Joe White, the president of Kanakuk Ministries near Branson, Missouri, is a larger than life figure in American evangelicalism.
Since the 1970s, under the leadership of White and his wife Debbie-Jo, Kanakuk has become one of the largest Christian camps in the world. More than 20,000 kids age 7-18 attend each summer. Since 1926, a half-million kids have attended the Kanakuk.
Using Kanakuk as his platform, Joe White wrote books and spoke at arena-sized events — including Promise Keepers and Liberty University’s famous Convocation. He was listed as a contributor on Focus on the Family’s website, and has written more than 20 books for some of the most prestigious Christian publishers. For years, he flew around the country in private jets – including a posh Cessna Citation jet — co-owned by Kanakuk Ministries.
White and Kanakuk could afford it, because Kanakuk is not an ordinary camp, and it’s not cheap. Kanakuk is an elaborate up-scale sports camp. A two-week session costs around $2500, but thousands of affluent families gladly pay the fee, and often not just for two weeks. It’s not unusual for rich families from Dallas to send their kids to Kanakuk for most of the summer.
All these fees add up. For the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2018, Kanakuk Ministries brought in about $35-million. It made a profit (revenue over expenses) of more than $8-million. And it paid the Whites more than $500-thousand in salary, other compensation, and rent to use properties that the Whites own. In some years, as a MinistryWatch analysis revealed, payments to the Whites exceeded $700-thousand – more than $2.6-million between 2014 and 2018.
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All that money was supposed to buy a safe, upscale, and wholesome experience for kids. And convenient. Parents didn’t even have to drive their kids to camp, because Kanakuk would come to them. Thousands of these families took advantage of what the camp’s website describes as “Kanakuk’s Famous Charter Buses.” These are not re-purposed school buses, but high-end coaches that ran scheduled routes, picking up kids in Kansas City, Little Rock, Birmingham, Memphis, St. Louis – nearly a dozen cities in all. The Dallas bus leaves from a Macy’s parking lot near the wealthy University Park/Highland Park neighborhoods.
Not So Safe After All?
But about a decade ago, revelations about some of the staff members at Kanakuk raised questions about how safe Kanakuk really was. On June 9, 2010, Pete Newman, one of Kanakuk’s senior and most popular staffers, pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexually abusing boys. He received two life sentences, plus 30 years.
But Pete Newman’s guilty plea, according to lawyer David French and his wife Nancy, who wrote about the Kanakuk cases for The Dispatch, is “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.’” 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.
Kanakuk Ministries has spent most of the past decade repeating the narrative that Pete Newman was just a bad apple. Kanakuk claims it learned lessons from the experience and has since implemented much more rigorous child protection policies. Indeed, it now trains other Christian ministries in child protection policies. (You can read about Kanakuk’s child protection policies and procedures here and here.)
But court documents, some of which are only recently available at the website Facts About Kanakuk, suggest another story. Depositions by Joe White make it plain that he knew about questionable behavior by Pete Newman years before Newman was arrested and ultimately convicted for child sexual abuse. Further, other lawsuits make plain that 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.
And that’s just the cases we know about. The Facts About Kanakuk is encouraging other victims to come forward, and it is also hosting a petition drive demanding that Kanakuk release victims and their families from non-disclosure agreements so the truth about what happened at Kanakuk can come out. In the first 24 hours after the petition went live on Saturday night, almost 500 people had signed it. By Monday, the number of signatures approached 1,000.
What Did They Know, And When Did They Know It
Pete Newman, an Auburn University graduate, began working at Kanakuk in 1995, as a camp counselor. He quickly became both a camper and staff favorite, and Joe White himself took him under his wing.
Because many of the boys who stayed at Kanakuk came for much of the summer, Newman had the luxury, you might say, of engaging in a gradual grooming process with the boys in his charge. Kanakuk’s own curriculum made it OK to discuss sex and purity, including such topics as masturbation. The communal living arrangement allowed Newman to get away with showering with the boys, and – eventually – engaging in other camp activities, usually at night, done in the nude.
These activities escalated to sexual activity, described in detail in court documents, which eventually led to Newman going to prison for the rest of his life.
But the more significant questions today are: What did the camp know, and what did they do about it?
It helps to know that Pete Newman quickly rose through the ranks of Kanakuk, traveling the country to recruit campers and raise money for the camp. In other words, Newman was not one of the hundreds of seasonal staff members that Kanakuk hires each year. He was known to and was even a part of senior leadership.
A lawsuit filed by “John Doe IX,” the same person who won the $20-million settlement, said Kanakuk started getting complaints about Newman at least as early as 1999, when a parent complained about Newman “skinny-dipping” and riding a four-wheeler naked with a camper.
