On Tuesday, The Oregonian outlined allegations made by Tania Culver Humphrey of serial childhood sexual abuse by her father, Ellsworth Culver. The abuse is alleged to have begun when Humphrey was a preschooler and continued through high school. Culver was one of the co-founders of the global humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps.
My name is Bridget Geraghty. I am a clinical social worker in private practice in Portland, Oregon. I treat mainly trauma, and have a specialty in treating childhood sexual abuse. In 1999-2000 I worked for Mercy Corps in Bosnia. At that time, Ells Culver was still alive and representing the organization.
From 2005-2016, my husband, Jeremy Barnicle, worked in a number of leadership roles at Mercy Corps. For eleven years, Mercy Corps was central to our lives. We have many dear friends who are part of the Mercy Corps community. Our family has been deeply moved by Humphrey’s disclosures and our hearts go out to her and her family. As a mental health professional with a Mercy Corps connection, I would like to share my perspective on ways Mercy Corps might attend to the opportunity they are being offered.
It is my belief that the vast majority of Mercy Corps staff work in humanitarian aid because they are true humanitarians. Mercy Corps has helped millions of people around the world and I personally know people who have risked their lives on a daily basis to bring support to vulnerable populations. As an expert in treatment of childhood sexual abuse and a person with knowledge of predatory behavior however, I know that a humanitarian aid agency – like a church or a school – would be attractive to a predator looking for access to children and a “beyond reproach” reputation to cover his behavior. According to the outline Humphrey offers, she was being abused for several years before Mercy Corps was founded. By all appearances, Ells Culver – a very sick man – was masquerading as a humanitarian among truly dedicated people.
I watched the Oregonian’s video piece Thursday evening. It contained compelling descriptions of events, and many corroborating stories by the brave women – and her ally husband – who supported her. The piece was largely about how actively she sought help and how little she was helped by certain men in leadership at Mercy Corps. But why would people be so unlikely to help?
It is in the nature of human beings to recoil from disgusting behavior. There is little that is more disgusting than the idea of a father consistently preying upon his tiny daughter to satisfy his insatiable compulsion. Although I am an unflagging advocate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse – as I believe they are the most heroic among us – I am ashamed to admit that I too noticed myself looking for places where Humphrey’s story might be exaggerated. It was like a reflex. The fact is no one wants to believe it could be true. As a therapist, I spent four years teaching non-offending parents of child survivors how to avoid their children being “offended” again. I met mothers whose partners had left physical evidence of abusing their children and those parents still refused to believe it happened. I can tell you that it is astonishing what people will turn a blind eye to in order to avoid that level of disgust. It is quite possible that we human beings simply do not have the adequate brain wiring to cope with the feelings such a devastating truth could bring.
Although it is incredibly rare for allegations of childhood sexual abuse to be found to be untrue, they are almost always discounted or disbelieved by some stakeholders. And thus the victim is left further victimized. Unlike most stories of childhood sexual abuse, these allegations against Ells Culver have been corroborated beyond doubt. It seems that those at Mercy Corps who were given the chance to listen and use their power to bring some consequences to Culver or some reparations to Humphrey simply did not wish to hear. They chose to let this woman suffer from a lack of support than to take on suffering the unknown consequences of facing the problem.
If you haven’t experienced being sexually abused by someone you trusted when you were too vulnerable to protect yourself, then you cannot understand the impact. In order to help you understand, I would say this. However bad you think it feels, it is way, way worse. Imagine the most shame you have ever felt. The most terror. The most confusion. The most revulsion. The most sadness. The most rage. Imagine feeling treated like an object that someone might just throw away on a whim. It is worse than all of those combined. So at any point, when a victim of such abuse finds the strength to keep themselves alive, much less come forward with their story, they deserve our deepest of gratitude. They are, perhaps, the truth tellers who will set us free.
Some of the Mercy Corps men described by Humphrey were cruel. Telling a survivor that “it’s not what happens to you it’s what you do with it” is cruel. I was deeply saddened however to hear of the bystander behavior of some of the other men accused in Humphrey’s story. Bystanding is not a neutral stance. Desmond Tutu told us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I know some of these men personally. I know they believe themselves to be good people. Some of them are surely experiencing a dark night of the soul over this. As I consider that, I think about how, 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. But, mark my words, you’ll only see dawn if your eyes are open.
