Mercy Corps can take steps to regain trust
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 "Ells" 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 reporting, which showed that on two occasions, she told Mercy Corps leaders about her father's abuse and the organization took no action.
Here are some ways Mercy Corps might offer amends.
Victim deserved gratitude, not silence
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 women — and her ally husband — who supported Humphrey. She actively sought acknowledgment from Mercy Corps and twice was denied it. 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.
As a therapist, I've met mothers whose partners left physical evidence of abusing their children and the moms still refused to believe it. Possibly, we do not have the brain wiring to cope with such a truth.
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. They are the truth tellers who will set us free.
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 were given the chance to listen to Humphrey and use their power to bring some consequences or offer reparations.
They did not.
They chose, instead, to let her 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."
Staff demands changes
I know some of these men personally. Some must be experiencing a dark night of the soul. In my work, I bear witness to the darkest of thoughts and feelings. And consistently, I see this: The darkest hour is just before dawn. And you'll only see dawn if your eyes are open.
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.
Like most offenders, Culver duped a lot of people. But "I didn't know," "I couldn't be sure" or "It happened before my time" are thin excuses. We all need look at where our power to do the right thing lives and use it.
Mercy Corps staff have now used their power by demanding change in the way the organization is managed and will ensure the right thing is done. Neal Keny-Guyer, longtime, dedicated CEO of Mercy Corps, resigned. He has used his power in the way he can. In his words, "Mercy Corps failed her." Humphrey did not fail, however, in bravely bringing her story to light.
We may feel there is no way to respond to Mercy Corps' role in this tragedy. But there is so much that Mercy Corps can do to honor Tania Humphrey's sacrifice.
¦ Mercy Corps could consider paying Humphrey reparations to pay for her therapy.
¦ Mercy Corps should ask Tania Humphrey if there are measures she would like to see taken.
¦ Mercy Corps 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, to offer help and amends.
¦ Mercy Corps could 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.
¦ Exploitation thrives in environments that privilege one group above others. Mercy Corps should make a plan for gender and racial equity in leadership with a goal of 50% women and people of color by 2025.
¦ Mercy Corps should 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.
¦ Mercy Corps could support treatment for survivors on a multitude of levels including offering free meeting space to survivors and treatment providers.
¦ The shame belongs to the offenders, not the victims. Mercy Corps could hold 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.
¦ 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.
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 and 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 any-
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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