UNC, the Vatican and Sovereign Grace Ministries: When PR trumps concern for victims

(CONTENT NOTE: This gets ugly and painful. We’re dealing here with some really awful, evil topics, including sexual abuse, abuse of power, rape, and the ways that powerful, self-righteous people defend all of the above.)

Let’s start in Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina.

A UNC student, Landen Gambill, faces possible expulsion for speaking out about her sexual assault.

Last week, she was called to appear before the school’s “Honor Court” because she’s charged with “disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another … so as to adversely affect their academic pursuits, opportunities for University employment, participation in University-sponsored extracurricular activities, or opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University Life.”

… Gambill has not once publicly identified her attacker. She has, however, called out the school for their failures in dealing with her case. She’s said that the internal disciplinary process was offensive, inappropriate, and victim-blaming. “They made it seem like my assault was completely my fault.” She’s accused UNC of betraying her trust by not letting her know that her attacker was returning to campus and in fact would be living across the street from her.

At a preliminary hearing, Gambill asked if she could have violated the Honor Code simply by saying she was raped and was told yes.

That’s from Maya at Feministing, who comments:

The message UNC students will take from this – if they haven’t gotten it already – is to think twice about coming forward. Because their school seems to think that – just as being seen as having a rape problem on your campus is considered worse than actually having one – being called a rapist is a more serious injury than being raped.

That seems to be the core of the problem at UNC, just as it seems to have been the core of the problem for decades in the Roman Catholic Church: “Being seen as having a rape problem … is considered worse than actually having one.”

For more than 20 years we’ve witnessed the slowly unraveling horrors of a massive sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic church. We’ve learned of widespread abuse and rape, and of even wider efforts to cover it up. We’ve seen the cruel injustice piled upon injustice of an institution treating crimes against children as, primarily, a PR problem to be addressed primarily with PR solutions. Instead of seeking justice and healing for victims, those victims were silenced, hidden, or attacked all over again in an effort to discredit their testimony. The institution was more focused on protecting its reputation and shielding itself from bad press or legal liability than it was on addressing the problem, weeding out the predators and criminals, and seeking restitution and healing for the victims.

That PR-focused strategy led the institution to shield, defend and enable the predators within it, while compounding the harm those predators had committed and further abusing their victims. Above and before everything else, that’s just simply evil.

But in addition to being abominably immoral, this PR-focused strategy also failed abysmally on its own terms. It turned out to be disastrous public relations — making the institution look even worse because it was even worse. And it turned out to be disastrously expensive in terms of the liability they sought to escape.

If anything good might have come from that ongoing horror show, I had thought it might be at least that other institutions could learn from it. The Catholic church was providing a vivid lesson in what not to do, and I had hoped that such a prominent, infamous example would be something other institutions would have to notice and to remember if they should ever discover abusers and predators within their own ranks.

But no.

As the example of UNC shows, other institutions seem to be taking the Catholic church’s evil and counter-productive PR-strategy as a template. Just like the bishops and cardinals who have done irreparable damage to the church, the leaders of other institutions seem fixated on, as Maya wrote, the idea that “Being seen as having a rape problem … is considered worse than actually having one.”

All of that is a long introduction for this: Go read T.F. Charlton’s essay at Religion Dispatches on “A Church Group, a Lawsuit, and a Culture of Abuse.”

It’s the best one-stop summary I’ve seen of the slowly unfolding scandal involving Sovereign Grace Ministries — a network of 91 conservative, evangelical churches.

SGM is independent, but it’s affiliated and allied with most of the leading figures of the angry, patriarchal, Reformed wing of conservative white evangelicalism — folks like Al Mohler, John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and groups like the Gospel Coalition and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. So this is not a fringe group, but one that is associated with some of the most vocal and prominent white evangelical church leaders in America.

Before this scandal began unfolding, SGM was considered one of the rock-star success stories of this patriarchal Reformed brand of white Christianity. Charlton does an excellent job summarizing the history of the scandal, and an even better job of showing how it is not an aberration from, but a consequence of, that very same patriarchal form of American evangelicalism.

