A large group of protesters marched on Thursday through Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, delivering a list of demands to top government officials, international organizations and the country’s vice president, including that the government revoke the accreditation of More Than Me and strip the American charity of its ability to run 19 schools in the country.
The Liberian Feminist Forum, in conjunction with other groups, organized the “We Are Unprotected” protest in response to a ProPublica investigation published last week in collaboration with Time magazine. The report revealed how the charity missed opportunities to prevent the rapes of girls by key employee Macintosh Johnson and did not test all of his potential victims for HIV when word got out that he had AIDS.
Protesters dressed in black and carried signs that invoked findings of the investigation, including that when the rapes came to light, the charity deflected blame onto Liberian culture. “Rape is not our culture,” signs read. “Duty of care,” “Down with poverty porn,” “#MoreThanRape.”
A representative of the Liberian Feminist Forum, Caroline Bowah Brown, read a list of demands to Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, including that the government should request footage shot by independent filmmaker Holden Warren, who told ProPublica that three years before the rapes came to light, he filmed charity founder Katie Meyler confronting Johnson about a rumor that he was “into small girls.” Warren declined to share the footage with ProPublica, saying it was part of an ongoing project and that he asked Meyler, but that she “doesn’t see how it would be in her interest.”
The group also called for documentation to see how involved the charity’s Liberian advisory board was in its operations, as well as what the response of government officials and others was at the time of Johnson’s arrest.
“The same documents you are requesting, we are trying to put it together,” Taylor said. “We’ll do a thorough investigation, and those who are culpable will be punished.”
The group also asked for the resignation of John Gabriel, director of the sex crimes prosecution unit that failed to secure Johnson’s conviction. Jurors told ProPublica they were offered bribes to find Johnson guilty. The charity and prosecution unit have denied any involvement in alleged bribery. It was in the prosecution unit’s office that charity officials cross-examined rape victims and their mothers about what they told a reporter, and asked whether they wanted to take back their statements. The charity also published a letter Gabriel wrote, where he praised the charity and called ProPublica’s investigation “propagandistic.”
After the story and documentary were published, the charity announced it would provide private, schoolwide HIV testing for the students in its academy. The Liberian government announced multiple measures by seven separate agencies. Liberian President George Weah was quoted in local press as expressing deep concern about a “sad and tragic story.” He said the matter was “under investigation by the relevant authority and we must await the findings before drawing any conclusion.”
In response to questions about the protest, board member Amanda Kelso told ProPublica: “No child should ever have to endure such horrific abuse, and it was our responsibility to prevent it from happening. We are so very sorry. When we learned of this in 2014 we immediately reported it to Liberian law enforcement and government ministries and took action to prevent it from happening again.
“We are now taking additional steps: we are having a firm with expertise in education and student safety undertake an external audit of our organization, we are cooperating with investigations being conducted by our Liberian Advisory Board and the Liberian government, our Board Chair has resigned, and our CEO has taken a leave of absence. We are committed to ensuring that these matters are investigated thoroughly, communicating transparently throughout the process, and taking prompt, appropriate actions to be sure this never happens again.”
Liberian newspapers have covered developments in the More Than Me story daily, and they have published editorials calling for the charity to be held to account.
“We hope that the Ministry of Justice will do all to bring to conclusion a logical closure for those girls who became victims of Johnson’s alleged act of rape.
Let this not be just another investigation that many a time, is never looked into thoroughly by state actors, who have oversight,” said an editorial in Front Page Africa.
It added, “Inasmuch as we are a poor and a small nation, we still have dignity to keep.”