Update (April 28, 2023): A Missouri judge ruled Tuesday that an abuse victim’s fraud case against Kanakuk Kamps and founder Joe White can move forward. Kanakuk argued that the charge should be dismissed based on statute of limitations and its prior settlement, but the Taney County Circuit Court denied its claims. Logan Yandell is the first victim to sue the camp for fraud.
Yandell says that when his family entered a settlement with the organization in 2010, leaders concealed their knowledge of predatory behavior and misconduct by counselor Pete Newman, who is currently serving a prison term of two life sentences plus 30 years for his sexual abuse of children. Kanakuk victims have also joined lobbying efforts to extend the statute of limitations in Missouri for adults who were abused as children.
Logan Yandell is one of a string of young men who attended Kanakuk Kamps in the 2000s, who were groomed and abused by a popular counselor, and who later signed confidential settlements, adding a layer of legal restrictions to the anguish they suffered in the aftermath.
Their accounts of being sexually abused by a trusted leader who cloaked nudity, masturbation, and molestation in camp fun and Christian teachings have slowly come to light more than a decade after serial abuser Pete Newman went to prison. Some victims have opened up in recent news coverage and survivor testimonies; others revealed details in anonymous “John Doe” lawsuits.
Yandell and his family did not know all these stories when they settled back in 2010—not that at least dozens of Kanakuk campers had been through the sexual abuse he had and not that others had reported Newman’s inappropriate behavior to the camp years earlier, raising concerns about sleepovers, skinny dipping, and naked four-wheeling.
Now, 27-year-old Yandell believes the settlement he and his parents agreed to is fraudulent. In a lawsuit filed this week in Missouri, Yandell claims Kanakuk misled his family.
“Neither Logan nor his parents would have agreed to the settlement terms if not for the Defendants’ false statements,” said Brian Kent, one of the lawyers representing the family in the suit. “The Yandells were told that Kanakuk had no prior knowledge of Newman’s sexual exploitation of children. The representations made by Defendants regarding prior knowledge of Newman’s patterns of sexually abusing minors were blatantly false.”
This is believed to be the first abuse lawsuit to bring fraud allegations against the Branson, Missouri, camp. The suit also names its CEO, Joe White, and its insurer, Westchester Fire Insurance Company.
In a statement to CT on Friday, Kanakuk Kamps said its policy is not to comment on pending litigation, but that “we continue to pray for all who have been affected by Pete Newman’s behavior.”
Kanakuk has previously stated that the camp acted immediately, that its leaders were tricked by a “rogue employee” and knew nothing of Newman’s abuse prior to 2009, when he confessed and was arrested. The camp’s webpage on Newman’s case and its abuse response refers to “deception” more than a dozen times.
“Pete Newman was a master of deception—fooling not only Kanakuk but also his friends, neighbors, and even his own family. As soon as Kanakuk became aware of abuse, we took action, including immediate termination, and subsequently reported him to authorities,” the camp says. “Prior to this, no one on Kanakuk staff believed that Pete Newman was abusing or had abused kids.”
The Yandells heard a similar explanation when they settled with Kanakuk the year after Newman left the camp for two life sentences plus thirty years in a prison cell. But in 2021 and 2022, a yearslong reporting project by Nancy French has uncovered earlier evidence.
Through French’s articles at The Dispatch—written with her husband, lawyer and senior editor David French—they learned that Newman’s supervisor, Will Cunningham, recommended he be fired in 2003 for nudity around campers.
Instead, Newman stayed on for six more years, rising to assistant director and later a director at Kanakuk’s K-Kountry camp in Branson.
It was during that time, from 2005 to 2008, that Logan Yandell says he was groomed and abused by Newman. By his final camp stay at age 15, Yandell had gone to Kanakuk summer after summer for over half his life.
Before his arrest, Newman had been a beloved figure at Kanakuk, fun-loving and personal. He kept in touch with campers and spent time with them between sessions during recruiting tours and mission trips. Survivor testimonies have since revealed that abuse took place then too.
Logan Yandell’s father, Greg Yandell, wrote Joe White earlier this year to criticize the Kanakuk CEO’s initial response to his son’s reports of abuse. Nancy French quoted the letter in a May 2022 article for the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader:
The night I learned that my son had been abused for over three years at your camp, in multiple states, overseas, and in my own home by Pete Newman, I called you. I point blank asked you … if you knew of any previous signs or situations that indicated that Newman had abused young boys, or had acted in an inappropriate way around young boys.