Several other writers have recently addressed this scandal and the further scandal of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ failure thus far to respond to it with any evident concern for the victims. I want to discuss some of those other posts as well, but before we turn to them, please do go read Charlton’s essay for a clear-eyed introduction and overview.

  • Lori

    I’ve now read that story of Mrs Dobson and their daughter several times and each time the thing that strikes me is that it was the mom who made it a confrontation of wills, not the child. What non-idiot keeps putting a 9 month old in the doorway of a room she wants to, but is not allowed to, enter instead of placing her farther away and focusing her attention away from the kitchen? Mrs D set her daughter up to fail and then pushed until she cried & gave up, which was celebrated as a victory. Because the point is not keeping the baby off the newly waxed floor, its obtaining obedience, no matter what. That’s foul on more than one level. If anyone ever wonders why someone would marry James Dobson and stay married to him, that story certainly provides the answer—she’s a bad as he is.

  • vsm

    So the Christian Right has finally discovered Freud. Interesting.

  • Carstonio

    Granting or withholding forgiveness for a bully or abuser sounds very strange to me. Like the question was whether to forgive a bear that mauls one’s child, or a tree that falls on one’s car. Maybe the anger could be at the fact that abuse or bullying exist and that one had to be subjected to it, like the perpetrators are simply forces of nature that cannot always be avoided or evaded.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    The hilarious part is that Dobson portrays the story as a victory, but his wife did the exact opposite of the end advice.

    Distract and divert, is the moral he gives.  Okay, fair enough.  I don’t want the beanie-head crawling around on a newly-waxed floor, I toss her in a playpen. 

    Problem frakking solved.

    But oh no, the child is being willful, because her tiny brain that barely understands where her own nose is, wants to Defy Authority.  Not, you know, just crawl where she’s always been able to crawl before.

    Actually, the story is very similar to the “Dobson wanted the dog to attack the stranger, despite never teaching the dog to attack anything.”  The baby sees mommy, standing in a room in which she (baby) has always been free to go.  “No,” mommy says.  Okay, lady, no what?  Why do you expect your kid to read your mind?  She cannot even walk yet.

    Understanding of child development fail.

  • Hexep

    I am insanely suspicious of the word ‘to heal,’ because to me, it is directly symmetrical to the word ‘hurt.’ Both of them can be used without a direct object (my head hurts, my injury is healing), yes, of course, but that isn’t what my mind jumps to – it jumps to taking an object. The shoes hurt my feet. The doctor heals my stomach. Both of these actions are something that the subject does to the object.

    And to me, that surrenders just as much control over my sense of being as does an actual attack. It is someone else doing something, and I am changed.

    I have very, very little in this world, and even less in the abstract sense – I have no accreditation, no accomplishments, no trades, no artistry. The only thing I have in this world is my sense of personal pride – my sense that what goes on inside my own heart and my own soul is ultimately of my own doing, and that I exercise ownership of myself in a way that others do not. It’s all I’ve got.

  • Trixie_Belden

    One paragraph in the article Fred linked to recounts something I found particularly disturbing.

    “[Tomczak] also recounts giving his 18-month-old son “a series of repeated spankings (with explanation and abundant display of affection between each one)” in a motel parking lot, until the boy “realized that Daddy always wins and wins decisively!” [emphasis his]“

    It’s ”discipline” without any of the (nominally) rational reasons people usually give for punishment – you know, so the kids won’t do something that’s dangerous (e.g., running into traffic), or won’t do something socially unacceptable (e.g., biting) and thus the child will, it is hoped, survive to grow up and not be ostracized.  It’s discipline used as a mask for some insane desire for absolute control over another human being (always winning) and it’s f*cking creepy. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

     Yes, that paragraph almost made me physically sick. Proudly describing how he used physical force to assert his complete dominance of an infant. Just how fragile is this twisted little sadist’s ego?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    “[Tomczak] also recounts giving his 18-month-old son “a series of
    repeated spankings (with explanation and abundant display of affection
    between each one)” in a motel parking lot, until the boy “realized that
    Daddy always wins and wins decisively!” [emphasis his]“

    There is not enough WHAT in the world for this.

