Report: Bob Jones University shamed victims of sexual assault

The ‘fortress of faith’ caused extensive harm to sexual abuse victims, according to a two-year independent investigation

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.

Katie Landry (right) grew up in a conservative Mennonite home in rural Ohio
Katie Landry

Former BJU student Katie Landry, who spoke to ”America Tonight” as part of our exclusive investigation into Bob Jones earlier this year, recounted how when she reported her rape to then-Dean of Students Jim Berg, she was so devastated by a barrage of questions — Had she been drinking? Had she been impure? What was her root sin? — that she raced out of the administration building, dropped out of school and didn't tell anyone else for five years.

“He just confirmed my worst nightmare,” Landry said. “It was something I had done. It was something about me. It was my fault.”

In candid remarks published in the report, Berg denied that the "sin behind every sin" was a concept he used and said he couldn't remember the details of that session. But he acknowledged that the investigatory nature of his counseling, hurried schedule and "eagerness to bring real resolutions" may have made him brusque towards sex abuse victims in a way "that is probably more threatening than helpful."

Berg, who was dean of students and chief counselor on campus for three decades, and is a current faculty member, estimated that he's counseled 200 to 300 sexual abuse victims at Bob Jones. The report names Berg, along with former Dean of Education Walter Fremont, longtime Executive Vice President Bob Wood and Gregory Mazak, who oversees undergraduate and graduate degrees in biblical counseling as key figures in shaping  the university's counseling philosophy, which was imparted to thousands of students, pastors, counselors, teachers and missionaries. But none of these men had any formal training in psychology, or a license to practice.

"What this report found was that the materials made available by these individuals had caused an incredible amount of damage in a large group of people," said Boz Tchividjian, the head of GRACE. "The report didn't find that any of it was intentional or malicious. But it did cause harm."

Of 141 self-identified abuse victims who answered the question in the GRACE survey, more than 60 percent said Bob Jones' culture was filled with messages that blamed and disparaged victims.

Some pointed to a fixation on women's dress and teachings that seemed to imply that women were responsible for a man's lust. Many interviewed by GRACE said the school's sermonizing on sexual sin left them feeling like damaged goods, as it failed to differentiate between those who chose to have sex and those who had it forced upon them. 

‘Even if I had lost my virginity by choice, there was no grace in fundamentalism. It was as if this was the one thing Christ’s blood wasn’t sufficient enough to cover.’

alleged abuse victim and BJU alum

"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.

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