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 20/20 report. 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.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the hire. Bob Jones, founded in 1927, isn’t just any conservative Christian college; it’s the de facto center of the national Independent Fundamental Baptist network, which functions almost as a denomination unto itself, with thousands of affiliated churches, feeder schools, and businesses including Bob Jones’s textbook company, radio station, and music publisher. Outsiders call the school the “mother ship” of fundamentalism; the university prefers another moniker, “the fortress of faith.”
To call Bob Jones insular doesn’t quite cover it. On its compound in Greenville, South Carolina, once surrounded in part by barbed wire, faculty children were, until recently, born at the on-campus hospital, raised in the K-12 Bob Jones Academy, educated at the university, then sent out into the world armed with a list of approved churches (mostly those that send the school students or money and that are often pastored by Bob Jones “preacher boys” like Phelps). Until the early 2000s, faculty were paid minuscule wages—hovering around $15,000 a year for a full-time professor—in exchange for subsidized living and the commitment that the school would care for them into old age (a retirement plan called “The Promise”). Rules for students are infamously strict—no TV, no holding hands, no Christian contemporary music, and, until 2000, no interracial dating.
By 2012, though, the fortress no longer seemed inviolable. While Bob Jones was for decades the choice destination for conservative Christian students, enrollment at the school was dropping: down about 10 percent in the last decade and nearly 25 percent since its heyday in the early 1980s. Alumni blogs published pictures of what used to be an overflowing chapel, now left with hundreds of empty seats; two dorms are scheduled to be demolished this summer. Leaked minutes from a recent faculty meeting noted that Christian colleges are closing across the U.S. but that Bob Jones might find salvation in China and South Korea, where “the opportunity for Christian education” is still “unbelievable.” The school has begun selling off assets: the radio station, the music publisher, the hospital. “The Promise” to support retiring faculty has been rescinded.
Even so, the idea that Bob Jones would reach outside itself for help was stunning—especially considering to whom it was reaching out. GRACE was founded by a member of evangelical royalty: Boz Tchividjian (“rhymes with religion,” he likes to say), a former prosecutor who teaches law at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jerry Falwell’s legacy school, and who is the grandson of “America’s pastor,” Billy Graham. Before he came to fame, Graham was a Bob Jones University dropout who Bob Jones Sr. said would never amount to more than a “poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.” Though the two later became friends, they split again in 1957 over Graham’s revival crusades—in particular, a crusade at Madison Square Garden that Jones, who’d warned Graham to avoid cities and politicians, condemned as too ecumenical and accommodating to modern society. The quarrel between the two men led to a rift between fundamentalists and evangelicals that persists today, as evangelicals seek to win souls by engaging mainstream culture and fundamentalists retreat from it. When Jones’s great-grandson Stephen Jones, now president of the university, appealed to Graham’s heir, it seemed like a transformative moment. Perhaps the fortress was raising its gates at last.
It was momentous for Tchividjian and GRACE as well. 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. He is careful to say that there’s not enough data to compare the prevalence of child sex abuse in Protestant and Catholic institutions, but he’s convinced the problem has reached a crisis point. He’s not alone in that belief. In 2012, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd declared, “This is an epidemic going on in churches. … When are evangelicals going to wake up and say we have a massive problem in our own churches?”
For years, Protestants have assumed they were immune to the abuses perpetrated by celibate Catholic priests. But Tchividjian believes that Protestant churches, groups, and schools have been worse than Catholics in their response. Mission fields, he says, are “magnets” for would-be molesters; ministries and schools do not understand the dynamics of abuse; and “good ol’ boy” networks routinely cover up victims’ stories to protect their reputations. He fears it is only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces and threatens the survival of powerful Protestant institutions.
In the past couple of years, Tchividjian has begun to look prophetic. Reports and allegations of sex abuse, rape, and harassment—and a culture that has badly mishandled them—have become more and more frequent. In fall 2012, former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a “family” of about 80 conservative churches from various theological traditions, filed a class-action lawsuit against the ministry for failing to report allegations of sex abuse in the 1980s and 1990s—including abuse perpetrated by church leaders’ immediate family members—and discouraging victims and their families from going to law enforcement. (The lawsuit was dismissed last year because of expired statutes of limitations and jurisdictional questions, but an appeal and criminal investigations are under way.) This spring, an exposé in The New Republicrevealed that Patrick Henry, the college of choice for evangelical homeschoolers, has covered up alleged campus rape and sexual assault, thanks largely to its victim-blaming emphasis on women’s purity. Allegations of similar practices soon surfaced against other Christian colleges, including Pensacola Christian College in Florida and Cedarville University in Ohio. A documentary released in February, No Place to Call Home, recounts the systematic sexual abuse of children in the 1980s at Jesus People USA, an evangelical commune in Chicago. The empire of Bill Gothard, founder of the fundamentalist Institute in Basic Life Principles, crumbled earlier this year after bloggers revealed dozens of sexual-harassment and molestation claims against him.