At most camps, Christian or secular, such behavior would be an instantly fire-able offense. It should have been at Kanakuk, too. In fact, nudity on the part of staff was explicitly banned, and – according to policies at Kanakuk at the time — “Any infraction of the above policy involving even the slightest form of sexual connotation will result in immediate dismissal for the staff with no chance of rehire.”
But Newman was not fired, even though other leaders at Kanakuk knew of these violations in policy. Newman’s supervisor, Will Cunningham, noted in a performance evaluation that Newman held “one-on-one sleepovers with boys.” This, too, was a behavior that at most camps, secular or Christian, would be grounds for firing.
According to court documents filed by John Doe IX, Joe White himself became aware of Newman’s behavior when a report reached him in 2003 that Newman played “naked basketball” with campers, and they would “streak” or run naked through camp property. Also in 2003, violations of policy by Newman had become egregious enough for Kanakuk to document expected behavior for Newman. The document, among other things, said that Newman could not be alone with campers, could not be with high school campers past 10 pm, and “no sleepovers. Period.”
The document also said Kanakuk leadership expected to see “a noticeable change in the way Pete budgets his time,” meaning that he should spend more “time with peers…as opposed to a lop-sided, inordinate amount of time spent with kids.” This document required Newman to have regular “accountability” sessions with Will Cunningham. The document was signed by Newman, dated Oct. 22, 2003.
So the notion that Kanakuk did not know of Pete Newman’s inappropriate behavior with Kanakuk campers years before his criminal convictions is directly refuted by these documents, documents produced by Kanakuk itself.
Other incidents followed, including a 2006 communication from a father saying that Newman was making late-night calls and texts to his son. Finally, in 2009, according to the article by David and Nancy French, “Newman’s Kanakuk story came to an end. For reasons that remain unclear, Newman finally confessed to his crimes to White, [Kanakuk COO Doug] Goodwin, and [Kris] Cooper [Chief Personnel Officer for Kanakuk].’
The Kanakuk officials were required by Missouri law to report this confession of abuse to the Missouri Child Abuse Hotline. They did that, but they also reached out to the victims and their families with excuses, offers to pay for counselling, and – in at least one case – an offer of a cash payment.
According to the account by the Frenches, “the camp sent victims’ families a copious amount of Kanakuk gear, PlayStations, iPads, iPhones, and snack baskets. They also directly reached out to victims, offering hunting trips and weekends away at White’s house. The camp offered free camp tuition to various victims—a policy still in place to this day—in an effort, as one person described, ‘to rediscover lost childhood.’” The attempts by Joe White to contact victims directly got to be so great that the family of one of the victims asked the court for a restraining order against him.
Constructing A Narrative
Today, if you ask Kanakuk staff members, senior leaders, even many parents, donors, and alumni about the Pete Newman incident, they will not deny that it occurred, but they will say it was an unfortunate incident, a tragic one – but an anomaly, and that steps were taken so that such an incident could never happen again.
“In March 2009, Kanakuk leadership learned that a long-term colleague had inappropriate contact with a minor. Further investigation would reveal deceptive practices spanning a ten-year period of time with multiple abuse victims. The reality that a long-time, trusted colleague would engage in misconduct and remain undetected amidst a developed prevention, supervision and response strategy was devastating.”
Devastating? Yes. But undetected? The facts plainly contradict this narrative.
Kanakuk’s narrative also fails to take into account that just two years after Newman was arrested, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “another counselor, Lee Bradberry, abused three boy campers ages 9, 10 and 12 in a span of four weeks. Bradbury, 23, was later found guilty of second-degree statutory sodomy, sexual misconduct and two counts of child molestation.” Bradberry, by the way, is scheduled to be released from prison later this year.
Further, Kanakuk’s narrative fails to take into account that Kanakuk has made no changes to its governance structure. Its board was then and remains now controlled by the White family. Faulty board governance is almost always a pre-existing condition when scandal erupts in an organization. A lack of proper board structure and oversight were major factors in the recent scandals at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries as well as Liberty University.
Kanakuk’s lack of transparency is also unchanged. In fact, in 2015, after it petitioned the Internal Revenue Service, Kanakuk was re-classified as a church. This means it is no longer required to file a Form 990. Kanakuk has continued to voluntarily file a Form 990 every year since, it says “out of a desire to foster transparency and accountability.” However, also said its “voluntary decision to file Form 990 should in no way be…deemed a waiver of any of the rights of privileges that accompany its recognized status as a church.”
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. This contractually bound silence means that the stories of the nearly 60 known victims are not known, and we may still not know the true scale of the abuse and cover-up at Kanakuk.
The FactsAboutKanakuk.com website, created by victims and their families, is an attempt to remedy that problem.
And, of course, there’s this: the truth has a way of getting out.