When reports of sexual abuse surface, especially within a Christian ministry, there is a propensity to second guess, make assumptions, and criticize. For many years, sexual abuse has been poorly understood and handled by a variety of individuals and institutions, including many Christian churches and schools. That is beginning to change. When Christian ministries move in the right direction, however imperfectly, we who want that change should make our voices heard.
In November, 2012, Bob Jones University took steps to correct its response to students who report sexual abuse. The school hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) as an independent ombudsman to assist. BJU’s two stated intentions were 1) to review and correct how school personnel reported abuse and counseled students who had been victims and 2) to investigate any incidents in which BJU had underserved a student who had reported sexual abuse, and to seek to make matters right. These objectives pertained to sexual abuse that had occurred at any time in the student’s life. GRACE began its investigation in January, 2013 and issued regular monthly reports in the ensuing year.
Within days before completing interviews with victims and a few weeks from publishing its final report, GRACE received a confidential letter from BJU on January 27 that terminated the contract and asked that the investigation be halted. BJU emphasized their purpose to renegotiate the contract to return to the original stated intentions and have GRACE complete their investigation, or complete it through a different third party if necessary. On February 6, GRACE posted the confidential letter and its response on its Facebook page.
When GRACE made BJU’s contract termination public, I communicated my concerns as an interested alumnus to the BJU Alumni Association and to the GRACE team. In an email reply to me, Boz Tchividjian, executive director of GRACE, stated in part, “We’ve had been having an ongoing open dialogue since day one. At times, we saw issues from different perspectives (as to be expected) but they [BJU] always acknowledged that we were independent and that they respected whatever decision we made. Never was there any communication from them that any issue was causing them to consider termination . . . . The contract explicitly requires both parties to communicate any concerns openly and to make every effort at resolution before taking any steps at termination. This simply did not happen. ”
Tchividjian’s statement makes two things clear, and leaves two matters unresolved. First, he affirmed that both parties had worked in good faith up to the termination. That refutes the frequent criticism that BJU was never really interested in serious change. BJU had also been criticized for giving a half-hearted effort to notify alumni and former students so that potential abuse victims could be interviewed. But GRACE never made that complaint in any of its reports, and Tchividjian affirmed that BJU had fully cooperated.
Second, it is clear that BJU had respected the independence of GRACE’s investigation. That is significant in light of a recent similar case. Shortly after the BJU investigation began, the GRACE investigation of sexual abuse at the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) was terminated by ABWE. But ABWE had, as GRACE put it, “made repeated attempts to try and gain control of the investigation.” According to Tchividjian, BJU has not done that.
Many suspect that the school is doing that now. We don’t know, but some signs indicate otherwise. On February 7, BJU president Stephen Jones told students and faculty that for the past few months, BJU felt that GRACE “had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions.” It is not clear why BJU apparently did not communicate that they were considering termination. Neither do we know why GRACE made BJU’s termination public while both parties were making active efforts to resolve the differences. (It is worth noting that GRACE waited over a week before posting the notice). A lot of people think they know what is going on. Only a few actually do. They are on the GRACE and BJU executive teams.
Meanwhile, the rest of us watch. A number of alumni and former students lost confidence long ago. To them, BJU’s latest move justifies their cynicism. They express that cynicism publicly. In more than a few cases, I think their feelings are justified, but I find their hostile tone and outlook unhelpful. Others appreciate the significant positive changes at BJU since the late 1980’s and desire those changes to continue. But they are sometimes caught between rock throwers and blind loyalists.
As I have listened to the discussion of sexual abuse and BJU for a few years, I have noticed that the voices that are most needed are usually heard the least. That should change. I appeal to more BJU alumni and others who want to encourage good changes to speak up.
First, we should implore the Holy Spirit to grant the GRACE team and the BJU executive team to be of the same mind with one another according to Jesus Christ. Our part is not to second guess. It is to ask God to give them humility and wisdom.
There is a big risk here for BJU to press forward with a truly independent investigation. There will likely be painful revelations in the final report. Dealing properly with them will be hard. So let’s also have a mass of BJU alumni and others who care, stand up and implore GRACE and BJU: “Do not stop until this job is done. We support you in this!”
There are people who have suffered sexual abuse. They need healing.
There are people who committed abuse, overlooked it or responded poorly to it. They need repentance.
Jesus has been grieved. He must be honored.