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Unforgiven, and never forgotten

At Camp Good News, a counselor suspected of abuse went unchecked, and there may have been others. Now, more than a dozen former campers are coming forward, hoping justice will at last be done.

Camp Good News staffer Charles Devita, who has been accused of sexually abusing four campers over the course of 15 years, killed himself in April. Camp Good News staffer Charles Devita, who has been accused of sexually abusing four campers over the course of 15 years, killed himself in April.
By Sally Jacobs and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / June 5, 2011

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SANDWICH — Charles “Chip’’ Lewis found the naked boys by accident.

A longtime counselor at Camp Good News, a Christian summer camp on Cape Cod, Lewis had recently moved into a cabin with another staffer in the summer of 1997. When he logged on to his cabin-mate’s computer to check his own e-mail, images of boys engaged in lurid sexual acts materialized on the screen. Unwilling to believe that the pornography belonged to the staffer he lived with and knew well, Lewis deleted the images and set the matter aside. But when more photos of naked boys appeared on the computer in the coming weeks, Lewis informed the camp’s director, Faith Willard.

The next day, Willard and Lewis confronted Charles “Chuck’’ Devita, the camp’s groundsman and former boating director. As Lewis recalls it, Willard asked Devita only one question: Are you a homosexual? Devita, then 29, said he was not and explained that he had stumbled upon the images by accident.

Apparently satisfied, Willard suggested that they pray.

“We all three put our heads down, and Faith led us in prayer,’’ recalled Lewis. “And that was more or less that. Faith wanted to believe it was an accident, and so that is what it was. To think otherwise would have been far too painful.’’

Fourteen years later that decision is the subject of intense scrutiny as Camp Good News has become engulfed in a mushrooming cloud of allegations of sexual abuse committed by members of its staff. The accusations come from former campers moved to act after Senator Scott Brown’s revelation in February that he had been abused at a Cape Cod summer camp, later identified as Camp Good News. Since then, at least 14 former campers have come forward, to an attorney or to police, alleging they were sexually assaulted there from the 1970s through 2000. They have identified Devita and four other staffers as their abusers.

Their claims are as varied as they are sordid. One former camper says he was roughed up and molested by a counselor on a field trip to Battleship Cove in Fall River. A 45-year-old Florida woman who was a camper in the 1970s says she was raped in a bathroom on three occasions by a janitor who threatened to kill her mother if she told.

Brown wrote in his autobiography, “Against All Odds,’’ that he was the victim of a long-haired staffer who followed him into the infirmary bathroom and fondled him. Then 10, Brown held his secret for more than four decades, identifying neither the camp where he was abused nor his abuser.

Devita, a popular camp veteran, has been accused of sexually abusing four campers over the course of 15 years, starting in 1985 when he was 17 years old. In the most recent allegation leveled against him, a male former camper told his attorney that on a summer night in 2000, Devita arranged to meet him at the camp’s beach to loan him some money he needed for clothes, but instead sexually assaulted him. The boy, then 13, was so terrified of the older man that he didn’t tell anyone what had happened to him until now, according to Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who represents the former campers and says he will file a lawsuit on their behalf.

Devita will never face his accusers. Two days after the Cape and Islands district attorney’s office confirmed in early April that it was investigating, the 43-year-old New Yorker shot himself in his red pickup truck in a wooded area on camp property. Devita, who at the time of his death was the director of the camp’s physical plant, left behind notes declaring that he was innocent of the allegations and was “sick of being accused.’’

Authorities would not comment on whether criminal charges are likely to be brought against any of the other camp workers, given the many years since the alleged incidents. But it remains a possibility, since some of those accused of molesting campers have left the state — meaning the statute of limitations may have not have run out in some cases.

“It’s a priority to get to the bottom of what occurred out there, particularly with respect to whether or not there are people who are still in a position to be preying on children,’’ said Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe. “That’s the focus.’’

