Kanakuk abuse survivors urge Missouri lawmakers to extend statute of limitations
The House judiciary committee on Monday heard public testimony on a bill that would give childhood sexual abuse survivors the ability to file a civil claim up to age 55.
Keith Dygert, who said he was abused as a child at Kanakuk Kamps near Branson, testified in support of a bill to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse survivors in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 13, 2023 (Clara Bates/Missouri Independent).
For more than a decade, Evan Hoffpauir believed the camp director who sexually abused him at the Branson-area Kanakuk Kamps had acted alone.
As a child growing up in Branson, Hoffpauir was involved with Kanakuk’s youth ministries, and said he was abused by Kanakuk director Pete Newman from 1999 to 2003. Newman pleaded guilty in 2010 to seven counts of sexual abuse, and the prosecutor said Newman’s victim count might be in the hundreds.
Newman is currently serving two life sentences plus 30 years in prison.
Kanakuk leadership maintains that they had no advanced knowledge of his behavior, and Newman was a “master of deception.”
Initially, Hoffpauir believed them.
“[Leadership] stated they fired Newman as soon as they were aware of his abusive behaviors, and that he acted alone,” Hoffpauir said. “And I believed this narrative for over a decade.”
On Monday night, when he and other survivors of childhood sexual abuse testified at a public hearing of the Missouri House Judiciary Committee, Hoffpauir said he’s come to believe “there was someone else responsible”: Camp leadership, including Kanakuk CEO Joe White, who remains in charge.
But by the time new evidence was uncovered through national media investigations, Hoffpauir was too old to file a civil suit against the camp and its leadership.
“As I sought out legal action in an effort to hold my enablers accountable, I was crushed to find out I was a few years past Missouri’s statute of limitations,” Hoffpauir said.
“The law was telling me there was nothing to be done about it, and the clock had run out on me.”
Monday’s hearing was on legislation that would extend the civil statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Hoffpauir was one of several survivors of childhood sexual abuse, including from Kanakuk and Boy Scouts of America, who testified at a House judiciary hearing Monday night in support of a bill that would extend the civil statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Survivors of child sexual abuse in Missouri can file civil action against perpetrators until they are 31 years old, and against other defendants — which could include organizations — until they are 26 years old.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson, would extend the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, allowing survivors to file civil action until they turn 55 years old.
The bill “cannot stop these events,” Seitz said, “but will allow for these children who are now adults, to call the people… to be held to account, and creates a path for civil actions to benefit the survivors, and provide some form of restitution and accountability.”
According to the nonprofit child protection advocacy group Child USA, Missouri is currently one of 21 states with the age cap set at 34 years old or younger — which Child USA ranks as the worst states in terms of statutes of limitations for child sex abuse survivors.
The bill also includes a retroactive piece, called a window or revival law, which allows cases that were barred or dismissed due to a statute of limitation to be revived during a window of two years.
Seven states open the window for two or more years, as this law proposes Missouri do, and two states currently open the window permanently for adult survivors of child sex abuse, according to Child USA.
Years to come forward
The survivors, family members, and advocates who testified in favor of the bill argued that childhood sexual abuse survivors can take years to come forward — and that evidence of institutional wrongdoing that would spur civil action can take years to come to light, too, necessitating a higher cap on the age limit.
Elizabeth Phillips traveled from Texas to testify on behalf of her brother, Trey Carlock, who reached a settlement with Kanakuk after being abused by Newman, and died by suicide at age 29.
Phillips said the non-disclosure agreement Carlock had to sign in the settlement left him “scared to speak about his abuse even in therapeutic settings,” and that a short statute of limitations can cause survivors to be rushed into civil litigation and burdensome settlements, as she said her brother experienced.
“A short statute of limitations can be lethal, as my family knows,” Phillips said, later adding: “I used to refer to him as a survivor. But he didn’t survive past the age of 29, so now I refer to him as a victim, and I’m trying to be his voice.”
Former camper suing Missouri-based Kanakuk claiming ‘fraudulent’ abuse settlement
Jody Jones, who flew from Utah to testify, was a camper at Kanakuk in 1985, when she was 8. She said a counselor named Chuck Price abused her, but it took decades for her to come forward.
“I’m now a 45 year old woman with what I consider to be great strength, and it takes a lot of courage to get up here today and say this.
And at eight, or 13, or those younger years, when I was trying to tell what happened to me, I didn’t have the strength, I didn’t have the courage, I didn’t have the words or the support. And today I do.
So is 55 a reasonable timeframe to push that back? Yeah, I think so.”
Keith Dygert, who said he was abused by Newman, reached a settlement with a non-disclosure agreement “at a time when only a small portion of the story was actually known,” he testified.
An investigation by journalists Nancy and David French, who called Kanakuk “the worst Christian sex abuse scandal you’ve never heard of,” first reported Kanakuk’s alleged early knowledge of Newman’s behavior. Kanakuk leadership received reports of Newman engaged in nude activity with campers as early as 1999, according to an affidavit of Newman’s former supervisor.
A representative for Kanakuk did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but declined to comment on similar allegations late last year, and said that “we continue to pray for all who have been affected by Pete Newman’s behavior.”
Dygert relayed a message to the committee, too: “One victim’s mother asked me, and I quote, ‘Please let the committee know how many people this will help, that feel like they have no voice and no help from those that hurt them.’”
‘Holding institutions accountable’
Others in support of the bill included a survivor of sexual abuse from a Boy Scouts leader in Missouri, a family member of a Boy Scouts sexual abuse victim who died by suicide, several advocates, and an attorney for victims of sexual abuse in Kansas City, who said he has to turn away “hundreds” of victims who are past the statute of limitations.
Four people testified in opposition to the bill, representing business and insurance — with particular opposition to the portion of the bill which opens a window for a revival of claims.
Richard AuBuchon, representing American Property Casualty Insurance Association, a national trade association for insurers, and Missouri Civil Justice Reform Coalition, which represents business interests in Missouri’s litigation environment, said the bill is “unconstitutional,” pointing to the revival of claims portion, and said 55 years old is “simply too long.”
“The current system is one we know and that we’re working with. And anything that wouldn’t be an extension of that would be something very difficult for us to understand,” AuBuchon said.
Rep. David Tyson Smith (D-Columbia), along with other lawmakers, disagreed with those opposed.
“We’re talking about organizations that cover up and they work together — they work cohesively to make sure the truth doesn’t come out…To suggest that we can’t go up to those organizations and cap a statute, I think is inappropriate,” Smith said.
John Hobbs, who testified in support of the bill, and said he was abused by a former Boy Scout leader, asked: “Is it really worth today’s world trying to suppress someone’s life such as mine simply to save your extremely wealthy company and/or clients money?”
“This bill,” Hobbs later continued, “starts the path of holding institutions accountable.”
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