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Raised in a conservative Mennonite home in rural Ohio, Katie Landry was a sheltered kid. She hadn’t even held hands with a boy when, at age 19, she says her supervisor at her summer job raped her. Two years later, and desperate for help, she reported the abuse to the dean of students at her college.
“He goes, ‘Well, there’s always a sin under other sin. There’s a root sin,’” Landry remembers. “And he said, ‘We have to find the sin in your life that caused your rape.’ And I just ran."
Landry ended up dropping out of college, and didn’t tell anyone else for five years.
Her college was Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., the flagship campus of American fundamentalism, which teaches a literal interpretation of the Bible and separation from the world. Last year, BJU hired a watchdog group to investigate how it may have failed victims of sexual abuse. The so-called “fortress of faith,” one of the most closed-off Christian colleges in America, was finally opening itself up.
In an America Tonight investigation, five former students detailed similar and scarring treatment at the hands of BJU faculty. They spoke of a larger culture that heaped on shame and pushed them to silence -- one focused on purity and reputation, and insistent on unquestioning obedience. But most damaging was how, through the language of Scripture, victims say they were told that their sins had brought on their rapes, that their trauma meant they were fighting God and that healing came from forgiving their rapists.
The women interviewed for this article attended BJU during the course of three different decades – from the early 1990s to the 2010s – and none of them have fully recovered.
I. Root sin
In 2004, Landry worked over the summer for an ambulance company in Columbus, Ohio. One night, she was counting supplies in the back of an ambulance, when she says she felt the prick of a needle.
“I just couldn’t move and he came over and he took my clothes off,” she remembered. “I could still speak, so I was telling him, ‘No.’ And he raped me and my eyes filled with tears, but I couldn’t brush the tears away.”
Told that he “would do worse” to her 9-year-old sister if she didn’t come back, Landry said she had five more shifts, and was raped three more times, before she left for her freshman year at BJU.
Landry didn’t know the word rape; she only knew adultery, and liked the man’s wife, she said. Afraid of her attacker and deeply ashamed, she said she failed most her classes first semester, and kept her assaults a secret until her junior year.
“I just needed help,” she said. “I needed help really bad.”
Landry said she was referred to Jim Berg, then the dean of students. After she shared her story, she said Berg asked whether she’d been drinking or smoking pot and if she’d been “impure.” When he brought up her “root sin,” she said she raced out of the building.
“He just confirmed my worst nightmare,” Landry said. “It was something I had done. It was something about me. It was my fault.”
BJU practices, preaches and instructs a version of Christian counseling that rejects “secular psychology.” In the school’s worldview, almost all mental problems – beyond the medical – are the result of sin. As explained in the 1996 book, “Becoming an Effective Christian Counselor,” “most people in mental hospitals are not sick; they are sinful.”
Written by Walter Fremont, who was the dean of education at BJU for 37 years, and his wife Trudy Fremont, a former BJU professor, the book specifically addresses incest and rape, advising counselors to emphasize that blame lies with the abuser. But the authors also make clear that being sexually assaulted is no excuse for the sinful feelings of discontentment, hate, fear, and especially, bitterness – unresolved anger that “in reality is rebellion and bitterness against God.”
In a 2009 BJU chapel service, former adjunct professor Rand Hummel recounts how he instructed a young woman to ask her abuser – her stepdad – for forgiveness for her bitterness, and that afterwards, he received a letter from her saying, “Finally, for the first time in my teenage life, I can smile.”
After asking her rapist for forgiveness on the instruction of her BJU counselor, Sarah didn’t smile. The man was a family member, who had abused her for several years as a child.
“I didn't even know what sex was at that point,” she said. “All I knew was that it hurt and that I didn't like it.”
When she started at BJU in the late 2000s, Sarah said she was haunted by flashbacks, nightmares and a deep fear of men, and was excited to finally get help. She was referred to Pat Berg, a professor of counseling at BJU and the wife of Jim Berg.
“I would say that the impact of the two years of counseling I had with her is that I felt like I had been raped all over again,” she said.
In their many sessions, Sarah said Berg fixated on her “sin,” and then blamed her when she failed to “get better.” She said Berg told her that she needed to repent of any pleasure she experienced during her abuse. Since BJU doesn’t recognize psychiatric concepts like post-traumatic stress disorder, she said she was also told that she was choosing her trauma symptoms.
“I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘You know that the nightmares are your own fault, because you're choosing to replay pornographic thoughts in your mind,’” she said.
According to emails, Berg also advised Sarah to call her rapist and ask for forgiveness. Sarah said Berg told her that if she didn’t forgive, God wouldn’t be able to “use her."
