How an Investigation Built to Protect Was Betrayed

The daughter of a Mercy Corps founder has spent her life grappling with her father's secrets. Ellsworth Culver, who cultivated a public image as a globetrotting do-gooder, was secretly sexually abusing his daughter, Tania Humphrey, throughout her childhood and teenage years. After the abuse came to light in 1992, Mercy Corps conducted an internal investigation and accepted Culver's claim that the allegations were false. The organization failed to act until 2018, when Humphrey contacted the nonprofit's integrity hotline and accused her father of sexually abusing her. Following an inquiry that the organization deemed insufficient, several members of the company's leadership resigned.

Humphrey then went public, revealing more abuse and accusing the company of burying the allegations. The nonprofit offered her a settlement and agreed to publicly disclose the results of an investigation if she agreed not to sue them. As part of the settlement, Humphrey revealed more abuse alleging that more victims and perpetrators were involved. The organization agreed to investigate the new claims and how it handled the previous allegations.

As part of the settlement, the nonprofit agreed to release the results publicly "to the extent reasonably possible and appropriate." Mercy Corps hired the Freeh Group, a risk management firm run by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, to conduct an investigation. Over the summer of 2020, the firm's investigators grilled Humphrey, sometimes in full-day interviews, for about 100 hours, leaving her distraught and suicidal. Yet when the report was released the following year, it concentrated on the mishandling of her claims in the 1990s.

Humphrey filed a lawsuit against Mercy Corps in September 2022, alleging that the investigation was a whitewash and that the organization used it to gather information about potential threats to itself. The lawsuit also alleged that the organization manipulated and deceived Humphrey to gain exclusive access to her explosive information and used systematic intimidation and bullying to control reputational damage. Freeh's investigation of Penn State's response to sexual abuse in its football program has also been criticized for failing to disclose crucial information and acting more like a public relations exercise than an impartial investigation.

The increasing use of privately commissioned investigations in the face of sexual misconduct claims and the inherent conflicts of interest that undermine their independence. While an independent investigation can appear to offer a path forward for accountability and justice, it is difficult to distinguish bona fide efforts from cynical exercises in liability management. Experts claim that the industry has flourished in recent years, with more lawyers and investigators getting involved. However, the consistency, transparency, and independence of these investigations are open to question.

Ultimately, the questions about whether survivors can really trust a process arranged and bankrolled by the institutions that failed them, and whether these investigations are more about protecting institutions from liability than upholding justice and accountability.

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