    D-X

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Living so close to that culture, I doubt the Hebrews could avoid having some of it rub off.

    It did, and a lot of the stuff in the Bible was appropriated from the Mesopotamian cultures.  For example, the story of Noah is quite probably an adaptation of one of the stories of Akkadian folk hero Atra-Hasis, who built a large boat to survive a world-consuming great deluge.  Adding credence to this connection is the behavior of God in Noah’s story, being a bit out of character for him to flood the entire world, but completely in character for the Mesopotamian cultures, who regarded their gods as fickle and often send floods to harm people on a whim.  Which is unsurprising considering the rivers that the Mesopotamian cities were built by, the flooding there was very unpredictable (in contrast to places like the Nile in Egypt which had very predictable flooding) and anthropomorphic inclinations tended to attribute such floods to capacious divine will which might answer mortal pleas or ignore them as the mood takes them.   

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Living so close to that culture, I doubt the Hebrews could avoid having some of it rub off.

    It did, and a lot of the stuff in the Bible was appropriated from the Mesopotamian cultures.  For example, the story of Noah is quite probably an adaptation of one of the stories of Akkadian folk hero Atra-Hasis, who built a large boat to survive a world-consuming great deluge.  Adding credence to this connection is the behavior of God in Noah’s story, being a bit out of character for him to flood the entire world, but completely in character for the Mesopotamian cultures, who regarded their gods as fickle and often send floods to harm people on a whim.  Which is unsurprising considering the rivers that the Mesopotamian cities were built by, the flooding there was very unpredictable (in contrast to places like the Nile in Egypt which had very predictable flooding) and anthropomorphic inclinations tended to attribute such floods to capacious divine will which might answer mortal pleas or ignore them as the mood takes them.   

  • SergeantHeretic

    Yeah, THAT paragraph of the Tomzcac article shines an unfourtunate and relevatory light on where the author’s head is really at. It’s not about helping the child become a functional healthy adult, it’s about total and unquestioned dominance and control. It really maakes you look at that whole world in a new way.

    EVERYTHING in the White Christian Evangelica world is about dominance and control and ownership and brutality. If you think about it even their theology is invested with the language and semantics of conquest and domination and war.

    It explains EVERYTHING about the world of White Christian Evenagelical world that even one’s own child is an enemy to be conquered and dominated and controlled.

    That’s frightening on a deep and mortal level if one really thinks about it.

  • AnonymousSam

    It certainly makes the allegations of his abuse of eight people seem very plausible. Especially when the primary suit filer specifically references having been hit with a stick.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Riastlin-Lovecraft/100000678992705 Riastlin Lovecraft

    And only, what, 100 years after the rest of us gave him up as a deluded fool playing psychologist? Why am I not surprised? -.-

  • SergeantHeretic

    EXACLY, you don’t do that to a human being that you love and want to see grow and prosper, but to an enemy thaat you want to dominate and control and bend to your own will hitting the kid with a stick or a belt or any other weapon is EXACTLY what you do to the small weak being that is totally unable to defend itself from you.

    Along with anything else you can think to do to the child to enforce your unquestionable will and supremacy.

    The thing is that the people who do that are showing that far from having any control over the child, they can’t even control themselves. They can’t control anything.

    It’s like everything about this mindset is about control and domination. that’s why they react the way they do to reports of rape and child sexual abuse the way they do. Its why the abuse itself is NEVER seen as the problem, only the reporting of the abuse to outsiders.

    I really do think at this point that in their world in their twisted little minds the rape and child sexual abuse really ISN’T the problem. It’s only when outsiders hear about it and therefore the supposedly sterling plu-perfect image of the church/group.heirarchy is tarnished that they react and when they do it is with anger at the victim who reported it, not the perpetrator who did it.

    Why?

