© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Decades of abuse at Kanakuk evangelical camp leads reporter to St. Louis ministry

An aerial view of camp Kanakuk, a Christian sports camp in the Branson area.
Courtesy of Nancy French, used with permission
Kanakuk, a Christian sports camp in Branson, is the subject of numerous claims of abuse.

For more than a year, author and journalist Nancy French has steadily exposed the decades of abuse at Kanakuk, a massive evangelical summer camp that welcomes thousands of campers annually to its facilities in Branson.

For some of those campers, those summers left them with lifelong trauma. In 2009, Kanakuk counselor Pete Newman was arrested and ultimately confessed to sexually abusing more than a dozen campers, though prosecutors said the number is likely far higher.

“He's one of the most prolific serial abusers that I've ever heard of,” French said during Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I started digging into it and realizing that many of the camp leaders, including the ones that are still running the camp today, were aware of a lot of this abusive behavior and looked the other way — not only looked the other way, but promoted him repeatedly.”

Nancy French headshot.
Author and journalist Nancy French

At the time of Newman’s arrest, the camp’s leaders expressed shock at the longtime counselor’s actions, calling him “a master of deception — fooling not only Kanakuk but also his friends, neighbors, and even his own family.” But as French detailed in a lengthy May 26 investigation published in theSpringfield News-Leader, that narrative is undercut by accounts of abuse survivors, former staff, campers and parents who had tried to raise alarm.

French’s investigation didn’t just focus on Newman and his abuses in Branson. In St. Louis, she tracked down a Kanakuk counselor fired in 1990 after at least two campers reported him for sexual assault. When French caught up with the counselor in 2021, he was volunteering in a Kanakuk-affiliated youth ministry and working as a girls high school volleyball coach in several St. Louis schools.

That news was particularly disturbing news for Jody Jones. In 1985, at 8 years old, she attended Kanakuk’s sports camp in Branson.

When she first arrived, she remembered it being “every little kid’s dream.”

“It really did lend itself to strong relationships,” Jones said. “You were excited when you showed up and the same counselors were there year after year. It was part of the draw of camp.”

But there was one counselor, Chuck Price, who made the worst kind of impression on the young Jones. During a group movie night that summer, Jones alleges that Price began tickling her foot, and that his touch ultimately escalated to sexual assault as he continued to grope her beneath her bathing suit.

Jones recalled: “I sat up and looked him in the eye and just said, ‘Chuck!’ And he looked at me. And we had a moment. And I didn't say another word.”

Five years later, in 1990, Jones says she was finally able to speak out about what had happened to her that night. She was still a camper at Kanakuk. Her words made an impact. Price was fired.

“They told everyone at camp he had a family emergency,” Jones continued. “They let him pack his bags and walk out the door. But there was no investigation. There was no police report, there was nothing that was ever going to mark his character as, you know, ‘stay away.’”

Decades passed. When Nancy French embarked on her investigation in 2021, she quickly collected names of other counselors who had been accused of abuse at the camp before they were allowed to quietly disappear.

From a distance, a large group of summer campers gather in a field.
Courtesy of Nancy French, used with permission.
A 2007 photo of campers at Kanakuk in Branson. Camp leaders have denied claims that they are responsible for the rampant abuse perpetrated by a counselor.

Among the names was Chuck Price. After his firing, French found that he had reestablished himself as a volleyball coach in St. Louis, while also volunteering at the youth ministry Urban Klife.

According to its official website, Klife is part of a network of branded youth ministries founded in St. Louis in 1979 by families who sent their kids to Kanakuk. While each ministry is ostensibly an independent nonprofit, Klife is described as a “sister ministry” to Kanakuk and is featured on the camp’s website.

It’s not clear how long Price volunteered with Urban Klife or what his duties were. In a written statement sent to St. Louis on the Air on Thursday, the ministry said Price was never officially employed but rather “served in a limited capacity as an unpaid advisor/volunteer to the board and staff of Urban Klife until April of 2022.” (The statement was not featured during Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air broadcast.)

Tracing an accused Kanakuk counselor to St. Louis

The statement continued: “Klife is an independent 501c3 and has no knowledge of his Kanakuk employment history or terms of his departure. Our first knowledge of this information came when the article by Nancy French was published in the Springfield News-Leader last month.”

The statement also claimed, “At no time during his involvement with us did his role ever include direct ministry with students.” However, photos posted to Facebook show Price attending multiple Urban Klife events in recent years. One image, dated 2015, shows him seated at a table with young children during an anniversary gala.

Price was not completely cut off from Kanakuk, either. In a 2017 Facebook photo obtained by Nancy French, Price posed with Kanakuk CEO Joe White while wearing a Kanakuk visitor’s pass.

During Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, French described her attempts to contact Price to get his side of the story. She was ultimately successful in confronting him in a phone call, but she said he never gave her a straight answer about the allegations against him. Rather, he repeated that he was “busy doing the work of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

French said she tried asking Price if he denied the allegations, but she received a similar response.

“I talked to him about how part of forgiveness involves the confession of sin, so I was giving him that opportunity to tell me the truth about what happened,” she said. “He just kept talking about Jesus.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Miya Norfleet and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Stay Connected
Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."