But talking to her rapist didn’t make Sarah feel better.
“Picking up that phone that day and calling him was one of the most gut-wrenchingly hard things that I ever had to do,” she said. “It didn’t bring me closure. Instead, it was like sticking a knife inside me and twisting it harder.”
Suicidal and overwhelmed by flashbacks and nightmares, Sarah said she kept going to counseling because “she was so desperate for some ray of light.” But instead, she said Berg told her that if she’d asked God’s forgiveness, she should be fine, and Sarah “walked out of her office for the last time with no hope.”
Through a BJU spokesman, Pat Berg said Sarah’s allegations were “patently false.” BJU wouldn’t respond to any of the other claims until the results of the independent investigation are released. Jim Berg has yet to respond to requests for an interview.
Writing through the university Facebook's account, a school representative said, "We certainly encourage victims to report any illegal activity to applicable law enforcement agencies as these types of criminals may strike again." None of the former students interviewed said that they were ever told their abuse was a crime.
This response to rape reports isn't unique to BJU, according to Peter Janci of the Portland law firm O'Donnell Clark & Crew. In the dozens of sex abuse cases he's brought against religious organizations, Janci says he's found this type of victim-blaming reaction to be "all too common."
"We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg of the issue of sexual exploitation in Protestant churches," said Janci, who grew up in an evangelical home. "They haven’t been held accountable."
The method of counseling at BJU ends up punishing victims far more than their abusers, according to Julia , a former BJU student, who was also counseled by Jim Berg.
“[The offenders] are able to quickly move on. They say they’re sorry, they’re repentant, so they go right back,” she said. “As the victims continue to struggle in the aftermath, we are the ones seen to be in sin. Struggling with fear, confusion, anger, talking about what happened, or any other reaction to trauma is seen as sin. We are expected to repent of those sins and live as though nothing happened.”
Twenty years ago, Julia received counseling from Jim Berg for an eating disorder. Growing up in a ministry, she was familiar with fundamentalist views on sexual abuse, and so never brought up the abuse she says she experienced as a child.
“You’re worthless if you’ve been abused,” she said. “I knew enough to never, ever, ever, ever mention what had happened.”
Berg said her eating disorder was “a lifestyle of sin,” and Julia graduated believing “God has spit me out,” she said. Seven months later, she says a co-worker and Bob Jones ministry student raped her. She thought of him as “the tool that God used to punish me.”
Within a week, she said Berg found the man responsible and expelled him, but three semesters later, he was allowed to come back. When she expressed her fear to an administrator, Julia said she was asked whether she would really want to prevent a “Godly man” from getting an education that would allow him to “serve the Lord.”
A couple years ago, Julia found out that her alleged rapist was in Christian ministry in another country, and was wracked with guilt that she never reported him.
“He’s a sex offender and he’s in ministry,” she said, “and what if he hurts somebody else?”
An ad for the counseling program Freedom that Lasts, which seeks to help "those enslaved in life-dominating sins or overcome by hurtful events of life." Jim Berg serves as executive director.
At the request of BJU, the nonprofit Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) is currently investigating the university for how it's handled sexual abuse. More than 100 people have come forward to GRACE investigators, and the report is due out in the next few months. Boz Tchividjian, the head of GRACE, believes Christian organizations across the country have failed victims in similar ways, and that the Protestant world could in fact be “worse” than the Catholic Church.
After graduating BJU, Sarah took matters into her own hands and reported her rapist to the police. He was recently convicted of sexual battery of a minor under the age of 12.
“If you would have told me that dark day when I walked out of [Pat Berg’s] office with no hope, that one day my rapist would be convicted and sentenced to prison, that I would be living a stable, successful life and that I would be healing from my abuse, I would never have been able to believe you,” she said. “But those are the miracles that I have seen my God do.”
Last year, Landry, now 31, moved to New Orleans, and started a tour business of the city’s historic madams and brothels. She still has dark days, but says she has no anger toward BJU, or regrets about going there. She remembers in particular her Bible teacher telling the class about the Greek word “metanoia”: It’s translated as “repentance,” which suggests anguish; but more accurately, it means to completely change the way you think about something.
“I’m going to use the language that Bob Jones University should definitely understand here, when I say, I want you to repent, I want you to metanoia of your leadership,” she said. “I want you to repent, I want you to metanoia of covering up and protecting men who have sexually abused young women and children – and many. I want you to repent, I want you to metanoia this rape culture mentality that you have bought into and tried to sprinkle God over.”
1. Sarah asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
2. Julia asked to remain anonymous out of concern that she might negatively impact the GRACE investigation.