Published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom based in New York.
Katie Meyler, the founder of More Than Me, temporarily stepped down from her position as the American charity’s chief executive officer pending the results of a Liberian panel’s review of an investigation published by ProPublica and TIME last Thursday. The focus of the article was the rapes of girls by a senior employee of the charity Meyler created to protect them from sexual exploitation.
“In reviewing the allegations as published by ProPublica and TIME, we uncovered several statements that were either inconsistent with the information provided to us by More Than Me leadership or that were new information,” the charity’s Liberian advisory board said in a statement.
The charity board’s chairman, Skip Borghese, resigned, calling this an “inflection point” for the organization. And a three-person committee of the organization’s board of directors said in a statement that it will select a law firm with educational and investigatory expertise to conduct its own “in-depth, independent audit of our organization, including our governing structure.”
In response to the story, the charity says it will now provide private, schoolwide HIV testing at its academy. Macintosh Johnson, the former key staffer accused of rape, had AIDS when he died. While 10 girls testified against him, as many as 30 girls were named as potential victims. The 10 who testified were tested for HIV at the time.
In a statement released Monday, a committee of seven Liberian government agencies said it was “greatly concerned” by ProPublica’s findings and had convened two “emergency meetings” since the story published “with the view to taking the appropriate legal actions to protect the children and ensure they are safe.”
The statement noted actions being taken by each of the agencies:
“The Ministry of Justice will reopen the rape case against Johnson ‘to determine any new evidence and further culpability.’ The Ministry of Education will strengthen the monitoring and evaluation, and ensure that the regulation and compliance surrounding all schools are intensified. The Ministry of Health will work to address all health issues relating to the matter. The Ministry of Labor will investigate to determine whether there was strict adherence to the National HIV/AIDS workplace policy at More Than Me Academy, and whether any labor laws were violated. The Ministry of Youth and Sports will lead the anti-stigmatization efforts to ensure the protection of the (survivors) and other unrelated persons, who may have otherwise been affected. The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning will work on strengthening the implementation on monitoring, compliance and enforcement to ensure proper processes leading to accreditation of non-governmental organization. The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection will ascertain if there were any lapses in the adherence to the provisions of the Child Law of Liberia.”
The government of Liberia wrote, in the statement, that “this will be a full-scale investigation,” and it asked the public for information that would be helpful.
These announcements came within four days of the publication of a story and documentary that brought to light how the charity missed opportunities to prevent the rape of its students by a key employee. In the years that followed, Meyler and the board deflected responsibility, placing blame entirely on Johnson and the systemic problems of operating in Liberia.
Ninety minutes before the article went online, Meyler — who had been informed by ProPublica of what the story would contain — appeared on a radio show in Liberia with host Henry Costa. “They paid to appear,” Costa wrote in response to critics on Facebook, asking why he had given the organization a platform. “What’s the crime in hosting a paying customer to appear and discuss their work?”
In the interview, Meyler and three charity staff members emphasized the good work the organization was doing. Tenneh Johnson, a staffer at the Liberian Ministry of Justice’s sex crimes unit, called in “to confirm what More Than Me is saying. … They are doing a very good work.” The unit failed to successfully prosecute the case against Johnson and was suspected by jurors of bribery, which the unit denied.
Costa then asked Meyler about “this unfortunate incident … where one of your staff was involved … there was some unfortunate sexual encounter with one of the girls. And you took charge of the situation, got ahead of it, had the authorities informed.” Costa went on. “It seems that some people don’t want to let it go. Now there is this report out there; some guy has apparently made a documentary, clearly meant to profit from it, and he’s trying to exploit it, and he’s twisting the facts.”
“Yep,” Meyler said.
“What do you make of it?” Costa asked. “Why don’t they want to let this go?”
“Costa, if you could maybe bring him on the show and ask him. That would be very helpful. I have no idea,” Meyler said. “It was June 12, 2014, that I was alerted about the abuse. The perpetrator was in jail by June 16, and he never walked the streets again. And this will not go away.”
In her closing comments on the show, Meyler repeated the only mistake she had acknowledged to ProPublica, which was that she was sorry for hiring Johnson.
“Come on, Katie,” asked Costa. “How could you have known?”
The interview contrasted with the charity’s official statement, which appeared on its web site the next day:
“We are deeply, profoundly sorry. To all the girls who were raped by Macintosh Johnson in 2014 and before: we failed you. We gave Johnson power that he exploited to abuse children. Those power dynamics broke staff ability to report the abuse to our leadership immediately. Our leadership should have recognized the signs earlier and we have and will continue to employ training and awareness programs so we do not miss this again. …
“We acknowledge the enormous complexity of being responsible for the care of children and that previously we were naive to believe that providing education alone is enough to protect these girls from the abuses they may face — strong institutions, safeguarding policies and vigilance are needed to do that.”
Charity representatives were expected to attend a town hall meeting in the West Point neighborhood of the capital, Monrovia, announced by a Liberian public relations expert. Liberia’s Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor was named as convenor of the discussion involving charity officials, government actors, families of survivors, and “all concerned citizens.” But the event was called off. In a Facebook statement, the vice president called ProPublica’s reporting “a horrific reminder of what continues to happen to the most vulnerable in our society.” Emphasizing the need to care for the victims, she said: “I vehemently denounce this act of exploiting our young girls and putting an organization’s interest before the lives of our children. I will never condone these acts from anyone, be it foreign or domestic.”
Amid a deluge of criticism of the organization and its founder, ProPublica’s story has inspired a wider conversation among some Liberians about the prevalence of violence against women in Liberia, and about the lack of accountability of foreign aid groups operating in the country.
The independent Liberian panel conducting one of the reviews will include representatives of prominent NGOs and the government of Liberia, and will be overseen by Liberian lawyer T. Negbalee Warner. The panel was convened by the charity’s Liberian advisory board, which was formed in 2o15.
In its statement on Sunday, the Liberian advisory board members said they met with three different government agencies — overseeing justice, child welfare and education — the day after the story published and “are willing to fully cooperate with the government in whatever it envisions to do.” Girls supported by the charity reached out to the advisory board, fearful that the charity’s programs and school could be closed.
“They are concerned because they believe that the closure of the program is the end of their hope for a better future,” the advisory board statement said.
Meyler wrote in her own statement: “I support the Advisory Board’s decision and will cooperate fully with the investigative firm, and I believe stepping aside while the investigation is underway will further the goal of a thorough and impartial review. I’m confident that the results from this investigation will outline the best way forward for More Than Me.”
The board of directors, in announcing its own full audit, said the three-member committee conducting it will be made up only of members who joined since 2015.
“We fell short, and we are determined to learn all that we can from this painful chapter and to continue to support the girls who were victimized,” the board said in a statement. It said it would direct auditors and investigators to be sensitive in dealing with the girls at risk of being re-traumatized, and said a mechanism would be established for anyone to anonymously submit information to the investigations.
“We will be transparent in communicating the findings and recommendations we receive,” it said.