The AP’s Claudia Lauer reported on Friday afternoon that the former chaplain accused of having sexual relationships with two female inmates at the McPherson Women’s Unit in Newport is Kenneth Dewitt.
Evidently, Dewitt resigned from his position last September after confessing that he had had sex with a subordinate chaplain (herself a former inmate). Following his departure, the Arkansas Department of Corrections barred him from further employment with the agency.
That’s a separate matter from the allegations regarding sexual contact with women who were inmates at the time, which is not merely unethical but also illegal. Dewitt’s resignation from his post would have been several months before the time at which ADC says two female inmates first stepped forward to report the alleged 3 1/2 year relationship with Dewitt, in December of last year.
The Arkansas Times’ Doug Smith and Max Brantley wrote about Dewitt in 2009 as part of a story about a faith-based program he started called Principles and Applications for Life.
For what it’s worth, that story included a number of testimonials from women saying the PAL program had changed their life for the better. But the Times also mentioned that Dewitt’s curriculum originated with an organization called the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City, which is associated with a conservative evangelical minister with his own history of sexual misconduct allegations: Bill Gothard.
Gothard’s name has appeared recently in the news because he ran the Little Rock clinic where Josh Duggar was sent for counseling in 2003 after his parents had discovered the teenager had molested his younger sisters. In 2014, Gothard resigned amid sexual harassment allegations from numerous young women, as well as accusations that he’d avoided reporting cases of child abuse.
Here’s what the Times had to say about Dewitt, the Character Training Institute and Gothard in 2009:
Kenneth Dewitt, a fulltime chaplain with the Department of Correction, started this kind of instruction in Arkansas prisons. He’s still at McPherson. He says the PAL curriculum came out of the Character First! Program developed by an organization called the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City. CTI says that its character-building programs are used by corporations, police departments, schools, correctional institutions and other groups around the country. (The web site of Harding University at Searcy declares that Harding “was recognized as the first Campus of Character in October, 2002, by the International Association of Character Cities, an association of the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City, Okla. This unique designation followed the passage of a resolution by the university’s board of trustees, declaring that Harding would do everything possible to promote character on campus and beyond.”)
Although participants in the PAL program at McPherson clearly consider it to be religious in nature, CTI materials generally avoid mention of God or Christianity. Instead, they talk about things like “character qualities,” including “attentiveness, obedience, truthfulness, gratefulness, generosity, orderliness, forgiveness, sincerity, virtue … ” (The last one sounds like it would encompass many of the others.)
This may be because in public schools and other public institutions where Character First! Programs are used, emphasis on religion could lead to legal challenges concerning the mingling of church and state. But journalists investigating the origin of the Character First! Programs have traced them back to a somewhat controversial, somewhat mysterious evangelical minister named Bill Gothard. Considered by some to be a cult-like figure, Gothard heads the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Institute in Basic Life Principles. In the leftist magazine In These Times, Silja J. A. Talvi wrote in January that “the CTI is for all intents and purposes a ‘secular’ front group for Gothard’s IBLP.”
It’s not know whether the allegations against Dewitt are related to the wider pattern of sexual misconduct alleged to have occurred at the Newport prison. Based on the scope of the federal investigation that’s been opened, it seems as though the Department of Justice believes the abuse was more widespread than just a single chaplain. DOJ said that it was looking into misconduct by “multiple members of McPherson Unit staff.” It’s not yet even clear that Dewitt is one of the subjects of the federal investigation.
Here’s more details from the AP:
The department documents provided to The Associated Press include a signed notice from John Mark Wheeler, the administrator of religious services for the department, saying Dewitt “called and confessed to having an inappropriate physical relationship with a subordinate… He was offered the opportunity to resign and he resigned effective immediately.”
Two letters from the subordinate were also included, noting that she was a former inmate and that the “moral failure” did not occur while she was incarcerated.
Dewitt resigned nearly three months before an investigation was opened into the prisoners’ allegations. There were no documents directly related to that investigation in his personnel file.
[ADC Spokesperson Cathy] Frye said last week that department officials referred the prisoners’ allegations of sexual relationships to the Arkansas State Police soon after the prisoners came forward. The State Police gave the investigation file to the prosecuting attorney’s office in April, State Police spokesman Bill Sadler confirmed last week.