As part of O’Keefe’s inquiry, the camp property was searched in recent weeks by State Police, who seized computers and records. A camp spokesperson said Good News staff “cooperated fully’’ with the troopers.

Administrators of the family-operated camp, who canceled this summer’s sessions while the allegations are being investigated, have said they were unaware of any concern about Devita other than that raised by Lewis. But several staffers — as well as Devita’s own mother — say they raised questions about Devita’s interaction with young boys to Willard, but that she didn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the problem, nor did she forcefully intervene.

Far from punishing him, camp administrators gave Devita increasing responsibility and seemed to embrace him with ever more warmth as the years passed. By 1999, Devita had become nearly indispensable, a handyman who could fix anything from a sagging roof to a moody computer, and one of few licensed to drive the camp bus.

In December 1999, Devita, who had started at Camp Good News as a camper in the late 1970s, was made a permanent member of the staff and appointed to the board of the Society for Christian Activities, the nonprofit organization that runs the camp. At the board’s semiannual meeting the following summer, a report on staff declared: “Chuck Devita is a blessing, is highly organized and comes with many skills,’’ according to the minutes.

Several counselors, however, remained concerned that no action had been taken in the two years after the discovery of child pornography on Devita’s computer. Although many of them liked the easy-going Devita, they began to watch him. As the years passed, some counselors wondered whether the camp’s culture of Christian forgiveness had made administrators more willing to look past behaviors they preferred not to believe could happen there — and especially in so valued a staffer.

Despite Willard’s insistence that Devita had done nothing wrong, she urged several trusted counselors to keep an eye on him, according to one counselor. And in the draft of a letter — which spokesperson Nancy Sterling confirms Willard wrote to a camp counselor in 2002 but did not, for reasons unspecified, send — Willard noted that Devita had never denied the pornography that Lewis found on his computer.

“I felt Chuck had confessed, repented, and was forgiven,’’ Willard wrote in the letter obtained by the Globe. “That seemed scripturally sound to me. When God forgives, He has stated that He buries our sins in the deepest sea and remembers them no more. I thank God no one has fished around for my forgiven sins.’’

And so it was that in the summer of 1998, some counselors began to pray about Devita themselves.

“We prayed about the Chuck situation several times a week that summer,’’ recalled Solomon Petchers, director of the junior boys camp at the time and a camper for a decade. “We prayed because the situation seemed to be getting darker and no one was listening to us.’’

When Camp Good News was founded on the breezy shore of Snake Pond in 1935, it was intended to be an exceptional place. The camp would offer the standard array of summer activities such as boating and swimming and hiking upon its pristine 214 acres. But its primary purpose was “to win boys and girls to Jesus Christ,’’ as W. Wyeth Willard, the former naval chaplain who started Good News with his wife, wrote in a history of the camp.

Notwithstanding the clear Christian focus, Willard and the two generations of the family who would subsequently run the camp — Faith Willard is his daughter — prided themselves on welcoming campers of all denominations and even those who had no religious background. The idea was to introduce the Christian faith in an open and nonjudgmental manner, to “help young people discover the relevance of the Bible in our culture and assist them in exploring the awesome meaning and direction for living,’’ according to the camp’s website.

Each day was heavily punctuated by spiritual reference points. There was chapel each morning, followed by a Christian thought for the day and afternoon Bible study promptly after instructional swim. Prayers preceded every meal and campers memorized songs and hymns such as “I Wish We’d All Been Ready’’ and “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness.’’ On Sunday mornings until he died in 1999, the towering Willard delivered a thundering sermon from the makeshift pulpit in the camp’s small outdoor chapel at the pond’s edge.

But perhaps the most powerful spiritual messages heard by campers, who ranged in age from 6 to 16, were the testimonials given by counselors in chapel. The counselors, many of whom were recruited from Christian colleges, talked of how they had found the Lord or had personally stumbled and pulled themselves back together through their experience of God. For many young campers, those disclosures provided a rare spiritual intimacy and opened the door to a kind of faith they had never before imagined.

