Christianity’s Other Sex Abuse Scandal

In a lengthy piece, Kathryn Joyce profiles GRACE (or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an “independent group of evangelical lawyers, pastors, and psychologists” that investigates reports of abuse in Prostestant communities. Joyce reports that GRACE founder (and grandson of Billy Graham) Boz Tchividjian “had become convinced that the Protestant world is teetering on the edge of a sex-abuse scandal similar to the one that had rocked the Catholic Church,” and “believes that Protestant churches, groups, and schools have been worse than Catholics in their response”:

“GRACE is not hired by the weak, the self-protective, the blasphemous institutions who invoke the name of Jesus in their cover-ups,” says Kari Mikitson, founder of [abuse protest group] Fanda Eagles. “There are very few Christian organizations out there who want the truth at all costs. If you as an organization are not brave enough to retain GRACE when your survivors request them, then you are a disgrace. And you aren’t fooling anyone—you are hiding skeletons.”

That’s a hard case to make to churches and missions facing lawsuits and public scrutiny. “One of the dynamics of any institution is to survive, to protect itself,” [psychologist] Diane Langberg says. There is no question that GRACE poses risks to the institutions that hire it for investigations. The publication of GRACE’s findings—the first gesture of repentance—ensures that not only will damaging accounts appear in the media but that some supporters and donors will flee.

Over the next few years and decades, Protestant institutions of every kind—fundamentalist, evangelical, and mainline—will be increasingly faced with a stark choice. One option is to follow the example set by the Catholic Church more than a decade ago: Fight back fiercely, not giving an inch when it comes to admitting you may have been wrong. Everyone knows how well that has worked. The other option is represented, thus far, by GRACE alone: Churches, schools, and groups can heed Tchividjian’s call to make themselves vulnerable, to admit what they’ve done wrong, and—hardest of all—to allow that truth to come to light.

Amanda Marcotte elaborates on the challenges GRACE faces, writing that the organization “appears to be a little too good at its job, and often the institutions that initially hire it end up firing it rather than deal with their own cultures of covering up and minimizing sexual abuse.” She zeroes in on Joyce’s discussion of a case at Bob Jones University:

The famously conservative Christian school brought GRACE in to clean house after 20/20 discovered, in 2011, that one of its graduates, a New Hampshire minister named Chuck Phelps, had, upon discovering that one of his congregants raped and impregnated a teenager, thought it appropriate to shame the victim by making her “confess” her supposed sins in front of the congregation. Bob Jones University didn’t want the story to reflect badly on the school, so it responded by hiring Tchividjian and his staff to interview faculty and students about their experiences with sexual assault. What they discovered was a culture of victim-blaming. …

Tchividjian believes that Christian institutions should be welcoming the news that they’ve failed to support the victims of sexual abuse, so they can repent and learn from their mistakes. The institutions apparently do not agree. Just as other groups, such as an overseas missionary organization, had done before, Bob Jones University fired GRACE before the group had a chance to report its final results.