[Note: At the end of this article I'll post updates as I learn of them.]
Perhaps you’ve heard of Bob Jones University of Greenville, South Carolina. If not it is, in short, a place where a ruling clique of bullying, arrogant, pretentious, entitled, shameless, lying, manipulative, craven, sex-obsessed, money-hungry, racist, homophobic and misogynistic men* utterly and thoroughly dominate the lives of the teenage Christian fundamentalists unfortunate enough to have been brainwashed into believing that the institution which they own and operate is anything resembling a real college.
Terrible, terrible things happen at Bob Jones University. They do, and they always have, because the men for whom it generates such prodigious profits make certain that every teaspoon of the Bible served at their school comes stirred into a cup of fear.
In January of last year, BJU decided to do something about its long-standing but increasingly public reputation as a place where male students and faculty men do not have to fear any repercussions for sexually abusing female students. So they hired a group called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to investigate, report, and ultimately advise them on how they should respond to reported incidents of sexual abuse at BJU.
By all accounts, GRACE was and is an integrity-based organization that could be counted upon to be honest, thorough, fair, and above all protective of the BJU students with whom it would necessarily speak in the course of its investigation.
That last part is crucial. Bob Jones University students are terrified of the power elite at BJU, and none more so than any BJU student who has been the victim of sexual abuse. A student telling a representative of an outside organization about their experience with sexual abuse at BJU is like a prison inmate telling a TV reporter about abuse happening within the prison. Sure, the reporter can assure the confessing prisoner that he will remain anonymous. But the prisoner knows that once the reporter leaves he’ll still be locked in the same cell to which the warden and all the guards have the key. And should it be discovered that he talked to the reporter, he knows all too well what will happen to him.
Students at BJU were very reluctant to cooperate with the GRACE investigation of the institution at which most of them live full-time, and which controls their lives to an extent that is difficult for people outside of the world of Independent Fundamental Baptists to comprehend.
BJU publicly encouraged its students not to be afraid. Their official announcement of the investigation read in part:
We are grateful to have found GRACE, a credible, compassionate, and experienced Christian organization which conducts independent investigations and solicits unfiltered input from those who have experienced sexual abuse within Christian organizations … .
It is our prayer that this partnership with GRACE—operated with complete autonomy from Bob Jones University—will create an atmosphere of trust and complete honesty, allowing Bob Jones University to identify any cases in which we need to exercise authentic repentance and demonstrate biblical love to those we have always desired to serve to the best of our ability for the Lord’s sake.
See how nice and assuring?
For its part, GRACE, in its first big announcement about its investigation, said this:
On January 10, 2013, GRACE begins a comprehensive independent investigation into any and all complaints related to sexual abuse disclosures made to representatives of Bob Jones University and Bob Jones Academy. First and foremost, please understand that GRACE is not a representative of Bob Jones University or Bob Jones Academy, but is working independently from all parties involved. …
Please note that the scope of this investigation includes any and all instances of [adult or child] sexual abuse disclosed or otherwise known to the institution, involving members of the Bob Jones University community as either victims or alleged perpetrators. …
In order for this investigation to be thorough and comprehensive, GRACE must rely on the voluntary cooperation and assistance of any and all individuals who possess relevant information. We acknowledge and understand that some of you
may be reluctant to come forward for various reasons. Please know that GRACE will work with each and every potential witness to make the process comfortable, informal, and confidential. Without the willingness of individuals to step forward and provide information to our team, it will be impossible to uncover the necessary truths that are so fundamental to the purposes of this investigation. …
Your physical and emotional well-being must come first.
From the beginning of the investigation through April of 2013, GRACE made available an online survey about sexual abuse at BJU, which it encouraged anyone who had anything to say on the matter to complete. Furthermore, GRACE’s executive director, Boz Tchividjian, reached out to BJU alumni and others associated with the university whom he knew to have earned the trust of current and past BJU students. To a person (as far as I know) they found that Mr. Tchividjian lived up to his reputation of being sincere, dedicated to justice, and eminently trustworthy. As a result, through their social networks they spread the word that no one should hesitate to fill out the GRACE survey.
Thus assured, BJU students did exactly that.
GRACE collected and reviewed the surveys, and subsequently, as per the plan, interviewed those who’d filled out the surveys they found most pertinent.
