Soon, GRACE is expected to publish the report on its investigation of how Bob Jones University has responded to sexual abuse victims. This investigation has been closely watched around the country, especially after BJU terminated, then reinstated the investigation early this year. BJU’s response to the report might have national repercussions on Christian ministries.
A golden moment
There will be a lot of ugly stories and possibly criminal charges against perpetrators in connection with some of the cases. Nevertheless, publication of the report will be a golden moment for BJU. Full cooperation with the report recommendations would signal that real change is underway. It could provide a model for churches affiliated with BJU, for other fundamentalists and for broader evangelical Christians and ministries.
That would come none too soon. Some respected observers believe that evangelical Christianity in America is at a crisis point in responding to sexual abuse. Credible accusations of abuse and cover up have recently been made not only against BJU, but also against diverse ministries such as Patrick Henry College, Jesus People USA, Cedarville University, Pensacola Christian College and Sovereign Grace Ministries. Will we dig in our heels and be dragged into lawsuits and the hostile glare of cynical media reports, or will we initiate difficult but redemptive change because it is the right thing to do?
For many decades, the insidious way that sexual predators groom and prey on children and the long term harms that they cause were poorly understood, and often not taken very seriously. Tragically, churches made their children more vulnerable by their responses. Many pastors have heard victims report abuse, but took the “we’ll-handle-this-ourselves” approach. That meant no police report, perhaps a perfunctory perpetrator confession, pressure on the victim to forgive him—then church business as usual. Regardless of the intention, the net result was a very effective predator protection program—in the church!
Like many, I knew little about the damage inflicted by sexual abuse. Since my previous posts here and here on this subject, I have interacted with abuse survivors who participated in the GRACE investigation and with their advocates, individuals who do not hate BJU, but want only honesty and justice. Their insights can help BJU leaders, alumni and friends prepare for the results and recommendations of the GRACE report by beginning our response even now.
Sexual abuse causes profound harms that are not repaired by formulaic statements. Comments such as, “Forgive the person who abused you,” and, “Anger is a sin, so repent,” can actually cause more harm. This does not mean we should condone anger or lack of forgiveness. But what seems helpful to us only heaps extra burdens on abuse survivors.
Instead of giving unsolicited advice, we might try starting with Romans 12:15: “weep with those who weep.” Weep for the theft of their innocence. Weep for the betrayal of their trust. Acknowledge the pain of our sisters and brothers in Christ who suffered sexual abuse. Affirm their worth as His image bearers.
Especially for children, sexual abuse is deeply degrading, causing sexual confusion and, in a Christian environment, spiritual confusion. The abuse has cut deeply enough, but further wrongs have twisted the knife. Abusers are seldom prosecuted for their crimes, and often remain as church members in good standing, or even in church leadership. That is a galling and outrageous injustice.
Instead of scolding abuse survivors for their anger, we should model James 1:19, “let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” In other words, suspend judgment and listen. Seek to understand the injury caused by abusers and by churches that hide them. Become well acquainted with GRACE and the invaluable service they are providing. Boz Tchividjian, GRACE’s executive director, has outlined how churches can understand abuse and protect their children from it. His post here offers practical ways and the best resources for stepping into a better path.
Begin now to correct the wrongs.
Correcting the wrongs that fuel the anger in abuse victims is perhaps the best way to respond to the anger. Can we acknowledge our failure as individuals and institutions to take sexual abuse in our midst seriously? Can we affirm that the only acceptable way to protect a ministry’s reputation is to protect the vulnerable in its care? Can we see that it is perverse to show sympathy and support to the perpetrator, while virtually ignoring his victim?
Can we agree that protection requires us to put out the Unwelcome Mat for sexual predation? Sexual predators are experts at exploiting the willingness of Christians to believe the best and easily forgive their crimes. But the cost of handing out cheap grace to them is too high. Can we recognize that churches and schools have always had a moral obligation to report the crime of sexual abuse to government authorities? Can we agree that sexual abuse automatically disqualifies from ministry leadership?
What abuse survivors want
Tchividjian states that most sexual abuse survivors are not interested in lawsuits and costly settlements. They do want a humble, personal, heartfelt apology for protecting their abusers by not reporting. They want actions demonstrating repentance: bring perpetrators to justice regardless of who they are; fully support victims through the legal prosecution of their abusers, should they chose that course; correct the counseling approaches that tend to blame the victim.
Are incoming president Steve Pettit and other administrators at BJU prepared to take these steps? Are the leaders of BJU-affiliated churches and other ministries prepared to take these steps? Are we who love and appreciate BJU prepared to press for these steps to be taken? May God help us do right.