Mercy Corps’ response to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver: investigation findings and commitments to action

Summary

In October 2019, Mercy Corps and its Board requested that investigative firm Vestry Laight conduct an independent, external review into what steps were taken when reports of abuse by Mercy Corps’ late co-founder Ellsworth Culver were brought to the organization’s attention in 2018.

Also in late 2019, Mercy Corps engaged law firm Nichols Liu to conduct a separate review evaluating the organization’s sexual exploitation and abuse policies and their applicability to these circumstances. Both reviews were published by Mercy Corps on January 29, 2020.

In response to the Vestry Laight and Nichols Liu reports, Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive team announced commitments to action to restructure and strengthen legal, ethics and safeguarding functions, update policies and strengthen Board governance.

The commitments to action can be found here and you can find more details on the commitments and progress below. We are reporting twice a year on progress fulfilling our commitments to action, with bi-annual progress reports from July 2020 and January 2021. Mercy Corps’ annual Global Safeguarding Reports are also available on our website (Fiscal Year 2020, Fiscal Year 2019 parts 1 and 2.

One of the commitments to action was to undertake a second phase independent, external investigation to determine the extent of the abuse perpetrated by Ellsworth Culver and any other abusers who might be identified, and to review the response of the Mercy Corps Board in 1992 and 1993 when the organization was first made aware of the abuse. That independent investigation was published in full by Mercy Corps on May 19, 2021. Please know that the report contains deeply disturbing details that may be traumatic and triggering, especially for survivors of abuse. A statement by the Mercy Corps Board of Directors in response to the Freeh Group report was also published on May 19, 2021. The report does not relate to any current Mercy Corps team members, Board Directors, or programming.

Phase 1 Investigation findings

The scope of the review conducted by Vestry Laight was: determine the facts of what steps were taken by Mercy Corps in regard to the allegations in 2018; identify any internal control failing; and make recommendations for process and governance reforms if appropriate.

Vestry Laight’s report included the following key findings and recommendations:

  • Mercy Corps made errors of judgment in 2018, including a failure to engage with a survivor of abuse in accordance with our core values.
  • There was no evidence that any Mercy Corps employee or Board Director engaged in intentional wrongdoing or an effort to cover up Ellsworth Culver’s conduct, the survivor’s abuse, or Mercy Corps’ 1990s investigation of abuse.
  • Mercy Corps should: conduct further phases of investigation, including into Ellsworth Culver’s activities during his time at the organization; restructure the legal and ethics functions, ensuring adequate resources for safeguarding; and strengthen board governance, including providing oversight of safeguarding and culture.

You can read Vestry Laight’s report here (also available in French, Spanish, and Arabic).

Nichols Liu’s evaluation of the Mercy Corps’ current policies and procedures on sexual exploitation and abuse contains the following key findings and recommendations:

  • Mercy Corps’ policies addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and misconduct promote leading-edge principles that align with guidelines published by the United Nations, USAID, FCDO and other major donors. Mercy Corps’ policies exceed the requirements of the organization’s largest donor - the US Agency for International Development - by taking a survivor-centered approach.
  • Mercy Corps team members responsible for communications with a survivor in 2018 did not consider these policies applicable to their response. Regardless of whether safeguarding policies expressly covered this request, Mercy Corps should have drawn upon the values underlying those policies in their response. Mercy Corps could further strengthen and define its internal protocols to improve application of the policies to certain, specific situations.
  • The investigation conducted in the 1990s by the Mercy Corps Board into abuse allegations by Ms. Culver Humphrey against her father Ellsworth Culver fell short of modern standards and Mercy Corps’ current policies.

You can read Nichols Liu’s full report here (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic).

Read a statement by Mercy Corps’ Board on the findings and recommendations of the Vestry Laight and Nichols Liu reports (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic).

Phase 2 Investigation findings

Following the Phase 1 review by Vestry Laight, Mercy Corps commissioned a second external, independent investigation by Freeh Group International Solutions (Freeh Group), which has since been acquired by AlixPartners LLP, to determine the extent of the abuse perpetrated by Ellsworth Culver and any other abusers who might be identified, and to review the response of the Mercy Corps Board in 1992 and 1993 when the organization was first made aware of the abuse. Please know that the report contains deeply disturbing details that may be traumatic and triggering, especially for survivors of abuse. The Freeh Group’s investigative report (also available in French, Spanish, and Arabic) was published on May 19, 2021 and detailed a number of findings, including:

  • The nature and extent of the disclosure relayed by the survivor in the 1990s to certain Mercy Corps leaders was serious in nature, but did not prompt those leaders to have an experienced sexual assault investigator conduct a thorough investigation using a survivor-centered approach. 
  • The members of the 1993 Mercy Corps Special Committee demonstrated a serious lack of independence, failed to take a survivor-centered approach and had clear conflicts of interest. There was no evidence that the full Board of Directors was consulted on the committee composition or updated on the nature and extent of allegations.
  • No new survivors came forward during the Freeh Group investigation. The survivor informed the investigative team of incidences of severe sexual and physical abuse, prior to and during Ellsworth Culver’s tenure at Mercy Corps. Based on the survivor’s statements, the investigative team turned over information to law enforcement regarding six additional victims and eight additional alleged abusers, seven of whom were previously affiliated with Mercy Corps in some capacity.

