Sex Abuse Scandal & Cover-up at US NGO, Liberian Gov’t Slow to React
MONROVIA – A major investigation by US media non-profit ProPublica, has unveiled widespread sexual abuse at More Than Me (MTM), the US-charity that runs 19 schools in Liberia. The story alleges the NGO head Katie Meyler and the board of MTM went to great lengths to cover up the scandal. It also reports that More Than Me and government officials tried to influence the trial of the accused rapist.
Report by Bettie Johnson Mbayo, James Harding Giahyue and Tecee Boley
MTM was founded in 2009 by Katie Meyler to help get girls from the street to school, but this yearlong investigation conducted in collaboration with Time Magazine, revealed that the girls were raped from the onset. The man was the originally described as the charity’s co-founder, an ex-combatant named Macintosh Johnson, with whom Meyler was having a sexual relationship.
Soon after the founding, according to witnesses and court documents revealed in the report, Johnson began raping girls as young as ten. Admissions from Meyler herself said the number of girls who were raped at the More Than Me academy could have been a quarter of the school, “everyone over the age of 11.”
Some of the girls became pregnant. Johnson threatened if they didn’t get rid of the pregnancy or if they told anyone of the abuse, he would take them off scholarship at the school. He even threatened to kill some.
More Than Me has raised more than $8m in funding, nearly $600,000 of that from the US government. Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf showered praise on Meyler and presided over the opening of the More Than Me Academy in 2013. She gave Meyler the building for free and said her wish was, “to expand Katie Meyler’s initiative to as many communities as possible.”
President Sirleaf got that wish in 2016-2017 as MTM was given control of 19 schools in Liberia, educating 4,000 students. MTM’s goal is to run 500 schools by 2021, educating half a million students. Meyler appeared with George Werner, the education minister, in international education forums advocating the education system be given over to the private sector. The message led eventually to the deal with Bridge International.
Almost forgotten by then was the scandal of sexual abuse. The accused rapist, Johnson, went on trial just as Ebola hit West Point. Meyler threw herself into support for the people during the epidemic, visiting sick patients, providing an ambulance and other care. She was named one of Time magazine’s People of the Year. The trial, in which 10 girls testified against him, went almost unnoticed.
The ProPublica report posts grave questions about the actions John Gabriel, the director of Liberia’s Sexual and Gender-Based Violence unit. He did not call key witnesses in the trial, including the American MTM staffer who reported the case to police, to testify. The ProPublica reporting suggests the prosecution tried to influence the case to find Johnson guilty. Indeed jurors claimed they were paid bribes to find Johnson guilty. Johnson’s defense lawyer played on all of this. The jury told ProPublica they believed the case was rigged against Johnson. Their verdict was a hung jury.
Later Gabriel appeared to bully witnesses who spoke to ProPublica into withdrawing accusations against MTM. He sent letters of praise for MTM to the editors at ProPublica as part of an MTM campaign that tried to discredit the ProPublica journalists Fin Young and Kathleen Flynn.
When contacted late Thursday night Gabriel said he had not seen the report. He asked for the link to be sent to him and promised to respond Friday. (He did not respond Friday). Minister for Justice Musah Dean did not respond to a WhatsApp text or answer a call.
Before he could face trial again Johnson died of Aids. Several of the girls who testified also tested positive for HIV. The baby of one sick girl had died of an illness that could have been Aids. More Than Me did not test the rest of the girls in the school. Meyler and MTM President Saul Garlick said it wasn’t the charity’s job to check Johnson’s medical record. “Let me be super clear,” said Garlick. “It’s not my business what he died of. I have no idea.”
In a long statement issued on the More Than Me website today the organization apologized.
“We are deeply sorry: When we started this work, we believed that our energy and passion for improving girls’ lives was enough to create lasting change. We were ambitious but also naïve,” the statement reads.
“We are deeply saddened and regret that we were underprepared for the magnitude of the challenges we would face when we opened More Than Me Academy in 2013. We want to apologize to the brave girls who came forward, as well as those who potentially may not have, for the pain they have experienced from Johnson’s heinous actions. We stand by the girls and young women affected and we are here for them. We continue to support them with scholarships to school, healthcare, counseling, and monthly stipends to pursue their dreams.”
Front Page Africa reached out for comment from the key government ministries that oversee More Than Me’s operations in the country. Public Relations Officers from the Finance and Planning Ministry, which is in charge of accrediting NGOs in the country, asked for a formal letter before they would respond. Minister Tweah’s phone was off until deadline. A senior analyst at the ministry said More Than Me’s accreditation had expired in April this year but he would not provide evidence or go on the record to confirm this claim.
Education Minister Ansu Sonii told our reporter: “I have not read it (the report). Once it involves the partnership school and we find out the effect it has on our program, we will call a press conference.”
Our reporter contacted Ministry of Gender Social Children Protection Minister Williametta Piso Saydee Tarr on WhatsApp. The app showed the message had been read but the minister did not respond by deadline.
Iris Martor, the nurse who first discovered the abuse and who resigned last year, told ProPublica MTM didn’t listen to its staff and Katie didn’t understand Liberia. “They think we’re all stupid people with little or no education, and our system is fragile, and they can get away with things because their skin is white.”
Former board member Chid Liberty told ProPublica, MTM had “played a significant role in a big institutional crime against these girls… I think that if I started a school today in Brooklyn and this happened in Brooklyn, there is no way that they would say: ‘Well, this Liberian guy was just trying to help. It’s okay.” Liberty would like to see accountability, including for himself.
“Anywhere else in the world, everybody involved would be in some way held to account.”
Lakshmi Moore, Country Director for Action Aid, condemned More Than Me’s actions.
“It’s appalling that an organization that built its foundation and fundraising appeal on responding to the sexual abuse and exploitation would somehow naively not consider the power dynamics of its role as a “provider” and willfully neglect its responsibility to ensure that systems and mechanisms were in place to prevent and protect these girls from abuse. MTM festered an environment that enabled the very abuse they claimed to raise money to address and protect girls from. Access to education is not just about getting girls in schools but making sure the challenges that girls face before schools and during schools are addressed. The history of abuse and sexual violence in schools is not new so why did MTM ignore this?”
Moore said former Education Minister George Werner and other Sirleaf administration officials have questions to answer over the MTM scandal. Werner did not respond to a reporter’s calls or texts. FPA is also chasing former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is believed to be traveling in the USA.
“We are concerned about what actions were taken since then to prevent this systemic neglect given the role MTM plays in the PSL program now rebranded as LEAP,” said Moore. “How much did all actors, from the Ministry of Education to the private providers and funders know or care to know in 2016 when they awarded MYM 6 schools? And most importantly what actions will be taken against MTM now?”
Moore challenged the Weah government to step in. “If this government cares about girls’ education, it needs to set precedent to ensure that schools do not become playground for predators and that we do not reward those who enable predators. Which side is the government on?”
Erica Krutu Davies whose family has been in a court case with MTM over ownership of the property also celebrated the revelations.
“They should expose her for the person that she says she is and she’s not,” said Erica Krutu Davies, whose family has been involved in a case in court with MTM for eight years over the property that the charity occupies in Monrovia.
“I am a very happy person but I want the aftereffects to be a solution. I want for them to recognize the people that are coming in the country that do not have the heart for the country, that take advantage of our children, take advantage of our system, take advantage of our people.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.