It was officially presented last week, and the Baptist community of upstate South Carolina was promptly thrown into convulsions.
There is nothing in this report that would surprise followers of religious fundamentalism, or those who intimately know how deep-fundamentalism works on the psyche. I first heard stories about how Bob Jones University shames victims of sexual assault, when I arrived in Greenville over 26 years ago and attended AA meetings here. Women who abuse alcohol make excellent victims, and I heard about the shaming of these women (for both drinking and then for having been victimized), up close and personal... over and over.
It has taken all this time for these stories to come to light.
The tales were rampant, and yet, I didn't really understand the authority of BJU and how these places work psychologically. Can't you just leave?!-- I would ask them, uncomprehending.
I might as well be asking the Amish to leave. I think that's a good comparison for the lack of preparation young fundamentalists (often homeschooled) have for the real world. They are frequently very unworldly, confused, overprotected, sheltered... again, the perfect victims, who will stay silent. And so they have.
The much-awaited report came out last week. There are now several follow-ups from the Greenville News, suggesting legal action is not out of the question. (More here and here.) And hey, let's count it as a small miracle and nothing short of AMAZING that the once-reticent Greenville News is finally getting with the program. This is the same Greenville News that studiously and deliberately IGNORED all reports of questionable, hinky behavior from BJU since I first started reading it. As I have complained countless times, our local paper of record mostly talks about how WONDERFUL Bob Jones University is; lots of special-interest stories about alumni and their opinions, business ventures, gardens, whatever... not to mention their super-duper Arts Department, Music Department ... just one long GUSH GUSH GUSH.... you'd think it was freaking Oxford, the way they have constantly extolled the virtues of the place.
Sometimes I have felt like the Greenville News is one long combo education/travel brochure advertising Bob Jones University.
Well, not this week. A editorial gives them what-for, in no uncertain terms:
Bob Jones University will be challenged over the next few months to prove it truly understands the devastating nature of the findings from a two-year investigation into how the school for decades handled reports of sexual abuse on and off the campus. The school's response will demonstrate whether it is committed to helping vulnerable people failed by school leaders who handled sexual abuse disclosures in a manner that for many victims deepened their pain and stalled or made impossible their efforts to recover from traumatic experiences.
GRACE began its long-awaited, 301-page report that was released Thursday with a compliment to BJU for taking a "bold step forward" to examine "how it may have caused deep hurt in the lives of students who had suffered from the ravages of sexual assault." GRACE is a self-identified Christian organization based in Lynchburg, Virginia, and its full name is Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. BJU under former President Stephen Jones does deserve credit for undertaking the independent GRACE investigation and agreeing to make public its findings.
Others deserve even more praise, however, and that includes the former students who have forced the university to acknowledge and address its failures when it comes to how allegations of sexual abuse were handled. Former students and even some current ones recognized the injustice that has taken place and have refused to back down even in the face of criticism and some hostility. The courage displayed by alumni and former students who insisted on the GRACE investigation is even surpassed by that required of the sexual abuse victims who participated in this study. They are the heroes here for agreeing to share their stories of the original abuse and then the revictimization that followed as they were struggling to deal with what had happened to them.
The two-year investigation produced an unflinching report into how BJU failed to provide a safe environment where students could seek help and begin the healing process after they arrived on campus dealing with childhood sexual abuse or were assaulted during their student years. Part of the investigation included a confidential survey, and in it more than 60 percent of the self-identified abuse victims who responded said the college's attitude toward victims was one "of blame and disparagement."
One of the most damaging findings was that key college leaders were slow, by decades, to understand their legal requirement to report alleged sexual abuse in many cases. Laws were developed more than four decades ago, and refined and sharpened over the years, to require adults in positions of authority to protect innocent children who are being abused. It is absolutely appropriate for Solicitor Walt Wilkins to begin his own investigation, which was announced Friday, into the way BJU handled the sexual abuse reports.