“The camp really opened your mind to religion in a completely different way,’’ said Alain Berloty, 23, a musician in Paris who attended the camp for five years. “You could take from it what you wanted or not. I really came to believe in their values, to love and to love your neighbor.’’

When Sandra Devita saw an ad for the camp as she leafed through a parenting magazine in her Flushing, N.Y., home in the late 1970s, she was thrilled. Devita, a single mother struggling to support her young son while working as a social worker and cab driver, couldn’t have devised a better summer retreat for her son herself.

Many of the campers were Catholic, as was her Chuck, and the roster of activities included the hiking and swimming that he had come to love during his years with the Boy Scouts. Better yet, Camp Good News, which offered scholarships to local children and the dozens it attracted from Europe and Mexico, was willing to give her a discount. Sandra Devita put her 9-year-old son on the train to Cape Cod in the summer of 1977, and over the next three decades Camp Good News came to occupy an increasingly central role in his life.

“Chuck just loved that camp,’’ recalled Sandra Devita. “He got bored with a lot of things in his life, but swimming and the outdoors were things he never got tired of. He looked forward to going to that camp all year long.’’

Almost from the first day, Chuck Devita, an only child whose parents had divorced while he was a toddler, found his niche. Sandra Devita, accustomed to fixing things herself rather than paying a repairman, had taught her son how to repair just about every part in their red Volkswagen bug and passed along to him her considerable mechanical skills. And so when the camp’s film projector failed or a bus refused to start in the early 1980s, the soft-spoken camper in the “Yellow Sub’’ cabin often leapt to the task.

“I remember once when I was a counselor we were watching a movie and I saw a camper running the projector, I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’ I mean he was about 13,’’ said Ron May, a former camper and counselor there from the 1970s until 1991.

Like many summer camps, Good News had a firm policy about physical interactions among campers and counselors. The “six-inch’’ rule prohibited anyone from coming within six inches of a person of the opposite sex. Violators were required to wear a life jacket for the duration of the day, a kind of public badge of shame. But that rule was apparently flouted by some well before Devita arrived.

May, the first of the alleged victims at the camp to come forward to police, said in April that he was sexually assaulted as a camper in the 1970s by then-counselor Ernest Milnes. May said Milnes molested him during an overnight visit to his New York City home and again in his bed at camp the following summer. Convicted of sexually abusing a child in Maryland in 1998, Milnes died in 2009. May says he told camp officials what had happened to him after he became a counselor in 1979, but Milnes had stopped working at the camp some five years earlier, and nothing was done.

“The camp knew about the abuse all the way forward,’’ said May, 48, now an insurance agent living in Denver. “They just didn’t want to hear it.’’

May said there was a “mini-scandal’’ at the camp in 1981 involving sexual activity by a counselor. As camp neared an end that year, a couple of 12-year-old boys confided to a counselor that another counselor had done something sexually inappropriate to one of them. May said that the allegation was not reported to police, but that the counselor was not invited back to camp the following summer. Garabedian says he is investigating sexual abuse allegations against that same counselor.

Hope W. Brooks, who is Faith Willard’s sister and a doctor who became the camp’s director when Faith stepped down in 2007, acknowledged in a telephone interview before Devita’s death that sexual abuse might have occurred at the camp. “It is possible,’’ she said. “These things happened at so many places back then. In the 1970s and 1980s things were so different. We did not spend so much time on this in our pre-camp [training sessions] back then as we do now.’’

Asked last week about the specific allegations of abuse that have arisen since that interview took place, a spokesperson for Camp Good News released a statement saying: “The choices that Faith Willard made more than a decade ago would be very different today.’’ The statement, the spokesperson said, referenced only Willard’s response to Lewis’s findings of pornography in 1997.

