This University's Policy On Sex Abuse Is Horrific

by Seth Millstein

At Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in South Carolina, students are told by faculty that they shouldn’t report sexual abuse to the police, because doing so would be damaging to the body of Jesus Christ. Yup. In 2012, the school brought on an outside consulting group, Godly Response To Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), to help it reform its ways; apparently, simply abandoning this atrocious, victim-blaming attitude toward sex abuse was too straightforward of a solution. But even this modest effort amounted to nothing, because last week, just before the GRACE’s findings were released, Bob Jones fired the firm without explanation.

“This ‘notice’ took GRACE by complete surprise,” the firm wrote in an open letter to its supporters, “as there had been no prior indications from BJU that termination was even being considered. Furthermore, this termination occurred days before GRACE was to conduct the last interviews of this 13-month investigation and begin drafting the final report scheduled for publication in March.”

The allegations against BJU are pretty damning. Catherine Harris, who attended the university in the 1980s, was raised in a fundamentalist environment, and says that she was abused by somebody “from inside that bubble.” When she went to the faculty for counseling, they essentially told her that it was her fault.

“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,” Harris told the New York Times. “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.”

Another former student, Erin Burchwell, told the university that an employee of the school had sexually assaulted her, and received a similar response.

“[T]heir 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,” Burchwell said, adding that school officials alternated between “saying it never even happened and saying I was a willing participant.”

There was also the student who, after informing the school that she was molested by her father, was told to defer to her father’s authority, which could have something to do with the fact that her dad was a Sunday school superintendent. Oh, and there’s the male student who was suspended after speaking out about a BJU Board of Trustees member who allegedly helped cover up sexual abuse at his Church.

University president Stephen Jones was vague in explaining why the university canned GRACE, but insisted that the school is acting in good faith and really does want to protect victims of sexual assault. Bob Jones III, the chancellor, said in 2011 that allegations of sexual abuse are “always reported to the authorities.” These positions are hard to reconcile with the allegations against the school — or, indeed, the fact that the university thought it was necessary to bring GRACE into the fold to begin with.

There’s really no excuse for this. If the university and its administrators truly cared about prosecuting and punishing sexual predators, it wouldn’t be encouraging victims to stay silent or accusing them of lying. If it really viewed sexual assault as a problem, administrators wouldn’t be guilting students into thinking that reporting their abuse was un-Christian. Some would argue that this attitude wasn’t official school policy, merely the “culture” of the university, but that sort of culture this doesn’t just develop out of thin air. It's cultivated and encouraged by the leaders of the institution.

By the way, even without its policies on sexual abuse counseling, BJU is an extremely oppressive place for its 4,000 students. As the New York Times notes:

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.

Image: Bob Jones University