In its November 2013 update to the investigation, GRACE reported:
As many of you are aware, the GRACE team has continued its work throughout the summer months on matters arising out of the scope of this investigation. As we enter the final months of 2013, GRACE continues to request interviews, meet with individuals who possess relevant information, collect and review witness statements and other documents, and request any other materials or information pertinent to the investigation.
Thus far, the GRACE team has completed approximately 80 in person interviews in Greenville and in Charlotte, conducted numerous phone interviews with individuals throughout the country, and reviewed all written statements and other materials submitted to us. GRACE will continue to receive information from anyone wishing to communicate with our team regarding the scope of this investigation.
Once this part of the investigatory phase is complete, the team will begin drafting the Final Report. If this process continues to progress at the same pace, GRACE anticipates completing and publishing the Final Report in the early part of 2014.
GRACE is extremely thankful to so many individuals who have cooperated and communicated candidly with our team. We also continue to be appreciative of Bob Jones University for its continued support of this historical independent process.
Throughout the world of Independent Fundamental Baptists, the entire GRACE investigation had been electrifying news. It was really happening! A real organization, headed by a good man who sought real justice, had put together all the information and testimony necessary to prove that Bob Jones University was without question an unsafe place for females. And GRACE had been able to do what it had because so many who had so much to lose by cooperating with its investigation had put aside their fears, trusted in the process, bravely stepped up, and said what they knew. And most amazing of all, Bob Jones University had to acknowledge the validity of the inevitably damning results of the GRACE investigation.
It was really unbelievable. Finally, the heart and truth of Bob Jones University would be revealed to the world.
And, sure enough, earlier today it was.
Today GRACE released a document titled GRACE Independent Investigation – Notice of Termination. It reads:
With a very heavy heart, GRACE announces that on January 27th, 2014, we received a ‘Notice of Termination’ from Bob Jones University.
This ‘Notice’ took GRACE by complete surprise as there had been no prior indications from BJU that termination was even being considered. Furthermore, this termination occurred days before GRACE was to conduct the last interviews of this 13-month investigation and begin drafting the final report scheduled for publication in March.
Despite repeated requests, GRACE has not been informed of why the agreement was terminated.However, due to the fact that GRACE certainly wishes to keep all options on the table in order to complete what has been started, we have spent the last week in communication with BJU and we remain open to continued dialogue.
At this point, we are most concerned about the potential impact of this termination on those who participated in the investigation and are waiting for the final report. We grieve with those whose hopes will be crushed should this independent process remain incomplete. Please know that we heard your voice and it was not spoken in vain. GRACE offers its assurance that we will do our utmost to protect your confidences in the interviews and surveys from unauthorized use or disclosure. You have honored us with your courage and trust. We are privileged to have sat with each of you.
GRACE will post updates should the current situation change. Above all, we continue to have hope in the One who makes all things new and never lets us go.
The GRACE Team
February 6, 2014
The counterpart release from BJU was a statement called Bob Jones University Terminates Agreement with GRACE, which in part reads:
… Over the last several months, we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives, and on Jan. 27, 2014, BJU terminated its contract with GRACE. …
BJU sincerely appreciates all current and former students who participated in this initiative thus far, and the University regrets any delay BJU’s cancellation of its agreement with GRACE may have on this important project.
We grieve with those who have suffered abuse in their past, and we desire to minister the grace of Christ to them. Our prayer for the abused is that God will be their refuge and strength.
The attentive general reader will note the phrase, “… we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives.” Italics mine.
The heart of anyone familiar with how the Independent Fundamental Baptists threatens its own will quicken at that final sentence of the BJU statement. Our prayer for the abused is that God will be their refuge and strength is a veiled threat, a blow expertly administered to leave no visible bruise. What it is ominously reminding those attuned to its message is that it is always dangerously ludicrous to turn anywhere but toward God for help, justice, or comfort. And no one conversant in the language of the IFB or Bob Jones University doubts that by “God” the men who crafted this message meant themselves.
A great many students and former students of Bob Jones University will not be sleeping tonight. Or tomorrow night either. They will be too afraid to.
