“They said if you report it, you hurt the body of Christ”

“They said if you report it, you hurt the body of Christ” February 13, 2014

You may have heard that Bob Jones University has fired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). Everyone is wondering why, but it’s not hard to guess. GRACE was due to release its report on Bob Jones University’s handling of sex abuse and rape next month. This incident is just one more in a burgeoning series of evangelical sex and abuse scandals.

GRACE was founded by Boz Tchividjian, who is a grandson of Billy Graham and a professor at Liberty University. With these evangelical credentials, Tchividjian has a unique opportunity to bring change. Tchividjian has stated publicly that evangelicals are worse than Catholics when it comes to covering up sexual abuse, and yet has still gotten positive coverage in the arch conservative WORLD Magazine. Tchividjian has countered evangelical claims that the Bible says to handle such offenses privately, and as an evangelical Christian himself he targets his arguments and calls to action to that demographic. GRACE offers Christian institutions their services in reviewing and improving their policies on child sexual abuse and rape.

GRACE was contracted by the fundamentalist Bob Jones University to conduct an investigation of the university’s policies in early 2013, with an eye to preempting scandals cropping up at other universities.

Mr. Jones said that the university began the investigation not because of any particular allegations, but because of the trouble it had seen at other schools, and that it rewrote its policies on responding to sexual assault in 2012. But its attitude toward sexual assault and bad publicity had come under increased scrutiny by then because one of its board members, an alumnus and the pastor of a large church, had been accused of covering up a rape within his congregation and publicly shaming the victim.

Bob Jones University then fired GRACE late last week, claiming that “We grew concerned that in the process, Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions.” GRACE’s report was due out next month. The two are still in negotiations and neither Bob Jones University nor GRACE have released the reason for the disagreement and termination, although I am sure it will come out eventually. That hasn’t stopped alumni from speaking out.

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.”

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.”

It is likely that GRACE’s report would have revealed systematic coverups of rape and abuse that goes all the way to the top of Bob Jones University. It is possible that GRACE’s report could shake the university to its core. The missions agency ABWE also fired GRACE last week, after hiring GRACE to investigate its response to serial sexual abuser Donn Ketcham, a missionary doctor. What these groups apparently don’t realize is that their fear of this information getting out is making them look really, really bad.

I’ve talked before about the problems caused by the emphasis on authority (submit, obey, don’t ask questions) and the emphasis on modesty (which is closely related to the idea that if a woman was raped she must have been “asking for it”). But there’s something else going on here too. One of the Bob Jones University rape victims quoted above stated that “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.” Tchividjian wrote that another missions agency GRACE investigated that the organization “emphasized the saving of souls at the expense of children,” and the same principle is in action here again. 

Tchividjian recently wrote an article titled Christians and the Struggle to Report Child Abuse. I want to finish by quoting from it, because I think it really gets to the hart of the issue.

The next time someone tells you that reporting suspected abuse of children may “hurt the reputation of Christ”, tell them to stop protecting themselves. Tell them that the reputation of Jesus is reflected in how we love and protect children.  Tell them that the reputation of Jesus is only damaged when we turn away and leave grievous sin alone in the darkness of silence.

People need to be more important than ideologies. 

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