Myriad Survivors Reveal Years of Hidden Institutional Abuse at Kanakuk Kamps
Over the years thousands of families have entrusted their children’s hearts, minds, and safety to Kanakuk Kamps. Tragically, it appears that in a deeply troubling array of instances, the safety of children took a back seat to other considerations as decades of child sexual abuse at Kanakuk Kamps were swept under the rug by the organization. This was and is a violation of trust and ultimately a failure of leadership.
While all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse are tragic occurrences that need to be prevented, perhaps the most heartbreaking stories are those that involve harm to children. Minors are one of the most vulnerable populations in society. Too often, however, individuals around children fail to protect them and the very institutions and systems designed to foster safety and community for children choose profit, preservation, and reputation over protection. The price of this prioritization is not just dollar signs—it’s the innocence and dignity of countless children.
Several high-profile cases involving the institutionalized sexual abuse of children have surfaced in the last few years—including but certainly not limited to the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic church—for failing to recognize and stop the abuse occurring inside their ranks.One of America's largest Christian camps, Joe White's Kanakuk Kamps, enabled horrific sexual abuse for decades. Justice for survivors, accountability, and prevention of further abuse cannot happen if we stay silent. Click To Tweet
Institutions such as churches, sports programs, universities, and schools are all entities that predators use to target and abuse vulnerable children. As such, all organizations that work with youth in any capacity have an ethical responsibility to proactively work to prevent grooming, exploitation, and sexual abuse. It is imperative for organizations to implement and enforce robust systems, guidelines, training, and moderation in order to protect the children entrusted to their care.
In spite of this, the tragic reality remains that institutions do not always meet their obligation to ensure safety for minors. In fact, Focus For Health says it this way:
“Sex abuse rises to the level of institutional abuse when the organization and institutional structure these individuals are affiliated with does not respond appropriately to allegations when they come forward… the actions of the predator were either ignored or accepted by the institution, and the focus of the system shifted to covering up the allegation to avoid scandal and preserve the institution itself instead of protecting children. The collective inaction of the institution allowed the abuse to continue and more children became victimized.”
This vicious and heartbreaking cycle of predatory actions being ignored or even covered up in order to preserve the organization instead of helping the victims is exactly what occurred for years at Kanakuk Kamp—a popular summer camp organization where numerous victims (a civil complaint alleges that there were at least 57 victims, but the prosecutor in the case estimates that the real number could be in the “hundreds”) of child sexual abuse have come forward about their experiences and the institutional complicity that enabled it all.
These brave survivors are speaking up about the sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of Kanakuk Kamps’ staff members. They’re also speaking up about how camp leadership—including Kanakuk president and Kids Across America founder Joe White—knew about the abuse, chose to do nothing to seriously address the problem, and even covered up the abuse. The lack of concrete action and subsequent cover up of the sexual exploitation that happened regularly at Kanakuk led to unspeakable trauma for many survivors that could have been prevented had Kanakuk leadership responded appropriately.
Who is Joe White and What is Kanakuk Kamps?
Kanakuk Kamps, spread across Missouri and other locations throughout the U.S., was founded in 1926 and has seen over 450,000 children come through their program. Offering activities like archery, swimming, canoeing, and almost every kind of sport, Kanakuk has long been a popular summer destination for countless families since its inception almost a century ago.
As part of Joe White’s larger Kanakuk Ministries, the organization states that it “not only operates our six overnight Christian sports camps, but also serves individuals through our outreach ministries, providing evangelism, spiritual training, food, health, education, and more.” Both Kanakuk Kamps as an organization and Joe White as an individual have clearly benefitted as a result of a reputation built on Christian principles, family-friendly fun, and professionalism. Joe White’s personal website touts endorsements which claim that White “knows more about teenagers than anyone in North America.” He regularly speaks at events aimed at parents, and has positioned himself as a leader in child welfare.
Now, as more survivors come forward with their own horrific stories of abuse at Kanakuk Kamps, it seems apparent that Joe White and the institution he led are complicit in the alleged sexual abuse and exploitation of many dozens of children. Research shows that only about 38% of child sexual abuse survivors disclose their abuse, and some never disclose at all, so we may never know the full extent of the crimes committed at Kanakuk Kamps under Joe White’s watch.
This reality is especially egregious given Kanakuk’s response to initial signs and reports of Kanakuk staff inappropriately interacting with campers.
