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West Plains church cuts ties with Kanakuk sports camp over sex abuse

A one-page letter from Pastor John King of First Baptist Church of West Plains, Mo. explains why the church cut ties with KampOut, a popular day camp offered at church sites around the country by Kanakuk sports camp in the Branson, Mo. area.
Evan Hoffpauir / John King
/
First Baptist Church of West Plains
A one-page letter from Pastor John King of First Baptist Church of West Plains, Mo. explains why the church cut ties with KampOut, a popular day camp offered at church sites around the country by Kanakuk sports camp in the Branson, Mo. area.

A Baptist congregation in southern Missouri has publicly cut ties with a summer program offered by Branson’s Kanakuk sports camp, apparently becoming the first in the country to do so.

John King pastors West Plains First Baptist Church. The Howell County congregation includes about 600 weekly attendees.

This summer, none of them are going to participate in KampOut, a popular 5-day Christian program for kids offered on site at churches around the country.

KampOut is a ministry offered by Kanakuk camp in the Branson area. Kanakuk has been the subject of controversy because two of its former counselors have been sent to prison for child sex crimes, and numerous other sex abuse allegations have been leveled by survivors and family members.

Pastor King told KSMU that he’s been in touch with “many” Kanakuk abuse survivors.

“One of those young men said to me, ‘John, I’m offended that you continue to work with Kanakuk,’" King told KSMU.

"And I said, ‘Why?’ Because everything that I had heard was that they had gotten things cleaned up, and everything was kind of on the up and up, and he said, ‘No,’ and he began to show me some depositions that are widely available.”

King said rather than relying on news reporting about Kanakuk, he trusts court deposition videos showing camp leaders admitting that they were aware of child sex abuse as early as 1999. For a decade after that, Kanakuk kept one former counselor on staff who is now serving two life sentences in Missouri prison for sex abuse.

King recently issued a public letter. In it, he said his congregation couldn’t work with Kanakuk until the camp “openly confessed” to what he sees as mistakes in addressing sex abuse. He said he did it because he wants to stand for victims, not hurt the camp.

“I wanted the victims that I’m very familiar with to know that I care about them and want God’s best for them,” the pastor said.

Joe Alarcon, the Texas parent of a young man who was abused at the camp, told KSMU that King’s statement was the first time a church publicly cut ties with KampOut. That was confirmed by Nancy French, an independent journalist who’s reported extensively about Kanakuk.

Evan Hoffpauir, a man from Branson who says he survived sex abuse by former Kanakuk counselor Peter Newman, praised the First Baptist Church in West Plains for its move.

“Honestly, I think this is a great step for churches to be able to be an example for other churches,” he said.

KSMU contacted 13 other churches and Christian schools that were involved with Kanakuk KampOut last year, but aren’t listed by Kanakuk as KampOut sites this year.

Most did not respond. But a children’s pastor at one Texas church said Kanakuk’s issues with sex abuse were part of the reason they dropped the program. Other churches said scheduling or personnel issues were behind the change.

Sports camp responds

Kanakuk did not respond to KSMU’s request to interview camp owner Joe White, but it sent a written statement highlighting its current safety measures for campers. In that statement, the organization also wrote it would forever be sorry for the pain inflicted by a known perpetrator over a decade ago — and that it had assisted law enforcement in his prosecution.

KSMU is reproducing that statement in full, noting that some former campers and camp employees dispute Kanakuk's account of when it terminated and reported Newman, the counselor now serving two life sentences in prison.

"Sadly, Pete Newman was a master of deception — fooling family, friends, neighbors, and us as his former employer. Kanakuk will forever grieve the victims of Pete Newman and their suffering and continue to pray for their healing and restoration. We will never stop being sorry for the pain inflicted on victims and their families.

"As soon as Kanakuk became aware of abuse, we took action, including immediate termination and reporting of this individual. While we are grateful that we were able to assist law enforcement in the prosecution and conviction of Pete Newman over a decade ago, we also know that victims’ pain often continues long after the perpetrator is imprisoned. We continue to offer support to victims, including independent counseling services (which are not shared with Kanakuk), and desire to help them in their healing journey. Any victim can reach out to Kanakuk by emailing us at victimsupport@kanakuk.com or access several independent victim advocacy organizations such as ChildHelp.org or Rainn.org, which can provide access to local support services, reporting assistance, and educational resources. No victim should suffer in silence — help is available.

"For more than a decade following these tragic events, Kanakuk has continued to work tirelessly to help ensure that this deeply deceptive and abusive behavior does not happen again. Our Kanakuk Child Protection Plan, which contains over 340 identifiable and measurable protective elements, is integrated throughout the Kanakuk organization and has been shared with more than 600 youth-serving organizations across the country. We are committed to our vision that today’s young adults are the Christian leaders of tomorrow, and we will continue to advocate for their safety as they grow in friendships, faith, and confidence."

— Kanakuk Communications