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Reporter Details Alleged Abuses By The Charity More Than Me

NOEL KING, HOST:

More Than Me is a charity that aims to educate and protect Liberian girls. Its founder is an American woman named Katie Meyler. She has thousands of social media followers. There, Meyler tells stories about life in West Point, which is a slum in Liberia's capital, stories like the one about a girl named Abigail. Here's Meyler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE MEYLER: A little girl in Liberia who doesn't have a mom or a dad, a girl who is on the street selling herself at 11 years old because she didn't have a glass of clean water. There should be no little girl forced to work on the streets when her biggest dream is to go to school.

KING: But according to a report just released by ProPublica and Time magazine, some of the girls that More Than Me was supposed to be helping were victimized. They were raped by a man who was a staff member with the charity. Rachel Martin spoke with Finlay Young, who wrote the story.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Before we get into what went wrong with this charity, More Than Me, I want to ask what was going right? What set More Than Me apart from other charities at the beginning?

FINLAY YOUNG: I think that More Than Me, and particularly its founder Katie Meyler, had an incredible ability to connect with those who could commit money or resources to their mission. And I think that, in a way, this is a story about social media and about how you present a story that will really engage with hearts but will make people reach into their pocket and think that they, individually, by taking a small step, are making a difference.

MARTIN: So who is Katie Meyler? Why did she start this organization?

YOUNG: Katie Meyler is a woman from New Jersey who had a long background in doing various forms of - yeah, of community help and volunteer work, who ended up in Liberia in 2006 on an evangelical internship. And then from there, she continued her relationship with the country, and she started up a charity, first registered in 2008.

MARTIN: She didn't have a lot of nonprofit management, did she?

YOUNG: No. And Katie Meyler has been very clear in her own promotion of the organization that what she brought to this was an incredible depth of love. It's a love-driven organization.

MARTIN: Her co-founder, a man who really helped her start this organization on the ground in Liberia, was a man named Macintosh Johnson. Tell us about him.

YOUNG: I never met Macintosh Johnson, but he was someone who was fundamental in the starting up of this organization. He was a - he was a guy who had had a childhood interrupted by war, who told numerous people he'd been a child soldier. And then in West Point, had also been part of a vigilante group, which is a group of, you know, community members who in the absence of police, you know, help to provide those kind of - that kind of support to the community. So he was a well-known guy in the area of West Point where he operated. He was well-liked, and he became very highly trusted, really, very, very quickly.

MARTIN: Can you explain exactly what he was doing - the systematic way that he was abusing these girls?

YOUNG: Johnson was heavily involved in the recruitment of girls, and he was the point person for the organization in West Point. It was viewed as his organization, along with Katie Meyler. And he was using that power, according to what the girls told the court, to abuse those who were within his scope of power. According to what they told the court, girls as young as 10 years old were exploited on numerous occasions. And when they talked to the court, they all said that, well, he threatened to remove me from the scholarship.

MARTIN: Did Katie Meyler, the founder of the organization, know what he was doing?

YOUNG: Well, that's something that we asked Katie. And it's something that we've reported our responses in the piece. One detail of this, which also helped empower Johnson, was the fact that Meyler had an intimate relationship with him, which she's conceded in an interview. But that same year, in 2011, there was - some form of conversation takes place which involved Johnson's ex-wife, who says that she said something along the lines of, you know, I told her that he loves the children. But she didn't - she didn't really get it.

Now, Meyler recounts that conversation differently. She'd heard what she described, I think, as rumors that Johnson had been in sexual relationships with young girls. And - but she said she followed up, and she asked the girls themselves. And they said that he was a good man.

MARTIN: There's a second level of tragedy to this story in that after Macintosh Johnson was arrested, he stood trial. It was a hung jury. And after that, it was revealed that he had HIV, right?

YOUNG: While it was - it was known by people within the organization, and there were rumors, it was never formally revealed that he had AIDS when he died. And as a consequence, you know, potentially all of those who had contact with him - which, according to all reports, and to our reporting, and also to court documents and the organization's internal documents, was many, many girls - were potentially at risk. Now, it's important to say that the 10 girls who actually testified in the court - those who actually were willing to bring a case - they were re-tested, and one of them tested positive.

MARTIN: It's so complicated - right? - because as you outlined in the piece, Katie Meyler, at one point, to you, in rebuttal to whether or not her organization was responsible for this, says, you know, where are your schools? Where are the schools that you have built in Liberia? She clearly feels that even if her organization, willfully or not, turned a blind eye to this abuse, that it has been a net positive for the girls of Liberia.

YOUNG: Yeah, I think that you can see in a lot of the responses we had from the charity's leadership that there was the sense of, why are you telling this story? You know, look at these other girls that we've educated. But I think that to view this as, you know, just an unavoidable thing that happened in the early points of the organization, it just - that's not a logic that we would apply to sexual abuse within an institution in any other context.

MARTIN: And Liberia still allows the organization to operate schools there?

YOUNG: Well, the story has really hit hard in Liberia because, of course, a lot of people are involved in the building up of an organization like this. You have local governments, who Meyler had strong support from - first of all, from the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and then also the local donor community I think. And the local community had the sense of - a lot of people had a feeling that something had gone wrong in this organization but didn't know the full facts. So there's a whole lot of soul-searching going on.

And the government has announced a full investigation involving seven different ministries. They've said that they are looking into reopening the case. And they're looking, as well, at more technical stuff, like, well how do we - what's our process for accrediting these organizations? Have we held them accountable? They're looking into whether the HIV/AIDS policy was followed in the school.

KING: That was Finlay Young for ProPublica, talking to Rachel Martin. Since his story was published, Katie Meyler has temporarily stepped down as CEO of More Than Me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.