Kanakuk Kamps, a Branson-based Christian sports camp network that draws thousands of youths every summer — many from the Kansas City area — is facing two lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by a former director.
One lawsuit, filed in Taney County, alleges former director Peter D. Newman molested a teen from 2000 to 2005, beginning when the boy was 13. The second case, filed in federal court in Dallas, alleges Newman sexually abused a camper from 2001 through 2007, beginning when the boy was 10. Two similar lawsuits, both filed in 2011, were settled this year.
Newman is serving a lengthy prison sentence for sexually abusing numerous boys during the decade that he held a supervisory position at the camp.
The lawsuits allege camp officials knew about the man’s troubling behavior, including swimming and riding four-wheelers in the nude with campers, but failed to remove him or keep him away from children.
Rick DiGiorgio, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney who represented the plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit to be settled, said the cases send a strong message: Anyone who witnesses an adult behaving in a disturbing manner around children must take action.
“There should be an alarm going off,” DiGiorgio said. “When you see that activity, you’re going to have to address it. You cannot ignore it.”
A Kanakuk spokesman said camp officials could not discuss pending litigation. They did, however, issue a statement regarding Newman’s actions and their subsequent response.
“The abusive, criminal behavior Pete Newman admitted runs counter to everything Kanakuk Kamps has stood for over the past 85 years,” the statement said. “We have never had, nor will we ever have, any tolerance for anyone who seeks to harm a child in any physical, sexual or emotional way.
“Kanakuk Kamps worked extensively with authorities to provide information used in the investigation and prosecution of Mr. Newman. Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to all of those impacted by his actions.”
Since 2009, the statement said, Kanakuk has worked with authorities and experts “to learn all that we can about these types of situations.”
“Today we have in place a Child Protection Plan that is serving as a model for other organizations all across the country — helping them identify and prevent deceptive, abusive behavior.”
Newman’s duties with Kanakuk included recruiting, supervising and mentoring children. He worked at the camp from 1996 to 2009 as a staff member and director.
He pleaded guilty in Taney County in 2010 to two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy, three counts of second-degree statutory sodomy and three counts of child enticement. Although the charges involved the abuse of six youths, the prosecutor told reporters after Newman’s sentencing that Newman had admitted involvement with 13 others as well.
Newman, now 38, received two life sentences plus 30 years. The string of lawsuits began after he went to prison.
In motions filed in the lawsuits, Kanakuk officials deny knowing that Newman posed a threat to children while working at the popular camp.
Kanakuk has camps in and near Branson and provides summer sessions for more than 10,000 youths ages 7 to 18 each year. The nonprofit organization also employs about 1,800 staff members, tax records show.
According to the Kanakuk website, the Child Protection Plan includes professional criminal background checks for every employee, mandatory sexual abuse prevention training for every staff member, staff education conducted by nationally recognized sexual abuse prevention experts, and educating all campers and staff on how to report inappropriate behavior.Lawsuits filed
The two recent lawsuits were filed in Missouri and in federal court in Dallas.
The Missouri case was filed July 26 in Taney County Circuit Court by John Doe DK and his parents. It names Kanakuk; its president, Joe White; and Newman as defendants.
John Doe DK attended Kanakuk from 2000 to 2005, when he was 13 to 18 years old, the lawsuit says. The abuse began in the fall of 2000, it alleges, and continued over the next several years, during which time Newman encouraged the boy to perform a series of activities in the nude, including swinging naked from a trapeze into the pool, and engage in acts of mutual masturbation. Newman also sexually abused the boy multiple times at Newman’s home and in other locations, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges that Kanakuk and White knew as early as 1999 that Newman “had been disrobing and involving children attending Kanakuk camps in nude activities” and had only placed him on probation.
Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City lawyer representing John Doe DK and his parents, said the alleged victim, now 26, is from southwest Missouri.
In a motion filed in October, Kanakuk argued that the plaintiff can’t hold the organization liable for Newman’s actions because the Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that molesting children “is a personal crime that is not a part of a person’s job duties.”
In its court motion, Kanakuk also said that some of the alleged abuse occurred when the plaintiff was not on the camp’s grounds.
“Kanakuk cannot be held liable for failing to supervise defendant Newman when he was outside the scope of his employment and not on Kanakuk property,” the motion said.
The motion noted that “thousands of campers attend Kanakuk camps every year and the vast majority have positive experiences.”
“Simply put, Kanakuk truly believed they were running a good, Christian-influenced camp. Kanakuk did not know what Newman was doing on his off-hours. ”
The other pending lawsuit, filed in August by John Doe III in U.S. District Court in Dallas, names Kanakuk and Newman as defendants.
It said the plaintiff, who at the time was from Texas, attended Kanakuk from 1998 to 2007 and that Newman molested him from 2001, when he was 10, to 2007. The abuse included “all types of sexual activity except kissing,” the lawsuit alleges, and occurred in camp cabins, the pool, showers, the gym, on promotional trips to other states and at the boy’s home.
Camp officials knew that Newman was having one-on-one sleepovers with boys yet retained him as an employee, the lawsuit says. And when camp leaders learned that he was playing nude basketball and swimming nude with minor boys, it alleges, they sent him to a lawyer but continued his employment.
The lawsuits that have been settled were filed in Taney County and in U.S. District Court in Dallas.
The plaintiff in the Taney County case, John Doe JG, was from Arkansas and was 12 in 2003 when the alleged abuse began. A jury trial had been scheduled for January, but the lawsuit — which was moved to Christian County — was settled in September for an undisclosed amount.
The federal lawsuit, filed by the parents of a Texas child called John Doe 1, alleged that Newman sexually abused the boy at Kanakuk from 2005 to 2007, when he was 10 to 12 years old.
That lawsuit was settled in April, also for an undisclosed amount.
Newman isn’t the only Kanakuk employee to be convicted of sexual abuse. Earlier this year, a former counselor was sentenced to 10 years for sexually abusing three boys ages 9, 10 and 12 who had attended the camp in 2011. The charges included sexual misconduct, statutory sodomy and child molestation.
Camp officials said they had terminated Lee Bradberry, 22, of Auburn, Ala., in July 2011 after learning from campers of an incident in which he had behaved inappropriately.