Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study
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.
On Friday, Stephen Jones, president of the university and great-grandson of its founder, addressed students and employees, saying, “We grew concerned that in the process, Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions,” but he would not elaborate. He said the university had not told Grace what its concerns were and wanted to discuss them with the consultant but could do so only face to face and felt compelled to fire the firm first.
Camille Lewis, a former faculty member, said she had tried to help several abuse victims.
Chris Keane for The New York Times
“We terminated our agreement with Grace so that we could sit down and get it back on track,” Mr. Jones said, vowing to complete the investigation, with or without Grace.
Critics angrily dismissed his statement. “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.
Grace, whose leaders include lawyers and psychologists, specializes in advising churches and other Christian organizations on addressing abuse. It was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, also an evangelical Christian school. The group declined to comment on Bob Jones.
Bob Jones is no ordinary university. Unaffiliated with any denomination, it is a leading force in promoting a kind of fundamentalism so strict that the university’s founders assailed evangelists like Mr. Graham, Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell as too accommodating to the larger world.
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 the university, with about 4,000 students and an affiliated primary and secondary school, is having no ordinary version of the conflicts that have rocked colleges around the country over their treatment of claims of sexual assault. Those controversies usually begin with outrage over highly publicized offenses on campus, followed by an investigation.
But at Bob Jones, most of the stories that have been made public do not involve assaults on campus. They are about people who were abused as children and then looked for help in college. Nor is there much sign of outrage on the immaculate campus of low-rise beige brick buildings, covered walkways, spreading oaks and manicured lawns (off limits to foot traffic). Several students interviewed said they had known little or nothing about the charges and were not concerned about them.
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.
A group of alumni called for the university to dismiss the man from the board; he eventually resigned. A student who had criticized the university over the affair was not allowed to graduate and alleged retaliation.
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.”
Randy Page, a university spokesman, said Tuesday that university officials had not yet met with people from Grace and that any disagreements would remain between them.
He said he could not respond to the claims about how the university had handled abuse victims in the past, “because I wasn’t there,” but that Bob Jones has a commitment to “a loving, scripturally based response” for everyone.