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A.R.E. Camp at center of two lawsuits; sexual assault survivors speak out

At a virtual press conference on Wednesday attorneys and four of the eight women in the...
At a virtual press conference on Wednesday attorneys and four of the eight women in the lawsuits talk about their experiences at A.R.E. Camp Rural Retreat.(WDBJ7)
Published: Apr. 28, 2021 at 11:35 PM EDT
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RURAL RETREAT, Va. (WDBJ) - Two new lawsuits claim several women were sexually assaulted at a camp in Smyth County.

The suits target the Association for Research and Enlightenment - or A.R.E. - camp and CEO Kevin Todeschi, for sexual abuse dating back nearly 40 years.

“Based on our investigation, it’s clear that A.R.E. chose to cover up these sex crimes rather than report them to the proper authorities,” Attorney Steve Etsey said.

The lawsuits allege A.R.E. encouraged hands-on activities, including “Hugging Circles” and “Massage Trains”, leading to the abuse. The “Liberated Underwear Movement”, in which the girls were expected to run partially in underwear. “Goddess Night” also contributed, in which girls were expected to run naked through a field as male staffers and campers cheered them on.

At a press conference on Wednesday, attorneys and four of the eight women in the lawsuit talked about their experiences at camp.

“When a staff member sexually assaulted me at age 16, and this supposedly loving and safe community, the threat of losing my community kept me from speaking up,” Jane Doe #1 said. “I believed that in speaking, I would become a source of shame to my family and the community. This left me feeling deeply responsible for his secret. At the same time, what happened to me did not feel unusual. He was not the first male staff member to cross boundaries, to be sexually explicit or inappropriate. In the context of the camp, his behavior was normalized.”

According to the attorneys, counselors created a cult-like atmosphere that encouraged sexually abusive behavior and A.R.E. failed to protect the children.

“The camp culture placed itself in contrast with the outside world as we called it,” Hannah Furbush said. “And so many behaviors which happened at camp which contradicted the norms are seen as okay because camp is safe and different and a place to be your true self.”

“A.R.E.’s failure to protect the plaintiffs in this case and subsequent cover-up demonstrate a pattern of systemic abuse that is forever traumatized our clients,” Etsey said.

The women claim they brought concerns about their sexual assault, harassment and rape to camp counselors, whom they say did not take the claims seriously. They said the people they identified as the perpetrators were rehired even after they spoke up about the issues.

A.R.E. CEO Kevin Todeschi responded to our request for comment by email:

Since we do not know what the legal papers say, or what the precise allegations are, we can’t provide any detailed response at this time.

Last summer, on the Camp’s Facebook account, we became aware that out of the thousands of individuals who have attended Camp over the past half-century or so, a number posted that they had experienced or had seen inappropriate behavior, and even sexual assault. Our Board immediately responded, ultimately commissioning an experienced and independent outside investigation agency to look into these allegations, and to encourage anyone who experienced harm to come forward. That opportunity was posted on the Camp’s Facebook page, and everyone who attended camp in the past decade was contacted. Those who responded were assured of confidentiality by our Board and by the independent investigation agency, and we have kept that promise.

That investigation continues and the Board began receiving interim reports in March. Two Board committees were established last June, one to address any systemic or policy-based changes needed, and the other to review camp personnel. These committees are currently reviewing the investigative reports. We are asking the independent investigators to formulate their recommendations as to any needed changes. We have also retained the independent agency to offer separate, stand-alone, confidential healing and remediation services, of which some former campers have chosen to take advantage.

No Camp activity has occurred since the summer of 2019. None will occur this year until we are satisfied we have addressed any still-existing concerns.

We continue to be extraordinarily distressed by these allegations. The camp has been in operation for decades. Sexual assault or assault of any kind has never been even remotely acceptable. 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.

We will respond more directly and in detail in the course of the proceedings, after we have seen the lawsuit.

“My grandmother and my mother and her siblings all attended (the) camp -- making me a third-generation camper,’ Furbush said. “I used to wear this as a badge of honor because it meant that I’d been a part of the community since birth almost. But now it fills me with disgust, fear and shame.”

The lawsuits were filed in Virginia Beach’s Second Judicial District Court.

A.R.E. is a camp founded on the teachings of Edgar Cayce: ”Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E. provides body-mind-spirit resources for individuals to explore meditation, intuition, dream interpretation, prayer, holistic health, ancient mysteries, and philosophical concepts, such as karma, reincarnation, and the meaning of life. The mission of the A.R.E. is to create opportunities for profound personal change in body, mind, and spirit through the wisdom found in the Edgar Cayce material.”

The camp is about a mile and a half from the intersection of Killinger Creek Road and White Rock Furnace Road on private property. WDBJ could not get a video of the campsite.

Law Offices of Estey and Bomberger, based in California, filed the lawsuits and plan to file a third for a total of nine survivors that they say were raped or sexually assaulted.

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