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.”
This will be a challenge. The Protestant world includes tens of thousands of denominations, plus thousands more nondenominational churches, ministries, mission boards, and subcultures. Unlike the Catholic Church, there is no Vatican, no shared leadership connecting, say, Calvary Chapel’s 1,600 churches with the Southern Baptist Convention’s 46,000. No common standards apply but the authority of scripture, which is interpreted differently from church to church, school to school, mission to mission.
Even with its tightly controlled hierarchy, the Catholic Church has responded abysmally to sex abuse. “The Catholics have been forced through three decades of lawsuits to address this issue,” Tchividjian says. “The first decade, they gave it lip service, but after three decades, hundreds of millions of dollars lost, and publicity that devastated the Church, they were forced to begin addressing it. It’s my prayer that we’ll deal with it without being forced to.”
GACE’s mission grew out of a phone call that Tchividjian received from a reporter in the summer of 2003. Now in private practice, Tchividjian for eight years had prosecuted child sex-abuse cases as a district attorney in northeastern Florida. The reporter was looking for perspective on a story. In a Pentecostal church in Wisconsin, a convicted sex offender who’d been allowed to volunteer in Sunday school had allegedly abused two sisters, ages 8 and 12. When the girls told their parents, their father went to the pastor, who advised a sit-down with the volunteer. During this meeting, Tchividjian says, “the perp did what perps usually do: cry and ask for forgiveness, so happy he was caught.” The pastor said it sounded like repentance to him and that the accused could prove it by staying active in church life. Would that be enough to allow the father to forgive him, the pastor asked, and to forgo reporting the accused to “man’s authority”? The father said OK, if that’s what God wanted them to do. By the time the journalist called Tchividjian, six years later, the victims’ family had been asked to leave the church and the Sunday school volunteer was about to go on trial.
The pastor’s mishandling of the case touched a nerve with Tchividjian, who had seen similar dynamics play out many times. When he’d started working in the district attorney’s office, criminal cases had been distributed to prosecutors “like a deck of cards,” each prosecutor getting a mix from grand theft to molestation. Tchividjian saw how his colleagues shuddered at the sex-abuse cases and tended to plea them out quickly, as though the facts were too awful to bring to court. “It was almost too painful for them to grasp,” he says. When Tchividjian requested to take on all the district’s child sex-abuse cases, the other prosecutors happily obliged. In time, he established a sex-crimes unit that handled hundreds of cases over eight years.
All too often, he says, a pastor would come to court in a supportive role, almost always sitting on the perpetrator’s side of the aisle, not the victim’s. The Wisconsin case made Tchividjian think back on those pastors. He began to realize that he had a calling of his own: to teach the Protestant church to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem. “I was encountering survivors who were absolutely eviscerated as a result of disclosing abuse in the Protestant church,” Tchividjian says, “and the long-term damage is sometimes more from how the church responded, or failed to respond, than the abuse itself.”
He contacted people he’d met over the years, advocates for abuse survivors he suspected were Christian, like Victor Vieth, former head of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, and Diane Langberg, a Pennsylvania psychologist who specializes in trauma, including child abuse. Together, in 2004, they pulled together a board of lawyers, pastors, and therapists and formed GRACE. To their knowledge, this was the first group dedicated to educating Protestant churches about sex abuse and the ways in which religion can be used to sweep abuse under the rug.
They started speaking at conferences, urging Protestants to take child sex abuse seriously and support survivors rather than blame them. Tchividjian wrote a booklet for the World Reformed Fellowship, a cross-denominational network, on “Protecting Children from Abuse in the Church.” Today GRACE, which still has no full-time staffers, offers prevention seminars for churches, along with consultations when abuse allegations arise.
On a snowy Saturday afternoon in January, in a converted shopping plaza north of Philadelphia, Tchividjian stood before several hundred staffers and volunteers at Calvary Chapel of Central Bucks County. Though he’d be hard to pick out of a crowd, with his close-cropped brown hair, glasses, and blazer-and-khakis uniform of a Baptist college professor, when Tchividjian gets going—as his talks escalate from campus lecture to closing argument to full-on sermon—you can hear and see a flash of the fiery young Billy Graham.
As he always does, Tchividjian delivered a scary set of facts: If general statistics apply—a quarter of U.S. women and a sixth of men have been sexually abused before age 18—Calvary Chapel’s 1,000-member congregation might easily include 200 victims. But even that doesn’t get at the scope of the problem, he said. Congregations need to understand that churches are targets and havens for abusers. One study has found that 93 percent of admitted sex offenders describe themselves as religious. Offenders who report strong church ties abuse more often, with younger victims. That’s not because Christians are inherently more abusive, he said, but because they’re more vulnerable to those who are. Tchividjian repeated what one convicted sex abuser told clinical psychologist Anna Salter in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders: “Church people”—always looking to see the best in people, to welcome converts, to save sinful souls—are “easy to fool.”