The Institutional Cover-Up of Sexual Abuse at Kanakuk Kamps
A string of lawsuits and subsequent quiet settlements have followed the camp organization since 1999 when Kanakuk employee Peter Newman allegedly began displaying inappropriate and concerning behavior with young campers such as swimming or riding ATV’s while naked and holding one-on-one “sleepovers.”
According to one lawsuit filed in 2011, “Kanakuk failed or refused to investigate the private sleepovers or ask the boys involved whether Newman encouraged them to get naked or whether he touched them. The petition also states that despite having knowledge that Newman had engaged in inappropriate activities, including ‘naked four-wheeling’ and private sleepovers with boys, Kanakuk allowed and encouraged Newman to continue his work as assistant camp director and to promote himself all across America as an expert on teenage ‘sexual purity,’ according to the petition.”
Instead of firing Newman, or at the very least removing him from his near-unmitigated access to children and commissioning a real investigation, Joe White and Kanakuk placed him in a position of leadership for the next decade.
Not only did White protect and promote Newman, Kanakuk also featured Newman heavily in its promotional strategies during his years of employment. This included the Kanakuk promotional tactic called the “winter trail” wherein camp recruiters would visit communities—and even stay in the homes of potential or former Kanakuk campers—in the offseason. Some promotional features for Kanakuk had testimonials featuring and praising Newman. There was an endorsement from Joe White himself wherein White said that “Pete Newman is the most thorough relationship builder with kids in Kanakuk history. This guy has a raging love for God and it spills over constantly to the kids at Kamp. A weekend with Pete will build a father-son relationship that will never be the same.”The lack of concrete action and subsequent cover-up of the sexual abuse that happened regularly at Kanakuk Kamps led to unspeakable trauma for many survivors that could have been prevented. Click To Tweet
The 2011 lawsuit mentioned above brought 12 counts against Kanakuk Kamps as well as White, Newman, and other leadership who were involved. Two years after the Newman case blew up in the media, Newman was sent to prison and Kanakuk finally introduced a “Child Protection Plan”—the first time in the camp’s long history that procedure and policy surrounding sexual assault was put into writing. Pete Newman is currently serving his two life-plus 30 years sentences after having pled guilty to three counts of first-degree sodomy, three counts of second-degree sodomy, and two counts of enticement of a child. Many of the accusations against him have only come to light after his arrest.
However, while perhaps the most public case, Pete Newman was not the only predator at Kanakuk Kamp—another employee was arrested in 2012 for abusing children as young as nine—and the problems don’t stop with the predators themselves.
As David and Nancy French put it in their March 2021 exposé about Kanakuk:
“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 Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center says it this way in regard to institutionalized abuse: “the institutional sexual abuse of children is never a one-off or single occurrence, but rather a pervasive symptom of the ingrained power dynamics and relationship structures upon which organizations are built.”
When entire organizations foster, allow, and even encourage exploitation to occur, we cannot step back and say enough has been done when a perpetrator or two are caught and apprehended.
There weren’t just one or two bad actors at Kanakuk. There was an organization enabling and protecting the abusers at the expense of the children.
How Institutional Abuse Furthers the Trauma of Sexual Abuse
Institutional abuse happens when multiple levels of leadership and the very structure of the organization itself become a haven for predators wherein they are given access to their intended prey as well as positions of trust and leadership from which they can both perpetrate their abuse and attempt to protect themselves from accountability and justice. As Focus For Health puts it,
“When abuse occurs to children in the very settings that are designed to enhance their lives and to protect them, it is especially egregious and difficult to understand. We no longer have one sexual deviant to blame for the exploitation of a child, but an entire system that has allowed for the abuse to continue, and in the process, enabled more children to be victimized. The act of covering up the abuse can even rise to the level of criminal behavior itself, and as a result, there is a growing distrust by the public of these previously respected institutions.”
Institutional abuse and exploitation should never be swept under the rug. Until organizations, corporations, and institutions are held accountable for their complicity in the sexual exploitation and trauma of countless men, women, and children that has been ignored and facilitated on their watch, full justice will not be served. In this case, Joe White and Kanakuk Kamps have much for which they need to be held to account.
Here are a few additional resources on child sexual abuse:
- Committee for Children
- Stop it Now!
- Darkness To Light
- Children’s Assessment Center – Facts and Resources
- Upstream: Protecting the next child
- World Childhood Foundation
- Moore Center for the prevention of Child Sexual Abuse
- Institutional Sex Abuse of Children: Part 2: Possible Solutions