Story updated Nov. 21 3:30 p.m.
A man who was sexually abused while attending Kanakuk Kamps as a child has sued the organization claiming they were not told about his abuser’s history before the family agreed to a legal settlement which included a non-disclosure agreement.
The suit filed in Taney County Court on Thursday, Nov. 17, by Logan Yandell is not only filed against Kanakuk Ministries, but also Kanakuk CEO and Board Chairman Joe White; Kanakuk Heritage, Inc.; Westchester Fire Insurance Company, formerly known as Ace Westchester Speciality Group; and a John Doe.
The lawsuit focuses on claims of fraud by the leadership of Kanakuk in covering up the history of abuse by counselor Pete Newman.
Yandell, now 27, and his parents who acted as guardian while Yandell was a minor, were induced to sign a non-disclosure agreement in 2010 under false pretenses because White and the leadership of Kanakuk claimed they did not know about Newman’s history of sexually abusing children.
Attorney Brian Kent, one of the legal team representing the Yandell family, said in a statement the family never would have agreed to a settlement and NDA if they knew of Newman’s pattern of abuse.
“Neither Logan nor his parents would have agreed to the settlement terms if not for the Defendants’ false statements.” Kent said. “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.”
Newman was sentenced to two life terms plus 30 years for multiple crimes against children the same year the Yandells signed their agreement with Kanakuk.
In 2021, an article published by the online news outlet The Dispatch revealed Kanakuk leadership knew a former supervisor had not only disciplined Newman for inappropriate behavior with children as early as 2001, but Newman’s supervisor, K-Kountry Director Will Cunningham, had recommended in 2003 he be terminated from his position.
Cunningham said in an affidavit he believes at the time, only CEO Joe White could terminate a director-level employee, and Newman was the Assistant Kamp Director for K-Kountry. Newman was fully reinstated to his position after Cunningham’s recommendation was rejected.
Cunningham said in the affidavit Kanakuk officials misrepresented his qualifications and recommendations.
“In 2021 and 2022, I reviewed deposition excerpts from various proceedings related to Newman’s sexual abuse of minors,” Cunningham’s affidavit states. “To the extent that their testimony indicates that I am trained to identify sexual predators, it is false. My training is as a marriage counselor, and I had no training in the identification of pedophiles. To the extent that their testimony indicates that I did not recommend Newman’s termination it is false. I recommended Newman’s termination in 2003.”
Cunningham said he believes his recommendation to have Newman fired was hidden by Kanakuk leadership.
“On information and belief, my recommendation to terminate Newman in 2003, based upon nude activity incidents reported to Employer in 1999 and 2003, was not made public until 2021,” Cunningham said in the affidavit.
Robert Thrasher, another member of the family’s legal team, said the suit is a step toward giving victims their voice back.
“Kanakuk actively concealed what they knew about the sexual abuse being perpetrated by Pete Newman and induced victims and survivors into settlements and NDAs,” Thrasher said in a statement. “The settlements inhibit victims and their families from sharing their stories and as a result, hinder their recovery process. This lawsuit is being filed to hold Kanakuk accountable, and to give Logan and potentially other victims and survivors their voices back.”
Evan Hoffpauir, who has previously spoken out about his abuse at the hands of Newman and Kanakuk, told Branson Tri-Lakes News he was proud of Yandell and his family for filing the lawsuit.
“I’m really proud of Logan and his family for fighting for justice for the dozens of young men whose lives were forever impacted by the deceit and silencing from Joe White and Kanakuk Kamps’ leadership,” Hoffpauir said. “It breaks my heart that Logan and his parents have had to come to this horrific realization so many years later. Not only should Logan have been spared from this abuse but countless other survivors should have been spared as well. If White would have simply followed the employee handbook and Will Cunningham’s recommendation to fire Newman on multiple occasions, this entire horrific abuse scandal would look dramatically different. White had an opportunity to come alongside victims in 1999, 2001, 2003, and more, but instead he chose the Kanakuk kingdom over God’s.
“Unfortunately it is going to take a lawsuit like this to finally expose the truth of how White and leadership enabled the abuser and also lied and deceived victim families many years ago. It broke my heart to see how White lied to Mr. Yandell’s face about the abusive patterns of Newman’s behavior that the camp had documented on multiple occasions since 1999. For White to tell Mr. Yandell that he had not seen anything of Newman’s behavior that would be a red flag after knowing Yandell’s son had been sexually abused under his watch, is seriously disturbing and to me an act of evil. God hates the abuse that has taken place by Newman, but when someone uses power and influence to deny or cover up their involvement, they are complicit in the abuse itself. The Lord doesn’t treat the oppression of his children lightly, and neither should the Branson community. I pray this lawsuit will bring even more light into this entire situation and be an act of healing and reconciliation for survivors and their families that has been long overdue.”
Kanakuk has been receiving increased criticism of their actions related to the Newman incidents since the publication of the Dispatch article.
In March 2022, Kanakuk was named to the “Dirty Dozen,” organizations accused of facilitating, enabling, or profiting from sexual abuse and exploitation, by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
“Despite the survivors who have come forward, at least a dozen lawsuits, and the news investigations that have uncovered practices at the camp that enabled the reported abuse to fester, Kanakuk has continued to minimize the reality that they have allowed abuse to flourish. For this reason, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has named Kanakuk Kamps to the 2022 Dirty Dozen List,” NCOSE said at the release of their list.
Kanakuk told Branson Tri-Lakes News at the time they felt it was “egregious and flawed that any organization would include Kanakuk in a list of ‘Dirty Dozen’ without the benefit of verifying the information, including direct communication with Kanakuk.”
Kanakuk also said on their website NCOSE was relying on information from a website, factsaboutkanakuk.com, whose operators remain anonymous.
“Unfortunately, incomplete information on this anonymous website, coupled with inaccuracies reported by several authors and bloggers, have allowed the NCOSE to make the monumental leap from Kanakuk having reported an employee for abuse, to declaring Kanakuk as a mainstream entity for facilitating, enabling, and profiting from abuse and exploitation – this is simply not true,” Kanakuk’s website reads. “Kanakuk continues to be transparent about the events that occurred over a decade ago, and the steps we’ve taken to ensure such deceptive behavior doesn’t happen here again. We believe that abuse of a child is deplorable and stands counter to our mission and Christian calling.”
This summer, churches began canceling day-camps hosted by Kanakuk on their campuses, including First Baptist Church of Grapevine, TX and First Baptist Church of West Plains, MO.
“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,” FBC West Plains Senior Pastor John King wrote in a statement. “Those 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.”
Branson Tri-Lakes News reached out to staff of Woodland Hills Family Church, a local church which has run a summer camp event in partnership with Kanakuk, for comment about the latest lawsuit and accusations, and to see if they would continue to partner with Kanakuk in light of the new information. When reached by Branson Tri-Lakes News, church leadership did not comment.
In addition, Branson Tri-Lakes News reached out to Kanakuk for a comment about the lawsuit. They provided the following statement: Our policy is not to comment on pending litigation. We will respond further if or when appropriate. In the meantime, we continue to pray for all who have been affected by Pete Newman’s behavior.