Your immediate and direct answer to me was “I had no idea. I had never seen anything that caused me concern. I am just as shocked as anyone.” … I have since learned you lied to me, Joe.
Yandell’s lawsuit says that Kanakuk “knew, or should have known, that Newman was committing crimes of sexual misconduct and engaging in illegal behavior with children” as early as 1999, when a report complained that Newman swam and four-wheeled with boys while naked.
White said in a 2012 deposition that the camp chalked up the inappropriate behavior to immaturity and poor judgement, that “it was like two drops of water in a cascade of appreciation and outstanding character, outstanding example, outstanding role model. He was just drowned out by that.”
Apologies and NDAs
White is the second-generation leader of the nearly 100-year-old camp, which ranks among the top Christian summer camps in the country and has tallied over a half million campers in its history. He’s also an evangelical author and speaker who boasts an endorsement from James Dobson.
White has apologized to victims and families and extended an invitation for face-to-face reconciliation.
The organization has not undergone a third-party investigation beyond the police inquiry into Newman, and it hasn’t indicated that any leaders have been fired or penalized over the camp’s response, though after recent coverage, White was removed as a contributor on the Focus on the Family website, Ministry Watch noted.
One of the reasons Kanakuk’s abuse response remains a relevant story for evangelicals, said Ministry Watch president Warren Cole Smith, is because “many of the people, including Joe White, who made the decision to look the other way are still in leadership.”
And, according to media reports and survivor accounts, Kanakuk has been affiliated with known abusers beyond Newman.
Kanakuk implemented what it says is a more robust protection policy that incorporated the lessons learned in the wake of Newman’s abuse. It has defended itself against allegations of coverup from watchdog organizations, journalists (Vicewon an Emmy this year for its Kanakuk coverage), and groups such as Facts About Kanakuk, which collects survivor stories and advocates for victims to be released from non-disparagement agreements (NDAs).
The camp’s website refers to Facts About Kanakuk as a “coordinated attack” and dismisses its documentation as misleading and defamatory. Kanakuk says it anticipates future “publicity stunts” designed to “disrupt our ministry operations” and that “we are prepared to defend our people and this ministry against such a cancel-culture mentality.”
“If somebody is suggesting that victims are doing more harm by filing lawsuits, I think that’s comical. Lawsuits force people to be transparent and make real change,” said Kent, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse whose firm, Laffey, Bucci & Kent, specializes in representing victims. “If they are saying, ‘We want to be responsible,’ they can accept responsibility in the lawsuit. What their position is during the litigation will be telling as to whether or not their words are truly meaningful.”
Regarding NDAs, Kanakuk has stated that “we failed to recognize the restrictions—both real and perceived—that many victims are under.” The camp says it supports victims’ rights to share their stories, though specific terms of settlements must remain confidential.
Victims have still worried about the scope of the NDAs. If his suit is successful and the agreement is negated, Logan Yandell will no longer be subject to the NDA from more than a decade ago.
Nancy French said one victim told her his NDA restricted him from speaking with the media, and another, who hadn’t signed an NDA, was threatened with legal action if he shared his testimony in church. Others under the agreements, including Logan Yandell, said they believed they couldn’t even talk about their abuse in counseling and therapy.
“I’m technically not allowed to tell a therapist, when that’s what the settlement money was supposed to be used for. It certainly has hindered the healing process,” Yandell told French.
“I struggled a lot longer with substance abuse disorders. ... Many days I really wished I never woke up and would ‘self-medicate,’ but I never did overdose, somehow,” he said. “When I was younger and when things were harder, I had a contingency plan for how I planned [to die].”
Since 2010, victims including Yandell have settled out of court with Kanakuk. In this week’s filing, Yandell asked for a trial by jury so the court can determine what damages he could be owed after allegedly being misled by Kanakuk in his original settlement.
Trey Carlock, a fellow Newman victim who settled a “John Doe” lawsuit with Kanakuk, died by suicide three years ago at age 28. His sister told CT she commends the Yandell for their efforts to pursue justice.
“For Kanakuk victims like my late brother Trey, the alleged fraud was deadly. He was silenced to his grave. To see no accountability or justice exacerbates the heartbreak,” said Elizabeth Carlock Phillips.
“It’s time for Joe White and his followers to face the facts of what Kanakuk knew and when regarding Pete Newman’s patterns of abuse. Defrauding victims to protect an institution is not aligned with the Christian faith, and those who proclaim Christ should be especially outraged that this has gone on for so long.”
