Nov 14 9:00 PM

How the 'fortress of fundamentalism' handles sexual assault

The culture of Bob Jones University proved to be an uncomfortable environment for one student who claims that she was raped and the university didn't do anything about it.
Bob Jones University

Lydia still doesn’t know why she was expelled from Bob Jones University in March 2009. But she believes it has something to do with the fact that she was raped.

Lydia, who asked to be identified by only her first name, loved BJU, a Christian university in Greenville, S.C., when she started there in the fall of 2008. Pursuing a nursing major, she enjoyed the classes, played intramural sports and had a great group of friends. Then, when she went home over Christmas break, she says she was raped by an acquaintance.

For weeks, Lydia didn’t tell anybody about it, or talk much at all. Then, a friend noticed that she was acting strangely, and Lydia admitted why. The friend wasn't sure what to do, so asked an old roommate, Rebekah, who was a few years older, a BJU dorm counselor and graduate student. Rebekah wasn't sure what to do, and so arranged a meeting with the dean of students.

After all, the administration states clearly in the student handbook: "You may come to any of us for help in any area of your life. We are your brothers and sisters in Christ."

Lydia desperately didn’t want to go.

"It’s the feeling you get from campus," she told America Tonight. "These people don’t have my best interest at heart, and I don’t want to share this scary personal story with a man I don’t trust."

But Lydia was worried that if she backed out, she’d be put on “spiritual" or "character" probation -- a punishment where students are closely monitored and required, as the handbook puts it, to “evidence genuine, observable effort to grow in Christlikeness." So Lydia entered the office of the dean, a man she’d never met before.

“I did not want to be with a man by myself,” she says. “I thought it was strange that he closed the door.”

Lydia says the dean asked her repeatedly to walk him through what happened, but deeply uncomfortable, she refused. At one point, she says he asked: “Is there anything that you did that made him do that?”

According to BJU spokesman Randy Page, if an employee learns that a student has been abused, "the University will assist the victim by encouraging him or her to make a report to the authorities, helping him or her to make the report and directing him or her to the appropriate services."

But during the meeting, Lydia says the dean never suggested that she file a police report, or even indicated that rape was something the police might care about. She says he never mentioned the sexual assault recovery center in town. And he couldn't point her to a licensed counselor on staff whose job is to care for students in need, because BJU doesn't have one.

The dean did, however, tell Lydia to keep meeting with Rebekah, a 21-year-old with a bachelor's degree in counseling, but no experience actually counseling a person.

"The only kind of intense training I got was three days," says Rebekah, who also asked to only be identified by first name, because she still has family "in good standing" with BJU. "And most of that was how do we enforce the rules, not how do we help people with their problems."

"It’s this kind of attitude that you need to drop or you’re not going to be successful here."

But Lydia and Rebekah had good conversations anyway, about all kinds of things, and they became friends. A couple weeks later, the university shut off Lydia’s email. Lydia realized her counselor was passing everything she said on to the administration, like the fact that her rapist had been messaging her. She felt betrayed.

Rebekah says she was just following the unwritten rules, as her position and scholarship were at stake.

"At that point in time, there was no privacy," Rebekah explains. " ...I was supposed to keep them in the loop. Everybody was supposed to know and be able to help out." She adds: "It wasn’t until a little bit later that I started to question whether Bob Jones really had Lydia’s best interest in mind, and whether what I was doing was best for her, or to keep my job."

In their conversations, Lydia had also been asking Rebekah questions about her faith, and certain BJU policies. Rebekah thought she made some good points, and in the hope of getting answers herself, raised them with university officials. 

"I think they started to think she was somehow leading me astray," Rebekah says.

Lydia believes she'd become an irritation for the administration. She believes that's why she was then called into the office of her dorm supervisor, a BJU staff member, and accused of lying about her rape. "Basically she said, 'The bottom line is this: We don’t believe what you’re saying and you need to stop saying it or we’ll have to take disciplinary action against you.'"

Lydia protested. “It’s this kind of attitude that you need to drop,” she says she was told, “or you’re not going to be successful here.”

An ad for Bob Jones University in "Christian Life" magazine, May 1968.
jbcurio/Flickr

"I absolutely think they didn’t believe her. I don’t think they took her seriously at all," says Rebekah. "And everything she did was therefore for attention, and not because she was hurting." 

A few days later, Rebekah called Lydia to tell her that she wasn't allowed to talk to her anymore. A week after that, Lydia says her mother showed up late at night. She told her daughter that she was being asked to leave BJU. Lydia was confused. When she asked her dorm supervisor why she was being kicked out without warning, she says she was told: “You already know.”

