MONROVIA, Montserrado â€“ The Liberian government has announced the immediate reopening of the rape case involving ten underage girls at More Than Me Academy in 2014.
Macintosh Johnson, a resident of West Point who helped Katie Meyler launch More Than Me and recruit girls for the academy, was arrested in 2014 and tried for sexually assaulting the students, abusing his position of privilege. The case resulted in two hung juries, likely because the government did not call More Than Me staff members to testify. Johnson died in prison and tested HIV positive. One of the rape victims also tested positive for HIV.
According to a press release signed by deputy information minister Eugene Fahngon, the governmentâ€™s decision to reopen the case followed two emergency meetings of a joint ministerial committee comprising the ministries of Justice; Gender, Children and Social Protection; Labor; Education; Health; Youth and Sports; and Finance and Development Planning. The meetings were intended to investigate the circumstances contained in the ProPublica publication with the view to take appropriate legal actions to protect the children and ensure their safety.
The article, jointly published with Time magazine last week, revealed that the channels for the girls to report the rapes were compromised, as Johnson had been romantically linked to Meyler for several years, in addition to other staff members.
It relied on major testimonies from Michelle Spada, the More Than Me program director at the time; Iris Martor, a former school nurse for the organization; and Chid Liberty, a former board member. The article also revealed that in 2016, a second staff member was found to have raped a student attending the school, suggesting that proper policies had not been put in place after Johnsonâ€™s rapes.
It also suggests that More Than Me was not entirely honest with the story it told to the public about how it dealt with the incident, with published statements minimizing the impact and the number of victims. The report also described an organizational culture that was more concerned with protecting the image of More Than Me than about ensuring that the perpetrators were punished swiftly and implementing proper measures to prevent further harm to children.
Additionally, it said the language used by the organization framed Liberia as a country where rape was so deeply entrenched within the culture and that More Than Meâ€™s intervention, no matter how flawed, was helping to make things better.
In its statement, the government said members of the More Than Me Liberian Advisory Board were cited to both meetings to provide information and clarity where required.Â The board earlier announced the setup of an independent investigative panel to investigate the claims in the report.
According to the release, the government through the joint ministerial committee acknowledges the preliminary actions taken by the More Than Me Liberian Advisory board. It, however, concluded to institute several other actions in addition to the decision to restart the rape investigation.
Among the list of actions, the committee decided that the Ministry of Health would work to address all health issues relating to the matter, while the Ministry of Education strengthens its monitoring and evaluation and ensure that regulation and compliance of policies are intensified by all schools.
The Ministry of Labor will also investigate whether there was strict adherence to the National HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy at More Than Me Academy and whether any labor laws were violated.
At the same time, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection will determine whether there were lapses in adherence to the provisions of the 2011 Children Law of Liberia.
The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning was also directed to take the lead on strengthening accreditation and monitoring processes for NGOs.
â€œ[The Government of Liberia] would like to stress in the strongest terms that rape is a despicable act that leaves irreparable scars on survivors for life,â€ the statement read. â€œAs such, we commend and encourage the reporting of rape cases to keep our children and vulnerable in society safe at all times.â€
The government further assured the public of a full-scale investigation consistent with the law, as the survivors and their families would be guaranteed full protection under the law. It urged members of the public to contact the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and the Women and Children Protection Section of the Liberia National Police with information that will be helpful to the investigation and assured that those found culpable bear punishment under the law.
Absent among the governmentâ€™s action was any suspension of the contract authorizing More Than Me to operate 18 public schools.
Womenâ€™s rights organizations, including the Liberia Feminist Forum and the Female Journalists Association of Liberia, had earlier called on the government to take strong actions against More Than Me and to deter any recurrence. The women had also called for More Than Meâ€™s contract with the Liberia Education Advancement Program to be terminated.
Featured photo by Zeze Ballah