Two years ago, Bob Jones University called in an outside group to study how the hyperfundie school handled allegations of sexual assault. But that study is on hold after the school abruptly fired the team from Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). That by itself should raise some eyebrows, but the school isn't doing itself any favors with how it's spinning the cancellation.
On Friday, Stephen Jones, president of the university and great-grandson of its founder, addressed students and employees, saying, “We grew concerned that in the process, Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions,” but he would not elaborate. He said the university had not told Grace what its concerns were and wanted to discuss them with the consultant but could do so only face to face and felt compelled to fire the firm first.At just about any other school in this country--secular or religious--this explanation would be insulting. But the real insult is how the Greenville school handled abuse allegations in the past. For instance, Camille Lewis, a former student who later joined the faculty after graduating, said that when she was a senior, one of her friends told her that she'd been molested by her father, a Sunday school superintendent at their church. Lewis had her friend go to an administrator, who told her that she'd be wasting her time going to the police because nobody would believe her. And even without that to consider, she'd be hurting the body of Christ. Believe it or not, that's one of the more enlightened anecdotes from how BJU used to deal with abuse allegations.
“We terminated our agreement with Grace so that we could sit down and get it back on track,” Mr. Jones said, vowing to complete the investigation, with or without Grace.
Catherine Harris, who attended the university in the 1980s, is one of several people who said it was very hard for her to talk to Grace investigators about being abused — and she now feels betrayed that Grace has been sidelined.This hidebound mentality flared into the open two years ago when BJU board member Chuck Phelps was accused of not only covering up a rape at the church he pastored in New Hampshire, but of forcing the victim to apologize before the entire congregation for getting pregnant. When senior Chris Peterman took to Facebook and Twitter to criticize how BJU handled this, he was suspended from school nine days before he was due to graduate. Phelps was ultimately forced to resign. The blowback from the Phelps affair, as well as controversies at other schools, let Jones to call in a team from GRACE headed by Basyle Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham.
“Nearly everyone at Bob Jones grew up in a fundamentalist environment, so if you were abused, your abuser probably came from inside that bubble, too, which is what happened to me,” she said. “The person who supposedly counseled me told me if I reported a person like that to the police, I was damaging the cause of Christ, and I would be responsible for the abuser going to hell. He said all of my problems were as a result of my actions in the abuse, which mostly took place before I was 12, and I should just forgive the abuser.”
Erin Burchwell said that when she accused a university employee of sexually assaulting her in the late 1990s, “their idea of an investigation and counseling was to ask me what I was wearing and whether it was tight, and to tell me not to talk to anyone about it because it wouldn’t look good for me.” She said university officials alternated between “saying it never even happened and saying I was a willing participant.”
GRACE has largely remained silent about the dispute. But those it interviewed are speaking out--and loudly. Lewis, who tried to help several sexual assault victims before quitting BJU in disgust a few years ago, says the firing is yet more evidence that "they’re worried about protecting the church and the university, not the victims."
Peterman and the support group he started, Do Right BJU, have started a petition calling for BJU to stop stonewalling and rehire GRACE. Sign here.