation.’”

Kanakuk’s attorney wrote in response:

“When you wrote this statement, you omitted that your statement was based on a one year analysis (2017).”

That statement is simply not true.  We are clear in the article that these numbers were taken from the 2017 Form 990 (the most recent available).  Further, we included other paragraphs that had an analysis of a four-year period: 2014-2017.  Those years told substantially the same story.  Because this assertion about our article is false, we do not believe that further clarification of that point in these two sentences is necessary.

However, Kanakuk’s attorneys make an additional assertion about these sentences, one that does in fact require clarification.

“In addition, you incorrectly calculated the compensation.  In 2017, Mr. White received $41,909 in total compensation.  That number includes Mr. White’s $36,844 salary.  Similarly, Mrs. White received $142,738 in total compensation.  The total compensation included her $39,864 salary.  You intentionally inflated the figures to support your false narrative.”

In essence, Kakakuk’s attorneys are asserting that we double-counted the salary portion of the Whites’ compensation.  We dispute this claim.  The most reasonable reading of the Form 990 – as completed by Kanakuk Ministries itself – is that the Whites’ salaries were accounted for earlier in the document, and that neither of the Whites’ previously disclosed salaries are included in the supplemental “compensation” number.  Since salaries had already been disclosed, it is fair and reasonable to assume that any compensation listed on the supplemental note in Schedule L, Part V is compensation in addition to salary, and does not include the salary already disclosed earlier in the document.

It is also important to note that the salaries were the smallest component of the total paid to the Whites that year.  So, even if we conceded this point that the salaries were double-counted (which, again, we do not) the sum of their reported compensation in Part VII, the payments to Kukorp LLC and K-Land One, and this additional “compensation” would then be $495,424 instead of the $572,132 sum in the article.   And the payments to the Whites during the four-year period 2014-2017 would still exceed $2-million.

In short, even though Kanakuk’s explanation of those numbers does not appear to us to agree with a plain reading of the document itself, we will, for clarification purposes, amend our article to include both numbers, one with the salary included in the “compensation” figure, and one with the salary not included.

“Website Documenting History of Sexual Abuse at Kanakuk Kamps Goes Live,” March 28, 2021

This article makes the following statement:

“One of the lawsuits filed by John Doe IX against Kanakuk and a senior staff member, Peter Newman, resulted in a judgment for the plaintiff for nearly $20-million in 2018.”

A portion of Kanakuk’s attorney’s response follows:

“You knew the judgment was a ‘default judgment’ and entered against Mr. Newman only.  When the judgment was taken, Mr. Newman was incarcerated and to our knowledge had no legal counsel.  No judgment was taken against Kanakuk and there has been no collection of the “default judgment’ against Mr. Newman.”

MinistryWatch does not dispute these facts presented by Kanakuk’s attorney, but these facts do not refute our original statement, which is completely true.  To be abundantly clear, although the lawsuit named both Kanakuk and Mr. Newman as defendants, the 2018 judgment was against Mr. Newman only.

“Kanakuk Knew of Abuser’s Behavior At Least Six Years Before Finally Firing Him,” March 30, 2021

This article makes the following statement:

“One of Newman’s victims called ‘John Doe IX’ in court documents won a nearly $20-million settlement against Newman and Kanakuk in 2018.  It was the largest settlement of its kind in Missouri that year.”

A portion of Kanakuk’s attorney’s response follows:

“This is a blatant factual misstatement.  The article you published two days prior referred to it as a ‘judgment.’  It now becomes a settlement and it now definitely includes Kanakuk!”

Kanakuk’s attorneys make a good point here.  We made two inadvertent errors.  First, though the original lawsuit did include both Kanakuk Ministries and Joe White as defendants, neither Kanakuk nor Joe White were included in the ultimate judgment.  Sometime during the legal process, both Kanakuk and White were dropped from the suit.  Secondly, we described the $20-million judgment against Pete Newman as a settlement. It was not a settlement.  It was a default judgment against Mr. Newman.