By the summer of 1985, Devita, then 17, had become a popular camp regular. Hired as a counselor in the junior boys camp, where campers ranged in age from 6 to 12, Devita was in charge of Cabin Two. He had four campers under his watch in the camp’s first session, and six in the second session. While many of the other counselors had deeply Christian or evangelical backgrounds, Devita was not known for his religious commitment until later years when he experienced some kind of spiritual awakening, according to several camp staffers. Devita’s special turf was the kitchen.

Every week, each of the cabins had “Cabin Night,’’ when the campers engaged in a special activity as a group alone with their counselor. For the luckiest cabins, Devita would host a pizza night during which he would make and serve his signature dish in the camp’s kitchen.

“He made his own crust and he tossed the pizza and everybody loved it,’’ said Mark Emery, a camper and counselor at the camp in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was during Devita’s first year as a counselor in 1985 that the first of Devita’s alleged victims, now 35, says he was abused, according to Garabedian. A 10-year-old junior camper at the time, the victim says “he was fondled and groped multiple times,’’ said Garabedian. “Devita told him to keep it a secret. He instilled a great amount of fear in him.’’

That summer was a singularly turbulent period at Camp Good News as the Willard family had a devastating personal tragedy. In the early evening of July 31, Stewart Brooks, the 25-year-old grandson of the camp’s founder, committed suicide in the parking lot of Town Neck Beach in Sandwich. After Brooks’s death, the camp’s boathouse was replaced by a new expanded structure and named “Stu’s Boathouse’’ in his honor. Then in 1987, Devita was given the plum job of succeeding Brooks as boating director.

“Hope and Faith were very maternal to him,’’ recalled Lewis, 39, the former counselor, who recently received a master’s degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “They were just extremely committed to him. And he seemed very willing to do anything for them.’’

Now in charge of the boats and the young campers who used them, Devita developed some patterns that, in retrospect, looked suspect to some campers. Sometimes when he was working on a boat or folding sails at the end of the day, he would close all the boathouse doors, according to several campers and counselors. One of those campers, who asked not to be identified, remembers arriving early for her boating session one day and knocking loudly on the closed door.

“Chuck came out all of a sudden kind of flustered and I saw behind him that there was a boy inside,’’ recalled the camper. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I was just 12 years old. But now I wonder.’’

Back in Flushing, Sandra Devita was also beginning to grow curious about her son’s lifestyle that seemed to center, in a disturbing way, on children. After he graduated from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in 1990, Devita got a job teaching in a local school. In 1993 he was hired as activities coordinator at Riverview School, for students with learning disabilities, in East Sandwich. His plan was to move to Cape Cod and continue working part time at Camp Good News.

Sandra Devita, who had investigated sexual abuse cases as a social worker, was growing concerned. Why, she wondered, was he spending so much time with children and not pursuing any kind of social life with adults? When she asked him pointedly one day in 1992, the two got into a fierce argument.

“He began to attack me and say I had done nothing for him that his father had done everything, even though as a child he barely saw his father,’’ she recalled. “I think he did that to make me mad. He used that as a subterfuge to get me off his back about the other topic, and it did.’’

Still worried, Devita says she called the camp in June of 1992 and told director Faith Willard of her concerns. Willard, now 78, acknowledged in an April statement that she talked to Sandra Devita but said the subject of abuse never came up. Devita, however, recalls that Willard responded, “ ‘Oh God, I hope he is not gay.’ She was much more concerned about him being gay than being a child molester. She said she would send him to the camp psychiatrist but I never heard anything more.’’

Devita never spoke to her son again. Now living full time at Camp Good News, Chuck Devita became increasingly immersed in camp life and seemed to embrace the evangelical mission with new vigor. Although Devita did not describe himself as born again, “he clearly had had a spiritual awakening as a result of his faith in Christ,’’ said a former counselor who participated in the Bible study group.

