After scathing sex abuse report, Bob Jones calls itself 'very safe'

The president called the university's counseling "solid," leaving abuse victims doubting that the school will change

The blistering report on how Bob Jones University has handled sexual abuse reports is still warm off the presses and some victims are already skeptical that the university is willing to acknowledge the seriousness of what it exposed. They say BJU's response reeks of damage control.

In its two-year independent investigation, the nonprofit Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment found that sex abuse victims on the Greenville, South Carolina, campus were often urged to find the sin behind their rapes, pushed to repent for any pleasure they might have experienced during their assaults, and encouraged to reach out to their abusers and express forgiveness or ask forgiveness from them. The university's counselors were unlicensed and had no formal training in psychology.

Some students, the GRACE report found, were punished for reporting their abuse. Almost half said they were advised not to go the police. The 301-page dossier also paints a campus culture where sex abuse victims were made to feel like "damaged goods." In the past year, America Tonight has interviewed five former Bob Jones students who reported their abuse to school officials and all say they have yet to recover from how BJU treated them.

BJU President Steve Pettit is appointing a committee to review the report over the next 90 days and he publicly apologized to those who "felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding, and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault." But in a chapel service Monday, leaked to the website BJU News, he told students that the report wasn't an accurate representation of the school today.

"In proper perspective, I want you to realize that most of those cases were things that happened to people before you were even born or when you were a child," he said, before urging students to reassure their families when they're home over the holidays that the school is safe.

"I was a very recent graduate and I was quoted at length in the report. And the culture from when I was a student has not changed," said one rape victim who graduated in the last three years and asked to remain anonymous out of a fear of retaliation. "Honestly, I'm just really saddened. It comes across like they haven't even read the report, because the report very clearly states that this has happened recently."

Another former Bob Jones student told America Tonight last year that when she reported her rape to administrators in 2009, she was accused of lying and then expelled in the middle of the night.

We're asking them to face the fact that the people they've always respected have actually caused great harm.

Recent BJU graduate and abuse victim

Katie Landry, who reported her alleged rape to the school in 2005, also found Pettit's comments offensive.

"I am a decade removed, from a chronological-time point, but from a pain point of view, that counseling still affects me today," she said. "It was the first counseling I received. It was the only counseling I received for over seven years. For over seven years, all I thought was that I'd done something that caused my rape."

During his 29 years as dean of students, Jim Berg estimated that he counseled 200 to 300 sexual abuse victims.

GRACE documented many occasions when BJU failed to notify law enforcement of abuse, in violation of mandatory reporting laws. But it also notes that the school has improved on that front in the last few years. Jim Berg, who was dean of students and chief counselor for three decades, told GRACE investigators that his failure to report sex crimes to police in the past was based on "pure ignorance."

But BJU's counseling philosophy is not something of the distant past and Berg remains a faculty member. GRACE urged BJU to ban Berg from counseling entirely and to strip the campus bookstore of anything affiliated with him and several other leading BJU thinkers. It also advised the school to refer all abuse victims to licensed professionals with trauma expertise.

In his recent chapel speech, Pettit said the school had a "solid approach toward counseling people." The school recently hired a new women's counselor, but she also isn't licensed, isn't formally trained in psychology and practices Bob Jones' brand of biblical counseling. She was also trained by Berg.

"How can you say your counseling is different from what it's been for 40 years?" said the recent graduate, who was counseled for two years at Bob Jones and described it like being "raped all over again."

In response to Pettit's remarks, Boz Tchividjian, the founder of GRACE, said: "Our report speaks for itself relating to those issues." 

BJU didn't respond to America Tonight's request for comment.

"We're asking them to change things that hit the core of their culture and that's why this is so hard," said the recent graduate. "There's a cognitive dissonance there. We're asking them to face the fact that the people they've always respected have actually caused great harm."

It is unprecedented for a school to open itself up to this level of scrutiny on the issue of sexual abuse. But it is all the more remarkable for Bob Jones, an insular campus famously hostile to outside interference. When the IRS tried to revoke the school's tax-exempt status in 1975 because of its ban on interracial dating, BJU challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court, launching the Religious Right in the process. BJU only repealed its racist policy in 2000.

"I don't think they've ever been in this situation before," Chris Peterman, a former Bob Jones student, said of his alma mater. "They've never had anyone say, 'This is what you're doing wrong.'"

In 2011, Peterman began agitating on social media over revelations that one of the university’s trustees covered up sex abuse at his church. He urged students to wear red in solidarity with victims – the first on-campus protest in the school's history – but said many wore blue and green to protest against him. Peterman was expelled nine days before his graduation in what he believes was an act of retaliation.

The following fall, the school banned students from using media to "disparage BJU." That following summer, Bob Jones reached out to GRACE.

"They opened themselves up to this outside scrutiny," Peterman said. "And now they're trying to figure out how to get this message across that they're not this place that is clearly reflected in the report."

Pettit's comments have already dashed the optimism of many who took part in the investigation. They charge as disingenuous his remarks to a local NBC affiliate that some of the cases in the report "are not very clear to us" and that they don't know the names of the alleged victims or even the years that the incidents took place. During the course of the two-year probe, GRACE had administrators review and respond to cases specifically.

I don't think they've ever been in this situation before. They've never had anyone say, 'This is what you're doing wrong.'

Chris Peterman

Former Bob Jones student

"To say they didn't know the names of anybody, that just can't be true," said one BJU graduate who was interviewed by GRACE and tried to reach out to Pettit personally before the report came out.

After her alleged rape 20 years ago, she said she expressed her fear to BJU that her alleged rapist was allowed to return to campus. She said an administrator asked her whether she really wanted to prevent a  "Godly man" from getting an education that would allow him to "serve the Lord." That man now serves in an overseas ministry.

However, the woman said she was initially impressed by Pettit's statement the day before the report's release, which seemed to be an apology.

"I was impressed because [BJU officials] never admit wrongdoing, ever," she said. "So I was impressed that they didn't just trash the report, like, 'The report is completely an attack of Satan.'"

But then, she said she reread his comments and noticed that he only apologized to those who "felt" they were underserved and that staff members were just "perceived by some" to be insensitive.

"Seeing those words in there was hurtful," she said. "Because I felt like they don't get it. They still don't get it."

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