Mercy Corps scandal serves as a reminder
Last month's revelations that Tania Culver Humphrey suffered serial childhood abuse by her father, Ellsworth Culver, deeply disturbed me for professional and personal reasons.
I'm a therapist, specializing in sexual abuse treatment. I'm also a former field employee at Mercy Corps, which was co-founded by Ellsworth Culver. My husband was a leader at Mercy Corps for 11 years. We have dear friends in the Mercy Corps community.
Our family has been deeply moved by Humphrey's disclosures and troubled by The Oregonian's findings.
Mercy Corps has helped millions around the world, and the majority of its staff is truly humanitarian. Some of my friends have risked their lives daily to bring support to vulnerable populations.
As an expert in predatory behavior, however, I know that an aid agency would appeal to a predator looking for access to children and a "beyond reproach" reputation to cover his behavior.
According to Humphrey, she was being abused for years before Mercy Corps was founded. Ells Culver was masquerading as a humanitarian among truly dedicated people.
The Oregonian described many corroborating stories by the brave woman — and her husband — who supported Humphrey.
On two occasions, she told Mercy Corps leaders about her father's abuse and the organization took no action. Why would people refuse to help?
It's in the nature of human beings to recoil from disgusting behavior. Little is more disgusting than a father preying upon his child. Although an unflagging advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, I am ashamed to admit that I noticed myself seeking holes in Humphrey's story. It was like a reflex. No one wants to believe it could be true.
If you haven't been sexually abused by someone you trusted when you were too vulnerable to protect yourself, then you cannot understand. Let me help you.
Imagine the most shame you've ever felt.
The most confusion, revulsion.
Imagine feeling like an object to be thrown away.
It's worse than all of those.
So, when a victim of abuse finds the strength to stay alive, much less come forward with their story, they deserve our deepest gratitude.
Although it's rare for allegations of childhood sexual abuse to be disproved, they are almost always disbelieved by some, leaving the victim further victimized.
Leaders at Mercy Corps twice chose to let Humphrey suffer rather than to take on the consequences of facing the problem. Bystanding is not neutral. Desmond Tutu told us, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
It's a grave mistake to think Ells Culver's sins were confined to his home. A friend of Humphrey's gave The Oregonian an account of finding pornographic pictures of brown-skinned children in Culver's drawer. We know from research that predators will offend whenever the chance is available.
No one wants to think that while "helping" in the field Culver also was helping himself to vulnerable children. But Mercy Corps had a responsibility to protect its beneficiaries.
We may feel there is no way to respond to this tragedy. But there is so much that the agency can do honor Tania Humphrey's sacrifice.
For starters, anything named after Ells Culver should be renamed after Tania Humphrey. Her resiliency in the face of adversity reflects the spirit of Mercy Corps' beneficiaries. She is the true hero here. In addition, the agency should:
— Conduct a full independent investigation, in the field, of the programs that were visited by Ells Culver from 1981-2004, where he would have had access to children.
— Spearhead an initiative — in collaboration with many organizations already working in this area — to research the nature of sexual predation as an illness and support identification and early treatment of offenders.
— Make a plan for gender and racial equity in leadership with a goal of 50% women and people of color by 2025. Exploitation thrives in environments that privilege one group above others.
— Hire an external consultant to assess for a culture of colonial white, male privilege that values judgment over emotion, secrecy over transparency and hierarchy over diversity.
— Rename anything named after Ells Culver.
— Consider offering support treatment for survivors on a multitude of levels, including offering free meeting space to survivors and treatment providers.
— Explore holding an annual art showcase for survivors of sexual abuse at the Mercy Corps Action Center to invite survivors to come out of the shadows and into the light.
— Consider paying Humphrey reparations to pay for her therapy.
— Ask Tania Humphrey what other measures she would like to see taken.
I've heard many people at Mercy Corps — including those in leadership — are actively implementing many of these ideas.
What they are up against, trying to save the good work they do and turn this tragedy into something healing and positive, is so tough. I appreciate the sleepless nights, tears and energy they are giving it.
Tania Culver Humphrey showed us bravery, perseverance and honesty. Let's take this moment of darkness to consider what she also has done. She reminded us the right thing to do is often the very hardest thing.
And we need to do it anyway.
Bridget Geraghty Barnicle is a licensed clinical social worker with a practice in Northeast Portland. She adapted this column from an Oct. 11 blog post.
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