Lawsuit claims Mercy Corps mishandled sex abuse investigation
Note: This story contains details of abuse that some readers may find disturbing.
A new $1 lawsuit against international nonprofit organization Mercy Corps alleges the organization retraumatized the daughter of its former leader while conducting an independent investigation into her claims of horrific abuse.
The lawsuit, filed in Multnomah Circuit Court by Portland attorneys Kim Sordyl and Michael Fuller on behalf of plaintiff and victim Tania Humphrey, seeks a jury trial for claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Mercy Corps hired an outside firm in 2020 to investigate Humphrey's reports of being raped, trafficked and abused by her father, Mercy Corps co-founder Ellsworth Culver, and other Mercy Corps-affiliated members from around 1973 to 1989, while Humphrey was a student at St. Mary's Academy in Portland. Culver died in 2005, before the abuse allegations were widely publicized.
Mercy Corps was founded in 1981. Culver became president of the organization in 1984.
The investigation led to Humphrey being interrogated multiple times for hours on end about her past sexual abuse, causing her anguish, trauma, panic attacks and grief that led her to suicidal thoughts and behavior. She claims the investigators used "aggressive tactics" without regard for her emotional wellbeing or the extensive trauma she endured.
Humphrey's lawsuit claims Mercy Corps was more interested in pumping her for information in an attempt to cover up the abuse and protect the organization's reputation than it was in learning and reporting the full extent of the crimes.
Sordyl, one of the attorneys representing Humphrey, called the legal complaint "the first step in a legal process to unmask the tactics Mercy Corps employed to protect leaders and affiliates' reputations without regard for the victim's well-being."
"Our lawsuit details how Mercy Corps operates behind closed doors. Mercy Corps donors thought their contributions supported humanitarian causes. However, as the various news investigations and reports have shown, they unknowingly helped finance an international ring of pedophiles," Sordyl said in a news release about the lawsuit.
Mercy Corps called the claims about the investigation "distorted and untrue."
"We are surprised and shocked by Ms Culver Humphrey's distorted and untrue characterization of the independent investigation that was initiated at her request, was made possible with her full consent and cooperation, and concluded more than a year ago," Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D'Oyen McKenna said in a prepared statement. "We made a commitment to Ms Culver Humphrey and our stakeholders to an independent investigation to uncover the full truth. The highest priority of Mercy Corps throughout the investigation process was to provide Ms Culver Humphrey with the utmost care and respect, and to avoid adding to the pain that she has experienced over many years."
Mercy Corps denied accusations that it sought to influence or downplay the investigative report, noting reports of abuse, including names of perpetrators, were turned over to law enforcement. The organization did acknowledge past failures, though.
"We have and continue to accept full organizational responsibility for the failures both in the early 1990s and in 2018 when the abuse was surfaced to organizational leaders," D'Oyen McKenna said. "In the past three years we have made significant changes to restructure and strengthen our legal, ethics and safeguarding functions, update our policies, strengthen our governance structures, and change our leadership. We remain committed to supporting all survivors."
Mercy Corps provided a year of counseling to Humphreys around the time of its internal investigation, as well as home security.
Humphrey went public in 2019 with her accounts of accompanying her father on international trips and being drugged, raped and manipulated by several men as a young girl, sometimes alongside other children. Often she was offered up as collateral for favors from foreign diplomats, Humphrey told investigators. The childhood abuse was reported by reported by The Oregonian in an award-winning documentary.
Mercy Corps convened a special committee to look into Humphrey's claims of abuse in the 1990s, but they were never properly investigated. In 2020, when Mercy Corps retained Freeh Group International to conduct a new investigation into Mr. Culver and the Mercy Corps board of directors at the time, the firm found the prior investigative effort wasn't thorough, appears to have been "employment-related," and centered on minimizing reputational damage at the time.
The Freeh Group report included Humphrey's recollection of she and a young Thai girl around her age being sexually and physically abused by Culver and another man. Humphrey told investigators the young girl died from her injuries. Investigators could not corroborate the details of the alleged murder, but were able to confirm the timing and location of the trip. Information was also shared with law enforcement. Humphrey said she turned over childhood journals to Mercy Corps investigators, but felt the team glossed over details and evidence available.
Mercy Corps made the investigation public on its website, but the document withheld many specific details and names.
During the course of the investigation, Humphrey said she was asked to describe in detail, a non-medical, forced abortion she had when she was 12, after she had become pregnant from rape.
Much of the abuse Humphrey previously reported wasn't made public until reporting by the Oregonian led the international relief org to launch a renewed investigation into the perpetrators and extent of the child sex abuse.
Humphrey's lawsuit stipulates a jury may decide to award further damages to Humphrey, beyond the $1 requested.
This story has been updated with additional details about investigations into plaintiff's claims of abuse.
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