Lydia medically withdrew from BJU. When she received a copy of her transcript a year later to submit to another college, it was marked down as an expulsion.

Looking back, Lydia believes she handled the situation poorly, by being withdrawn and private about her rape. But she also thinks the administration should have known that this was a completely normal way for a teenage girl to behave after experiencing the trauma of a sexual assault.

"It should have been expected that I would feel stressed out and trapped and alone and emotional about it," she says. "... And they sent me back to the place with the person who attacked me, to be alone all day." 

The Bob Jones influence

Bob Jones
Dr. Bob Jones, an internationally known evangelist, founded Bob Jones University in 1927. The university's current president is Jones' great-grandson, the fourth consecutive family member to hold the position.
Bob Jones University

BJU is no ordinary Christian school. It is the flagship university of American fundamentalism (some in the BJU community prefer "fortress"). Its influence extends far beyond its student body, which is estimated to be about 3,000 undergraduates. It has numerous feeder schools in pockets across the country, runs its own K-12 school in Greenville and is one of the largest publishers of Christian textbooks in the America. The university's presidents have been philosophical leaders of the fundamentalist movement, and its graduates go on to lead thousands of churches, colleges and seminaries across America

"I can tell you within 10 minutes of being in a church whether or not there’s been a Bob Jones influence," says Leah Gore, who graduated BJU in 2000.

But in one way, BJU is just like many of its Christian and secular siblings across the country: it has a sexual assault problem.

Some alumni suspect that sexual assault is not as much of an issue at BJU as at other American colleges, where heavy drinking and casual hook-ups are the norm. BJU is more chaste than your average institution of higher learning. Per the rules, there's no drinking. No TV. Unmarried boys and girls can’t touch. Opposite sexes can only hang out in well-lit outdoor areas on campus until 10.20 p.m. Christian music is not permitted if it has a rock, pop, jazz or hip-hop beat. The student handbook states: "Couples or mixed groups are not to socialize inside the parking garage."

"People were forced, in a way, to stick to the goal: to get your degree, to learn as much as you can there, and to be a good student, and to be polished, and go out in the world and be a good example," said Deborah Bertling, who graduated BJU in 1985. "I think they helped facilitate that. I think a lot of college kids at a lot of schools feel it’s their right to be raucous. At Bob Jones, they don’t feel it’s their right. They feel it’s their privilege to be there to get the education."

But the nine BJU alumni who spoke to America Tonight acknowledge that sexual assault simply wasn’t talked about. "I think it is a problem because nobody thinks that it’s a problem," says Rebekah.

"I know a girl who didn’t realize what happened was rape. She thought it happened to everyone."

Beth Murschell

Bob Jones University alum, '92

It’s impossible to get accurate sexual assault statistics about any campus; it’s an extraordinarily underreported crime. But under federal law, colleges must collect and disclose the best numbers they can, and last year, BJU reported one forcible sex offense.

Bob Jones alumni activists say this number is wide off the mark, and that even beyond assaults within its gates, with a student population that size, you're likely to have people who were victimized off campus, like Lydia, or as children, and need support. In a 2010 government survey, nearly one in five women reported that they'd experienced rape or attempted rape. And studies show that as many as one in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse.

But in the minds of many, sexual assault simply doesn’t exist at Bob Jones, which makes it all the harder for students when it happens to them.

"You have girls who don’t know what body parts are called, let alone what sex is," says Beth Murschell, who graduated BJU in 1992. "I know a girl who didn’t realize what happened was rape, she thought it happened to everyone."

Students in BJU's Margaret Mack women's dormitory at mandatory group prayer and scripture readings in 1948.
Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Striving for excellence

Organizations tend not to like talking about sexual assault, and it’s even harder at a place that holds sexual purity, obedience and forgiveness as sacred.

“The typical response to sexual abuse is first they need to forgive their abuser, and second is that they shouldn’t talk about it or it will hurt the cause of Christ,” says Jeffrey Hoffman, who attended BJU's elementary, junior high and high school. He says he was molested by his Sunday School teacher, and BJU staff member, in a shower stall on church premises when he was 10 or 11 years old.

Not all Bob Jones alums agree.

“I had several teachers that if there was a problem like that personally, I would have felt comfortable going to them,” Gore said. "I know personally the dean of women, know her well, and there’s no way she’d say, ‘OK, well fine, thank you,’ and dismiss it. It would be addressed.” 

But she pointed out: “I think sometimes Christians tend to bury their head in the sand about things going on that would make their reputation not as shining as they want it to be.”

