With multiple publications still gleefully dissecting the failures of a recent Rolling Stone exposé on campus rape, granting rape skeptics an unusually warm national spotlight, a new report from an unlikely corner of American culture confirms just how real the problems with reporting sex abuse in American higher education can be.
On Thursday, the Christian nonprofit ministry GRACE (an acronym for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) released its long-awaited report on the mishandling of sex abuse allegations at Bob Jones University, the South Carolina school that for most of a century has served as the flagship institution of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States. The report is at once a grim autopsy detailing just how badly college administrators botched the handling of sexual abuse and rape claims, and also an example of surprising transparency from one of the most cloistered and conservative schools in the country.
In the 301-page report, GRACE shows Bob Jones University responding to rape and abuse claims with woeful ignorance of state law, a near-complete lack of training in psychology and trauma counseling best practices, and an overarching campus culture that blames women and girls for any abuse they suffer, and which paints all sexuality—from rape to consensual sex—as equivalent misdeeds.
That a fundamentalist institution—one most famous for banning interracial dating up until 14 years ago—has also been cartoonishly terrible at handling rape claims is not much of a surprise. But that Bob Jones University commissioned and, albeit with some serious reluctance, allowed the publication of this damning report is a major new contribution to the current debate on campus rape.
In November 2012, Bob Jones University (BJU) asked GRACE to serve as an independent ombudsman, reviewing how the school had handled claims of sex abuse, rape, and harassment over the years. Coming on the heels of the devastating revelations of sex abuse at Penn State, BJU leaders publicly said that the school was just being proactive. Privately, they acknowledged a controversy closer to home had forced their collective hand, when a BJU board member made national news for the way he’d handled a rape in his home church in New Hampshire, when, in 1997, a minor girl in his congregation became pregnant as a result of being raped by a church deacon, and the victim was made to confess her “sin” before the church before being shipped out of state for her confinement. The story was the last straw for a network of alienated BJU alumni, and the school was feeling increasing pressure to respond.
They turned to GRACE, a Christian anti-sex abuse organization founded by Boz Tchividjian, a Liberty University Law School professor, former prosecutor of child sex abuse cases, and also grandson of beloved evangelist Billy Graham.
Tchividjian and GRACE had been slowly gaining notice in the world of conservative Christianity for years, as the founder argued that the Protestant world was teetering on a sex abuse crisis as large as that of the Catholic Church. Under Tchividjian’s leadership, GRACE had undertaken two previous investigations of large Christian missionary groups where numerous “missionary kids” alleged that serious child physical and sexual abuse had gone unpunished for years. (I covered the work of GRACE and its investigations in a lengthy profile for the May/June 2014 issue of The American Prospect.)
GRACE’s work wasn’t always greeted with appreciation, and in the midst of the Bob Jones investigation, GRACE was fired by one of the missionary groups that had commissioned an investigation, and prohibited from sharing its findings. In early January of this year, when GRACE was just months away from publishing its findings on BJU, that school also fired GRACE, suddenly and inexplicably, demanding a halt to the investigation. The story at that time covered a long list of dismaying allegations that Bob Jones had responded to reports of rape, child physical and sexual abuse, and sexual harassment with a mixture of incompetence, insensitivity and, in some cases, what looked like retaliation. After national coverage of the university’s firing of GRACE, and intense student and alumni criticism, in February BJU rehired the organization to continue the investigation. But many alumni who’d grown up in the insular and tightly-controlled world of Bob Jones and its network of affiliated churches doubted that the school would ever allow the report to come out.
Now, two years after it began, the report, which draws on an immense amount of research, has seen the light of day. Its findings are based in part on survey responses from 924 people, interviews with 116, including 54 self-identified victims of sexual abuse, and 22 written statements. More than half (52.7 percent) of the abuse survivors said that the school’s response to their disclosures had been “somewhat to very hurtful,” and approximately 48 percent said that BJU either discouraged or directly told them not to make a police report. Among those who never disclosed their abuse to school officials, most explained that the atmosphere and teachings at BJU had convinced them not to talk to school officials about what had happened.
