The Mercy Corps headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Photo by: M.O. Stevens / CC BY-SA

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Mercy Corps published two external reviews of its handling of sexual abuse allegations against deceased co-founder Ellsworth Culver, and outlined commitments the organization has made in response to the recommendations contained in those independent reports.

The findings detail how an organization with “leading-edge” safeguarding policies failed to apply their core values to a situation that fell outside its experience. When Tania Culver Humphrey requested in 2018 that Mercy Corps review its prior handling of her allegation that her father sexually abused her decades earlier, the organization allowed a legalistic response to overshadow its commitment to taking a “survivor-centered approach” to situations of alleged abuse.

That failure to put organizational values into action surfaced shortcomings of leadership, oversight, and staffing — and ultimately prevented Mercy Corps’ leaders from confronting the truth of their co-founder’s actions before they became public in a detailed investigation by the Oregonian/Oregon Live on Oct. 8, 2019.

The fallout from this public reckoning led to the resignation of Mercy Corps’ CEO, senior legal counsel, and a longstanding board member — and to an emotional reconciliation between Culver Humphrey and Mercy Corps staff members.

On Oct. 21, 2019, Mercy Corps established a special committee to oversee an independent investigation of the organization’s handling of Culver Humphrey’s allegations, which she first brought to the organization’s attention in the 1990s, and again in 2018. On Oct. 24, the special committee hired the investigative firm Vestry Laight to scrutinize the organization’s response to Culver Humphrey’s 2018 request, to determine if Mercy Corps’ response was in line with its current safeguarding policies.

The report published on Wednesday “found no evidence that any Mercy Corps employee or board member engaged in intentional wrongdoing or an effort to cover up Ellsworth Culver’s conduct, Ms. Culver Humphrey’s abuse, or Mercy Corps’ 1990s investigation of such abuse.”

However, it did find that “those responsible for overseeing Mercy Corps’ response made several missteps and showed poor judgment ... in their approach to Ms. Culver Humphrey that resulted in a mishandling of the request and ultimately a failure to adhere to Mercy Corps’ stated commitment to putting survivors first.”

“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,” Mercy Corps’ board wrote in a statement.

‘Hold your breath moment’

Prior to the explosive investigation published by the Oregonian — which outlined years of sexual abuse by Culver, multiple failures by legal authorities and Mercy Corps to take action, and the extensive trauma endured by Culver Humphrey — Mercy Corps staff considered their organization a leader in preventing abuse and responding to allegations, according to the report.

“Several staff affirmed that, while safeguarding could use more resources, they had faith in the safeguarding process and believed it worked well,” the report states.

“This is why they were so dismayed by recent events involving Ms. Culver Humphrey’s allegations which they did not feel reflected Mercy Corps’ approach and the hard work that had been done in this area,” it reads.

Culver Humphrey and her husband — who sent an email to Mercy Corps’ integrity hotline in 2018 — had also been under the impression that given the organization’s strengthened safeguarding policies, their case might be taken more seriously than it was when Culver Humphrey first approached Mercy Corps in the 1990s. The email cited the organization’s efforts to be “proactive and a leader” regarding “sexual misconduct and ethical violations of its staff,” according to the report.

Mercy Corps’ initial response to their outreach appeared to confirm that impression, explicitly committing to take “a survivor-centered approach.”

In an interview with Vestry Laight, Culver Humphrey said she was not sure what “survivor-centered approach” meant, but that this phrase stood out because it sounded different from the earlier approach. She described this as a “hold your breath moment.”

Subsequent interactions proved less encouraging.

“At the time the email came in, the Ethics Team was overwhelmed and short-staffed,” the report reads, adding that the team lacked a safeguarding expert, who “had submitted her resignation and was unavailable.”

Mercy Corps’s general counsel handed responsibility of the case to a senior legal counsel, a nationally-recognized lawyer who was well-respected within the organization. The senior legal counsel, however, was not a member of the ethics team, “had no expertise in this area, and was not familiar with what a ‘survivor-centered approach’ would be in this context,” according to the report.

“As a result, Mercy Corps did not offer any support to Ms. Culver Humphrey as it would normally do if following its prescribed safeguarding investigation practices,” it reads.

Instead, the senior legal counsel pursued a more legalistic course, according to the report, which involved searching for documents related to the 1990s investigation, contacting and interviewing those involved, and communicating with the Humphreys through direct, sometimes terse emails that undermined their trust.

“Just what it is that you think Mercy Corps can do now to help your wife gain closure on whatever occurred between her and her father and her family some 24 years ago,” the senior legal counsel asked them at the outset of their email correspondence, according to the report.

In a later interview with Vestry Laight, the senior legal counsel said, “the response was staffed, structured and supervised too much as a legal matter, and not enough as the survivor-centered approach that we outline in our policies and practice daily in the field.”

Others interviewed for the inquiry also identified a mismatch between Mercy Corps’ attention to situations of abuse in its field programs, and the resources it dedicates to those same issues in its home office.

“Priority was placed on programs in the field where most staff and the beneficiaries are based, and policies seem to have been designed primarily with the field in mind. There was also always a tension between spending on beneficiaries and supporting necessary internal infrastructure,” the report reads.

Some employees attributed that in part to the culture fostered by former CEO Neal Keny-Guyer, who multiple staff described to the investigators as, “a ‘visionary’ but one who lacked dedication to operational concerns and compliance.”

Acting on organizational values

The Humphreys’ request also challenged a strict interpretation of Mercy Corps’ safeguarding policies. Culver Humphrey was neither an employee nor a beneficiary of the organization. The person alleged to have committed the abuse had died years earlier, and the allegations were related to incidents that had occurred decades before.

Still, the investigators found, Mercy Corps’ leadership had an opportunity to act upon their organizational values, which include a commitment to taking a survivor-centered approach to situations of abuse, and they did not. As a result, Culver Humphrey lost faith in the process, became “scared” of the consequences of bringing her story forward to the organization again, and decided her only option was to tell it publicly.

“Ms. Culver Humphrey decided the only way she could feel safe was if she would get the story out as quickly as possible,” the report reads.

Mercy Corps’ management and board of directors unanimously accepted the findings and recommendations contained in the report, and committed to a number of actions — including further investigations and public reporting on both the extent of Ellsworth Culver’s abuse and Mercy Corps’ handling of allegations against him.

The organization will also hire a chief ethics and compliance officer and additional staff to handle ethics violations and safeguarding, put an independent firm on retainer to support future safeguarding events if needed, and put in place and honor term limits for its board of directors.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.