Why Did Bob Jones University Terminate Its Sexual Abuse Investigation?

About Tope Fadiran Charlton

bob jones university

In January, PRA’s Fred Clarkson wrote that—despite a growing number of prominent U.S. evangelicals decrying sexual abuse—silence, evasion, and cover-ups remain the characteristic responses of evangelical leaders to abuse within their communities. The latest example of this culture of avoidance may be Bob Jones University (BJU), which, on January 24, abruptly terminated an independent investigation it had commissioned to assess its past responses to sexual assault on campus.

The investigation had been carried out by “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment” (GRACE), an evangelical organization led by Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University. (See Fred Clarkson’s piece for more on Tchividjian’s role in addressing sexual abuse in evangelicalism.)

GRACE holds a unique—arguably solitary—position as an organization with both a solid evangelical pedigree and a head-on approach to sexual abuse that stresses the responsibilities of evangelical communities to proactively support victims of abuse and protect children from abusers. With multiple evangelical abuse scandals making headlines in recent years, GRACE and Tchividjian have had an increasingly public profile both among evangelicals and in “secular” media. In November 2012, BJU hired GRACE to conduct an “unprecedented … review of its sexual assault procedures”—the watchdog organization’s first investigation of a university rather than a church or ministry. (The investigation was not announced publicly until January 2013.)

As described by Al Jazeera America,

BJU not only invited current students and staff, but alumni and former faculty, in letters, emails, on its website and in the alumni magazine, to speak to G.R.A.C.E. if they wished, says [Randy] Page, the BJU spokesman. They’re not just opening the closet, they appear to be digging for every long-buried skeleton they can find.  

BJU also instituted trainings for students majoring in disciplines where they might encounter victims of child abuse, and for university faculty and staff.

“We respectfully request that all documents, information, and interviews be kept confidential.”  -Bob Jones University president Stephen Jones

 Despite these signs of change, it seems that BJU was not truly prepared to confront whatever skeletons GRACE uncovered. In a January 24 letter made public by GRACE, BJU president Stephen Jones informed Tchividjian that the investigation was “terminat[ed] … effective immediately,” adding: “We respectfully request that all documents, information, and interviews be kept confidential.”

Jones attributed this sudden turn of events to his impending resignation, writing that “challenges in leadership change” have “redirected a significant amount of our focus and energy.” Perplexingly, he simultaneously stated that BJU remains “resolute in [its] desire” to “appropriately [respond] to reports of sexual abuse and identifying opportunities to apologize to individuals we may have underserved when they reported to us.” Jones concluded by inviting GRACE to meet with BJU officials to “reach a new agreement that will enable us to accomplish [these] objectives.”

After what GRACE describes as “repeated requests” to get a more concrete explanation of why its services were terminated, GRACE went public about the termination in a statement on February 6. Though expressing a desire to continue its work with BJU if possible, GRACE pointedly noted that the termination was a “complete surprise” with “no prior indications,” and one that came only “days before” GRACE was to wrap up interviews—more than 80 had been conducted as of November—and get to work on its final report, due in March.

BJU then countered with its own statement, released on the same day, citing unspecified months-long “concern[s] about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives” as the reason for the termination and expressing “[disappointment that] a resolution could not be reached before our differences were made public.” BJU’s response further indicated an “intention to resolve our differences with GRACE” and characterized the termination as an unfortunate “delay” in the university’s efforts to better address sexual abuse.

This is not the first time GRACE has been fired as an independent investigator into religious sexual abuse allegations. Christianity Today reported in February 2013 that the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) had replaced GRACE with another independent group, alleging various “flaws in [GRACE’s] investigative process,” including inaccurate and incomplete documentation of witness testimony, investigator bias against ABWE, and even intimidation of witnesses. GRACE denied each charge in detail, in turn alleging that ABWE breached its contract, refused to cooperate with requests for information, and “needlessly delayed … and impaired” the investigation.

Then as now, the relationship was severed just before GRACE was set to release its findings. Both cases raise the question: what would GRACE have reported had these investigations been allowed to move forward? Are there truly problems with how GRACE operates, or are these organizations—as GRACE alleged of ABWE—“unwilling to … be investigated” by parties not “within [their] control?”

Those who would rather avoid a candid and difficult discussion of sexual abuse in evangelical communities will use the repeat firing of GRACE as evidence of its lack of credibility. More troublingly, there is the possibility that the most reluctant leaders may try to undermine rigorous, victim-centered, independent investigation of evangelical abuse scandals altogether.

Far from being hyperbolic, the unfolding of sexual abuse scandals in the evangelical world shows that this is a very real risk. Though we may never know what GRACE uncovered in the dozens of interviews it conducted as part of its investigation, the stories that have already been made public illustrate a disturbing pattern across multiple evangelical organizations: leaders referring victims of sexual violence to completely unqualified “biblical counselors,” ostracizing and expelling victims who come forward and anyone who supports them, discouraging reports to law enforcement or indeed anyone outside the community, and so on. This pattern is widespread, from the Southern Baptist Convention to my own former church group, Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders have continued to support Sovereign Grace Ministries during and in the aftermath of a lawsuit, dismissed largely on statute of limitations grounds, alleging systematic coverups of sexual abuse. It’s a pattern that now also appears to include the watering down or undermining the few investigations into these abuses.

There is hope, however, in the continued activism of survivors of sexual violence in these communities and their supporters, who have forced BJU’s record on sexual assault into the spotlight in the first place. A petition demanding that BJU rehire GRACE and allow the organization to complete its investigation is now circulating. Time will tell how BJU responds.

Tope Fadiran Charlton is an associate fellow, working on issues of religious liberty and racial, gender, and LGBTQ justice. She is the founder and editor of Are Women Human?, a space for queer feminist and critical race analysis of religion and media. As a freelance writer she has contributed to The Guardian, Salon, Religion Dispatches, R.H. Reality Check, Ebony.com, and other outlets. Charlton was a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science Department at Harvard.