A statement by the Mercy Corps Board of Directors in response to the Freeh Report was published on May 19, 2021 (also available in French, Spanish, and Arabic). The report does not relate to any current Mercy Corps team members, Board Directors, or programming. We recognize the actions taken by Mercy Corps in the 1990s and 2018 deepened a survivor’s suffering, and for that we are profoundly sorry. We apologize unreservedly to her and other unidentified survivors in the Freeh Group report, and we know this report will in no way bring justice or lessen their pain. We are reckoning with the abhorrent actions detailed in the Freeh Group report. The predation and exploitation of the most vulnerable, and Mercy Corps’ past failures in this case, could not be more opposed to our mission and the values that guide our work.

Progress fulfilling our commitments to action

Coinciding with the release of the Vestry Laight and Nichols Liu reports in early 2020,  Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive Team announced a number of commitments to action to restructure and strengthen the organization’s legal, ethics and safeguarding functions, update policies and strengthen Board governance. We’ve made significant progress in delivering on our commitments to action, and we know that the work to improve our safeguarding systems, governance and accountability mechanisms is never truly finished and will require ongoing commitment, resources and effort. Here is a summary of progress made fulfilling the commitments to action:

  • Conduct further phases of investigation into how this case was handled by Mercy Corps in the 1990s and to determine the extent of sexual abuse committed by Ellsworth Culver in connection with his role at Mercy Corps. Freeh Group’s report of its independent investigation was published in full by Mercy Corps on May 19, 2021. 
  • Develop an inclusive process to examine and reassess how we reflect the role of Ellsworth Culver and others in our organization’s history. Now that the Freeh Group investigation is complete, we will undertake this difficult but critical task.
  • Restructure the legal, ethics and safeguarding functions. We hired Steve Linick as our first Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, independent of both the legal and human resource departments, reporting to the CEO and the Board of Directors and overseeing a stand-alone ethics and compliance department. Intake and investigations of safeguarding allegations are overseen by  the Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.
  • Continue to strengthen Mercy Corps’ approach to safeguarding, including a significant investment to strengthen our capacity and systems that support prevention and the intake, case management and investigative oversight for alleged ethics violations, including safeguarding. We continue to invest significant additional resources into global safeguarding, with multiple permanent staff overseen by a Director of Safeguarding. Trained safeguarding prevention roles and co-investigators are now active in over 30 countries (and prevention roles will be active in all countries where Mercy Corps operates by June 30, 2021). We have developed additional Safeguarding and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) trainings and capacity building plans for senior management, in addition to mandatory agency-wide PSEA training, updated safeguarding policies and created a new Community Accountability Reporting Mechanism (CARM) policy to ensure community members can provide feedback and voice complaints in a safe, confidential and accessible way.
  • Review Board governance and committee structures to ensure best safeguarding practices with external expert advisers. Mercy Corps’ Board has recruited new Board Directors,  initiated a governance review,  created a new Ethics and Safeguarding Committee of the Board to strengthen oversight of safeguarding issues, and is in the process of implementing Board Director term limits.

The full list of our commitments to action can be found here (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic). We will be transparent with Mercy Corps team members, donors and the wider community as we deliver against these commitments. To that end, click here for our January 2021 progress report on the delivery of our commitments to action, and click here for our previous progress report from July 2020.

For additional details, please see:

  • Frequently Asked Questions: FAQ: How has Mercy Corps responded to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver?
  • Response Timeline: Timeline of actions in Mercy Corps’ response to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver

Reporting misconduct

Mercy Corps takes seriously its responsibility to ensure team members, operations and programs do no harm to those we work with or put vulnerable populations at risk of abuse or exploitation.

We provide multiple avenues by which team members, partners, program participants, and community members can report concerns, including anonymously, and we encourage anyone with concerns or evidence of misconduct to come forward and make a report through our Integrity Hotline. Anyone can make a report by email to integrityhotline@mercycorps.org. Reports can be made anonymously online at mercycorps.org/integrityhotline or by phone/text at (800) 461-9330 (for international dialing see mercycorps.org/integrityhotline for the number available in your country).

Our policies on Ethics Complaints and Whistleblowing, Child Safeguarding, Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Beneficiaries and Community Members, Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace and Anti-Trafficking are available here.