The first time former Kanakuk camp director Pete Newman was reported for being nude with kids was in 1999 — the same year he became a full-time employee at the Branson-based Christian athletic camp and a decade before he confessed to abusing multiple underage boys he met through Kanakuk and related ministries.
The 1999 incident wasn’t the last. Over the next several years, Newman’s supervisors were alerted to multiple incidents in which Newman ran, swam, played sports and rode four-wheelers naked with children.
Asked whether Kanakuk made a “catastrophic mistake” by not firing Newman when it first learned of his nude activities, Kanakuk Ministries President Doug Goodwin said “Now, looking back, yes.”
“Back then, you know, we were dealing with college kids … that kind of stuff was not unusual,” Goodwin, the camp's COO, said in a March 2021 interview. “I mean, it happened.”
The more casual attitudes toward nudity at Kanakuk — where communal showering and physical inspections of unclothed campers continued into the 1990s and early 2000s, former staff members said — made some campers uncomfortable. Others quickly became accustomed to it, providing fertile ground for a predator like Newman who used nudity and discussions about sexuality to groom his victims.
Communal showers, nude tick checks
In a 2012 deposition for a Texas lawsuit, Kanakuk CEO Joe White said nudity had long been a part of the Kanakuk experience while showering or bathing.
“In the old days, bathing in the river and bathing in the lake were commonplace,” said White, who also serves a board chair of Kanakuk Ministries.
“Years and years ago,” he said, referring to the 1950s when he began attending camp.
After White purchased Kanakuk Kamps from his father in 1976, he continued the tradition of communal bathing.
At K-Kountry, counselors and campers “all showered together” in a facility with “no separate stalls or partitions,” said former director Will Cunningham.
Cunningham, who was Newman’s supervisor at the Branson camp, confirmed the practice was in place in the 1980s through at least the early 2000s.
Though campers were assured counselors were their summer “family,” some said the forced intimacy was unsettling.
“The group shower stalls at K-Kountry were rooms with four shower heads, and they made us partner up two campers per shower head,” said Annie Riggs, a former camper from Denver who attended in the early 2000s. “We were 6-12 years old, during our formative years, and as a young girl it was very uncomfortable. I still remember it.”
Missouri native Alison Morrow, who attended Kanakuk in 2007, says leaders dismissed her concerns about modesty.
“‘It’s not that big of a deal, it’s just a shower,’” Morrow said she was told. “The counselors told us to hang our towels over a bar which didn’t cover our bodies. I showered at midnight to avoid the crowds and got eaten up by mosquitos.”
Former camper Mallory Korte, who now lives in Nebraska, said she was told she could not eat dinner in 2007 without having a communal shower in front of camp leadership to save time. “I was self-conscious about my body and would’ve done anything not to get naked in front of anybody. A girl in my cabin and I came up with a plan to keep our swimsuits on and just get our hair wet.”
Dallas native Elizabeth Hunt Harris, who attended camp from 1994 until 2004, said she only went to K-Kountry once due to her discomfort after being watched in the shower. “Counselors monitored us in the shower while they sat on a bench. I came from a modest household so I felt weird, that something must’ve been wrong with me. But the counselors showered together, too.”
Tennessee resident Michael Armentrout, who worked at Kanakuk as a counselor in 1997 and 1998, also found the nudity disconcerting.
“Shower time was weird,” he said. “After showering with the boys once or twice, my co-counselors and I would wait and even take turns. One would stay and keep an eye on the boys in the main cabin. The other would shower quickly alone. We figured out that system on our own.”
In addition to the communal showers, campers in past decades were required to stand nude, exposing their genitalia to counselors during regular physical inspections.
“Physical Inspection involved all ten campers (from a cabin or group) lining up naked in front of their two counselors, so that each counselor could give a once-over with a flashlight, to make sure the child had no ticks, bug bites, poison ivy, or signs of things like ringworm, etc.,” former director Cunningham wrote in an email. (Another former Kanakuk staff member, Vicki Morgan, confirmed that nude inspections were conducted in the past).
“In hindsight, I can definitely see how Physical Inspection would have been a pedophile’s playground, and I'm glad it was done away with some time in the late 80s or 90s,” Cunninghan wrote.
