Thursday, May 8, 2014

By Grace Alone

In November 2012, Bob Jones University, the longtime flagship institution of fundamentalism, announced it had hired GRACE (short for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an independent group of evangelical lawyers, pastors, and psychologists, to investigate the university’s handling of sexual-abuse and -harassment reports. Bob Jones officials said they were taking the step after watching the pedophilia scandal unfold at Pennsylvania State University the previous year. They vowed to ask forgiveness of any students they may have “underserved.”
In truth, the origins of the investigation were closer to home. In 2011, an abuse scandal from years before had become national news with a 20/20report. Tina Anderson, a 15-year-old who lived in New Hampshire, was raped and impregnated in 1997 by one of her church’s deacons, then in his late thirties, while she was a babysitter for his family. When Anderson and her mother told their pastor, Bob Jones graduate Chuck Phelps, what had happened, Phelps had Anderson stand before the congregation while he read a confession of her pregnancy. She was then sent to a family in Colorado until the baby was born and given up for adoption. Anderson’s rapist, a registered sex offender, was made to confess as well—but to adultery, not rape—and he remained at the church for years. Phelps, who’d gone on to be president of the fundamentalist Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin, maintained close ties to Bob Jones, serving on its board of trustees as well as on its missionary and youth-camp boards.
Students and alumni had already begun to agitate online against the school’s lack of academic and student freedom, as well as its response to reports of sexual abuse. Anderson’s story highlighted what these critics—dismissed by the school as disaffected “detractors”—saw as a pattern in how Bob Jones stigmatized students who reported rape or sexual assault. A senior named Christopher Peterman started a Facebook group and website called Do Right BJU, which aimed to remove Phelps from the board and called for a range of reforms; he organized the first campus protest in the university’s history to raise awareness of sexual abuse. Phelps resigned from the board of trustees in December 2011, just days before the rally. But then a few months later, on the eve of graduating, Peterman was expelled for watching Glee, among other violations.
The story continued to grow. Peterman and alumni groups active on Facebook began to hear from more and more students who claimed they had been poorly treated when they reported sexual abuse to school staff. Over the following months, alumni pressured the university to update its policies and investigate the school’s handling of abuse reports. They urged the university to hire GRACE, which had investigated allegations of sex abuse in two Christian missionary groups. To almost everyone’s surprise, seven months after the 20/20 report aired, Bob Jones announced that it had listened.
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