Tchividjian rattled off ways in which Christians’ openness can allow abuse to go unchecked: Perpetrators tend to use scripture to coerce, justify, and silence. If they’re clergy, they will exploit their positions; if they’re laypeople, they will take advantage of a church hungry for volunteers and rely on the trust given to members of a church family. “The reason why offenders get away with what they do is because we have too many cultures of silence,” Tchividjian said. “When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down. Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’
“Jesus doesn’t need your reputation!” Tchividjian declared. “When somebody says that, it’s a lie. Keeping things in the dark and allowing souls to be destroyed by abuse, that shames the Gospel. Jesus is all about transparency.”
Calvary Chapel’s pastor John Hessler, who preaches frequently about his own imperfect past as someone who enjoyed the 1960s, wants his church to be vigilant. “In the old days,” Hessler says, “if you had a pulse or could fog a mirror, you could serve in children’s ministry.” By the time Calvary Chapel was founded 15 years ago, holding its first services in a barn, insurance companies had begun to require that churches conduct background checks on all volunteers. Hessler has made those checks increasingly rigorous, but even in the church’s young life, he has run into a number of troubling situations. There was the middle-aged congregant who would drift out of service to linger around the Sunday school and who angrily quit the church when asked to stay away from the kids. There was one of the congregation’s most straitlaced members, an eager would-be missionary, whose daughter alleged at 16 that he’d been molesting her for eight years. So when GRACE came to Philadelphia for a training session in 2013, Hessler sent several staff to attend. After the staff came back shaken, Hessler invited Tchividjian to address his church.
“It’s a balancing act,” Hessler says. “We don’t want to live skeptically. How do you live in such a way that you’re not suspecting that everybody is a dangerous person but are realistic enough to create boundaries so that a person who is a would-be perpetrator would find this too difficult an environment to operate in?”
It’s a challenge for Tchividjian, too. Years of investigating abuse cases—“we spend our days swimming in Christian cesspools,” he says—has left him hypervigilant. Megachurches with thousands of volunteers unnerve him, and after working on too many cases where girls were molested by someone in their best friend’s family, Tchividjian and his wife no longer let their daughters spend the night at friends’ houses, let alone church camps or “lock-in” church-basement sleepovers. “But for my wife,” he says, “I don’t trust anyone 100 percent—I’ve seen too much, too many scenarios. What I have to wrestle with is how do I deal with that? How do I balance that tension, between not trusting anyone and knowing that we have to function in life? You have to figure that out for yourself. But know this: Offenders exploit trust.”
II. The Missions
In 2009, as invitations from church groups were multiplying, GRACE was tapped for a new kind of work. A Florida-based group, New Tribes Mission, was in trouble, as now-adult children of its missionaries were speaking out publicly about sex abuse at a New Tribes boarding school years earlier. Another phone call to Tchividjian, from out of the blue, led him from preaching prevention to once again investigating perps.
With more than 3,000 missionaries across 20 countries, New Tribes members have been described as the “Indiana Joneses of the missionary world.” Founded by a Los Angeles missionary in 1942, New Tribes sends its staff to remote locales, from rural West Africa to the Arctic, to evangelize communities that don’t have translations of the Bible.
Children of the missionaries are known in Christian shorthand as “MKs,” for missionary kids. About five years ago, a group of MKs whose parents were stationed in Senegal during the 1980s and 1990s started exchanging stories about the abuse they say they’d suffered. New Tribes had some 20 or 30 couples spread across Senegal, embedded with villagers they were trying to convert. New Tribes culture (though not formal policy) dictated that children, when they reached six or seven, were sent to a central mission boarding school so their parents could focus on evangelizing.
In Senegal, the school was in the city of Fanda. The children lived there under the supervision of untrained and usually reluctant New Tribes “dorm parents”—some of them missionaries who’d failed in the field—and saw their biological parents infrequently until graduation. The dorm parents and the missionaries were themselves overseen by field leaders, whose power and control, GRACE would later write in its investigative report, “paralleled that of a pastoral staff, a congregational board of Elders, a set of church Deacons, an employer, a local civil government, and a family chieftain, all in one.” Former staff members are more blunt. They describe field leaders as despotic.
The dorm parents—whom the MKs were taught to call aunts and uncles, and to see as representatives of God—were permitted to spank the children, and MKs describe spankings that were more like beatings, leaving children with welts after minor infractions like failing to sleep at naptime. Some say they were subjected to cruel and bizarre punishments like being forced to eat their own vomit. “The culture at school was one of fear,” says Bonnie Cheshire, a 34-year-old MK who was sent to Fanda at age 7.
