A conservative Christian university abruptly dismissed the consulting firm it had hired to look into its handling of sexual assault investigations.
Until recently, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sex abuse were told not to report their claims because turning in a fellow fundamentalist would damage Jesus Christ, reported the New York Times.
Most of the students reported sex abuse that happened when they were children but sought help later, as college students, and administrators branded the victims as liars and sinners, the paper reported.
“The person who supposedly counseled me told me if I reported (another fundamentalist Christian) to the police, I was damaging the cause of Christ, and I would be responsible for the abuser going to hell,” said Catherine Harris, who attended the university in the 1980s. “He said all of my problems were as a result of my actions in the abuse, which mostly took place before I was 12, and I should just forgive the abuser.”
Another former student said when she accused a graduate student of sexual assault in the 1990s, investigators asked what she had been wearing tightly fitted clothing and urged her to keep quiet to protect her reputation.
The Greenville, South Carolina, university hired the Christian consulting group Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, to look into decades of these claims in 2012, after rewriting its policies on sexual assault in response to troubles faced at other schools.
But the university had already fallen under scrutiny after one of its board members was accused of covering up a rape at his congregation and publicly shaming the victim.
The board member eventually resigned under pressure, but a student who criticized the university over its handling of the incident was not allowed to graduate and alleged retaliation.
Bob Jones University last week confirmed it had fired Grace on Jan. 27, about a month before its findings were to be published, and has so far offered little explanation, outraging many people with close ties to the insular university.
“We grew concerned that in the process, Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions,” said Stephen Jones, president of the university and great-grandson of its founder, speaking Friday to students and employees.
He said administrators intended to discuss their concerns in private with Grace but felt they had to first dismiss the firm.
“We terminated our agreement with Grace so that we could sit down and get it back on track,” Jones told students and employees.
Grace specializes in advising churches and other Christian organizations on abuse, and was founded by Basyle Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a law professor at the evangelical Liberty University.
The consulting group, which is led by lawyers and psychologists, issued a statement saying they “grieve with those whose hopes will be crushed should this independent process remain incomplete.”
“Please know that we heard your voice and it was not spoken in vain,” Grace said in its statement.
Former students and employees blasted the university for its decision to call off the investigation.
“As always, they’re worried about protecting the church and the university, not the victims,” said Camille Lewis, a former student and faculty member who left in 2007 after trying to help several abuse victims.
Erin Burchwell, who reported at least 40 instances of molestation by the graduate student in the 1990s, said she knew the long-awaited investigation was “too good to be true.”
“I’ve been told for 15 years not to talk about it, but now I’m allowed to talk about it to somebody who’s validating me and telling me that I was wronged,” Burchwell said.
But she suspected the inquiry was halted because it got too close to the truth for the university’s comfort.
“They couldn’t have something this big come out,” she said. “It’s just too bad for their appearance.”
Bob Jones University is not affiliated with any denomination and is so far to the right that its founders have blasted Graham and other evangelists, such as Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell, as too liberal.
Students are not allowed to watch television or movies, listen to popular music, drink alcohol, or wear many clothing brands.
They also face strict limits on dating – although the university ended its ban on interracial dating in 2000 – and which churches it may attend.
Lewis said she took a friend to a university administrator when they were students so the woman could report molestation by her father, a Sunday school superintendent at the family’s church.
“They said not to go to the police because no one will believe you, to defer to authority like your father or especially someone in the church,” Lewis said. “They said if you report it, you hurt the body of Christ.”
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