Beliefs Institutions

Bob Jones University president apologizes to victims of sexual assault as report is released

(RNS1-NOV21) Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., has long been a bastion of fundamentalist Christianity but has recently taken steps to engage the modern world. For use with RNS-BOB-JONES, transmitted Nov. 21, 2011. RNS photo by David Gibson.
(RNS1-NOV21) Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., has long been a bastion of fundamentalist Christianity but has recently taken steps to engage the modern world. For use with RNS-BOB-JONES, transmitted Nov. 21, 2011. RNS photo by David Gibson.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., has long been a bastion of fundamentalist Christianity but has recently taken steps to engage the modern world. RNS photo by David Gibson.

WASHINGTON (RNS) An outside watchdog group hired to investigate sex abuse claims at Bob Jones University issued its 300-page report on Thursday (Dec. 11), concluding that the conservative Christian school responded poorly to many students who were victims of sexual assault or abuse.

Bob Jones, with about 3,000 students at its campus in Greenville, S.C., tapped Lynchburg, Va.-based GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) in November 2012 to investigate claims about sexual assualt. During its two-year investigation, GRACE interviewed 50 individuals who self-identified as victims of sexual abuse.

Some of those students claimed they were victims on campus; others said they were dealing with child sexual abuse but received a poor reception from campus officials as they struggled with their past.

The school’s teachings on sin, forgiveness, discipline and justice shaped how Bob Jones University responded to sexual assault, the report argues.

“As a result of the school’s poor responses, many of these students were deeply hurt and experienced further trauma,” a press release from GRACE states.

The school has carved out a significant space within fundamentalism after its leadership parted ways with evangelist Billy Graham, an icon of more mainstream American evangelicalism. The school also received national attention when then-presidential candidate George W. Bush visited in 2000, prompting the school to drop its ban on interracial dating, which it had unsuccessfully tried to defend before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.

The school decided in 2011 to hire GRACE to investigate claims of mishandling of sexual abuse after national media reports surfaced. Earlier this year, the school fired, and then rehired, GRACE to investigate allegations. A representative for the university said both parties agreed not to discuss concerns during that time.

Bob Jones highlighted findings from the report:

  • BJU officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims appropriately.
  • Staff were seen by some victims as insensitive to their suffering.
  • Some victims reported that the school’s counseling was inadequate, insensitive and counterproductive.
  • Some felt staff tended to blame victims for the abuse or sexual assault.
  • Counseling sometimes overlapped with disciplinary actions.
  • Several victims reported that their abuse was not reported to legal authorities by campus counselors.

Some individuals reported hearing themes in chapel, classrooms and counseling sessions that would blame a woman’s style of dress for triggering an assault, or label victims as “damaged goods.” They reported feeling as though the school saw “all sexual sin as equal.” Like many Christian institutions, the school prohibits sex outside of marriage.

“The lack of distinction between sexual abuse and consensual sexual sin has caused some victims of sexual offenses to feel impure and shamed even though they did not choose the sexual act perpetrated upon them,” the report states. “Several individuals raised the complaint that BJU counselors had encouraged abuse victims to confess and repent of any ‘pleasure’ experienced during the sexual abuse.”

The report suggested that BJU counselors may not be referring abuse victims for appropriate medical evaluation, treating symptoms such as post-traumatic flashbacks and nightmares as “spiritual problems.”

The school’s teaching on sin also contributed to how students were counseled, the report suggests.

“According to the counseling principles espoused by BJU’s counselors, the occurrence of sexual abuse or sexual assault brings ‘a trial’ upon a victim, to which the victim may choose to respond righteously or sinfully,” the report states. “A righteous response to a trial is one that is most like Christ. An unrighteous response requires a victim to confess sin and conform his or her ‘mindset and choices to accurately mirror his position and identity in Christ.'”

The report also suggested that counselors’ teaching on forgiveness shaped how they told students to respond.

“Victims also reported that these messages often pressured abuse victims to forgive quickly, to avoid bitterness, and/or to confront their abuser,” the report states. “For many, this pressure blamed them for not forgiving their perpetrators, minimized their sorrow, ignored their cries for justice, and intensified their trauma symptoms.”

The report suggested that the school’s leaders lacked a sufficient understanding of justice. Abusers will deceive and manipulate people to achieve their end, the report says.

“In the Christian environment, this often means using Christian ideas and theology to manipulate others to avoid responsibility,” the report states. “Leaders in the Christian environment must diligently uphold a fully biblical standard of repentance for the sake of protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable for their atrocious actions.”