Again, these were plainly mistakes arising from our misunderstanding about this detail of the litigation.  We apologize for these inadvertent errors, and they have been corrected in the original story.

This article also makes the following statement:

“Pete Newman was not the only perpetrator at Kanakuk.  The 57 victims who have come forward so far could push the financial liability of the perpetrators, the camp, and Joe White himself to $100 million.”

Kanakuk’s attorney responded:

“This is not just a misstatement of fact.  It is a complete fabrication.  When you wrote this statement, you had to know there are no other lawsuits related to child sexual abuse other than those concerning Mr. Newman.”

Kanakuk’s attorney is incorrect. In fact, Pete Newman was not the only perpetrator at Kanakuk.  In 2012, Missouri authorities arrested Lee Bradberry for abuse incidents at Kanakuk that took place in 2011.  This incident involved three alleged victims.  Bradberry pleaded guilty to these charges and was sentenced to prison.

With regard to the statement relating to “57 victims,” a lawsuit filed by “John Doe XII” alleges that Newman alone perpetrated abuse on 57 victims.  The lawsuit filed by “John Doe IX” alleges that “during the time he was a Kanakuk employee, he was a serial abuser and sexually abused over 50 children.”

Thus, the statements above were based on an accurate reporting of information contained in court documents in the public record, and we properly included them in this article. Moreover, the article simply raises the possibility that if these alleged victims also successfully pursued civil suits against the perpetrators, the camp and Joe White, the potential liability could be substantial based upon the damages reflected in the John Doe IX judgment.

Finally, our article says:

“But perhaps the most telling example of Kanakuk’s lack of transparency is that it has required all victims to sign non-disclosure agreements as conditions of their settlements.”

Kanakuk’s attorney responded with:

“When you wrote this statement, you knew or should have known that Kanakuk has never used nondisclosure agreements in an attempt to hide details of abuse.”

Kanakuk, of course, does not deny that it regularly entered into settlement agreements with victims of alleged sexual assault at Kanakuk which included non-disclosure agreements as a condition of settlement. Our article does not assert that the reason Kanakuk required non-disclosure agreements constituted “an attempt to hide details of abuse,” only that Kanakuk did in fact require victims to sign such non-disclosure agreements as conditions of their settlements.  Our statement is therefore true and requires no correction.

Finally, based on the information above, we have decided to make a clarification to one of our articles that Kanakuk did not in fact ask for, but which we believe adds context to the article.  The headline of this article as published on March 30 read:

“Kanakuk Knew of Abuser’s Behavior At Least Six Years Before Finally Firing Him”

We have changed this headline to read:

“Lawsuit Says Kanakuk Knew of Abuser’s Behavior at Least Six Years Before Firing Him”

The John Doe IX lawsuit makes detailed allegations Kanakuk officials that were aware of Pete Newman’s inappropriate sexual behavior with campers at least as early as 2003. We believe this clarification provides an accurate report of the allegations contained in the public court records.

In Summary

These three March 2021 articles published by MinistryWatch, containing a total of nearly 3000 words, are substantially true.  The overall thrust and major claims of these three articles were not even questioned by Kanakuk.  We will therefore not retract or remove these articles from our website.

One statement regarding payments to the Whites depended on the accuracy and clarity of the Form 990 completed by Kanakuk itself, the lack of which caused us to arrive at a conclusion which may or may not be true.  We will clarify that statement.

And, in one case, we made inadvertent errors regarding the John Doe IX default judgment against Pete Newman only.  We apologize for these inadvertent errors.  We have already corrected them on our website.  We ask forgiveness from both Kanakuk and our readers for making these inadvertent errors.

We seek nothing more than to present the truth regarding events at Kanakuk to a public that has the right to know.  This public includes victims, their families, past and future campers and their families, and others.  We believe that to retract these articles, which are substantially true and provide valuable information, would be a disservice to the abuse victims and their families, a disservice to the public, and a disservice to the truth we are committed to uphold.

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Warren Cole Smith
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.

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