Sexual assault isn't much discussed on most college campuses, and the prevalence of the crime is extremely hidden. Only five percent of college women who are raped report it the police, according to a 2000 report by the Department of Justice. Twenty-seven percent of those who don't report say it's because they thought it wouldn't be treated seriously.

Rebekah, who received her bachelor's in biblical counseling in 2008 and master's in 2010, says her BJU professors didn't delve much into the subject of sexual violence and how to counsel victims, but they did touch on it.

"You have to find out what really happened," she remembers learning. "Because there might not have been an actual sexual assault, it could have been their perception. They could be blowing it out of proportion. That was pretty much what I took away from it."

Bob Jones University

Lydia says it wasn't just sexual assault that was taboo, but anything that might tarnish your smiling, well-adjusted image. "You always needed to talk about your struggles as if it was months ago. You could never talk about a current struggle," she says. "It meant you weren't praying enough. You weren't reading your Bible enough. You were either the perfect Christian, or you weren't one, and that was unacceptable there." 

Pursuit of Christlikeness is the beating heart of BJU. When selecting books to read or movies to watch, the university urges students to find stories where good is rewarded, evil punished, wisdom honored and foolishness scorned. "BJU does not apologize for the prescriptiveness of the educational experience here," the handbook states. "Its character goals require it."

“We should strive for excellence: Listen to excellent music, and read excellent literature,” was the philosophy, says Sara Harvey, who got her bachelor's from BJU in 1995, but was expelled while pursuing her master’s degree at the age of 30 -- for swing dancing with boys. “But it’s a notion of excellence that’s very sanitized.”

"No one was very candid there. Not even your roommates," she adds. 

'You don’t go to the police'

Bob Jones can be an island unto itself in many ways, alumni say, shunning much of the outside world -- from music to websites to “wordly friends” -- that are deemed un-Christian. It is a place where Abercrombie & Fitch logos are banned because of the chain’s “unusual degree of antagonism to biblical morality.” Many of the students were home-schooled, and have little contact with people who aren’t in the same system of fundamentalist churches, schools, camps and missions.

“It’s from a big warm heart, but they’re not used to being questioned,” says Harvey. “They’re a completely enclosed planet.”

For Bob Jones, separation from the world is a biblical directive. As the university explains on its website, separation is “first a recognition of the completely evil character of the world and a decision not to desire or to expect approval or fair treatment from it.” 

“We thought we were normal,” says alumnus Beth Murschell. “We were taught that everybody on the outside was wrong and hellbound. We were taught to fear them and avoid them.”

"That was the first act of rebellion in my life. I was 36."

Beth Murschell

Bob Jones University alum, '92

Bob Jones
Then Texas Governor George W. Bush addresses students in BJU's chapel during his 2000 presidential campaign.
Eric Gay/AFP/Getty Images

The Internet has made that much harder to maintain, with so much opportunity for extracurricular research and un-Christian exposures, plus the minefield of blogs and forums by disenchanted Bob Jones alumni, many of whom refer to themselves as "survivors."

“Thank God for the Internet,” says Murschell, “because I wouldn’t know how to question.”

Murschell says she was a dutiful student at BJU in the late '80s and early '90s, once even turning herself in for watching the "The Last of the Mohicans." Movies are banned on BJU campus, but students can watch them at home, as long as they're rated G.

A couple years ago, Murschell’s childhood friend disclosed to her that she had been sexually abused at their church growing up, and that the minister knew about it. The minister was Murschell’s dad.

"Everyone goes to the minister in that culture. You don’t go to the police, you go to your clergy," she told America Tonight. "It made me very angry. I thought everyone would be angry."

Murschell’s father was angry when she called him; angry at the woman, who he called a liar and a drama queen, she claims. “I hung up on him,” Murschell said. “And that was the first act of rebellion in my life. I was 36.”

Being proactive

Earlier this year, BJU decided to take a serious look at sexual assault on its campus, and hired the organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or G.R.A.C.E., to do the job. G.R.A.C.E. typically works with churches and ministries, and focuses primarily on the abuse of children. It’s the first time it’s investigated a university.

So far, G.R.A.C.E. has conducted 80 in-person interviews in Greenville and Charlotte, N.C., and many others over the phone. 

It’s unprecedented for BJU to conduct a review of its sexual assault procedures, and in such a public way. BJU not only invited current students and staff, but alumni and former faculty, in letters, emails, on its website and in the alumni magazine, to speak to G.R.A.C.E. if they wished, says Page, the BJU spokesman. They’re not just opening the closet, they appear to be digging for every long-buried skeleton they can find.

Page described the move as "proactive."