The school’s counseling is too closely connected with discipline, a hallmark of the school since its founding, the report states. Students also reported breaches of confidentiality during counseling.

Ahead of the report’s official release, the school’s president apologized and promised a change in culture.

“On behalf of Bob Jones University, I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding, and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault,” Bob Jones President Steve Pettit said in a statement.

“I promise the victims who felt we failed them that the GRACE report is an extremely high priority that has our immediate and full attention.”

The university has been historically a family-run operation. Bob Jones Sr., Bob Jones Jr., Bob Jones III and Bob Jones III’s son, Stephen Jones, have all served as past presidents. A year ago, Stephen Jones resigned due to health concerns and was replaced by Pettit, the first non-Jones family member to lead the school.

The investigation was led by GRACE’s executive director, Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a former child abuse prosecutor, setting up a conflicted relationship given the tensions between the famed evangelist and the Jones family. Graham briefly attended Bob Jones, but the evangelist distanced himself from the school’s more strident fundamentalism.

The school still sees itself as fundamentalist, though it describes itself in its promotional materials more broadly as nondenominationally Christian.

Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, the executive director of GRACE and a Liberty University law professor, said Christians should be able to work together to protect children and care for victims despite theological differences. Photo by Christopher Breedlove

Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, the executive director of GRACE and a Liberty University law professor, said Christians should be able to work together to protect children and care for victims despite theological differences. Photo by Christopher Breedlove

Tchividjian, who blogs for Religion News Service, also teaches at Liberty University School of Law, writing and speaking on why evangelicals struggle to report sex abuse claims.

“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,” Tchividjian said in a statement.

“Such institutional transparency is too rare and will hopefully set a positive precedent for Christendom and the watching world.”

Campus rape has captured nationwide attention as stories of alleged rape surfaced at the University of Virginia and Columbia University. A number of schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Florida State and Ohio State, are under federal investigation for their response to sexual assault.

“We are all awakening to the depth and breadth of this societal problem,” Pettit said. “Colleges and universities across the country are reassessing how they handle cases of sexual abuse and assault. We want to be part of that solution. To do that, we must first take the mote out of our own eye and address our own failings. The GRACE report helps in that effort by helping us identify areas of concern.”

Pettit will appoint a committee to review the report findings and recommendations during the next 90 days. He said the school has taken steps to respond to sex abuse. Every faculty and staff must promptly notify law enforcement officials of child sexual abuse. School staff encourage adult victims of sexual assault to report their experience to the police.

School officials will also “make clear that the biblical lesson of forgiveness does not imply that the victim is in any way responsible for the sexual assault or abuse they experienced.” The school, Pettit said, will provide staff with more training and access to professional counselors with expertise in sexual abuse.

KRE/MG END PULLIAM

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

7 Comments

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  • Thanks for the swift analysis on the release for the report and BJU’s response, Sarah. Is there any word on whether BJU will continue to work with GRACE in developing and implementing solutions?

  • Quite possibly not if past history is repeated.

    GRACE did an excellent report into the child sexual abuse atrocities committed in one New Tribes Mission boarding school.

    The report was comprehensive and made excellent recommendations, yet New Tribes Mission did not allow GRACE to investigate the remaining boarding schools that it operated or still operates and parted ways because they did not like the public being able to access the initial report.
    Since then they have implemented their own “investigation” employing previous members and now headed by a lawyer who has worked defending religious organisations from legal action against them when the matter of child abuse has arisen. Obviously the so called “investigation” is a sham and nothing more than an underhanded method of finding out what cases could be brought against New Tribes Mission in the future.

    Hopefully BJU will act with more honor and take the right path.

  • “Quite possibly not if past history is repeated.”

    This reply strikes me as unnecessarily negative. None of us can say where BJU will go from here. It does seem to me that their openness thus far is a good sign.

  • Re grace report on bju. It is not clear whether or not the grace report differentiated between sexual abuse and sexual assault. They are two very different matters,. It’s very clear that bju mishandled reports of sexual abuse.
    Sexual abuse and sexual assault must be differentiated, though, as well as the university’s response to sexual assault, especially if it occurred on campus (title IX).
    In terms of forgiveness, it is vital to remember that forgiveness does not mean to retrust the abuser.
    Seems that Bob Jones university’s response was weak if in fact they apologized to students who FELT that they had not been treated fairly. Students did not just feel inadequately responded to; they were.

  • I agree. Also, that Pettit said that they needed to take the *mote* out of their own eye seems to indicate that he is minimizing the harm or hurt that BJU has done to its students that have been victimized.

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