There were many reasons why BJU seemed to fail its student victims so thoroughly, but the problem seemed to start with the state of counseling at the school, which wasn’t just limited to a student mental health center, but was an active part of daily life. Residence halls were overseen by “Dorm Counselors” who served as a first line of both help and discipline for students. Students who broke one of BJU’s long list of possible infractions were assigned weekly counseling sessions as punishment. And BJU’s ultimate disciplinary enforcer, longtime Dean of Students Jim Berg, was also active in both counseling individual students and heading up BJU’s academic counseling program.
But what BJU called counseling wasn’t exactly based on psychology’s best practices; instead the school relied on a sort of psychology-alternative known as biblical counseling, common in fundamentalist circles, which argues the Bible is sufficient treatment for almost all mental and emotional problems—and that the root of most people’s problems is sin. To become a biblical counselor didn’t require degrees or experience in psychology or training, but only a strong grounding in the Bible. Indeed, Berg’s only degrees were in Bible studies and theology, and his knowledge of counseling victims of sex abuse came from reading a few books and attending one conference—training he acknowledged to GRACE was “paltry among the research” that is available.
Unsurprisingly, the pattern of treatment that victims at Bob Jones experienced was poorly suited to their needs. When Berg was told of students who alleged abuse or rape, he usually met with them for only one to three sessions, and bragged to a colleague that “in five minutes I can tell you what is wrong with somebody,” and provide them with the proper sheet of scripture verses, “and say go study this and you will be all right.”
Berg often began to immediately ask them probing, accusative questions about their own “moral life”: whether they had been drinking or using drugs when assaulted, whether they were using them at present, whether they watched pornography or indulged in sexual fantasies—and, for women, whether they had experienced pleasure while being raped. One alleged victim says that when she told Berg about being raped by a coworker, he told her “there is a sin that happens behind every other sin,” and they had to figure out what hers was. Though Berg told GRACE he didn't recall this, in a training video he made that GRACE reviewed, he explains that he asks alleged victims these uncomfortable questions at the beginning of their counseling because “I have to find out where there is guilt that they have to deal with.”
While Berg suggested this was merely to separate victims’ potential guilt about related issues—if, say, they had been raped after they lied to their parents about where they were going that night—and not to make them feel they were to blame, that’s not necessarily the message those he counseled heard. As one rape victim who spoke to Berg explained to me last spring, “I already had a plate full of shame when I walked into Dr. Berg’s office, and he put more shame on that, more than I could bear.”
Another colleague of Berg’s was even more explicit in suggesting that abuse victims shared culpability for what happened to them. Dr. Walter Fremont, a BJU professor and author of a book on Christian counseling used at the school, suggested as an example of a victim who needed to repent for her part in the sin “a teenage girl who only takes a bath when her mother is away from the home and leaves the bathroom door unlocked, inviting the father's corruptness.”
After rapid-fire meetings with Berg or other high-level BJU staff, student victims were often handed off to their dorm counselors for ongoing advisement. But the dorm counselors were untrained fellow students with little or no understanding of the issues, nor even rudimentary knowledge of principles of counselors’ confidentiality. One abuse victim's counselor told her boyfriend about the victim’s disclosure, and the boyfriend went on share it with a member of the victim’s family. Other counselors took it upon themselves to call a victim’s family or home pastor. Another student with a complaint, upon realizing her dorm counselor knew nothing about sexual abuse, had to bring the counselor a book about the subject. One student who sought help for an eating disorder says her counselor admitted she knew nothing about the topic, and then went on to ask the counselee for dieting tips in preparation for her upcoming wedding.