In the mid-1980s, one of the dorm fathers, David Brooks, who oversaw the “Little Dorm” for the youngest children, allegedly began sexually abusing girls, including Cheshire. The missionary kids say he would come to their beds at night under the guise of comforting them and touch them inappropriately. They say he taught them to masturbate and he encouraged the girls to take pictures of one another in the shower and to play games that involved finding objects hidden in his or other girls’ bathing suits. Another dorm father allegedly punished girls by holding them down and kissing them. One allegedly groped a missionary kid’s breasts. The wife of a New Tribes missionary allegedly had sex with a male MK. In all, seven staff members at Fanda were accused of sexual abuse.
MKs’ letters home were censored, but when some of the girls told their parents what was occurring, and when parents told New Tribes field directors, they were told that they were gossiping and that their “slander” would “destroy another man’s ministry.” The kids say they were told that their complaints would condemn Africans to hell, because their parents would no longer be there to save souls. The parents of the MK who alleged statutory rape were sent back to New Tribes’ “boot camp” and eventually expelled from the field.
In 1988, Brooks left Senegal for a medical furlough. In late 1989, while he was on leave in the United States, additional allegations of abuse emerged from Fanda. Brooks made a partial confession to New Tribes administrators and was asked to resign the following spring. But New Tribes never notified U.S. or Senegalese authorities, and he was never prosecuted.
New Tribes’ Senegal mission exemplifies what Tchividjian and GRACE call “spiritual abuse”—wielding religious authority to persuade the victims that they were responsible for what happened to them. They say such abuse is often the by-product of “legalism,” a catchall term for rigid, rule-oriented Christianity wherein the state of your soul is reflected by the length of your skirt or how you discipline your children. “Legalism” is often used by moderate Christians to decry the petty obsessions of fundamentalists. But the term also reflects a seminal theological debate within Protestantism, which was originally grounded in the conviction that Christians are saved “by grace alone”—that is, by their profession of faith and not by their actions. Abuse victims often describe the communities they came from as legalistic: isolated and authoritarian bodies that placed obedience and rules above all else, where no one was allowed to make small mistakes and where crimes had to be covered up to protect the cause of Christ.
New Tribes’ school in Fanda closed in 1997, officially because of security concerns as civil war raged within the country but unofficially because so many missionaries withdrew their children from the school that there were no longer enough students to maintain it. That same year, New Tribes conducted an ill-conceived internal investigation into the abuse claims. Mission officials sat in on missionary kids’ interviews, and in the end, all but one of the abuse victims declined to testify. Consequently, New Tribes identified just two perpetrators and cast the abuse that occurred at Fanda as an exception. New Tribes continued to operate schools in other countries it was evangelizing.
In 2008, Kari Mikitson, another Fanda MK who claims to have been abused, contacted New Tribes looking for answers: What had the mission known about the alleged abuses while they were being perpetrated, and what actions had it taken to ensure it would not happen again in other New Tribes schools? The mission board and lawyers met with Mikitson and Cheshire to offer an apology and ask for forgiveness. That wasn’t enough. Mikitson and other MKs founded a website, fandaeagles.com, to publicize the alleged abuse. The site has had 3.6 million views and shows up on Google searches right below the New Tribes Mission website. New Tribes subsequently conducted a second cursory review of the Fanda allegations. When the MKs kept up the pressure, the mission agreed to hire a neutral party to investigate.
The missionary kids were initially skeptical of yet another group promising a “Godly response,” as GRACE did. “This was the same terminology used against us by New Tribes to justify both the abuses and the cover-ups,” Mikitson says. “In evangelical-speak, ‘Godly response’ to abuse means using any means necessary to protect the institution’s bottom line, while piously pretending their real concern is protecting the name of Jesus.” But GRACE offered to fly Mikitson to Florida to observe one of its church trainings. She went prepared to “cross GRACE off the list” but instead heard such a staunch defense of victims’ rights that she became convinced that the group was right for the job.
GRACE took New Tribes’s commission with two conditions: that the investigation would be independent and that its final report would be provided to MKs and their families, with New Tribes only learning the results after GRACE’s investigators completed their confidential interviews.
Bonnie Cheshire, right, outside the Fanda school
Their report wouldn’t lead to criminal charges, because the alleged abuses had taken place so long ago and outside the United States. Instead, GRACE aimed for another sort of reckoning. Tchividjian shies away from comparisons to truth and reconciliation commissions like South Africa’s, because of how the word “reconciliation” is often used in a Christian context: as an end point to be reached as expeditiously as possible, as code for cheap grace. True reconciliation, Tchividjian maintains, is the prerogative of the harmed; beyond that, it’s up to God. Instead, GRACE aimed for radical truth-telling. Its report would give New Tribes a factual accounting of how it failed the MKs so that it might confess, repent, and change its practices. “From day one,” Tchividjian says, “we thought the objective should be to demonstrate authentic repentance, to know where you’ve failed and to be transparent about it.”
