Part of the work of TWOCARE, Truth Wins Out’s new arm devoted to combating anti-LGBT religious extremism around the globe, is doing the hard work of understanding the climates and cultures that contribute to bias, animus, discrimination and violence against LGBT people. To grasp that, one must look at the big picture, and as is so often the case, the road leads back to a patriarchal, authoritarian system where women “know their place” and male church and family leaders are put on pedestals above reproach.
An important story caught my eye this week, which exposes the systemic victim-blaming and authoritarianism that characterize so many sects of modern-day evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Think the Catholic church’s decades long sexual abuse cases are bad? Check out Kathryn Joyce’s excellent report on the sex scandals rising to the surface in the Protestant movement. Using the recent shake-ups at Bob Jones University as a springboard, Kathryn dives into a culture where sexual abuse victims are told not to tell their families, not to tell the police, and that it was probably somehow their fault. A few snippets, and then I encourage you to read the entire report:
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.
GRACE is run by Boz Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, who has found common themes in the cases he investigates:
Common threads run through the stories: authoritarian settings where rule-following and obedience reign supreme; counseling techniques that emphasize victims’ own culpability; male leaders with few checks on their power; and, in the eyes of many Christians including Tchividjian, a perversion of the Bible to justify all three. “When you have this motley group of many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish,” Tchividjian says. “But we’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”
The group has investigated allegations of widespread abuse in international missionary groups, which are prime targets for abusers as they are isolated and authority is strictly top-down:
In 1988, one of ABWE’s missionary doctors in Bangladesh, Donn Ketcham, allegedly began sexually abusing and raping a 12-year-old missionary kid who asked not to be named; we’ll call her Julia. Ketcham, then in his late fifties, was a beloved figure with deep ties to ABWE; his Baptist-preacher father had helped found the General Association of Regular Baptists. He was charming and charismatic and alleged to have had serial affairs with younger female ABWE staff, more than once resulting in the woman’s dismissal.
Julia’s sister Diana, a 41-year-old pastor’s wife in Colorado who alleges that Ketcham groped her in Bangladesh, told the Prospect the story she and Julia shared with GRACE. In July 1989, the sisters were back home visiting an adult sister in Indiana when Julia, who hadn’t revealed what had occurred to anyone in the family, told their pastor what Ketcham had allegedly done. Instead of informing the family, Diana says, the pastor phoned ABWE headquarters in Pennsylvania. A staff psychologist, Russell Lloyd, flew to Indiana with Ketcham’s supervisor, Russell Ebersole, to determine whether Julia was telling the truth. Once convinced, Diana says, they compelled Julia, who was just shy of her 14th birthday, to sign a confession stating that she had “participated in a physical relationship” with the doctor and that what she did was “very wrong.” The ABWE officials then flew with Julia to Bangladesh. Julia’s parents were made aware of her “confession” but never told that their daughter had said she had been raped. Julia was made to ask her family’s forgiveness.
Focusing back on Bob Jones University, we hear the story of Katie Landry:
Katie Landry, now 31, left her homeschooling Mennonite family in Ohio and matriculated at Bob Jones when she was 19, two weeks after she says she’d been raped by a co-worker back home. “When that happened to me,” she says, “I didn’t have the word rape in my vocabulary. I knew that there was a word called fornication, when an unmarried person has sex, and I knew there was adultery, when a married person has sex outside marriage. But there wasn’t anything in my life that said sometimes sex happens when you don’t want it and you didn’t ask for it.”
Landry acted out her freshman year, which in the context of Bob Jones meant she left campus without permission to get pizza with a few friends. She says she was suspended for a semester and came back to intensive disciplinary counseling. When she finally told her counselor what had happened, she was taken to see Jim Berg, a powerful campus figure who was Bob Jones’s dean of students for nearly three decades, from 1981 to 2010. Landry says she told Berg how she’d struggled since the rape to understand where God had been and why He hadn’t intervened.
“I was hoping he’d say that he’d help me get help, help me tell my parents, maybe even help me call the police,” Landry says. “And I was hoping that he’d tell me it wasn’t my fault.” Instead, she says Berg’s first response was to ask whether she’d been drinking or smoking pot the day she was raped. He then suggested, she says, that her rape had a spiritual root. “He said that under every sin is another sin; that there is a sin in your life that caused your rape, and we have to find out what that sin was,” Landry says.
The report also mentions Jeffrey Hoffman, the openly gay founder of BJUnity, a group for LGBT Bob Jones alumni:
Hoffman alleges he was molested as a young boy at the Bob Jones Academy by a university faculty member who came into his shower stall in a gym at a nearby Bob Jones–affiliated church. Hoffman says his molester offered to counsel him to overcome his same-sex attraction in what seemed both a come-on and a threat.
It’s all interconnected. Anti-gay extremism, support for “ex-gay” therapy, rape culture, cover-ups of sexual abuse. The religious right loves to extol “tradition,” but as is being exposed more and more, much of that “tradition” is the absolute opposite of what any moral person would want to emulate. Again, I encourage everyone to read Kathryn Joyce’s report in full.