Kanakuk also “began to do away with mass showering facilities, opting to build individual shower stalls in the cabins” in the 90s and early 2000s, according to Cunningham.
“Counselors were instructed to allow kampers to shower first,” he wrote. “Clearly, we were trying to provide privacy and minimize the possibility of counselors being nude in front of campers.”
Still, old attitudes lingered.
“It [nudity] was just a thing at Kanakuk,” said former camper James McCaslin. “It wasn’t sexual or sexualized, the showers and bathrooms were all open, so once you break that barrier, it didn’t seem all that odd.”
Nude activities, sexual contact banned in Kanakuk employee handbook
When asked in 2021 if Kanakuk counselors other than Newman were nude with campers, COO Goodwin said, “No, and it’s not common.”
But incidents occurred often enough to prompt a range of specific rules.
By 2000, if not earlier, Kanakuk’s “Employee Playbook” included specific prohibitions against nudity, according to documents referenced in cases filed by Newman victims.
A 2005 edition of the playbook reviewed for this story, for example, specifically forbade nude swimming and nude games, stipulating that “bodies should be clothed at all times.”
It banned “[a]ny degree of sexual contact between staff and kamper … [i]ncluding verbal harassment or anything with sexual connotations” and said “[a]ny infraction of the above policy involving even the slightest form of sexual connotation will result in immediate dismissal for the staff with no chances for rehire.”
The playbook also said “We will never, ever, ever in any way display sexual body parts intentionally or touch another’s body parts. This will result in instant dismissal of staff with no chance for rehire and probable legal and parental notification.”
Other prohibitions in the playbook were oddly specific, according to Erin Wood, who worked as a Kanakuk kitchen helper from 1996 to 1998.
“There were several guidelines in it that my fellow kitchen staff couldn't make heads or tails of,” Wood said, citing directives that included “No naked zip lining” and “No naked devotionals.”
“They had to include a rule telling counselors not to disrobe with their entire cabin of children under their supervision to discuss the Bible before bed,” she said. “I remember us all looking at each other stunned, and the supervisors laughing and saying, ‘Well, if it's in here, it happened.’”
Former camper Elizabeth Hunt Harris said, “Even after Pete was busted, the male counselors would tell me stories about being naked around camp for fun. They ziplined naked. It was just a ‘guy thing’ at Kanakuk to be naked all the time. It was just part of the culture. Nudity is just what they do.”
Another prohibition, spelled out in Kanakuk’s 2008 employee handbook, specified Gold Bond powder could only be used for “legitimate reasons” — presumably the purposes listed on its container: relieving itching and controlling odor.
In the 1990s, male counselors reportedly held “Gold Bond Parties,” during which they gathered nude campers into communal showers and applied medicated talc to campers’ genitals.
Counselors said these parties were a kind of Christian fellowship and dubbed the experience “gold bonding” time, according to former St. Louis camper Tim Clark, who attended K-Kountry from 1998 to 2001 and was at other Kanakuk sites after that.
“Pete Newman bragged about starting these parties,” Clark said. “He’d squirt this Gold Bond at the campers like it was baby powder. I saw it. When my counselor heard about this, he warned me to stay away from Pete.”
Other counselors followed Newman’s lead, Clark said, making the “parties” a staple — for a time.
“Joe White had a meeting about the Gold Bond parties and shut them down after it was documented in an incident report,” Clark said.
Camp conversations about sex and masturbation
Kanakuk guidelines also said counselors should avoid any “talk about anything related to sexual relationships,” including “boyfriend/girlfriend stories.” But former campers say they could not escape these conversations because the camp’s emphasis on sexual purity insinuated sex into everyday camp life.
“I remember conversations about virginity on ‘purity nights’ when they would discuss these topics,” said Riggs, the former camper. “They gave all the boys rubber bands and told them to snap them every time they were having impure thoughts … A girl would walk by and snap! snap! snap! went the bracelets. I was pretty shy around boys when I was younger, so it felt uncomfortable for me.”
Korte, the former camper from Nebraska, said she was frequently in one-on-one conversations with her counselors about the personal details of her sex life, as they asked her how far she had gone with her boyfriend and whether he pressured her to have sex.
