Remember when I wrote about GRACE’s investigation of how Bob Jones University handles sexual assault and other forms of sexual abuse? Well, GRACE released their report in December and BJU has mulled their course of action for several months now, but is now moving ahead—rejecting some of the GRACE report’s key recommendations.
To be fair to BJU, they have made some changes in recent years.
A full-time women’s counselor was hired in 2012. In 2013, the university’s policies on sexual abuse were rewritten and updated again in 2014 based on recommendations of a Fort Worth, Texas, organization called MinistrySafe. Also in 2014, the university separated women’s counseling from the office that handles discipline. That ensures confidentiality, the university said.
Also, this tidbit is not to be missed:
Several students told GRACE their privacy had been breached by school personnel, including one woman who said her hometown pastor was called.
I have never been so glad I went to a secular university!
So, BJU has made changes. They’ve hired an actual women’s counselor and separated counseling from discipline. These are good steps. But what are the recommendations they’re not following? How important are they? Let’s take a look:
[T]he two most harshly criticized by the GRACE report were Bob Jones III, the chancellor and grandson of the founder, and Jim Berg, who handled most of the counseling during almost 30 years as dean of students.
GRACE found that students who reported abuse were blamed for bringing it on themselves and that proper authorities had not been notified. The organization said Jones, as the president from 1971 until 2005, and Berg, who stepped down as dean in 2010, were primarily responsible.
The report recommended that Jones be disciplined and that Berg be banned from both counseling and teaching counseling and that the school no longer use or sell his books or DVDs.
Let’s talk about Jim Berg for a moment. Berg has a BA in Bible and an MA in theology, both from BJU. He has no formal training in counseling, and yet, as dean of students, he handled most of the counseling at BJU, including counseling young women who were victims of sexual assault or other forms of sexual abuse. And as the GRACE report detailed, this counseling was handled very badly. And yet, Berg currently teaches Christian counseling at BJU and runs a national institute providing pastors with training in “biblical counseling.”
When details began coming out about the way BJU had handled sexual assault—telling survivors that it was their fault, asking if they’d been drinking, if they’d had sex before, etc.—some questioned whether the focus on a college like BJU was more about an anti-fundamentalist smear than actual concern for the women involved. The argument was that secular colleges also have problems handling sexual assault, and that singling out Christian colleges like BJU and focusing on these school’s religious beliefs was unfair.
Yes, there are problems with how sexual assault is handled on the campuses of secular universities! I’m all for fixing those! Feminists constantly critique mishandlings of sexual assault at state schools and private universities across the country, so it is not as though BJU has been unfairly singled out. But there’s something going on here that makes the situation at Christian colleges different, and to get at that we have to return to BJU’s rejection of some of the key recommendations in the GRACE report:
[BJU President Steve] Pettit gave a general response during chapel service and referred to the university’s website for more specifics.
The website said personnel matters are private and will not be made public. It also said Berg’s sermons and materials were reviewed and found to be biblically sound. The school will continue to sell them and to use them in courses.
“Thousands of believers have benefited from his books and hundreds of churches have used his materials with great spiritual profit,” the website said.
BJU and other fundamentalist colleges hold tightly to their specific interpretation of the Bible as infallible and unchanging, which can make them unwilling to examine the ways their religious beliefs can re-traumatize victims. Note that BJU says they examined Berg’s materials and found them “biblically sound”—because for them, what matters is that the materials align with their interpretation of the Bible, not that the materials treat victims with respect or help them heal with dignity.
What does Berg teach that GRACE objected to but BJU does not find objectionable? While I don’t have a copy of Berg’s counseling materials, we do get hints of what he teaches from some of the women who have come forward about his counseling.
[BJU student Cathy] Harris said she was counseled by Berg for six months in 1996 after she started to have flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse. She said she’d go to his office on the second floor of the Administration Building weekly and sit in a wing-back chair. He remained seated behind his desk.
She told him she wanted to go to the police, she said.
“He said the police wouldn’t believe me,” she said.
He told her a report would bring shame on the cause of Christ.
. . .
Berg also asked whether she felt any pleasure during any of the abuse and, if she did, she needed to repent, she said.
And then there’s this:
In 2004, Landry worked over the summer for an ambulance company in Columbus, Ohio. One night, she was counting supplies in the back of an ambulance, when she says she felt the prick of a needle.
“I just couldn’t move and he came over and he took my clothes off,” she remembered. “I could still speak, so I was telling him, ‘No.’ And he raped me and my eyes filled with tears, but I couldn’t brush the tears away.”
Told that he “would do worse” to her 9-year-old sister if she didn’t come back, Landry said she had five more shifts, and was raped three more times, before she left for her freshman year at BJU.
Landry didn’t know the word rape; she only knew adultery, and liked the man’s wife, she said. Afraid of her attacker and deeply ashamed, she said she failed most her classes first semester, and kept her assaults a secret until her junior year.
“I just needed help,” she said. “I needed help really bad.”
Landry said she was referred to Jim Berg, then the dean of students. After she shared her story, she said Berg asked whether she’d been drinking or smoking pot and if she’d been “impure.” When he brought up her “root sin,” she said she raced out of the building.
“He just confirmed my worst nightmare,” Landry said. “It was something I had done. It was something about me. It was my fault.”
If Berg’s materials contain any of this—the victim blaming through suggesting that victims have some responsibility in what happened to them, the elevating concern about bringing shame on “the cause of Christ” over concern about victims—there is absolutely no excuse for BJU’s decision to continue using and publishing Berg’s books and materials. And note, too, that they appear to be keeping Berg on staff as a professor of counseling. And if Berg has changed his position and teachings on these issues and has revised his materials to reflect that, you would think that BJU would state that—but they don’t.
While plenty of secular universities have faced controversy in recent years for how they handle sexual assault, Christian colleges like BJU have specific challenges that differ from the challenges these schools face. Christian colleges have to grapple with decades of evangelical and fundamentalist teaching that does not mesh well with efforts to support victims and promote healing.
This is not about picking on fundamentalism for the sake of picking on fundamentalism. Organizations like GRACE are important because they show that conservative Protestants can find ways to reconcile their understanding of the Bible with support for victims. They just need to actually do so. And unfortunately, BJU appears to be choosing a different path.