Inside the ‘Cult-Like’ Summer Camp Where Women Say They Had to Hug Their Abusers

Pilar Melendez
·7 min read
Courtesy of Lynsey Doe and Brian Wimer/Estey Bomberger LLP
Courtesy of Lynsey Doe and Brian Wimer/Estey Bomberger LLP

At the Association for Research and Enlightenment’s long-running summer camp in Virginia, established 90 years ago by a self-described spiritualist and clairvoyant, campers are told they’ll experience “a different kind of vacation.”

Sprinkled among hiking, swimming, and other traditional camp activities, A.R.E. encouraged campers to participate in unconventional pastimes, like massage trains that resembled a conga line of male counselors and young girls, hugging circles, and learning “body-mind-spirit” resources.

During the “Liberated Underwear Movement,” underage campers would run through the rural grounds in their underwear. On “Goddess Night,” girls would be expected to strip naked and run through a field while male staffers and fellow campers cheered them on.

Now, at least eight women have come forward to allege they were sexually harassed and abused by adult counselors and other staff members, whose ages ranged from late teens to early 40s, according to two lawsuits filed Wednesday in Virginia Beach.

“I was 12 years old the first time I was sexually assaulted by an A.R.E. counselor,” one woman, identified in the lawsuit as Lynsey Doe, said during a Wednesday press conference. She alleged she was assaulted by two counselors between 2009 and 2014. “I reported the assault to camp authorities, who did nothing. When I was 16, 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. It was a horrible, degrading experience.”

The women are among dozens who say they were victims of a cult-like organization that brainwashed campers to believe in unconditional love and forgiveness—even against their abusers. The lawsuits state that victims told camp managers about assaults but were ignored and their abusers continued to work.

“A.R.E. created a cult-like atmosphere that encouraged sexually abusive behavior by these camp counselors,” attorney Steve Estey, who is representing the women, said on Wednesday. The lawsuit alleges A.R.E knew of sexual abuse dating back to the late 1980s.

The lawsuits, which name Executive Director Kevin Todeschi, seek $10 million per client, as well as punitive damages.

In a statement, Todeschi said A.R.E. first became aware of the allegations last summer when some former campers posted their experiences on the group’s Facebook page. An independent investigation was launched and A.R.E. encouraged others to come forward, he said.

“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,” Todeschi said, adding that the camp was closed last year due to COVID-19 and will remain closed while the investigation continues.

“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,” he added.

How My Long Journey to Overcome Sexual Abuse Landed Me in NXIVM

According to A.R.E.’s website, the non-profit organization was founded in 1931 by Edgar Cayce, a clairvoyant and self-proclaimed spiritualist known as the “sleeping prophet.” The organization offers a camp for children aged 10 to 16, a retreat for teenagers, a family camp, and year-round activities for all ages based on Cayce’s principles.

The lawsuits claim that, from a young age, participants of the Rural Retreat camp were taught that A.R.E. is the “safest place for them” and that everyone there was a “good person” who should be loved and forgiven without hesitation. Campers were told that the “world was depending on their unconditional love and forgiveness.”

“The culture created by the lack of boundaries and failure to hold anyone accountable for their actions led to a dangerous cycle of continued sexual abuse and cover-ups that has lasted generations,” one lawsuit states. “Those who have been abused are told they would be going against everything they had ever been taught if they spoke up.

“They were told they would lose the community they had grown up in often since birth, and quite frequently a community that stretched through generations of families. They were made to feel they would be left with no family and no home. They would have to carry the shame of not believing, not being able to reach enlightenment. And they were told it would be their fault, and their fault alone.”

That mindset was ingrained in Lynsey Doe, who began attending camp at age 9. She was forced to participate in daily hugging sessions and massage sessions with staffers.

In 2009, when she was 12, she was sexually assaulted by a camp counselor after being coerced to play “spin the bottle” with two other male staffers and two girls, the lawsuit alleges.

The counselor, who was then 18 or 19, “placed his hands under the clothing and her underwear and penetrated her vagina.” Later that night, he tried to get her “to a secluded place with him...to further sexually abuse her.”

The lawsuit says Lynsey told a camp manager about the abuse—but nothing happened. No report was made to local police. Years later, Lynsey was forced to participate in a “Forgiveness Ceremony,” where she had to tell her abuser she forgave him and embraced him.

The lawsuit states that, when she was 15, Lynsey began a relationship with a 22-year-old counselor, who raped and sexually abused her for years.

Another victim, only identified as Jane Doe, was also sexually abused when she was 16 under the guise of “spin the bottle,” the lawsuit states.

“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... In the context of the camp, his behavior was normalized,” Jane Doe said on Wednesday.

Hannah Furbush, a third-generation camper, said on Wednesday that she started going to camp as an infant and her parents were both employees. The lawsuit states that she estimates she was sexually abused, molested, or harassed “at least one hundred times” over the years.

In one instance, a senior camp director allegedly massaged her against her will, touched her butt, and tried to kiss her. When Furbush, 27, lodged complaints, she was made to feel like an outcast and told to meditate and write about it in her journal.

“They did nothing other than to say this is the way things are,” she said Wednesday. “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.”

Furbush detailed the camp’s bizarre activities, like the “Liberated Underwear Movement” in which “minor campers ran through the camp in their underwear” and sometimes “male counselors would participate.”

She also participated in “Goddess Night,” in which “female campers would run through a field naked, and the male campers would stand at the top of a hill watching and yelling at the girls,” the lawsuit states. “These events were considered to be a right [sic] of passage for young campers, and it was made clear that participation in the events was expected of each camper,” it says.

Another camper, identified as Cheyenne Doe, alleges she was raped in 2010, at age 16, by a counselor she had a crush on. Afterward, she said, she felt like a “throwaway” and blamed herself and the camp.

“He took advantage of me and others when he should have been taking care of us,” she said Wednesday.

The apparent open secret of abuse came to light in mid-2020, when a former A.R.E camper wrote a lengthy Facebook post laying out “several claims of inappropriate behavior.” Almost immediately, other Facebook users began to share similar stories.

The lawsuits note that A.R.E purposefully didn’t keep records of any reported assaults, allowing the camp to retain employees accused of abuse.

“They chose to cover it up instead of reporting it,” Estey, the attorney, said. “Their coverup and negligence demonstrate a pattern of systemic abuse that has traumatized my clients—they’re all suffering emotional anguish and anxiety as a result of being abused.”

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