“I was a young girl, a virgin at the time,” she said. “But there was a heavy concentration on what I did sexually.”
The playbook rules were geared toward counselors, however, not senior leadership. White, Kanakuk’s CEO, frequently had conversations with campers about sex, condoms, date rape, and masturbation. In at least one instance — which he wrote about — he asked his young daughter to participate in these conversations.
In his 1996 book “Pure Excitement,” White describes a conversation with a 15-year-old camper who confessed he frequently masturbated and lusted after girls.
“What do I do?” the camper asked him, according to White.
As they discussed the matter, White’s 12-year-old daughter walked by. In the book he says he “left out the details” but asked her to sit down and advise the camper on the teenager’s masturbation and lust issues. White’s daughter concluded his problems stemmed from watching rated R movies.
“Satan had won his mind,” White wrote, and “the only thing the boy knew how to do was masturbate and mentally rape girls.”
After the conversation with White’s daughter, the book says, the boy changed his media consumption habits and was largely free from lust.
“Most parents don’t expect their kids would have such conversations at what was billed as an athletic camp,” said Korte.
Kanakuk co-councilor said Pete Newman had "broken serious policies” before he was promoted
Newman was able to capitalize on the camp’s permissive attitudes and the campers’ desensitization toward nudity as he groomed his victims.
Court filings in multiple lawsuits have alleged that Newman’s nudity was reported to camp leaders repeatedly. One lawsuit, filed on behalf of “John Doe IX” in 2011, cites documents provided by Kanakuk referencing reports from as early as 1999 of Newman swimming, running, playing basketball and riding four-wheelers nude with campers.
In a 2011 email to one victim’s father, CEO White admitted that Newman’s nudity while running through camp was “serious,” “against kamp policy,” and “treated with sobriety and frankness.”
Administrators’ response to the violation fell far short of the Kanakuk playbook’s threat of “instant dismissal,” however. According to documents filed in related court cases, Newman was merely admonished on several occasions.
In a July 6, 2001 message printed on Kanakuk Kamps letterhead, Newman’s supervisor, Cunningham, warned Newman to “use extreme caution” in his “alone time with children.”
The letter, which references Newman’s potential promotion to director at K-Kountry, is generally encouraging but notes the need for Newman to develop “Director’s Judgment” and “Director’s Restraint” when spending time with kids.
“I highly recommend never sleeping alone with a kid who comes to visit you at Kamp — be it in the tent, the gym, or otherwise,” Cunningham wrote. “At minimum, this does not look good. At maximum, it could destroy your ministry.”
Two years later, after further complaints, Cunningham and several other camp leaders confronted Newman, who admitted to being naked with kids.
“In 2003, I banned Pete from the Leadership Weekend and advised Kanakuk's executive director to fire Pete,” Cunningham said in an emailed comment for this story. “The executive director has assured me on several occasions since 2003 that he made Joe (White) aware of my report. Two weeks after Leadership Weekend, I was informed that Pete would be continuing as my assistant director and that I was to play an enhanced mentoring role in Pete’s life.”
“I suspected immediately that this decision had been handed down from Joe, and I felt incredibly minimized, used, and angry at being forced to work with a man who had broken serious policies,” Cunningham said. “With the summer season just days around the corner, I set three criteria by which I expected Pete to live for the remainder of our partnership:
“1.) Increased responsibility for our camp's 14-acre property, 2.) Increased focus on the development of our staff, and 3.) No more reports of nudity with minors, (a prerequisite so obvious that it should never have to appear on a list of criteria for a Christian leader.)”
A probationary agreement Newman signed Oct. 22, 2003 specifically prohibited nudity or sexual behavior, as well as “further visits from out-of-state kids” and “sleepovers” during which Newman spent the night alone with one or more children. The contract also called on Newman to stop spending a “lopsided, inordinate amount of time with kids.”
Documents in the John Doe IX lawsuit mention later instances in which parents contacted Kanakuk with reports about Newman’s behavior, but none specifically mentioned nudity or resulted in notable discipline.
