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Column: Victims of Sexual Abuse Blamed, Again

Sunday, January 04, 2015
Imagine for a moment — and unfortunately it’s not difficult to do so — a religious institution with a long and tawdry history of tolerating sexual abuse. Individuals in positions of authority would prey on those in a subordinate status, those most vulnerable. If one of the victims summoned the courage to report the incident, those in authority would either brush it off or blame the victim for provoking the attack.

As evidence of systemic abuse mounted, officials in charge of this religious institution promised to investigate. Those investigations, however, were half-hearted at best and even aborted when investigators came close to the truth of the matter. The institution pledged to root out the corruption and punish the miscreants. But these religious authorities were also adamant that they should handle these sensitive matters internally rather than turn the cases over to law-enforcement authorities.

By now the contours of the story are sadly familiar, and readers know that I’m obviously referring to . . . Bob Jones University.

Billing itself — proudly — as the “World’s Most Unusual University” (the school’s radio station call letters are WMUU), Bob Jones University has had a storied history. Bob Jones Sr., a fundamentalist firebrand preacher, founded his eponymous school in 1927 in Panama City, Fla. Bob Jones College decamped for Cleveland, Tenn., in the throes of the Great Depression and then to Greenville, S.C., in 1947, where it became Bob Jones University.

Throughout its history, Bob Jones University has seen itself as the guardian of fundamentalist orthodoxy. Billy Graham began his studies there but transferred to Florida Bible Institute after a single semester. “Billy, if you leave and throw your life away at a little country Bible school, the chances are you’ll never be heard of,” Bob Jones Sr. reportedly told him. “At best, all you can amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.” Graham ran further afoul of the Joneses when he cooperated with mainline Protestants in the conduct of his famous Madison Square Garden revival in 1957. Ever since, Bob Jones University has regarded Graham as a flaming liberal. (When I was producing a PBS documentary on Graham in the 1990s, I asked Bob Jones Jr. for an interview. He refused.)

Part of the teaching at Bob Jones University is that women must be subordinate to men. The school’s dress code for women requires modesty and nothing “revealing.”

Apparently, rumors of sexual abuse at Bob Jones University have been percolating for a long time, as long as three decades. In January 2013 the school’s president at the time, Stephen Jones, hired an organization called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to investigate.

The inquiry found that some of the abuse took place on campus and some outside of campus or even before the victims matriculated as students. The victims’ stories were all too familiar: feelings of guilt, shame, depression, eating disorders, attempted suicide. Many of those who reported sexual assault were told they were at fault for dressing immodestly. They were also told not to report abuse lest it reflect badly on the school.

According to the Greenville News, one student was told that purses or bags worn crosswise “call attention to the space between the breasts” and that a “glimpse of bare leg skin is almost too much for a man to bear.” Another student, who had been abused by one of the university’s “preacher boys,” a student preparing for the ministry, was summoned to meet with Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones III after chapel. According to the victim, the Joneses “told me that they were sorry such a thing happened but that I now had the choice to honor God by my response and not be selfish in sharing the experience with others and gaining inappropriate attention to the school.”

Still another student had been abused by her grandfather. She informed the investigators: “When I went for counseling, I was told ‘Did you repent for your part of the abuse? Did your body respond favorably? If it did, you need to repent.’ ”

Many of the victims identified Jim Berg, dean of students from 1981 to 2010, as especially cavalier and dismissive about their complaints. He allegedly informed abused women that they were “damaged goods” and counseled them not to press charges. The GRACE report found that victims were asked to contact their abusers and express forgiveness or ask forgiveness from them. At least one victim was expelled.

There is no small irony in the similarities between sexual abuse at Bob Jones University and the pedophilia scandals that have beset the Roman Catholic Church. For the better part of a century the Joneses have been bitter critics of Roman Catholicism, very often identifying the church as the “whore of Babylon” mentioned in the New Testament book of Revelation. After the death of Paul VI in 1978, for instance, Bob Jones Jr. declared, “Pope Paul VI, archpriest of Satan, a deceiver and an anti-Christ, has, like Judas, gone to his own place.”

The day before the release of the GRACE report, Steve Pettit, the current president, told students at Bob Jones University, “By voluntarily engaging in this independent and transparent process, Bob Jones University has created commendable and historical precedent for Christendom and the watching world.” What Pettit failed to mention was that the school had hired GRACE to do an investigation into sexual abuse at Bob Jones University in 2013, but the school abruptly canceled its contract before a preliminary report was scheduled for release early in 2014. Outrage on the part of both alums and the public led to a reinstatement a month later.

Pettit apologized to victims of sexual abuse, just as Pope Francis has apologized to the victims of priestly pedophilia. But the parallels don’t end there. Among its other recommendations, the GRACE report called for sanctions against Jim Berg, the dean of students who was unresponsive to victims of abuse, and against Bob Jones III, the former president and scion of the Jones family who was indifferent to the culture of abuse at Bob Jones University.

Last I checked, both Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who cravenly shuttled pedophile priests from one post to another, and Benedict XVI, who defended the church’s shameful handling of the scandal, were enjoying comfortable lives inside the Vatican.

Sanctions may indeed be in order, both in Greenville and in Rome.

Randall Balmer is chairman of the Religion Department and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.

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