Mercy Corps Faces Sexual Abuse Scandal
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In November 2018, Tania Culver Humphrey learned some news. Mercy Corps, a global charity based in Oregon, announced a new ethics policy. For Tania Humphrey and her husband, this bit of news was like a tripwire. It brought back her memory of a time that, she says, Mercy Corps was profoundly unethical when she told them that she was the victim of a crime.
TANIA CULVER HUMPHREY: We were both upset. He was really upset. We had a conversation the night before where I'd shared some more details about some of the things that happened to me that were - I had never shared with him. I had been afraid to.
INSKEEP: Tania Humphrey decided to test the new ethics policy. She had a story to tell, which we will hear over the next seven minutes and which some people will find disturbing. She is the daughter of Ellsworth Culver, a Mercy Corps co-founder. He helped to create a charity that has delivered aid to people fleeing wars and disasters around the world. She says he also sexually abused her from when she was very small until her teenage years. She says Mercy Corps leaders were among many, many people who learned of the child sexual abuse and did nothing.
Provoked by that new ethics policy, she told her story to The Oregonian newspaper, which documented it. And then, with an Oregonian reported by her side, she told her story to us. She'd been telling that story in different ways since she was a child.
HUMPHREY: I was scared, and I wanted help. But I was also scared. I was, like, torn in half between wanting to not ever say anything and wanting to say something and wanting to have help and believing that nobody was really going to help me but still having hope that maybe somebody would.
INSKEEP: Together we talked through a timeline compiled by The Oregonian. She says she told her mother of the abuse in the late 1970s and that friends knew in the 1980s.
1985, you're telling friends at St. Mary's Academy in Portland. 1986 is when you're admitted to the hospital and you tell someone. In 1987, Oregon's Child Welfare agency receives a report of this abuse. 1988, another report of the abuse - 1990, '92. That is, in some ways, the most shocking part here. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked, but what do I - what should I make of that?
HUMPHREY: I don't know, you know? What I make of it is that people will go to great lengths to cover up for powerful people. I mean, what I made of it then was that I didn't matter at all. That's what I made of it then. That it - I was screaming behind soundproof glass. That's what it always felt like.
INSKEEP: Tania Humphrey says her father, her abuser, was a man revered in Portland and beyond. He traveled the world in his work for Mercy Corps. When Mercy Corps finally learned her story in 1992, they investigated, in a way, they did not contact police. They moved Ellsworth Culver to a new position in the charity, but they accepted his claims that some of the abuse never happened and that other abuse was committed by someone else.
HUMPHREY: You know, it's hard for me to believe - with all the medical records that they had, you know, and people who spoke to them and my testimony to them - that they could put that on somebody - on a neighbor that might have hurt me when I was 5, you know. And there's a difference between - you know, the neighbor wasn't there putting me to bed at night. That's not - it's - sorry. It makes me a little upset.
INSKEEP: If you need a moment at any time, you take it, OK?
HUMPHREY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And I'm sorry to have to ask all these questions. But I think it's valuable for...
HUMPHREY: No, I'm grateful for you asking them. I want the questions to be asked. I want people to know. And I feel a burden for - I speak for myself and to speak for other people who don't have a voice. So I thank you for asking the hard questions. I'm grateful to be heard.
INSKEEP: Because she did not feel she had been heard all those times before. In 2018, now in her 40s and married, she tried again after Mercy Corps announced that new ethics policy. On her behalf, her husband wrote an email requesting action.
Mercy Corps' response suggested they didn't see the point. A letter from a lawyer cast this as a private matter involving her father, who died in 2005. So Tania went to The Oregonian. Reporter Noelle Crombie led the newspaper's team that corroborated all those times the victim had told someone.
NOELLE CROMBIE: We ended up tracking down multiple friends from that period of her life. And they provided extremely detailed and disturbing accounts, not only of her disclosures as a teen, but also some of them had witnessed the abuse.
INSKEEP: The Oregonian series, which includes a documentary film, is called "No Mercy." After it was published, the current leader of Mercy Corps resigned, so did the senior legal counsel who questioned her 2018 complaint and a longtime board member who'd been involved in Mercy Corps' mishandling of the case in the 1990s.
Tania Humphrey, let me come back to you. Someone has finally been held accountable. Does this amount, in any way, even partly, to justice?
HUMPHREY: Accountability is starting. I don't think there's been full accountability. And, no, it does not feel like justice.
INSKEEP: But there was one thing.
HUMPHREY: I don't know if you saw the - you know, I went to see the chalk drawings at Mercy Corps.
INSKEEP: Chalk that appeared on the plaza outside its headquarters.
HUMPHREY: Somebody from Mercy Corps wrote in large letters - we stand with you. And I wanted to see that chalk. I've been afraid to even - I - afraid to go to that building even at all. Like, I couldn't even go into it. I'm terrified of it. So just to see something like that in front of it, I just needed to see it for myself.
And in going there, some of the employees wanted to come and see me. And I - a whole bunch of people came out. And there was a moment of humanity there that I will not forget. And I think people are looking at it like it's a reconciliation because it was such a powerful moment. But it was really a moment of, like, shared grief more than anything else.
INSKEEP: Not justice, not closure, but a truth now in the light.
Tania Humphrey, thanks for telling your story.
HUMPHREY: Thank you for hearing me.
INSKEEP: We are linking to The Oregonian reporting on this story, titled "No Mercy," at our website, npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEDERICO ALBANESE'S "THE CRADLE")
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