Rather than firing Newman, Kanakuk leaders gave him additional authority. In 2003, he was promoted to assistant director of K-Kountry and in 2006 he was promoted to director.
A “sexual purity expert” who “hung out nude with kids”
As he rose through the ranks at Kanakuk, Newman was promoted as someone who excelled at “bonding” with children and counseling them on sexual topics. In one testimonial, CEO White described Newman as “the most thorough relationship builder with kids in Kanakuk history. This guy has a raging love for God and it spills over constantly to the kids at kamp.”
Survivors says Newman’s idea of “bonding” often involved invitations to participate in nude activities.
In an interview published in the News-Leader in April, Keith Dygert said the first time Newman abused him, during a one-on-one sleepover in a Kanakuk gym, the former counselor suggested they dunk basketballs naked.
“‘This would be one of the best bonding things we could do.' Like, 'This would take our relationship to the next level,'” Dygert said Newman told him. “Just really screwed-up stuff.”
Newman used similar language in a September 2018 letter he sent from the Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he is serving multiple life sentences for sexually abusing boys he met through Kanakuk.
“In Junior High, I started doing things with my friends like streaking and skinny dipping. Eventually there was some touching. Always it was with my Christian friends …,” Newman wrote to a former camper.
“Never was there sexual attraction. For me it was a trust thing. To do these things with someone meant that we trusted each other and that we were close … this bonding became really powerful for me, even if it was unhealthy bonding.”
Kanakuk’s endorsement of Newman carried considerable weight with parents. Texas father Joe Alarcon said he sent his son Ashton to Kanakuk after he heard White promoting the camp at a 1997 Promise Keepers rally.
“Joe told me he was a sexual purity expert for teens because he wrote a book about it,” said Alarcon, whose family sued White and Kanakuk Ministries in 2011 and settled two years later. “He also told me that his superstar counselor, Pete Newman, was an expert in that topic too and encouraged me to let Ashton be mentored by Pete. He didn’t tell me that this ‘sexual purity expert’ hung out nude with kids or that he’d wind up in a hot tub with the guy.”
Records in Newman’s criminal court case document sexual abuse that took place in Kanakuk cabins, in the pool, in the showers, in the gym, on father-son retreats, in the homes of campers and on a mission trip to China. He also abused campers, including Ashton Alarcon, in the hot tub at his home.
It was there, victims said, that Newman talked to boys about masturbation and encouraged them to use the hot tub jets for sexual stimulation.
“He said it would feel good but would not be lusting. Pete did it along with us,” one unnamed victim said, according to criminal court documents. He noted that on one occasion Newman quoted Scripture to justify the activity.
“One night after everybody had left and it was just Pete and I in the hot tub, he suggested we masturbate by hand. He said it wouldn’t be lusting because we were with someone else. So I did masturbate by hand and he did too, under the water. After a few minutes we got out of the hot tub, and he took me home. This happened four or five times.”
The fact that Newman regularly hosted boys in his hot tub was no secret, although his supervisors at the camp maintain they didn’t know of the nudity or abuse.
In October 2008, less than a year before Newman confessed, Kanakuk CEO White dictated an email congratulating him for a chapel presentation in which Newman bragged about the “hot tub Bible studies.”
In the email, White told Newman he “had a tremendous message, it was very appropriate and well received by all. I sure love being on your team!”
White testified in a 2012 legal deposition he did not realize Newman was naked in the hot tub with campers and said he did not suspect Newman was a pedophile until 2009, when Newman confessed.
Still, White noted something amiss. In a message dictated immediately after the one to Newman, White told Kanakuk’s executive director, Kris Cooper, to follow up with Newman.
“It’s interesting as amazingly gifted and talented as he is, and he certainly is, he mentioned that there isn’t a night of the week where there wasn’t someone in the hot tub to minister to,” White said in the message.
White said he spoke with Newman’s wife after chapel “and we were laughing about that statement” but “I could tell inside she wasn’t laughing about that so much ...”
“I feel like you need to make sure Pete has some very sincere goals about the time he’s spending with his wife and his daughter and perhaps they need to be reassessed.”
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Nudity at Kanakuk Kamps in Branson masked grooming, child abuse