GRACE board members, including theologians and pastors, volunteered to serve on the investigative team along with former prosecutors Tchividjian and Victor Vieth and psychologist Diane Langberg. They expected the process to take a few weeks. Instead, it lasted more than a year, culminating in a 66-page report. The abuse turned out to be far more widespread and severe than anything even a former prosecutor could have imagined. “We lost a little bit of our soul on that investigation,” Tchividjian says.
The investigators began by sending a confidential questionnaire to all the Fanda students from the 1980s and 1990s whom they could find. Fifty-six of 108 MKs responded (compared to a 3 percent rate when New Tribes tried), and GRACE’s team interviewed 21 in person or by phone, taking written statements from a dozen more. They also reviewed more than 1,000 pages of mission records and interviewed nearly 40 New Tribes staff who had been associated with the Fanda school.
Released in August 2010, the report identified more than 20 victims of alleged sexual abuse and documented dozens more physical and emotional abuse allegations. The victims of spiritual abuse at Fanda, GRACE concluded, “may well include almost the total school population.” In addition, missionary kids from other New Tribes boarding schools around the world had gotten in touch with GRACE, with some reports going back to the 1950s, and it recommended that New Tribes investigate those claims as thoroughly as those from Fanda. “We have seen what the devil does with silence and inaction,” the investigators concluded, “and we reject it as the sin that it is.”
The report offered a checklist of ways that New Tribes could demonstrate repentance: Establish a $1 million fund for victims’ and their families’ care; terminate 14 former dorm parents and supervisors; notify the abusers’ current churches; cooperate with future lawsuits; and, for those Fanda and New Tribes leaders who had ignored the abuse, require a penalty tithe of 10 percent of their paychecks for the victims’ fund.
Tchividjian and the other investigators spent a day going through the report with New Tribes’ board of directors. They prayed together, and New Tribes agreed on the spot to most of the recommendations. The mission’s CEO, Larry Brown, told the conservative Christian World magazine that the board was “ashamed” by what GRACE had found and acknowledged that Fanda’s authoritarian atmosphere and theology—specifically its culture of “legalism”—was to blame. He pledged to find out what had happened at the other schools.
“It seemed very clear to us that they got it,” Tchividjian says. But that was the immediate response. “The long-term response,” Tchividjian says, “was that New Tribes pulled back significantly from us. I think what was happening was other institutions were looking at them thinking, ‘Why in the world would you hire a group to do what they did? They dragged you through the mud.’”
New Tribes soon announced new investigations of alleged abuses in at least nine other schools in eight other countries—but this time, it wouldn’t be hiring GRACE. The mission hired a new coordinator to administer investigations under the project name IHART, or Independent Historical Abuse Review Team. New Tribes has told the missionary kids that whatever information the research turns up “will be stored at a law firm,” accessible only through “a legal process.” (New Tribes leaders declined repeated requests for comment on the investigations and to answer questions about whether it has implemented the recommendations in GRACE’s report.)
Rachel Steffen, a New Tribes missionary, says her two daughters were sexually abused by a dorm parent in the Philippines. Click below to read more of her story.
“I think what happened with GRACE and the Fanda report is they took New Tribes by surprise, and it was a huge blow to them when it came out,” says Rachel Steffen, a former New Tribes missionary who says that her two daughters were sexually abused by a dorm parent in the Philippines. “I think they vowed that they would never lose control like that again.”
Nearly four years later, only one of New Tribes’ subsequent investigations has been completed, for a school in Brazil, and the results have not been released.
In 2011, as the initial promise of GRACE’s first investigation turned to disappointment, another embattled missionary group came calling. The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) was founded in 1927 by a splinter group called “Regular Baptists” to promote a “militant, missionary-minded, Biblically-separate haven of Fundamentalism.” Thanks in part to its insular culture, the group remains obscure even in conservative Christian circles—GRACE’s leaders had never heard of it—but ABWE is hardly marginal, with around 900 missionaries in 60 countries, backed by some 5,000 supporting churches. Here was a second chance to establish GRACE’s model of redemption in a group that was struggling with its past sins.
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.
Lloyd and Ebersole confronted Ketcham, who left the mission field and returned to his home state of Michigan. ABWE sent a vague notice to the churches that sponsored Ketcham’s missionary work, stating that he’d been let go for “immoral conduct”—a phrase that most read as adultery. Ketcham established a family medical practice where local church members sent their children, and where he continued to work for more than 20 years. (ABWE did not reply to repeated interview requests for this story; attempts to reach Ketcham, now in his eighties, through his daughter yielded no response.)
Julia struggled with eating disorders and repeatedly attempted suicide. By the time the family left Bangladesh in 1991 to get her better counseling, Diana says that the alleged rape had “forever altered her life.” The family wouldn’t hear her whole story for another 20 years.
