Watch Al Jazeera America Thursday at 9 p.m. for more on the Bob Jones University revelations, including exclusive TV interviews with two alleged abuse victims who attended the school.
For decades, Bob Jones University (BJU), a self-described fundamentalist Christian college, has urged sexual abuse victims not to go to the police and counseled them to repent for the blame it said they share, according to an extensive independent investigation published Thursday.
The report, nearly two years in the making, is a catalog of grief stretching back four decades, based on hundreds of survey results, dozens of in-depth interviews and a wealth of corroborating documentation. It details a culture that shamed victims into believing they were ruined by their abuse. It also strongly criticizes the school's brand of counseling, which rejects modern psychology and urges victims to look for the "sin" behind their rapes and view their continued trauma as a struggle with God.
More than half the alleged victims surveyed reported they felt the school's response was hurtful or very hurtful. Some victims said they found counseling sessions worse than their abuse. But the vast majority of the 50 self-identified victims interviewed for the study said they loved Bob Jones University, that they wished it no ill and hoped sharing their experiences would bring much-needed change.
A nonprofit group, Godly Response for Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), conducted the probe at the request of Bob Jones, after revelations that one of the university’s trustees covered up sex abuse at his church. The scope of such a review would be extraordinary for any university, but BJU, a campus of about 3,000 in Greenville, South Carolina, known for its strict biblical teachings, is one of the most insular in the country.
The GRACE report not only indicts the culture and counseling philosophy at BJU but also names four individuals it considers the main architects of the school's approach. Among its many policy recommendations, GRACE urges BJU to strip its campus bookstore of the works of these individuals, bar its onetime primary counselor from counseling and take action against Bob Jones III — the chancellor and a former president of university and a grandson of its founder, for whom it was named.
BJU has maintained an insular, conservative culture that prohibits drinking and television. Unmarried men and women may not touch. Opposite sexes may gather socially only in well-lit outdoor areas on campus until 10:20 p.m. Even Christian music is not permitted if it has a rock, pop, jazz or hip-hop beat. Much of the outside world — from "worldly friends" to websites, which are deemed un-Christian — is shunned.
On Wednesday, BJU President Steve Pettit released a statement on the report, writing on behalf of BJU, "I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding and support after suffering abuse or assault." He promised victims "who felt we failed them" that school officials were thoroughly analyzing GRACE's findings and recommendations.
"Even if I had lost my virginity by choice, there was no grace in fundamentalism," said one alleged victim interviewed by GRACE. "It was as if this was the one thing Christ's blood wasn't sufficient enough to cover."
Many alleged victims also complained that the school enforced an image of perfection under fear of expulsion. One former student told GRACE that when she disclosed her childhood history of sexual and physical abuse to her dorm supervisor because she was frightened for her siblings at home, she was blocked from a spiritual leadership position and told to "pray for a softer heart."
One student told GRACE that the wrong attitude could result in a student being summarily removed from Bob Jones without any goodbyes. "In an environment where depression, sadness or questioning of BJU in anyway could lead to expulsion, how on earth would someone really feel safe reporting a sexual assault?" she said.
Bob Jones officials helped maintain this veneer by failing, on many occasions over many decades, to report sexual abuse to law enforcement, the report documents.
In one case from the early 2000s, a BJU employee, who was observed engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with younger students and was fired for looking at pornographic websites involving "men and boys," was encouraged to seek "the counsel of his pastor," with no word to law enforcement. In another, the report states a BJU student confessed to sexually assaulting a recent graduate in her sleep, was expelled, was reinstated after a year, graduated and now serves in a ministry overseas.
Beyond the purge of counseling materials and personnel issues, GRACE recommended changes in polices and training, a public apology, an offer of free tuition to those who dropped out because of their treatment and a public memorial to victims on campus.
Bob Jones University has already seen swift improvements during the last four years, the report acknowledges, such as the appointment of a new chief of public safety and roll-out of sexual abuse awareness training for students and faculty.
"I think Bob Jones is ahead of most universities when it comes to these issues," Tchividjian said. "Yes, while most places started at the 50-yard line, they started on the 2-yard line. There's a lot of work that still needs to be done. But I can also say that based around our two years of dealing with them, there's a pretty clear focus on wanting to get it right."
And for a university, unprompted, to invite an independent investigation into how it failed sex abuse victims and make it public is "unprecedented," Tchividjian noted.