    Because in that world the perpetrator is NOT the wrongdoer, the loudmouthed uppity tattletelling victim is.

  • Fusina

     And yet, this is what my Mom did, until the time she went to give me a spanking and she had a wooden spoon so I picked up the broom. I know that after I had my daughter we were having a conversation, and something she said triggered my defense mechanisms, and I finally asked her, “No matter how old I get, you will not consider me as wise as you?” and she agreed that I would never be as wise as she was/is. At that point, I started to pull away from her. That is the other insidious side of abuse–when the abused tries so hard to please the abuser and finds it hard to separate even with the power to do so.

    I had totally forgotten that book until I saw the cover. But I am ready to deal with it now, so it was okay.

  • Carstonio

    That’s exactly the mindset I would expect of a current slave society or a former one, which was the point you seemed to make earlier. The fear of slave uprisings pervaded the South, with SC almost a military state. I wonder if treating one’s child as an enemy was simply an outgrowth of the dominance attitude, or if slaveowners feared their daughters falling in love with male slaves. (I didn’t say sons because the female slaves amounted to concubines, as Fred explained, and the sons likely copied their fathers in exploiting the slaves that way. )

  • SergeantHeretic

    Carstonio, that is exactly what I am saying. Look at the parts of the U.S> where wwhite Evangelical rape culture is the most dominant, then take that and overlay it on a map of the old Confederacy.

    It will shock the hell out of you how closely they match up and alighn.

    The modern White Christian Evangelical society of rape, dominance, brutality and control IS quite literally the direct descendent of the unreconstructed Confederate States of America.

    They’re positive they’re not wrong, they’re obviously not the least bit sorry and if they thought they could, you bet your ass they would do it again.

  • Carstonio

    That’s what I suspected you were saying. If I had been President during and after the Civil War, I might have seized and destroyed the plantations, and then put the slaveowners on trial for crimes against humanity. But maybe some of the methods that the US used during the occupation of Japan might have been more successful.

  • SergeantHeretic

    That would have been best, a sort of “De-nazification” proccess to purdge the ruling parties from the liberate states. What you definatly don’t do is allow unreconstructed unregenerate political and military veterans of the war to resume their posts and or lives and be free to write their own cock-eyed wall-eyed version of the war that casts the victorious liberators as the VILLAINS!

  • Hexep

    The sad truth is that at the time, there was neither the political will nor the legal mechanism in place to do such a thing. If nothing else, we should have executed all their commissioned officers, especially those who had previously been officers in the US Army (and were thus guilty of an execution-level crime).

    But by the time the United States was in a position to decide such a thing, their collective will wasn’t so much about punishment so much as ‘let’s just get this over with.’

  • SergeantHeretic

    Hexep aint that the sad and sorry truth.

    Seriously am I REALLY the only pair o’ tits in the place who has noticed the scarey parellels between the agenda of the CSA and the behavior of the modern Republican party?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The depressing truth, as I have come to see it, is that the KKK essentially re-fought the Civil War in concert with the Southern Democratic Party and managed to win.

    Even if the War, followed by Reconstruction and the Force Acts, were strategic successes in terms of the balance of power of the Union over the Confederacy, the tactical victories the KKK scored effectively allowed the resurgence of the old power structure that only started cracking after the 1940s, when World War II and the attendant social and economic shifts resulting from it started making some southern politicians (like Jim Folsom) see that they could not forever maintain apartheid-like structures in their societies. Unfortunately, others (like George Wallace) also saw the pattern and dug their heels in against any change whatsoever.

  • SergeantHeretic

    And now the party leaders and holdouts like John Beohner and his ilk are fighting a last gasp stand against the forces of liberalism and democracy.

    They’ve been o nthe losing side of history for a century and a half and they stubbornly refused to see it, so much so that they would rather the country go down in flames than stand to lose.

    Trust me, there is a reason these so-called people have macho fantasies about armed resistance against an overriding governmental authority that won’t let them be brutal bullying assholes.