"It is our desire to identify any past instances in which former students or others felt underserved by the guidance or counseling provided by the University," he wrote in an email, "and to insure our current practices are appropriate."

Do Right BJU

The sexual assault investigation at BJU won't be finished until early next year, so no one could comment on any conclusions so far. But Chris Peterman was one of the former students interviewed by G.R.A.C.E. Without Peterman, in fact, G.R.A.C.E may not be doing this work at all.

It all started by wearing red.

Peterman was a senior at Bob Jones in 2011 when he heard about a New Hampshire man found guilty of repeatedly raping a 15-year-old girl in his church more than 10 years earlier. The victim claimed the pastor at the time had forced her to stand before the congregation and confess her "sin," sent her to a private home in Colorado and told her not to report it to the police. The pastor was Chuck Phelps, a graduate of BJU and, at the time, a member of the university’s Board of Trustees.

"No one was very candid there. Not even your roommates."

Sara Harvey

Bob Jones University alum, '95

Peterman started a Facebook page called “Do Right BJU,” a play on a chapel saying by the university’s founder. He shared articles about the case, began plotting a protest and drummed up enough outrage that Phelps stepped down. (Phelps claimed he did report the incident to the police and child services, but that he regretted how he handled the incident.)

Even though Phelps had resigned, Peterman decided to continue with the rally, in honor of all victims of sexual abuse, and to push Bob Jones to better address the problem on campus. The issue was personal; Peterman’s sister Tina had been raped as a child by a deacon in their church, he says, and the pastor had covered it up.

Bob Jones University
Bob Jones alum Camille Lewis at the protest.
Camille Lewis

In what would be the first-ever protest on the university’s campus, Petersman encouraged students to wear red on Dec. 12, 2011, in solidarity with victims. But in the weeks leading up to the event, he says speakers at BJU condemned it in daily chapel.

“If you go against our authority, if you don’t like it here at Bob Jones, you should just leave,” Peterman says they were told. “Teachers would talk about it in class, saying it’s just ridiculous.”

The university made a public statement criticizing the “blogs” that whipped up the controversy, a likely reference to Peterman’s Facebook activism. "Did Dr. Phelps do everything perfectly? No -- nor would anyone make perfect judgments in similar circumstances," it stated. "...A biblical approach would be an attitude of forbearance toward a Christian brother -- not recklessly making accusations of crime or cover up against a man of good reputation before gathering the facts."

Peterman says he doesn’t know how many people stood in solidarity with him that day; many wore subtle red pins and then quietly went up and shook his hand. A few dozen students and alumni gathered to release red balloons into the sky. But another group of students boldly wore blue, and another wore green.

“It was ridiculous,” Peterman told America Tonight. “How do you not stand up with sexual assault victims? How?”

Nine days before his graduation, Peterman was expelled. He says he was written up for a series of infractions after the protest, including his social media use, not shaving and watching the TV show “Glee” off-campus, which sent him over the university’s demerit threshold. He believes he was the victim of retaliation.

The following year, BJU introduced a new rule into its student handbook. “In the spirit of honor and wisdom… students should not use media to disparage BJU but should instead pursue truth in love by following this grievance process."

Protecting the institution

In his statement, Page was very clear that the university’s concern is for victims. But he also spelled this out in a level of detail that other institutions would probably think unnecessarily obvious.

"When cases of abuse are reported, BJU will place the interests of the victim first," he wrote. "BJU believes that a victim of abuse or neglect is not to blame for the abuse foisted on him or her. BJU will take reasonable steps to protect the safety of a victim when a report is made."

Student-on-student sexual assault at BJU fits into a larger simmering issue of sexual abuse in the fundamentalist church, and evangelicalism more broadly. G.R.A.C.E. was founded by Boz Tchividjian, grandson of famed preacher Billy Graham, because of what he saw as serious problems in the way churches responded to abuse.

As a prosecutor in Central Florida, Tchividjian handled hundreds of sex abuse cases, and was disturbed by how many involved members of the church. "And if you saw any pastor in court in a supportive role," he told America Tonight, "nine out of 10 times, they were there to support the offender."

"BJU believes that a victim of abuse or neglect is not to blame for the abuse foisted on him or her."

Randy Page

Bob Jones University spokesman

The assailants were often upstanding members of their religious community, he explained, and they purposely targeted the children who were the least likely to be believed: the misfits, the troublemakers.

“Often the ways institutions respond to abuse disclosures is one that first and foremost protects the institution,” Tchividjian said. “We saw that last year obviously with Penn State.”

