Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University February 16, 2014

As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

Readers are told that the decision to fire Grace had “drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones.” In other words, there is tension and disagreement among the modern supporters of the school over how to proceed when dealing with reports of abuse.

There’s the deeper story: Right there.

Yet the Times team appears to have gathered very little material from people who are sympathetic to Bob Jones as an institution, yet critical of this decision. We are looking for more of this:

“As always, they’re worried about protecting the church and the university, not the victims,” said Camille Lewis, who spent two decades at Bob Jones as a student and faculty member before leaving in 2007 and said she had tried to help several abuse victims over that time. …

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.

“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.”

Ms. Lewis said she had seen other women have similar experiences. As a college senior, she took a friend to a university administrator for counseling after the other student said she had been molested by her father, a Sunday school superintendent in their church.

“They said not to go to the police because no one will believe you, to defer to authority like your father or especially someone in the church,” she said. “They said if you report it, you hurt the body of Christ.”

That final sentence is the heart of this story. Did the Times editors know that?

The Times team goes out of its way to stress the harsh fundamentalist environment at BJU, primarily in terms of its shocking conservatism — to Times readers, I am sure — on basic lifestyles issues. For example:

On the campus here, students are forbidden to listen to popular music or watch television or movies; the student handbook tells them to avoid clothing brands that “glorify the lustful spirit of our age in their advertising”; they face sharp limits on dating and even leaving campus; and they are told which churches in town — usually run by pastors tied to the university — they may attend. Faculty members and other employees are expected to adhere to the university’s literal interpretation of the Bible and are forbidden to drink alcohol.

And so forth and so on. Meanwhile (watch the attached video), we are still dealing with a college campus full of young people.

Here’s my main point: the story mentions that the current Dr. Jones who is leading the school — Stephen Jones, a great-grandson of its founder — said he began this investigation because of his interest in learning how other schools dealt with these kinds of tragic issues. That’s a story hook worth pursuing.

Thus, where are the voices of experts from other institutions who are sympathetic to this school and its foundational beliefs, yet critical of its decision in this case? There are very conservative Christians, the kinds of leaders a Dr. Jones would admire, who have made serious progress on policies and programs related to sexual abuse. There are Christian colleges and universities that have made important changes in their campus policies, a process that seems to have started at Bob Jones a few years ago (according to the Times story).

If the lawyers and PR people linked to BJU prevented some important interviews from taking place, making this story rather one-sized, might it have been possible to have sought more input from other informed, yet sympathetic, critics of this unique institution?

I think so. The result would have been a story with more clout and impact on campuses nationwide, a story that would have helped protect and heal more victims.

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