More than a decade after Julia’s family returned to the United States, stories about Ketcham began to surface. At least two MKs allege they were raped, and five others allege being groped under the pretext of unnecessary breast or pelvic examinations. Another six or seven missionary kids accuse Ketcham of drugging and abusing them. They remember being alone with Ketcham at the ABWE hospital or in his home and waking up in the morning feeling hazy and nauseated, unable to recall what happened the night before. At a 2002 ABWE reunion, a group of now-adult Bangladesh MKs confronted the mission’s new president, Michael Loftis, about Ketcham.
They went away expecting the mission to launch an investigation, or at least report Ketcham to the Michigan Board of Medicine. But ABWE offered only to help pay for victims’ counseling. Little happened until 2011, when Julia spoke out publicly. After finally telling her family about her alleged rape, she co-founded a website, BangladeshMKsSpeak, with another missionary kid, Susannah Beals Baker. The site detailed Julia’s story and published testimonies from other victims. In the first week it was live, BangladeshMKsSpeak attracted thousands of comments and scores of other stories.
ABWE was forced to respond. The mission reported Ketcham to Michigan’s medical board; within a year, he surrendered his license. On its website, ABWE published a confession of its own, acknowledging that Ketcham should have been fired years earlier and that the vagueness of its dismissal letter had allowed the doctor to conceal his alleged acts. The letter pleaded with the MKs to “please, please forgive us.” ABWE president Michael Loftis was let go. By mid-April, at the missionary kids’ urging, GRACE had a new job, investigating Ketcham and ABWE’s response.
Julia (front center) and her sister Diana (right)
GRACE went to work in June 2011. It soon became clear, however, that ABWE was not enthusiastic about being investigated. The mission failed to produce documents GRACE requested, Tchividjian says, and in early 2012, ABWE began a separate investigation of all its missions. The result was a brief website notice stating that a handful of abuse cases had been confirmed, that unnamed offenders had been identified, and that none was still working in the field. Some allegations were not reviewed, ABWE said, because “the victims did not consent to pursuing an investigation.” While GRACE’s investigation continued, Diana says the mission tried to undermine it: ABWE leaders offered compensation for Julia’s treatment in what struck the family as an attempt to buy her future silence. They said no.
In January 2013, after more than 100 interviews, GRACE announced, in a routine update on its website, that its investigation was nearly complete. Three weeks later, ABWE fired GRACE, alleging that the investigation was “fatally flawed” and “would not find the truth.” For survivors and their families, this was devastating news; it meant, under the terms of its contract with the mission, that GRACE’s report could not be released.
The public criticism of GRACE put its fledgling reputation on the line. ABWE claimed that the missionary kids’ testimony was tainted by their exposure to one another; that the investigators weren’t using the evidentiary standards of a courtroom and had not recorded the interviews; and that eight interviewees had complained that GRACE had asked leading questions and excluded positive recollections about ABWE from their interview summaries. ABWE claimed that one unnamed interviewee said she felt “revictimized” by GRACE.
Tchividjian and his fellow investigators published a 15-page, point-by-point rebuttal on GRACE’s website. Their process wasn’t like a courtroom’s, they said, because this wasn’t a legal proceeding. The investigators recorded some testimonies, but not all, because they allowed interviewees to ask that they not be tape-recorded for fear of reprisal from ABWE. There were no court-grade transcripts because hiring court reporters would be exorbitantly expensive, and the mission had balked at paying even a fraction of previous transcription costs. GRACE pointed out that all interviewees, both survivors and mission staff, had been given drafts of their transcripts and asked to correct them however they saw fit. Fond memories of the Bangladesh mission, the investigators noted, were not what they’d been hired to find. “When placed in the context of ABWE’s conduct over the past 20 months,” GRACE concluded, the termination “strongly suggests ABWE is unwilling to have itself investigated unless the investigation is within your control.”
ABWE replaced GRACE with Professional Investigators International (Pii), which said it was conducting not an investigation but “research” into the Bangladesh hospital where Ketcham had worked. Pii, which is also handling at least one of the New Tribes investigations, was founded by a Mormon couple, one of whom runs an image–consulting firm. The company’s website emphasizes that “the client suggests the scope of work initially.” In a brief statement responding to questions from the Prospect, Pii CEO Linda Davis characterized its work for ABWE and New Tribes as “totally independent investigations following investigative procedures, very thorough in nature.” Beyond that, she had no comment.
A teenage Tamara Rice on a train in Bangladesh, where she alleges she was abused by missionary doctor Donn Ketcham.
In a section for frequently asked questions on its website, ABWE promises that in its “desire for transparency,” it “intends to publicly release the unedited report, when it is completed.” The Bangladesh missionary kids are dubious. When Pii contacted Tamara Rice, an MK, for an interview last November, she says the investigators refused to say how her answers would be used or whether her identity would be kept confidential. She, like other MKs, has refused to speak with the new investigators under those conditions.
“ABWE accused GRACE of building a case against them in their investigation,” Rice says. “I feel there’s a good chance that what ABWE is doing now is building a defense case against future lawsuits—that really these interviews are lining the walls of their lawyers’ office.”