By the time Lewis was sharing a camp cabin with Devita in 1997, he had already worked as a counselor at the camp for six years and knew and liked Devita. When he stumbled upon the child pornography on Devita’s computer, he was stunned. At the time, Faith Willard was in Bangladesh working with the charity she cofounded in the 1975 to aid widows and orphans. Lewis says he stored the pornography on a computer disc and gave it to her on her return, but she apparently did not share it with anyone else, according to the draft letter that Willard wrote in 2002.

In her December 1997, report to the board of directors for the Society for Christian Activities, Willard made no mention of Devita or the pornography that Lewis had discovered. What she did address was how difficult it has been “to recruit committed and qualified staff members,’’ Willard wrote.

During the summer of 1998, Devita’s behavior again generated concern among counselors. Petchers, the director of the junior boys camp, noticed that several male campers were often hanging around Devita’s cabin. Although campers often relaxed there during “free time’’ and watched television or played games, Petchers was concerned that the boys appeared to be “sneaking around, and trying not to be seen,’’ he said.

Petchers and Lewis grew far more alarmed by what they saw in the camp’s chapel some time later. Sitting on one of the benches, Devita had a young male camper sitting on his lap and was gently rubbing the boy’s belly, both things counselors say they were expressly forbidden to do. Lewis and another counselor went directly to Willard after the service ended. She told them that Devita had already been admonished and that “the matter had been taken care of,’’ recalled Lewis. Devita was later moved out of his cabin in the boys camp and returned to the apartment on the camp grounds in which he lived during the off-season. But the counselors were not satisfied.

Lewis says he believes that Willard knew what was going on. “But she was not going to take a stand. Faith was very naive in many ways, and I think she just wanted this to go away.’’

Later that day, Willard pulled Petchers aside and asked him to keep an eye on Devita.

“She said, ‘Let’s be diligent and keep an eye on Chuck,’ ’’ recalled Petchers. “But that did not seem nearly enough. Faith believed that prayer would make things right, through the grace of God. But we were worried that something bad would happen.’’

Camp administrators apparently did not share their concern. Some time during 1999, Devita, the man who could fix anything, was hired as a full-time employee.

Just months later, Devita allegedly assaulted another male camper during the summer of 2000. The 13-year-old boy, one of several who worked at the camp to defray the cost of his camp fees, had asked for an advance on his salary to buy clothes. Devita offered to give him some money and told the boy to meet him on the camp’s beach at night, according to his attorney, Garabedian. But once there, Devita allegedly forced him into a bathroom and sexually assaulted him.

“The boy worked for two more weeks,’’ said Garabedian. “He was an emotional wreck, afraid, confused, and scared. And then he left and never went back.’’

Word of Devita’s activities was beginning to spread among the camp staff. In 2002, Lewis, then living with his wife in Alabama and no longer working for the camp, got a phone call from the new director of the junior boys camp with an alarming story about Devita. The counselor, who declined to be interviewed, had entered Devita’s apartment looking for a stray camper and discovered a pair of boy’s underwear near Devita’s pillow.

Lewis, who had long fretted that nothing more had been done about his finding of pornography, was incensed. Faith Willard was once again in Bangladesh and so Lewis and the counselor told her nephew, Stephen Brooks, a local surgeon who was vice president of the board for the Society for Christian Activities, according to Lewis. Brooks said in an interview before Devita’s suicide that he weighed the matter carefully.

“I had to decide if I believed Chuck or not,’’ Brooks said. “I believed in forgiveness and that even if someone had done a terrible thing they could turn their life around. So, I decided I would keep him.’’

But Brooks was clearly on edge about the matter. When he heard that a counselor had said that Devita had sexually assaulted yet another camper, Brooks promptly got on a plane to Paris, where the boy lived, to look into the situation, according to both Brooks and the camper, Alain Berloty. But Berloty swiftly put his mind to rest.

“I told him nothing ever happened with me and Chuck,’’ Berloty said in a telephone interview. “It was all made up. I loved that camp. And I loved Chuck. He was the nicest guy on earth.’’