Wilkins has an opportunity to put an exclamation point on the brutal report by holding BJU officials accountable if his investigation finds violations of legal requirements to report sexual abuse. "If they were convincing individuals not to report crimes that could be considered obstruction of justice," Wilkins told Greenville News reporter Lyn Riddle. "We need to see if it rises to that level."
One key finding of the GRACE report stated, "The survey findings support a possible conclusion that BJU representatives may have sometimes discouraged the reporting of sexual crimes to the proper authorities." Although school officials have reported a different interpretation of some comments or counseling advice, some victims said they were told the abusers should be forgiven and not reported to law enforcement authorities, and that they would be selfish if they shared their experience with others and in doing so hurt the school.
Victims also reported how they were made to feel ashamed for what had happened to them, and they came away from sermons or counseling sessions thinking they had contributed to the abuse. "Women and girls were taught they must 'confess' the part of sexual abuse they enjoyed, that they probably enticed the abuser," was among the viewpoints expressed.
One victim reported she was abused by her grandfather from the ages of 6-14, according to the GRACE report. When she went for counseling, she later reported being asked, "Did you repent for your part of the abuse? Did your body respond favorably?"
Daisy interjects: OH GROSS.
Two school leaders were held out for especially strong criticism in the GRACE report: Bob Jones III, who led the school for many of the years covered by the investigation, and Dr. Jim Berg, dean of students during much of the period covered by the investigation and the man, who with an educational background in theology, helped develop the counseling program for students.I really can't add anything to that. I am proud of them for finally saying it.
The GRACE study led to a number of recommendations, some already implemented, that include timely reporting of suspected abuse, a recognition that victims should never be blamed for abuse or assault, and an agreement to separate counseling services from the disciplinary process.
BJU President Steve Pettit and others who hold the university dear to their hearts now carry the burden of implementing GRACE report recommendations, trying to salvage the school's reputation, and reaching out to vulnerable people hurt first by their abuser and again by how their confidence was betrayed and their case mismanaged. There's more the school should do, too.
The extraordinarily damaging views about abuse that were uncovered in the GRACE report have hurt more than the victims who participated in this investigation. Those views were shared over the years with young men going into the ministry, with students preparing to be teachers or counselors, and with boys and girls who now have their own children who are venturing into a world that can be unsafe and downright cruel. A step toward redemption should include BJU's heartfelt and comprehensive effort to make its closest allies understand how much horribly wrong information was spread for many years and how critically important it is to change a fundamentally flawed view of sexual abuse.
And for my part, I wanted to rip the BJU administration a new one, but I figure I will save that for the radio tonight. (TUNE INTO WOLI AM/FM, listen live at 8pm!) But more than that... I have had an epiphany. (Kevin Spacey voice: I hate when that happens.)
The people who have given me so much grief over the years? These Bob Jones mavens who have written me up on the job and started fights about Jaysus (credit to Tom Wolfe for spelling) and made pests of themselves at the Black Sabbath concert and at the bookstore where I worked??? I now see that many were suffering. Perhaps, suffering greatly, and directing this pain outward was what they were taught to do, the only way they knew how to cope. And there I was, an available target.
Not unlike the way THEY were an available target.
And so, the pain is passed on.
I have decided not to do that this time. I want to be better than that.
It is my hope that fundamentalists will learn from this, that they have plenty of problems of their own to deal with, and they should probably stop pointing at other people and deal with themselves. I think plenty of people have figured this out in the past week--maybe more than I ever believed possible. And for all of you, I offer an olive branch. (holds up two fingers) PEACE!
Please speak out and share. And organize for change. My love to you all at this difficult time.
EDIT #1: One person already speaking out, sharing and providing excellent analysis is survivor Dani Kelley, who is doing a series on the GRACE report. Please check out her blog.
EDIT #2: My friend Camille Lewis offers some inside-baseball on the situation, for all of us to peruse: Bob Jones University rewrites recent history to ward off federal investigation, PART ONE and PART TWO. (The timeline featured in PART TWO, is indispensable for those who want the step-by-step of how the investigation came to be.)