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Lawsuits allege sexual abuse at A.R.E. Rural Retreat summer camp

Lawsuits allege sexual abuse at A.R.E. Rural Retreat summer camp

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Two lawsuits have been filed on behalf of eight former campgoers who claim they were sexually assaulted or raped as minors at a Rural Retreat summer camp, the group’s attorneys announced last Wednesday.

The eight campers named in the lawsuit attended the A.R.E. (Association of Research and Enlightenment) Camp in Rural Retreat at various times. The lawsuits were filed against the A.R.E. organization that runs the camp.

In a virtual news conference, the former campgoers said camp culture and the A.R.E. organization’s dismissal of complaints perpetuated the assaults by camp counselors.

One former camper, who went only by her first name, Lynsey, said she spoke up several times to camp leadership about sexual abuse she experienced only to have it brushed away.

Lynsey, now 23, said she was raped by an adult counselor at the age of 13 and again at 15 by a 22-year-old counselor. She was the first woman to come forward with abuse allegations against the camp.

Founded in 1931, the summer camp is for members of the Association of Research and Enlightenment, a naturalist group founded by Edgar Cayce, a spiritualist known as the “Sleeping Prophet” who claimed to be clairvoyant. A.R.E. is headquartered in Virginia Beach, and the camp is located on the Smyth County side of Rural Retreat.

A second woman, who used her full name, Hannah Furbush, in the lawsuit, was a third-generation camper who said she began attending the children’s camp when she was 10. Over the years, she said, she noticed that female campers were being preyed upon by staff members.

“And that’s because hugs and massages and physical touch between children and adults was encouraged, but it went well beyond that,” she said.

She added that she was assaulted when she was a camp counselor at the age of 20. She reported sexual harassment again in 2017, she said.

A third woman, a 27-year-old from Floyd who goes by Cheyenne Doe in the lawsuit, said campers learned about things like “the liberated underwear movement,” in which campers marched through camp in their bras and panties or boxers.

A news release announcing the lawsuits also claimed there was an activity called “Goddess Night,” in which female campers were expected to run naked through a field as male staffers and campers cheered them on.

A fourth woman, Jane Doe #1 in the lawsuit, said she was the victim of multiple childhood sexual assaults, all at the A.R.E. camp.

A request for comment from A.R.E. leaders was not returned by press time.

However, A.R.E. Executive Director Kevin Todeschi said in a statement to several media outlets that the board first became aware of allegations of inappropriate behavior and sexual assault last summer, when some past campers posted about their experiences on the camp’s Facebook page.

“We continue to be extraordinarily distressed by these allegations,” Todeschi wrote in a statement to the Virginian-Pilot. “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 lawsuits, which were filed in Circuit Court in Virginia Beach, seek $10 million per client, as well as punitive damages from the organization. Individual counselors were not named in the lawsuit.

Smyth County Sheriff Chip Shuler said he is unaware of any sexual assaults stemming from the camp being reported to his office. He encouraged anyone who wants to file a criminal complaint to call the Smyth County Sheriff’s Office at 276-783-7204.

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