Frustrated that Brooks took no other action regarding the underwear or pornography, Lewis and the counselor filed separate reports with the Sandwich Police in the fall of 2002, Lewis said. Police apparently looked into their complaints. But when they spoke with Faith Willard, she told them that she had recently thrown away the disk containing the pornography, according to Lewis. Sandwich Police declined to discuss the incident, saying the subject is under investigation by the district attorney’s office.

In her 2002 draft letter, Willard recalled that five years earlier she had urged Lewis not to pursue the matter.

“I begged Chip to drop it and not talk about it,’’ Willard wrote. “He chose to do otherwise. The floppy was forgotten and when I came across it last spring in my file, I thought there was no need to keep it and threw it away. SO NOW I AM CONSIDERED PART OF A COVER UP!!’’

Hope Freeman, who worked as an administrative assistant at the camp for a decade until 2009, said Willard was, in her view, in denial about possible wrongdoing by Devita and upset that the former counselors had reported their concerns to police.

During the police investigation in 2002, Freeman recalled Devita was pale and visibly shaken when she crossed paths with him at the camp while police were questioning staffers and Faith Willard was in Bangladesh. “He was nervous and wanted Faith to come back home,’’ she recalled.

The investigation ended without any charges and the Willard family’s faith in Devita remained unwavering. At a board meeting in 2003, Willard noted, “One great blessing of CGN is Chuck Devita.’’

In the spring of 2009, former Camp Good News camper Cheryl Madden called Hope Brooks, the camp’s director, and told her that her father had recently died and bequeathed the camp $111,000. During her conversation with Brooks, Madden said she talked of her own camp experience, revealing that she had been repeatedly molested by a janitor while at the camp in the 1970s. Hope Brooks seemed relieved that Madden wasn’t interested in legally pursuing her abuser, and the two women said little more about it, according to Madden.

But in February of this year, Madden says she received a frantic call from Brooks. Scott Brown was about to go on “60 Minutes’’ and discuss his molestation at summer camp. Brooks said she did not think the senator was going to name Camp Good News, according to Madden, but wanted to know if Madden intended to go to the press with her own experience. Madden, 45, of Holly Hill, Fla., says she told Brooks that she did not intend to go public but asked Brooks for help in identifying her own abuser. Madden said Brooks later told her that she could not help her because the camp did not have records as early as the 1970s.

“I told them . . . if this guy is still alive, there’s no cure, doesn’t this bother you?’’ Madden said.

Hope Brooks says she reached out to Madden before Brown went public with his allegations because she knew “it might have a negative impact on Cheryl’’ and didn’t want her to learn it from the media, according to Sterling, the camp spokesperson. She also said that Brooks was unable to identify Madden’s abuser, based on the information she provided, and “if they had they certainly would have taken immediate action.’’

Camp administrators also did not try to find Brown’s abuser. The camp did confirm that he had been a camper there and apologized for what Brown said happened to him. But as the media pressed camp officials to look into the matter, they said they would do so only if Brown asked them.

On April 6, there was more bad news. The district attorney’s office acknowledged in a Globe article that it was investigating a series of concerns about the camp, one of them an allegation by a former camper who said he was repeatedly molested by an employee still working at the camp. Although the DA’s office did not identity him publicly, that person was Devita.

The Rev. Denton Lotz, a prominent Baptist minister and longtime camp supporter who owns a house on camp property, happened to notice Devita hard at work that day. Lotz, the former general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance and a Camp Good News board member, had a son who had been a camper in Devita’s cabin the first year he was a counselor and had always thought well of Devita. Lotz was well aware of the news churning around the camp’s cherished handyman. And so when he saw him walking down the road that evening near his home, Lotz summoned him into his house.

“I called him in and we prayed together with him that night,’’ said Lotz. “We felt very deeply for him.’’

Not long after the sun rose the next morning, Chuck Devita shot himself.

Matt Carroll and Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Sally Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@globe.com, and Shelley Murphy at shmurphy@globe.com.