RICHMOND, Va. — The Association for Research and Enlightenment describes itself as a 90-year-old organization for people to explore meditation, holistic health and the meaning of life. But eight women who filed lawsuits against the organization Wednesday allege they were sexually harassed, abused or raped as children while attending its rural Virginia summer camp.
In the lawsuits, filed in state court in Virginia Beach, where the organization is headquartered, the women describe what they said was a decadeslong camp culture that let adult male staffers sexually abuse young female campers with impunity.
During a virtual news conference, four of the women described the alleged abuse and a cult-like atmosphere at the camp, where they said they were taught unconditional love and forgiveness, even toward their abusers.
“The organization made a rape culture possible,” said one of the women, identified in the complaint only as Lynsey Doe.
The A.R.E. organization was founded by Edgar Cayce in 1931. On its website, the association says Cayce, who died in 1945, has been described as the “father of holistic medicine” and “the most documented psychic of the 20th century.” The organization describes its mission as creating opportunities for personal change in body, mind and spirt using Cayce’s readings.
The A.R.E. Camp opened in the early 1960s and is located in Rural Retreat, a small southwest Virginia town.
The women said the 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.
Lynsey, who attended the camp as a minor from 2008 to 2013, said campers and staff were told to hug each other, and she was forced to participate in “massage trains” with campers and staff giving each other massages and back rubs.
The lawsuit says that when Lynsey was 12, a male camp counsellor aged 18 or 19 forced her to play “Spin the Bottle,” forced her to touch his genitals and placed his hands under her clothing and digitally raped her.
The lawsuit says she told the camp manager what happened, but her alleged abuser was allowed to stay at the camp and no report was made to authorities.
When she was 17, she returned to the camp for a young adult retreat, where she said she was forced to embrace her abuser and tell him she forgave him, the lawsuit states.
Another plaintiff, Hannah Furbush, who attended the camp as a child and later worked as a camp counsellor and staff member, estimates she experienced sexual abuse, molestation and harassment at least 100 times at the camp. The Associated Press does not generally name sexual assault victims, but Furbush gave her permission for her name to be used.
She said she was coerced into participating in a “Liberated Underwear Movement” event in which underage female campers would run through the camp in 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 and yelled at them from a hilltop.
Furbush said that when she was a 20-year-old staff member, a senior camp director massaged her against her will, touched her buttocks and tried to kiss her. She said she also was “sexually violated” by a different male staff member. Both times, 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,” she said.
Reached Wednesday, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Todeschi, who is named as a defendant, said he had not yet seen the lawsuits and could not respond to the specific allegations.
“We’re horrified. This is absolutely contrary to everything the organization stands for,” he told The Associated Press in a brief phone interview.
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 Facebook page “that they had experienced or had seen inappropriate behaviour, and even sexual assault.”
Todeschi said the board commissioned an independent outside investigation agency to scrutinize the allegations “and to encourage anyone who experienced harm to come forward.”
Todeschi said the investigation is continuing, and two committees have been established, one to address any systemic or policy-based changes needed, and the other to review camp personnel.
The camp was closed last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Todeschi said 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. 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 said.
Denise Lavoie, The Associated Press