Review: Mercy Corps mishandled abuse claims against founder

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Global humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps on Wednesday issued the results of an outside investigation into its mishandling of sexual abuse claims that a daughter of one of its founders made against the man.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reports the Mercy Corps board of directors ordered the inquiry last fall after the newspaper published the findings of a 10-month investigation that showed executives had allowed co-founder Ellsworth Culver to remain in a top position after his daughter, Tania Culver Humphrey, had gone to them in the early 1990s with credible sexual abuse allegations against her father.

The investigation found that some leaders made “missteps, mistakes in judgment and governance lapses” in responding to the complaints. The review was done by Vestry Laight, a New York-based consulting firm that works with public and private organizations to address sexual misconduct.

Culver died in 2005. The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sex crimes, but Humphrey, now 49, identified herself in the newspaper’s investigative story.

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In late 2018, Humphrey asked Mercy Corps to re-examine how it handled her original allegations. A lawyer for Mercy Corps responded that the Portland-based humanitarian agency stood by its previous assessment, saying officials had found “insufficient evidence” to support her childhood sexual abuse claims against Culver.

Vestry Laight said it reviewed more than 50,000 documents collected from Mercy Corps and conducted 55 confidential interviews, including one with Humphrey.

The consultants said Mercy Corps’ first contact with Humphrey in 2018 was appropriate, but communications deteriorated once the request was handed off to the organization’s then-senior legal counsel.

“The tone used in the emails from the Senior Legal Counsel was inappropriate and failed to take into account the harm inflicted by the earlier investigation,” Vestry Laight wrote.

The report also said former CEO Neal Keny-Guyer “underestimated the risk that mishandling the complaint posed to the organization.” Keny-Guyer resigned in October.

However, the consultants said they did not find any evidence of an attempt to cover up the allegations.

Vestry Laight recommended that Mercy Corps hire a chief ethics officer, strengthen its safeguarding policies, create an ethics and culture subcommittee of the board, diversify the board itself and “own the past” by investigating whether Culver abused others.

Interim CEO Beth deHamel said in a statement Wednesday that the external review makes it clear that Mercy Corps’ handling of this case in 2018 added to a survivor’s pain, and for that they are profoundly sorry.

“We take full responsibility for Mercy Corps’ failings in this case. We have learned lessons from what happened and we are taking corrective action, including a significant increase in our investment in safeguarding, to ensure Mercy Corps provides survivors with the support they need and deserve,” she said.

The $471-million-a-year charity employs 5,500 people worldwide.

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