  • Jenny Islander

    The poisoned cherry on top of the horror sundae of your story is that “just forgive him” isn’t what Christians are supposed to do within the congregation.  Jesus Himself clearly lays out the steps (see Matthew 18):  The one who notices that a fellow parishioner has sinned goes privately to the sinner.  If the sinner will not acknowledge the sin, the next step is to take along some witnesses and try again.  If the sinner still won’t listen, it becomes a congregational issue, and if the sinner still won’t admit that he/she did wrong, the congregation is to treat him/her “as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (NIV), which is to say, with hospitality and compassion–and expectation of repentance and reformation if there is to be any relationship (remember, “don’t cast your pearls before swine”).  

    As for legal action, Jesus never preached a revolution against the existing government.  Rather the opposite.

  • Hexep

    Since I neither number my supporters, nor do I number their tits, I couldn’t tell you. Smart money is that it’s either an even number, or 0.

  • SergeantHeretic

    Going along with my train of thought, I look at the tea party and I reaalize these yabbos aren’t nostalgiac for the Revolutionary war, they’re pining for the days of the antebellum south when (In their diseased minds) Happy darkies worked in the fields and genteel gents and coutly ladies minced and danced in grand parlours before that evil nasty tyrannical federal government came along and said they had to treat black people, women and kids as if they were human.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    “[Tomczak] also recounts giving his 18-month-old son “a series of repeated spankings (with explanation and abundant display of affection between each one)” in a motel parking lot, until the boy “realized that Daddy always wins and wins decisively!” [emphasis his]“

    What freaks me out about this is the extremely procedural, ritualistic nature of the “punishment.”  Explanation-affection-spanking.  Rinse and repeat.  Rinse and repeat. 
     
    “A series of repeated.”  I wonder how many that is.  Three?  Seven?  (Oh, Mrs. Dobson!)  Twelve?  Twenty?  How much of a beating did this toddler have to take before he accepted the explanation of the “decisive” victory?

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Trust me, there is a reason these so-called people have macho fantasies about armed resistance against an overriding governmental authority that won’t let them be brutal bullying assholes.

    Do they realize that many of the rest of us have macho fantasies about armed resistance putting down brutal bullying assholes?  Because the way they scream about persecution for telling them they cannot bully would seem to indicate that they think they are alone in this.  

    After all, what good is might if it cannot be used to enforce justice?  What is the alternative, enforced injustice?  

  • SergeantHeretic

    But ou see, Fearlessson, what we call Injustice, they call liberty. It’s a very Orwellian thought process. Their thinking is that the powerfull and wealthy SHOULD be free to maltreat and exploit the powerless and the poor, after all isn’t that the natural order as they learned it. To such people freedom and liberty are just different words for “Devil take the hindmost.”

  • Fusina

    treat him/her “as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (NIV), which is to say, with hospitality and compassion

    I thought I was the only one who had read this with this twist. I had read this and the upside down way to look at this verse just came to me one day–although I am not very good at it. I cut off contact with this one person–although, come to think of it, she didn’t exactly come over and say anything to me, and I had nothing to say to her until she apologized for her extreme nastiness. I guess just not badmouthing her to anyone and not screaming at her when I saw her was a good thing?

  • Fusina

    Quite a bloody few. BTDT got the psychic scars to match. Did, most emphatically, NOT do this to my kids. Put stuff up until they were safe, left it up because I have cats (way more destructive than any kid, ever).

    I did have a set of glass unicorns that I thought were up high enough that the kids couldn’t reach. Found out different when my daughter came to me, and without a word held out her hand. She had a broken unicorn in it. At the moment I looked in her eyes, I knew that nothing I could say would make her more sorry than she already was, and yelling would not repair the unicorn. So I gave her the remaining unicorn, which she still has now (she was around five when this happened and she is eighteen now). Learned something about how I believe God operates.

    Ahh, and she asked me to put the unicorn up on a very high shelf to keep it safe. Not a stupid child by any means.

    ETA, I never was broken. Never accepted defeat. Always kept fighting. Hmmm, never realized that before.


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