Facts About Kanakuk has received reports of 160 alleged cases of abuse spanning a couple dozen accused perpetrators in the year and a half since it launched.
The community supports “all survivors of Kanakuk, including the Yandells, in their efforts to seek justice after learning of the abuse and fraudulent attempts to cover it up at Kanakuk,” said Scott Hastings, Locke Lord LLP attorney representing No More Victims, the group that runs the site. “Since its founding, [Facts About Kanakuk]’s goal has been to provide a forum where victims and their families may speak freely and feel seen, believed and supported. At a minimum, [Facts About Kanakuk] wants their pain, suffering, silencing, and deaths to be acknowledged.”
Though a few churches have cut ties with the camp over its abuse response, Kanakuk continues to welcome around 20,000 kids a summer. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) website has a profile page for Kanakuk Kamps, though it’s not a member. It belongs to the Christian Camp and Conference Association. Its risk and safety director, Rick Braschler, is involved with the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention (ECAP).
“It is disappointing that these watchdog orgs like ECFA and ECAP have not extended more oversight and more scrutiny,” Smith at Ministry Watch said.
Braschler has promoted the Kanakuk Child Protection Plan (CPP) beyond the camp’s own programs to train more than 1,600 leaders to “create a measurable, systematic plan for safeguarding youth, detecting perpetrators, and sustaining the organization.”
“We’ve traveled the country openly sharing what happened here and the steps we’ve taken to help prevent this from occurring again. More than 600 organizations have been trained in the CPP to date,” Kanakuk writes. “Our primary focus has been to ensure victims have the support they need to heal and recover, and we continue to work tirelessly to ensure this never happens again at Kanakuk. Our CPP is woven throughout the organization and impacts almost every aspect of our operations.”
Facts About Kanakuk commissioned an external review of Kanakuk’s April 2022 revision of its CPP. Two safeguarding experts, former UNICEF chief of child protection Susan L. Bissell and consultant Sarah J. Stevenson, concluded that it was missing a clear reporting framework and a clear purpose.
“It seems, on one hand, to be a policy and procedure manual. On the other hand, it seems like a platform for training other organizations,” they said in their report, which was obtained by CT. They called the CPP “insufficient and inadequate.”
Even under Kanakuk’s former policies, Newman’s nudity around kids should have been grounds for dismissal, and further violations have occurred after the new plan.
“We can’t trust their child protection plan now because we have it well documented that either it doesn’t work or the plan that would work if implemented well is not being implemented well because of this relaxed atmosphere and attitudes toward pedophilia,” Nancy French said.
Multiple experts in child protection told CT that there is no one gold standard for policies, since safeguarding requirements and legal procedures can vary by municipality and ministry setting.
Rahel Bayar, a former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor and consultant who works with religious camps, emphasized the importance of recognizing emotional boundaries, not just physical ones.
A counselor “going out as a maverick and taking it upon themselves to share private information” can “blur every boundary,” said Bayar, regarding the faith-based camp landscape in general and not Kanakuk in particular. Such boundary-crossing can build up a sense of hero worship or a savior complex at the camp—which can be a red flag for grooming behavior.
She also talked about the need to act definitively against violators. “When it comes to sexual abuse with kids, crossing boundaries and violating policies, there’s no place in the conversation for keeping [a perpetrator]. You can’t have a perpetrator undergoing repentance in the setting where they victimized a child.”
Yandell’s case filing corresponds with the United Nations’ first World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence.
It also comes days after Congress passed new legislation limiting NDAs used to silence abuse victims. The law wouldn’t apply to NDAs like Yandell’s, which are signed as settlements after abuse has taken place, but advocates are hopeful for future legislation to offer greater legal protections for those abused as children. ChildUSAdvocacy is among the groups pushing for greater child-protection and victims-rights laws, including efforts to extend statutes of limitations for underage victims.
In the meantime, Newman’s victims are continuing to come forward. Last July, Nancy French shared the story of Mike Breaux, a Louisiana man who contacted the camp in 2021 about abuse from two decades before, only to learn that there were dozens of other victims and his abuser had been convicted—and some of the same leaders remained at Kanakuk.
“I feel like we uncovered, as David wrote, ‘the greatest evangelical sex scandal that no one’s ever heard of,’ but now that they’ve heard of it, no one seems to care,” Nancy French said.
“There will be a day when justice will be served and every tear will be dried, but it is not this day, and I can only be a signpost as a Christian pointing to that future and pointing to the importance of justice.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Kanakuk is not a current member of ECFA.