Oftentimes, the counseling went beyond ineptitude to direct shaming, when counselors directed the victims to examine their own sins in relation to the abuse. Some said that counselors told them their PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares and flashbacks, were sinful, because they were choosing “to replay pornographic thoughts.” And numerous victims said that they were told, while they may or may not be responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them, they were responsible for their response, and that it was sinful to be bitter and unforgiving. Some were told they should contact their abusers to ask their forgiveness for harboring anger and bitterness against them.
There were other systemic problems in BJU’s counseling program. The same staff in charge of counseling were also often involved in BJU’s disciplinary infrastructure—in a school where students could get in significant trouble for an astonishing array of infractions, from not keeping their rooms clean enough to going off campus without permission. Students routinely were expelled without notice.
In an uneasy mix of roles, Jim Berg served as both the head counselor and head disciplinarian. But the problem was broader than his particular purview, as victims described an environment where they were afraid to come forward to get help after being raped, because they feared being punished for breaking another rule during their attack. One student who was struggling with the revelation of her childhood abuse told GRACE she was placed on disciplinary counseling after she was caught smoking cigarettes, and Chancellor Bob Jones III attempted to impose an even harsher sentence of restricting her to campus for a semester.
Particularly harrowing was the experience of a student who alleged that her pastor had been raping her since she was 15, and who came to BJU officials when she became pregnant as a result of ongoing coercive sex with the pastor. But because she had lied about going off campus to meet him, BJU kicked her out of school.
BJU officials defended its comingling of counseling and discipline as something that made sense within the school’s enduring adherence to the practice of in loco parentis— the quasi-parental role that most colleges abandoned fifty years ago—but students described its effect as both chilling and retaliatory.
Lastly, school officials also seemed almost completely ignorant of their legal obligations as mandatory reporters of sexual abuse. Berg explained to GRACE that he didn't learn about mandatory reporting requirements until 1992—decades after South Carolina enacted its mandatory reporting law—and even after learning that, he says he believed for years that the school was only obligated to make reports about sexual abuse that happened at the school involving BJU employee. The school also failed to understand that crimes other than forcible rape also fell under mandatory reporting laws, and, Berg told GRACE, school officials had treated issues like nonconsensual touching or molestation as moral, rather than criminal, offenses. (As recently as 2012, when there was a complaint of a sexual assault between two men on campus, BJU's new chief of public safety told GRACE that BJU officials appeared not to understand that this was a crime.)
GRACE’s report concludes with a series of 26 recommended actions for BJU, ranging from a public apology to providing (off-campus) counseling services to hiring a victim’s advocate. Significantly, they recommended the school cease sales of the books and training materials authored by school counseling staff, including Jim Berg and Walter Fremont, and to restrict Berg from any counseling role—or any public speaking about counseling—both at BJU and elsewhere. It also recommended unspecified personnel action against Chancellor Bob Jones III.
The apology has already been made. On Wednesday, the night before the report was released, the university called a school-wide meeting. There, BJU President Steve Pettit, (appointed just last summer), apologized for what the report would reveal. “We did not live up to [students’] expectations. We failed to uphold and honor our own core values. We are deeply saddened to hear that we added to their pain and suffering,” he said. “To them I would say—we have carefully listened to your voice. We take your testimony in this report to our hearts. We intend to thoroughly review every aspect and concern outlined in the investigation and respond appropriately.”
In a statement, GRACE's Tchividjian praised BJU's transparency and the precedent it might set for other Christian institutions. “Though much in this report will understandably cause readers to grieve, GRACE is encouraged by the willingness of Bob Jones University to take the unprecedented step to voluntarily request this independent investigation and to make these difficult findings public,” he said.
But the precedent it could set, and the implicit challenge it represents, should go far beyond Christendom. However well BJU lives up to its promises in the months and years to come, the question people should be asking next is: If a school like BJU, with its bred-in-the-bone mistrust of the outside world, will ultimately allow this level of scrutiny, when will we see the same thing from schools that should know better?
Related: Read "By Grace Alone," Kathyrn Joyce's May/June report about the Bob Jones University rape and sex-abuse scandal.