'Male workers raped and sexually harassed 8 teen girls at cult-like summer camp'

Male workers raped and sexually assaulted eight underage girls while they stayed at a summer camp in the US state of Virginia, a lawsuit has claimed.

The alleged victims – who are now adults – have said they suffered sexual harassment, abuse and rapes at the hands of counselors while at the Association for Research and Enlightenment’s (ARE) summer camps in Virginia Beach. 

One victim, named only as Lynsey, told how she was forced to participate in ‘massage trains’ with male staff members when she attended the summer camp in 2008, aged 12. 

The lawsuit says that a male camp counselor ‘aged 18 or 19’ forced her to play a game of ‘Spin the Bottle’, but then allegedly forced her to touch his genitals and placed his hands under her clothing and digitally raped her.

Speaking to WTKR, she said: ‘The first time I was raped by an adult counselor, I was 13. I reported it to the camp manager and nothing was done.

‘ARE spiritual teachings set the stage for a silent epidemic of sexual assault and violence against young children and women, including myself.’

Are is a nonprofit organization, founded in 1931, that describes itself as a place for people to explore meditation, holistic health and ‘the meaning of life’.  

In the lawsuit against the summer camp organizers, Lynsey says she told the camp manager what happened too her, but claims her alleged abuser was allowed to stay at the camp and was not reported to authorities.

When she was 17, Lynsey says she returned to the camp for a young adult retreat, where she said she was forced to confront her supposed abuser and tell him she forgave him, the lawsuit states.

‘I returned to camp and I was forced to participate in a so-called ‘Forgiveness Circle,’ which meant I had to hug my abuser and say I forgave him’, WTKR reported.

‘It was a horrible, degrading experience’, she said.

Another plaintiff named in the suit, Hannah Furbush, who attended the camp as a child and later worked as a camp counselor and staff member, estimates she experienced sexual abuse, molestation and harassment around 100 times at the camp. 

Named by AP, Furbush gave her permission for her real name to be made public.

She said she was made to participate in a ‘Liberated Underwear Movement’ event in which underage female campers would run through the camp wearing only their underwear.

In the lawsuit, Furbush also described a ‘Goddess Night’ event in which female campers would run through a field naked while male campers watched.

‘Female campers were being preyed upon by male staff members’, Furbush said.

‘That’s because hugs and touch in between children and adults were encouraged, but it went well beyond.’  

Furbush added that when she was a staff member, aged 20, a senior camp director massaged her against her will, touched her buttocks and allegedly tried to kiss her. She also claims she was ‘sexually violated’ by a different male staff member and that on both occasions she told camp managers, but nothing was done.

She said: ‘It was my job as the victim to meditate or go to healing prayer or journal my trauma away while these dangerous men were given promotions and allowed to stay.’

Another woman, who did not wish to be identified said during the video conference that ‘We were taught to love and accept our abusers unconditionally.’

The woman said she was sexually abused by a staff member when she was 16 years old, WTKR reported.

‘It is deeply harmful when your voice is silenced and you come to believe that your voice doesn’t matter. I blamed myself for his sexual assault on me,’ she said.   

The women also stated that the reported sexual abuse led to a variety of emotional and psychological problems for them, including substance abuse, anxiety and depression.

Stephen Estey, one of the attorneys representing the women, said the lawsuits seek $10 million in damages for each of the victims, amounting to $80 million.

In the lawsuits, filed in state court in Virginia Beach, where ARE’s headquarters is based, the women describe what they said was a camp culture that involved adult males sexually abuse young female campers with impunity.

During a virtual news conference, four of the women described the alleged abuse and said the camp was run like a cult.

‘The organization made a rape culture possible,’ said one of the women, identified in the complaint only as Lynsey Doe.

The ARE organization was founded by Edgar Cayce in 1931 and describes its mission as creating opportunities for personal change in body, mind and spirit.

ARE’s CEO, Kevin Todeschi, who is named as a defendant in the suit, said he had not yet seen the lawsuits and could not respond to the specific allegations.

But in an interview with AP he said: ‘We’re horrified. This is absolutely contrary to everything the organization stands for.’

In a statement, Todeschi said the organization first became aware of allegations last summer when several people who had attended the camp posted on its social media page ‘that they had experienced or had seen inappropriate behavior, and even sexual assault.’

Todeschi said the board commissioned an independent investigation agency to scrutinize the allegations ‘and to encourage anyone who experienced harm to come forward’.

Todeschi said the investigation is continuing and the camp was closed last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Todeschi added that it will remain closed ‘until we are satisfied we have addressed any still-existing concerns.’

‘Sexual assault or assault of any kind has never been even remotely acceptable’, he said.

Todeschi added: ‘Such conduct is contrary to everything we believe in. The Camp is a Family Camp that focuses on healthy living for body, mind, and spirit.’

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