An outside watchdog group hired to investigate sex abuse claims at Bob Jones University issued its 300-page report on December 11, concluding that the conservative Christian school responded poorly to many students who were victims of sexual assault or abuse.
Bob Jones, with about 3,000 students at its campus in Greenville, South Carolina, tapped Lynchburg, Virginia-based GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) in November 2012 to investigate claims about sexual assault. During its two-year investigation, GRACE interviewed 50 individuals who self-identified as victims of sexual abuse.
Some of those students claimed they were victims on campus; others said they were dealing with child sexual abuse but received a poor reception from campus officials as they struggled with their past.
The school’s teachings on sin, forgiveness, discipline, and justice shaped how Bob Jones University responded to sexual assault, the report argues. “As a result of the school’s poor responses, many of these students were deeply hurt and experienced further trauma,” a press release from GRACE states.
The school has carved out a significant space within fundamentalism after its leadership parted ways with evangelist Billy Graham, an icon of more mainstream American evangelicalism. The school also received national attention when then-presidential candidate George W. Bush visited in 2000, prompting the school to drop its ban on interracial dating, which it had unsuccessfully tried to defend before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.
The school decided in 2011 to hire GRACE to investigate claims of mishandling of sexual abuse after national media reports surfaced. Earlier this year, the school fired, and then rehired, GRACE to investigate allegations. A representative for the university said both parties agreed not to discuss concerns during that time.
Bob Jones highlighted findings from the report:
* BJU officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims appropriately.
* Staff were seen by some victims as insensitive to their suffering.
* Some victims reported that the school’s counseling was inadequate, insensitive, and counterproductive.
* Some felt staff tended to blame victims for the abuse or sexual assault.
* Counseling sometimes overlapped with disciplinary actions.
* Several victims reported that their abuse was not reported to legal authorities by campus counselors.
Some individuals reported hearing themes in chapel, classrooms, and counseling sessions that would blame a woman’s style of dress for triggering an assault, or label victims as “damaged goods.” They reported feeling as though the school saw “all sexual sin as equal.” Like many Christian institutions, the school prohibits sex outside of marriage.
“The lack of distinction between sexual abuse and consensual sexual sin has caused some victims of sexual offenses to feel impure and shamed even though they did not choose the sexual act perpetrated upon them,” the report states. “Several individuals raised the complaint that BJU counselors had encouraged abuse victims to confess and repent of any ‘pleasure’ experienced during the sexual abuse.”
The report suggested that BJU counselors may not be referring abuse victims for appropriate medical evaluation, treating symptoms such as post-traumatic flashbacks and nightmares as “spiritual problems.”
The school’s teaching on sin also contributed to how students were counseled, the report suggests.