III. The Fortress
By 2013, a decade after Tchividjian felt called to spread the word, sex abuse had become a topic that Protestants could no longer ignore. Since 2004, GRACE had trained more than 150 churches and ministries, consulted with dozens more on prevention policies, and helped implement abuse-awareness programs at six Christian colleges. Despite the disappointments, the New Tribes and ABWE investigations had shed new light on the problem. So had a fast-growing network of survivor websites publishing accounts of abuse.
Two major evangelical foundations, children’s mission ministry OneHope and relief organization Samaritan’s Purse (run by Tchividjian’s controversial uncle, Franklin Graham), had asked GRACE to help them develop and implement abuse-prevention and response policies. Tchividjian, Langberg, and others on the GRACE board were regulars on Christian media. The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant body, had passed a resolution calling on member churches to report suspicions or allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement. Then as the ABWE investigation was unraveling, Bob Jones University turned to GRACE.
It appeared that the school was ready to open itself to change. Bob Jones revised its sex-abuse policies, held its first campus-wide awareness training, and sent a sizable delegation to a GRACE conference. Meanwhile, alumni and staff members were telling their stories to GRACE.
While Tchividjian would not comment about their ongoing investigation, theProspect interviewed eight Bob Jones alumni who say they’ve given testimony. Their accounts offer a glimpse of what GRACE is likely to find: a cloistered atmosphere in which abuse victims have been discouraged from coming forward, and in which those who do are routinely blamed and discouraged from reporting it to family members and police.
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.”
Erin Burchwell, who grew up on the Bob Jones campus, was sexually assaulted by a Bob Jones “preacher boy.” When she revealed this to Dean Jim Berg, she says Berg asked her what she had been wearing. Click on the image below to read more of her story.
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.
She recalls running out of Berg’s office, terrified she’d be expelled. Landry says that neither Berg, who now teaches counseling, nor the dorm counselor she’d first told ever checked back with her. At the end of the next semester, Landry withdrew from Bob Jones, returned home to Ohio, and married a childhood friend, reasoning that no other man would ever love her. The marriage was short-lived. For three years, Landry never told anyone else about her rape, and she didn’t again seek treatment for another five years. “I already had a plate full of shame when I walked into Dr. Berg’s office,” she says, “and he put more shame on that, more than I could bear.”
When Camille Lewis was a student at Bob Jones in the late 1980s, a roommate told her that her father had molested her for years. Lewis urged her to talk to someone and arranged an appointment with Dean Berg. He didn’t tell the roommate that it was her fault, Lewis says, but he did warn her not to go to the police. Over time, Lewis began to detect a pattern. She became a speech and rhetoric professor at Bob Jones, where she worked from 1990 to 2007, and says that during her two decades at the school, 11 other women told her they had been sexually assaulted, raped, or molested—8 on campus, and 3 off. She knew others, she says, who were sexually harassed as students or employees. But when they sought help from the school, Lewis says, the response was the same as the one her roommate and Landry had received. “The metaphor they used in the olden days was a ‘show window,’ that they were setting up a show window to sell God and didn’t want anything marring it,” she says. “That’s why it’s perfect for predators, because they just hide behind Bob Jones’s silence. It’s built into the system.”
Longtime Dean of Students Jim Berg has been accused of silencing and shaming abuse victims at the school.
Cathy Harris came to Bob Jones’s nursing school in the mid-1990s. She says she was already struggling with PTSD from being abused as a child. Dean Berg counseled her not to take medication, she says, and he suggested she was complicit in her abuse. After she attempted suicide in 1996, Harris says, Berg sent her expulsion letter to the hospital. Two other former students who sought counseling for childhood physical or sexual abuse told the Prospectthey were expelled or “asked not to return” when university staff became aware of psychological problems or self-harming behaviors that may have stemmed from abuse; two of these cases occurred within the past four years.
Jeffrey Hoffman, who would later help found the LGBT alumni group BJUnity, grew up in the Bob Jones system in the 1970s and 1980s. 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. Hoffman did not tell anyone what had occurred until years later, afraid he wouldn’t be believed.
On three occasions, the Prospect requested interviews with Bob Jones leadership—specifically requesting to speak to Berg and President Stephen Jones—but was refused. “Bob Jones University will not participate in an interview,” replied university spokesperson Randy Page, adding, “We do not want BJU to be mentioned in the profile you are writing about GRACE.” (Shortly before press time, Page sent a link to the university’s online statements about GRACE.)