UPDATE #1: Today (Feb. 7) resigned-but-still-there president of BJU, Stephen Jones, spoke on BJU’s firing of GRACE. Here’s what he said:
Money quotes from Stephen’s statement:
We grew concerned that in the process GRACE had begun going beyond the original outlined intentions. And so we wanted to sit down and talk about them, because it had gone askew. And so we terminated our agreement with GRACE … . Since the termination we have intended to immediately negotiate a new contract with GRACE that would enable them to complete the review to achieve our objectives.
. . . We have not shared the reasons for our termination … with GRACE or with anybody else, because that needs to happen at the table, so that we can fully explain it, and they can have the opportunity to hear it there the first time. … [GRACE] is our partner in this.
We are committed to achieving our original objectives. …
I’m most greatly concerned today for the people who’ve been interviewed in the process. Which is one of the reasons we wanted to deal with GRACE … because there were people who shared horrific personal stories of abuse with GRACE. … GRACE has done a great job at making those people feel at home, and secure, and free to share those stories. … I just want to reiterate that we are committed to identifying and reaching out to those individuals.
In other words:
“We hired GRACE to look into allegations of sexual abuse at BJU. Just as GRACE was concluding its 13-month investigation, we decided that we were dissatisfied with them. We wanted to talk with GRACE about our unhappiness with them, but instead decided to say nothing to them before suddenly firing them. But we still very much want to work with GRACE. We fired GRACE so that we could immediately rehire GRACE. We have no idea why they would have a problem with that.
“We’re going to find out from GRACE what students they talked to, and what those students said.
“Because we care.”
UPDATE#2: This isn’t so much an “update” as it is … well, this, which someone yesterday Tweeted to me in response to this post:
UPDATE #3 A woman from Greenville, SC, where BJU is located, wrote me this morning (Feb. 8) to say this: “Good morning from Greenville. It doesn’t seem there are actually very many people talking about this issue here. Too much risk of offending all our BJU-alumni friends. It will pass. The victims’ voices will be silenced again, and BJU will be BJU, “highly respected in the community” and having a great deal of influence on the whole political operations of this town.” She also linked me to a Greenville TV news report on this story, the print version of which reads in part:
“A lot of us felt like this (the investigation) was too good to be true,” Erin Burchwell said.
This is the first time Burchwell has spoken publicly about her abuse she says she suffered at Bob Jones. She spoke with WYYF News 4 Investigates Tim Waller via phone from Ohio.
Burchwell said the GRACE investigation would have validated her claim.
“I’ve been told for 15 years not to talk about it, but now I’m allowed to talk about it to somebody who’s validating me and telling me that I was wronged.” Burchwell said.
She grew up on Bob Jones campus and attended BJU in the late 90s. She says that’s when a male graduate student [a dorm counselor] assaulted her over a period of several months.
“He did not rape me, so it can’t be considered a rape case,” Burchwell said. “But he molested me multiple times. I mean, probably 40 or more times.”
Burchwell claims when her parents finally reported the assaults to university administrators, they were told not to go to the police.
Burchwell says administrators also tried to blame what happened on her clothing.
“What was I wearing when all these incidents occurred? What did I have on? Was it tight? Was it low? Obviously, the point being it was somehow my fault,” she said.
Burchwell believes little has changed in the 20+ years since she lived on campus, and she says that’s evidenced by the decision to end the investigation before Grace’s findings were released.
“They couldn’t have something this big come out,” she said. “It’s just too bad for their appearance.”
UPDATE #4: Today (Feb. 13), BJU and GRACE announced they were going to meet next week. Here’s the text of the statement from GRACE:
Status Update – February 13, 2014
During the past week, representatives of GRACE and BJU have continued to communicate for the purpose of working out a time for an in-person meeting. The parties were recently able to schedule such a meeting for next week. The purpose of this meeting is for the parties to articulate expressed concerns, as well as to dialogue about the possibility of GRACE completing the independent investigation process started last year. GRACE will post another update shortly after the meeting next week.
We ask for prayers for everyone involved in this upcoming meeting. We also ask that we continue to pray for God to work mightily on the behalf of all the amazing individuals who have been impacted by this most recent development.
UPDATE #5: BJU rehires GRACE, apologizes to alumni.
* Related posts on this blog:
Thank to Dan Wilkinson for his assistance with this piece, and for Photoshopping its image into existence.