Students at Bob Jones University, where administrators recently relaunched an investigation into the mishandling of sexual-abuse cases. Photo courtesy of Bob Jones University
Samantha Field was a student at Pensacola Christian College in 2009, when she claims to have suffered repeated physical and sexual assaults—including two alleged rapes—by her ex-fiancé, a fellow student. Thanks to the school’s strict morality code, which doesn’t allow men and women to use the same elevators, much less be alone in the same room, Samantha was reluctant to report her story to the school for fear of inviting suspicion and scrutiny, if not expulsion. Eventually, other students and faculty members noticed something was wrong, and Field was called in to meet with college administrators, including the school’s dean for women, who, Field says, told her that “confession [is] good for the soul.” When she remained silent, having nothing to confess, Field was sent to the school counselor.
“I started to tell her that my boyfriend had made me do things that I didn’t want to do, but she interrupted me and asked what I needed to repent of, and told me that I needed to forgive him, because otherwise I would have bitterness in my heart,” said Field, now a writer who blogs about her experience leaving the Christian fundamentalist movement. “I was trying to tell her that my boyfriend had raped me, and her reaction was to tell me that I needed to repent for my sins and not worry about my rapist’s sins.”
A spokesperson for Pensacola Christian College, Amy Glenn, declined to comment on Field’s claims, citing the school’s policy of keeping student records confidential. She added that the college follows a “well-developed set of procedures” for students seeking counseling, but she could not offer specifics on PCC’s policies regarding sexual abuse.
Sadly, Field’s story is neither surprising nor uncommon in the world of Christian fundamentalism, where sexual contact is strictly forbidden outside of marriage and total submission to religious authority figures is required of all believers. Even though the Catholic Church has been home to the most high-profile pedophilia scandals, Evangelical churches, schools, and missionary groups have proven to be similarly susceptible to sexual and physical abuse, and equally adept at shielding perpetrators from punishment.
The issue of how Evangelical groups—and particularly fundamentalist Bible colleges—deal with allegations of abuse has come to the fore at Bob Jones University, where school officials recently fired, and then rehired, the outside Christian consulting firm Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, to investigate the school’s handling of sexual abuse. Led by Basyle Tchividjian, an associate law professor at Liberty University and the great-grandson of Reverend Billy Graham, GRACE has caused a stir among evangelicals for having the audacity to point out the rampant rape and abuse among fundamentalist Christian groups. In remarks to journalists last year, Tchividjian said that the Christian mission field is a “magnet for sexual abusers,” and that he believes evangelicals are worse than the Catholic Church in the way that they deal with abuse in their congregations. (Tchividjian declined to speak with me until after GRACE issues its report on BJU.) At least two other Christian groups have terminated their relationships with GRACE, including the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism—which fired GRACE just weeks before the group was scheduled to release its final report on a two-year inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse by a former missionary in Bangladesh. New Tribes Mission, another Christian missionary group, ended its relationship with GRACE after the organization completed a 2010 report on abuse at an NTM missionary school in Senegal during the 1980s. (Subsequent NTM investigations have been conducted by other outside consulting groups.)
The Bob Jones investigation, initially launched in late 2012, has been pretty earth-shattering for fundamentalist Christians. Although BJU publicly stated that the GRACE inquiry was just to “make certain that BJU’s policies and procedures for handling reports of sexual abuse both fully comply with every aspect of the law and ensure a loving, scripturally based response,” many saw the investigation as an implicit acknowledgement that sexual abuse is a reality, even among the godly students and faculty at Bob Jones.
Photo courtesy of Bob Jones University
BJU isn’t your run-of-the-mill Bible college. Located in Greenville, South Carolina, Bob Jones University is the mother ship of American fundamentalism, with a network of alumni-founded congregations, seminaries, and Bible colleges that adhere to a brand of Christianity so strict it makes Jerry Falwell look like Dorothy Day. Students are banned from watching movies on campus, drinking alcohol, unmarried handholding, and socializing in parking garages, among other various forbidden pleasures outlined in the student handbook. Any sexual contact before marriage is grounds for expulsion.
In a culture that fetishizes chastity to the point of throwing father-daughter Purity Balls celebrating virginity, women bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for upholding these strict social mores and are often instructed not to tempt male “urges” with their low-cut shirts and tight clothes. It is a way of thinking that implies men only do bad things to bad women who tempt them.
Of course, all of this pious moralizing requires a heavy dose of denial. BJU administrators have allegedly ignored or punished students who bring up the issue of sexual assault. Victims of abuse have claimed that school administrators called them liars and sinners and told them not to report their attacks to the police because it would hurt Jesus.
“When I finally reported my assault to the school, the first questions they asked me were, ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Was it tight?’ ‘Was it low?’” said Erin Burchwell, a BJU alumna who claims that she was assaulted more than 40 times over the course of two years by a male graduate student while she was an undergraduate. “The assumption was obviously that it was my fault, that I had done something wrong by putting myself in that situation.”
Burchwell said that the investigation initially gave her hope that she could end 15 years of silence about her abuse. Then, abruptly and without explanation, BJU announced last month that the yearlong inquiry had been terminated, just weeks before GRACE was scheduled to release its final report. Officially, BJU’s president, Stephen Jones, said that the school was concerned that GRACE had gone beyond the “originally outlined intentions” of the investigation. But the subtext was that GRACE had found something that the school didn’t want people to see. Unsurprisingly, the backlash was immediate and intense. After two weeks of criticism from former students, and a scathing story in the New York Times, BJU officials apparently realized they had made a big PR blunder. On Tuesday, the school said that it was resuming the GRACE investigation and would allow a report to be made public later this year.
If the goal was to contain the fallout, though, it looks like BJU may be too late. After the school ended the investigation, former alumni like Burchwell went public with their stories, many for the first time, sharing details about BJU’s twisted approach to sexual-abuse counseling. And the reverberations haven’t been limited to Bob Jones. A story published by the New Republic last week detailed allegations of mishandled sexual abuse cases at Patrick Henry College, a.k.a. “God’s Harvard,” including one instance in which a dean told a student who had been sexually assaulted in her sleep that if she were telling the truth, “God would have kept her conscious to bear witness to the abuse.” On Facebook and Christian blogs, people like Samantha Field have attested to getting similarly fucked-up abuse counseling at other fundamentalist churches and Christian colleges around the country.
“I’ve been really surprised by how many people have come out with their stories—and I think the school is surprised by it too,” Burchwell told me. “But this would never have happened if they hadn’t tried to end the report.”
In response to Burchwell’s claims, BJU spokesperson Randy Page said that, to his knowledge, “no administrator would have told her not to report it to the police if she had wanted to go to the police.” He added that BJU has decided not to comment on claims made during the course of the GRACE investigation until after the final report has been released. He also noted that, since 2011, the school has taken several steps to improve its response to students who report past abuses, including implementing new awareness training and appointing a full-time abuse counselor.
For Samantha Field, however, the Bob Jones investigation offers little hope for breaking the cycle of abuse and victim-blaming that she argues has permeated the fundamentalist movement. “Women in this culture don’t realize that they have the right to have a say what happens to their bodies. They don’t understand that it’s not their fault, and they feel complicit in it,” Field told me. “They are taught [their] whole lives that women who do sexual things with their boyfriends are worthless, so they feel trapped in these abusive relationships.”
Field left fundamentalism after graduating from Pensacola Christian College in 2010. She said that she still has night terrors and panic attacks, which she attributes to not receiving proper counseling after her alleged rapes. Her former fiancé also graduated from PCC, she added. He is now a youth pastor.