Sexual abuse commonly occurs where there is a power dynamic to be exploited. Critics say power is a central part of the fundamentalist church from an early age. Rules are strict and punishments harsh. BJU runs a day care in Greenville, and requires all parents to submit a letter of consent so that the director can discipline at his or her discretion, “including the use of corporal punishment,” according to its handbook.  

From the faculty/staff parent handbook of the Bob Jones University Child Development Center
Bob Jones University handbook

When Camille Lewis, a Bob Jones alumnus and former professor, wrote a letter in 2006 asking that her child, who was about to turn 3, not be spanked, she says her dean gave her a dressing down in his office.

“I was told I was a young mom, I was inexperienced, and I didn’t know. I was just shamed about having this position,” she told America Tonight. “And I wasn’t budging. You’re not touching my child. I’d had three miscarriages and one full-term stillbirth. So when I got my guy, you don’t get to tell me how to raise him.”

In a church setting, power dynamics can be compounded by the language of religion itself. “They’ll tell a young child, ‘What we’re doing is not sin, it’s a demonstration of love.’” says Tchividjian. “...If the child gets older and realizes what’s going on is wrong, they’ll say ‘You’re engaged in sin, so would you really tell anybody about this? You’re just as guilty as I am.’”

As part of his work, Tchividjian advises pastors, if they sermonize on the sinfulness of premarital sex, to offer an explicit and compassionate caveat for victims of abuse who may be in the pews.

Two years ago, allegations of sexual abuse at Jeffrey Hoffman’s church brought up old memories, and he finally reported his childhood molestation to the police, but left out the perpetrator’s name. "Because I loved the man who molested me," he told America Tonight, "and didn’t want to hurt his family." 

Hoffman never even finished his first semester at BJU. In what he calls “a miracle of God’s grace,” he came down with pneumonia, was forced to withdraw and never returned. A few years later he moved to New York City, where he’s lived ever since, working as a composer and running an organization on the side called BJUnity. It’s a support network for BJU alumni who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

"There’s a lot of overlap, because a lot of the people that I support were very much a victim of childhood abuse," he says. "We span five generations."

'Authentic repentance'

Bob Jones
An internal BJU bulletin notifying campus about a series of sexual abuse training sessions in September.

Tchividjian thinks the evangelical community needs to expose its own failures in addressing sexual abuse, “not because it’s being forced to, but because that’s what Christ demands of us." Then the institutions at fault should “demonstrate authentic repentance.”

Even though the investigation is not yet complete, BJU has already made some changes. In September, the university conducted a mandatory training on child abuse for all education and nursing majors and ministry students. The separate session for faculty and staff reviewed the responsibility university employees have to report suspected or actual abuse, according to an internal BJU bulletin.

But the university has made no public acknowledgement of shortcomings. The G.R.A.C.E. investigation was simply to "make absolutely certain BJU’s policies and procedures both fully comply with the law and ensure a loving, scripturally based response," the university said in its statement.

"My concern for the Protestant world is that in many cases it’s yet to be brought to light. So as a result, it’s not being addressed with as much vigor as it is in the Catholic church," says Tchividjian.

Asked whether he believes a sex abuse scandal will hit the evangelical church on the scale of the one that has rocked the Catholic world for a decade, Tchividjian replied: "I certainly hope and pray not. But I don’t know."

Some alumni are skeptical that the investigation at BJU will bring about concrete change, like a clear accounting of past errors, a new sexual assault reporting system, better training and more oppenness. They wonder if the whole thing is window-dressing. 

Now a student at Greenville Technical College, Lydia has her doubts that the university is committed to transparency in how it handles sexual assault. She didn't recieve a letter asking if she wanted to be interviewed by G.R.A.C.E., she says, even though BJU definitely has her address. It often sends her mail asking her to donate.

And even today, Lydia’s not allowed within 50 yards of campus. One time, she says, when she was visiting BJU’s museum and gallery, she was identified by a school public safety official, and detained in the back of a van.

“They seem to be very scared that I’ll speak to one of their students," she says.

Rebekah continues to ask herself why she played along with the administration, passing on her private conversations with Lydia, even though she was learning in her counseling classes how important confidentiality was.

"I’ve asked myself why I didn’t do what I thought what was right to do, even though it would mean I'd probably lose my scholarship," she says. "I don't understand why we took someone who needed help, and we sent her home to a dangerous situation. And she came to us for help in the first place."

Rebekah asked BJU administrators why it made sense to force Lydia out when she hadn't even broken a rule.

"Well," she says they replied, "it's what's best." 

Correction Nov. 14, 2013: A previous version of this story stated that Jeffrey Hoffman was molested when he was 8 years old. He was actually 10 or 11 years old, and had known the man since he was 8. 

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