John King, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in West Plains, Missouri, announced Monday that his church has cut ties with the popular network of Christian sports camps called Kanakuk Kamps and is urging other churches to do the same until they publicly confess that they lied about when they first learned about the sex abuse of campers.
“Due to information that has recently been made clear to the leadership of First Baptist Church West Plains, our church has made the decision to not partner with Kanakuk Kamps for ministry until the truth of their knowledge about what happened with Pete Newman is openly confessed,” King wrote in a public letter cited by KSMU.
King’s church normally participates in Kanakuk Kamps' KampOut, a popular five-day Christian program for youth offered on-site at churches around the country.
Joe White, president of Kanakuk Kamps, which has welcomed more than 450,000 campers since 1926, was sued in 2015 for being aware of sexual abuse taking place at his camp. A 50-page petition filed on behalf of the plaintiff, identified only as John Doe IX, contains details of a case involving Pete Newman, a former camp director who pleaded guilty to statutory sodomy and enticement of a child.
"In February 2010, Peter Newman pleaded guilty in Taney County to several counts of statutory sodomy and child enticement involving child abuse of a boy on Kanakuk property between approximately 2005 and 2008," court records said. "In 2003, defendants White and Kanakuk had actual knowledge that defendant Newman continued to engage in activities with children at Kanakuk camps that involved defendant Newman and the children becoming naked together."
Despite that knowledge, the documents state, Kanakuk and White continued to employ Newman.
"Defendants Kanakuk Ministries and Kanakuk Heritage chose to protect the sexual predator rather than the children," the petition states. Newman was even promoted, court records showed, because "his reputation among kampers was such that it engendered return visits to kamp and more money for" the defendants.
Newman is now serving two life sentences, plus 30 years, after pleading guilty to sex crimes involving teenage boys.
In his letter, King cited four reasons for making the decision to cut ties with the camp until there is a confession, including distrust and a need to send a message to the victims that their voice matters.
“We believe in grace and that God can and will heal. The process of healing is being delayed because of the lie that Kanakuk tells claiming they did not know what was taking place until 2009. Based on depositions, we now know that the leadership of Kanakuk certainly knew that there were felonies against children committed in 1999 and in 2003,” King said.
An exposé published by The Dispatch showed how Newman, a serial sexual abuser, groomed and abused boys at the camp, in their own homes, and even during an overseas trip to China. The website Facts About Kanakuk also extensively chronicles the camp’s history of abuse.
Responding to King’s letter in a statement to The Christian Post on Thursday, Kanakuk Kamps referred to the claim that they lied about when they first learned about the abuse of campers as “unsubstantiated allegations.”
“We were shocked and disheartened to read the letter that Pastor John King distributed to members of his congregation. While we are grateful for those who stand with victims, we are surprised that Pastor King would make such broad and inaccurate accusations without inviting Kanakuk to have a conversation or allowing us the opportunity to address his concerns,” Kanakuk Kamps said. “This is certainly not what we would have expected, especially having worked so closely in the past to host a successful KampOut! experience at West Plains First Baptist.”
Kanakuk Kamps further asserted that if their staff had been found complicit in Newman’s crimes, they would have been prosecuted.
“Despite inflammatory and false statements by Pastor King and others, no other Kanakuk employee or leadership member was aware of Pete Newman's illegal activities. Had Kanakuk staff been complicit in any way, individuals would have been criminally charged. However, after a thorough investigation of Mr. Newman in 2009, the County Prosecutor did not pursue any legal action against Kanakuk or its leadership,” camp officials argued.
They maintained that Newman deceived many people around him, including Kanakuk Kamps.
“Neither Kanakuk's leadership nor Pete's immediate supervisors would have ever allowed him to remain on staff, much less allowed him around their own children unsupervised, if they suspected him of abusing kids,” officials said.
“Despite attempts to re-frame decades-old details to fit a modern narrative, Pete Newman was a rogue employee living a life of utter deception. He masterfully fooled everyone around him — including his neighbors, closest friends, and family who knew him best,” their statement continued. “As soon as Kanakuk became aware of abuse, we took action, including immediate termination, and subsequently reported him to authorities. Kanakuk also fully supported the law enforcement investigation and prosecution of the abuser Pete Newman.”
In an interview with CP on Wednesday, King told CP he has the support of camp victims and their families. He also said that when he decided to end his relationship with the camp, he explained why to representatives of the organization.
“[I’ve been getting] major response from victims in that community. … There was a sibling that reached out and said that she’d lost her brother to suicide but is so thankful for somebody standing for him. I’ve had several parents reach out,” King said. “That’s the part that matters the most for me. Is that they know that somebody stands with them, that they are heard.”
In his letter, King urged other churches to stand against Kanakuk Kamps, which attracts children from across the country, until they tell the truth.
Kanakuk Kamps said in an earlier statement published on their website they “are forever sorry” for the abuse and pain Newman inflicted on campers and their families.
“We’ve said it before, and we will say it again, we are forever sorry for the pain inflicted on victims and their families. We desire to support victims and help them in their healing journey. Any victim can reach out to Kanakuk by emailing us at email@example.com or access several independent victim advocacy organizations such as ChildHelp.org or Rainn.org, who can provide access to local support services, reporting assistance, and educational resources,” Kanakuk Kamp said.
They also referred to the website factsaboutkanakuk.com as “a coordinated attack against Kanakuk.”
“The goal of their efforts are still not clear, but their campaign of misinformation and defamation of Kanakuk and our amazing staff has been ongoing and unrelenting. They say they speak for all victims, ignorant of the fact that many victim families continue to support Kanakuk and in some cases, have chosen to work here,” Kanakuk Kamp said. “Rather, it appears this group is craftily hiding their identity while simultaneously leveraging the pain of victims to advance their agenda. Sadly, their tactics are in opposition to true healing; instead they appear intent on stirring old painful emotions and attempting to convince survivors that they have been deceived by Kanakuk.”
King, whose church draws some 600 weekly attendees, insisted in his letter that the public needs the camp to come forward with the whole truth.
“While we hope for the restoration of the reputation of Kanakuk, we feel more strongly about standing in truth with those who were victimized by the abuse allowed to occur due to the indecision and negligence of the leadership of the Kanakuk facility,” King said.
“Kanakuk leadership continues to lack transparency in order to step aside from the responsibility that they carry in what happened to the young men who were victimized after they learned of Pete Newman’s actions. These young men are still reeling from these consequences while Kanakuk tells the world that they didn’t know until 2009 while, in reality, they knew in 1999,” he added.
“We want to invite every church to stand for truth. We invite Kanakuk to see what happened with the victims between 1999–2009. We ask that they take responsibility for that abuse that would not have happened if they had terminated Pete’s employment in 1999. We invite every church who cares for the abused to take similar actions in protecting and standing with those who have been wounded.”