Leaders of Portland’s flagship humanitarian nonprofit made significant errors in judgement when reports of sexual abuse by one of its co-founders were first brought to their attention.
That’s according to an independent, external review commissioned by Mercy Corps after The Oregonian broke a story last fall detailing a complaint by Tania Culver Humphrey, daughter of co-founder Ellsworth Culver.
Culver Humphrey approached Mercy Corps leaders twice, in the early 1990s and again in 2018, with detailed allegations of serial sexual abuse against her father; both times, the newspaper reported, no action was taken.
The review, by New York-based consulting firm Vestry Laight, states that there were “missteps, mistakes in judgement and governance lapses” in the handling of Humphrey’s complaint. It also concludes there was no “intentional wrongdoing” or evidence that Mercy Corps leaders attempted to cover up the story in 2018.
“We apologize unreservedly to Ms. Culver Humphrey for the mistakes that Mercy Corps made in our approach in the 1990s and in 2018 and for the pain this caused,” the board of directors says in a statement. “Mercy Corps should have undertaken a more survivor-centered approach.”
It’s not the last word, either. The organization will commission a second independent investigation into whether Culver might have abused others, and will hire a chief ethics and compliance officer.
The fallout from The Oregonian’s original story was swift. The organization’s longtime CEO, Neal Keny-Guyer, stepped down, as did other senior members of the board of directors, and the nonprofit distanced itself from Dan O’Neill, one of Culver’s co-founders. The search for a replacement for Keny-Guyer is continuing, according to Mercy Corps communications director Lynn Hector.
Culver Humphrey's story, and the resulting publicity, have taken a toll on Mercy Corps' fundraising, Hector says.
"We do know that we have lost the trust of some of our donors over our handling of this issue, both in the 1990s and 2018, and we are committed to doing everything we can to build back that trust," she says. "Other donors have contacted us to let us know they continue to support Mercy Corps because they believe in the critical work our team members are doing in more than 40 countries around the world."
From its global headquarters in Portland, Mercy Corps employs 5,500 people worldwide. The organization’s humanitarian aid workers are on the ground in dozens of countries, including many of the world’s poorest and most dangerous locales.