A report was made public recently that addressed the response of Bob Jones University (“BJU”) to disclosures by its students of sexual abuse. BJU is a Christian educational institution that currently enrolls about 3,000 students in various undergraduate and graduate programs. In response to national media reports of BJU’s mishandling of sexual abuse complaints, the school hired GRACE (“Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment”), an organization whose mission is to empower the Christian community to address the sin of childhood sexual abuse, as an independent ombudsman to review and report on BJU’s practices and policies regarding sexual abuse disclosures.
In conducting its investigation, GRACE created a confidential online investigation survey and received about 340 completed surveys from students and former students. Ultimately, GRACE interviewed some 50 survey participants who self-described as victims of sexual abuse, almost 80% of whom were child sexual abuse survivors (the others were victims of adult sexual assaults). GRACE also interviewed numerous BJU employees, current and former, other students, and anyone with relevant information concerning the investigation, in addition to reviewing various documents obtained from individuals and the university, including court documents, police reports, and emails.
The report indicates that about half of the survivors had been abused as children before they attended BJU and the other half had been abused while attending the university. The alleged perpetrator in over one-third of the cases was affiliated with BJU during the time of the abuse. In 65% of the cases an employee of BJU, usually an administrator, faculty member, or counselor, was aware that the abuse occurred. Yet some 47% of the survivors described BJU personnel as either discouraging a report to the police or actually directing the students not to make a report. Not surprisingly then, 60% of survivors characterized BJU representatives’ attitudes toward them as“blaming or disparaging,” referring to them as “second-rate Christians,” admonishing them that they must “confess” to their part in the abuse and must repent, and warning them that the cause of Christ will suffer if news of the abuse gets out to the public.
BJU survivors reported that these messages of shared blame and responsibility for the abuse they suffered had the effect of retraumatizing them. BJU counselors labeled survivors’ PTSD symptoms as “spiritual problems” or even “sins.” As a result, survivors experienced severe depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, nightmares, physical pain, illness, fear of hell, and eating disorders. They were told to forgive their abusers, forget the abuse, and move on with their lives. The message that they were to blame for their “problems” exacerbated the feelings of failure and shame shared by so many child sexual abuse survivors. The report documents the numerous BJU failures in addressing the survivors’ abuse disclosures, including violations of legal and ethical standards in failing to report the abuse to lawful authorities.
The information in GRACE’s report is not news to many of us who advocate on behalf of child sexual abuse survivors. Too many institutions and individuals deter victims from reporting their abuse and make them feel they are to blame for having been abused.
As a society, we must do better. We must treat each other more humanely and compassionately. We must not make victims feel they are guilty of their mistreatment by others. We must protect the children and the innocent. And we must hold accountable the torturers and abusers among us. Only then will reports become unnecessary.
Submitted by Neil Jaffee, Legal Counsel – Pursuit of Truth film