It is a grave mistake to behave – as Mercy Corps’ representatives did – as if Ells Culver’s sins were confined to his home. The Oregonian’s piece includes an account of a friend of Tania’s finding graphic pornographic photos of brown girl children in Culver’s desk drawer. We know from research on offenders that it is the nature of predatory behavior that it will be practiced whenever the chance is available. No one wants to grapple with the probability that he practiced his sickness anytime he had the chance and while “helping” in the field he was also helping himself to vulnerable children. As a sexual predator, whom we know, at a minimum, stood photographed with his hands on the shoulders of refugee children, his very presence could have felt predatory. His intention, his glances, possible leering or groping. These alone can be damaging because of how deeply confusing they are. Mercy Corps has – all along – had a responsibility to the children it calls beneficiaries, to make sure they are safe.
Tania explains how watching her father go off to foreign countries – where he “enjoyed having his picture taken with the children,” while coming home and raping her, made Mercy Corps, throughout her childhood, appear to be this powerful entity that was complicit in her abuse. Mercy Corps grew during that time, in part, due to Culver’s actively growing the organization.
Culver, like most offenders, 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. I believe I am using mine by writing this letter. I was glad to read today that Mercy Corps staff used their power by demanding change in the way the organization is managed. Shortly afterwards, Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, resigned. Neal is a friend and a person whose commitment to the organization I have admired greatly. I feel deeply for him as I see him revisiting how to use his own power. I also see that he has chosen to make way for change to come and I applaud him for doing so.
Humphrey came forward because she knows she deserves to be believed. She kept herself alive and continued to speak until she was heard. So many victims cannot bear the silence and the complicity of others in keeping their abuse secret that they take their own lives. As Neal Keny-Guyer said recently, Mercy Corps failed her. But she did not fail in bringing the story into the light.
It can feel like there is no way good enough to respond to Mercy Corps’ role in this tragedy. There is so much that Mercy Corps can do though to face the ugly parts of its history and honor the sacrifice of Tania Humphrey. It is up to her to heal – and she is doing a beautiful job. But it is up to Mercy Corps to acknowledge the fullness of what is alleged here and its own role in keeping a survivor from experiencing a necessary step in her healing by being believed.
Here are a few ways Mercy Corps might consider honoring Tania.
- Mercy Corps could consider paying Tania reparations. At the minimum, the full cost of her therapeutic interventions over the years should be tallied and paid to her.
- Mercy Corps should ask Tania Humphrey if there are specific measures she would like to see taken and consider them carefully.
- Mercy Corps should consider conducting 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. Female beneficiaries, that could be located and who were children then, could be invited to share any concerns they had about their interactions with Culver. This would be done with the utmost consideration for the beneficiaries, holding the goal in mind that they be offered the chance to tell their stories, receive, at the minimum a formal apology and culturally-appropriate mental health treatment for any traumatic experiences uncovered.
- Mercy Corps could spearhead an initiative – in collaboration with other organizations already working in this area – to research the nature of sexual predation as an illness and support identification and early treatment of offenders. Childhood sexual abuse as a public health problem is common, deeply damaging and extremely misunderstood. Research and treatment of pedophilia and predatory behavior is sorely under resourced around the world. Much more understanding is needed if true progress in prevention and treatment are to happen.
- Exploitation thrives in environments that privilege one group above others. Mercy Corps should make a plan for gender and racial equity on the board and in leadership with a goal of 50% women and people of color by 2025.
- Mercy Corps should hire an external consultant to assess the ways that Mercy Corps’ culture may be operating under a paradigm 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, but initially by offering free meeting space to support groups and conferences for survivors of abuse and for treatment providers in its beautiful public meeting space.
- 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.
- Finally, anything that had been named after Ells Culver should be renamed after Tania Humphrey. Tania Humphrey’s resiliency in the face of adversity most closely reflects the spirit of Mercy Corps’ beneficiaries. She is the true hero here and should be treated as such.
It is my strongest hope that Mercy Corps – and all of us – can grow from Humphrey’s demonstration of bravery, perseverance and honesty. She has done a powerful thing for survivors everywhere. Let us take this moment of darkness to consider what she has also done for all of us. She has reminded us that the right thing to do is often the very hardest thing to do and that often – we need to do it anyway. Let us become better community members, friends, parents and leaders by following her example.