Tania Culver Humphrey '99 shares her story of surviving sexual abuse, after a long struggle with Mercy Corps executives. Photo by Ariel McGee

Alumna speaks on exposing abuse by father, Mercy Corps co-founder

WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.

Earlier this year, Lewis & Clark alumna Tania Culver Humphrey ’99 publicly came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against her father. Her father, Ellsworth Culver, was the co-founder of the Portland-based humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. According to their website, “Mercy Corps is a global humanitarian organization empowering people to recover from crisis, build better lives and transform their communities for good.” 

Mercy Corps was founded 38 years ago by Culver and fellow co-founder Dan O’Neill. It is currently one of the leading international non-governmental organizations focusing on development, humanitarian aid and food security, among other missions. The organization has more than 5,500 team members operating in over 40 countries.

In a 10-month-long investigation published under the title “No Mercy,” The Oregonian details Humphrey’s childhood and the timeline of events following the series of allegations made against Culver. 

 “Humphrey said she first told Mercy Corps about the allegations in 1992 when she was in college,” the story says. “Over the following two years, board members reviewed her claims. Three Mercy Corps board members interviewed her in the offices of a downtown Portland law firm where she said she told them her father had masturbated on her, touched her inappropriately, kissed her in a sexualized manner and forced his penis into her mouth while showering with her.” 

“No Mercy” describes the outcome of the two year investigation conducted from 1992 to 1994, stating that, “the organization eventually concluded her account was troubling but inadequate. Culver denied the allegations and was never criminally charged with abuse.” 

Culver continued to serve as an executive and the public face of Mercy Corps until his death in 2005. After the death of her father, several inconclusive internal and external investigations into Humphrey’s allegations and a 2019 update to Mercy Corps’ ethics policy, Humphrey decided to bring her story to the media.

In an interview with The Pioneer Log, Humphrey detailed the decision to tell her story publicly.

“My decision was prompted by the (Mercy Corps) ethics policy,” Humphrey said. “I had always wanted to stop hiding, you know, I always wanted to but it was prompted by the need to be safely heard, with accountability and in the light. And I didn’t feel like I was safe at all with people not hearing me and … (Mercy Corps was) clearly not interested in being ethical with their ethics policy … So, do I think my story would have been heard have not gone public with it? No.” 

During the 1992 Mercy Corps internal investigation, Humphrey was preparing for her last year at LC. She spoke about her decision to leave LC and how the investigation impacted this decision. 

“I was (at LC) and I had to leave — it would have been my last year,” Humphrey said. “Later on, especially, I felt really, like so much was taken from me. You know, like so much of … what was important to me was taken away from me and chances and opportunities … were just stripped from me. On top of personally feeling so minimized and so crushed, everything that I worked for was also taken away. In order to survive that time period, I really had to … do what I could to survive it and that involved leaving (LC).”

In 1998, Humphrey returned to LC and completed the last year of her undergraduate degree in psychology. She described her experience returning to college as a non-traditional student. 

“I came back and I was determined to finish, but I didn’t get to graduate with people I knew,” Humphrey said. “Everybody was gone. You work so hard — it’s not easy — and there’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s a small place, with teachers and with people in your major and your classes and then to have it gone and come back in to finish, kind of on your own … I was very proud of myself that I did it.”

In Humphrey’s last year at LC, she began to take more art classes than she had in her previous years. 

“Before (returning to LC), psychology was so important to me but I probably would have double majored or something like that. I didn’t really know how to value that creativity in myself, and how much art meant to me,” Humphrey said. 

After graduating, Humphrey pursued her interest in art. She spoke about her transition from college to working as an art teacher for children, and how becoming a mother has shaped her life. Humphrey now operates the Leaping Heart Studio out of her home. 

“My primary mission and goal is to support kids, or people, or anybody, in having confidence in their ability to be creative … to just nurture that, literally nurture, because I think people are very wounded with art and their creativity,” Humphrey said. 

Throughout 2019, Humphrey has been telling her story to state and nationwide news outlets. She spoke about how her story has been handled by Mercy Corps, and the actions that still need to be taken. 

“(The Mercy Corps) ethics committee shows a culture that needs to be changed if anyone’s going to be safe, in my opinion,” Humphrey said. “Do I think they can change it? I think they can. I think the employees want them to. And if they’re committed, they are powerful institution that can choose to. Everybody has a choice to do what’s right or wrong. And they have the means and they have the power to do what’s right, to ensure accountability, to ensure that people are safe, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.” 

On Oct. 11, Humphrey returned to the Mercy Corps headquarters to see messages of support that employees had written on the sidewalk. According to The Oregonian, “by the end, more than 75 people, some with tears running down their cheeks, formed a semi-circle around Humphrey.” 

“There were really a lot of people sharing their pain and sharing that they were inspired and wanting me to know that,” Humphrey said. “Mercy Corps still has an opportunity and a choice to make themselves into what they want to be and who they say they are. And if they do that, then that is amazing and fantastic. It would be a great example for other institutions because everyone should be doing that.  Can I say that I would have concerns for people who work there today, if they don’t change? Yes. Because, look what happened to me. How could I possibly say otherwise — if they were willing to do that to me.” 

Additional reporting by 

Hanna Merzbach

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