By this January, when they announced that the final report would likely be ready for release in March, GRACE’s investigators had conducted more than 100 interviews. Then days before GRACE was set to conduct its final interviews, school administrators sent it a termination notice. The letter was full of praise and thanks for GRACE’s work but said that changes at the university—Stephen Jones had just announced that he would retire in the spring—had convinced the institution to sever the contract. The university asked to meet with GRACE as soon as possible to draw up a new contract, writing, “We think that it is in the best public interest of both GRACE and BJU to meet and reach a new agreement that will enable us to accomplish our objectives.” The letter specified no reason for firing GRACE and gave no indication of what new terms the school wanted to negotiate.
GRACE e-mailed the interviewees to let them know what had happened. Then it posted the termination notice online, and the story went viral. When the relatively small and separatist ABWE had fired GRACE, few people outside the worlds of fundamentalism and conservative Christianity knew or paid attention. But this was Bob Jones University, America’s fortress of fundamentalism. The story was reported in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the firing was condemned on websites from the liberal Wonkette to The American Conservative. “Bob Jones University will not get away with this cowardly move—thank God!” wrote American Conservativecolumnist Rod Dreher, who derided the school’s decision as “a textbook example of institutional cover-up.”
Bob Jones had long grown accustomed to dismissing its secular critics and ignoring its alumni “detractors”; the school has endured decades of bad press and protests over policies like the ban on interracial dating. But officials seemed unprepared for the fury of their loyalists, who flooded the school’s Facebook page with denunciations and calls to reinstate GRACE. Rumors proliferated online: that Stephen Jones’s hand had been forced by a more conservative board; that a recent South Carolina Supreme Court ruling, which expanded institutional responsibility for sex abuse, could mean that GRACE’s findings would expose the school to lawsuits; that certain stories had been so horrible the school felt it had to suppress them.
In a speech to students, Stephen Jones offered only a vague explanation, saying that GRACE had “diverged from our original understanding.” The termination, he said, was a means to sit down with the GRACE team and get the process back on track. Bob Jones, he insisted, was committed to finishing the investigation, either with GRACE or another group. More quietly, some people associated with the school’s leadership wrote on social media that GRACE had been “heavy-handed” with victims and that there may have been breaches in victim confidentiality. However, the eight Bob Jones alumni or former staff with whom the Prospect spoke said the process had been positive—“the best I’ve ever been treated by Christians,” in Cathy Harris’s words.
For those who had participated in the GRACE investigation, the termination sparked more than outrage. Three witnesses told the Prospect that the move had thrown them into depression or panic attacks; one said she had contemplated suicide. Two others worried that it was their testimony that had caused the trouble when Bob Jones’s leaders somehow got wind of it. “I wanted so badly for this to come out, but not because I hate Bob Jones,” Katie Landry says. She expects that her nieces and nephews will one day attend the school. “If something happens to them, and they seek help, I want them to get actual help,” she says, “and not more shame.”
In February 25, a month after firing its investigators, Bob Jones announced an about-face. The university was rehiring GRACE under its original contract. In subsequent statements on its website, school leaders told survivors they were sorry for “surprising” them with what they now described not as a termination but a “temporary suspension.”
It’s uncertain when GRACE will issue its report. In early April, the group said it had been contacted by new complainants after Bob Jones’s firing and rehiring; the group now expected to finish new interviews and begin writing up findings in early May.
This much is clear: The findings will have implications far beyond Greenville. Just as GRACE’s New Tribes report sparked calls for investigations at nine other New Tribes schools, so too does each new headline story—about Patrick Henry’s poor handling of campus sexual assault, about Sovereign Grace Ministries’ alleged culture of abuse—prompt more survivors to come forward, from myriad ministries and churches. Even if all implicated institutions decided to trust GRACE to investigate them, the workload would be far more than the group could handle.
That’s one reason Tchividjian wants to establish a National Grace Center at a Christian college, possibly California’s Pepperdine University, where he says conversations have been ongoing for months. The center would not only expand GRACE’s capacities but also equip a small army of investigators to take on the work GRACE cannot do. Tchividjian also envisions the Grace Center serving as a resource for churches and groups and for prosecutors working on cases involving religion. It would launch a research institute producing child-advocacy and abuse-awareness curricula for seminary students, and a training center to educate future church leaders on prevention. “I want the church to become one of the safest places for children and abuse survivors,” Tchividjian says, “and sadly today, it’s one of the least-safe places.”
Complicating that objective and underlying the tensions that have surfaced in GRACE’s investigations is the long and sometimes bitter split between fundamentalists and evangelicals. Some abuse survivors see speaking out as a step in their religious evolution, moving from rule-based forms of Christianity to “grace-oriented” churches. Many of GRACE’s supporters see the group’s work as a challenge to fundamentalism’s legalistic culture. That could be a recurring problem with the investigations: Fundamentalist institutions may view GRACE’s work as rooted in a core theological difference, as yet another example of evangelicals criticizing their estranged cousins.
Tchividjian rejects that critique. “I don’t like terms like ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist,’” he says. “I’m not even sure I know what they mean.” The mishandling of sex abuse stems less from theology, he says, than from an authoritarianism that can develop in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule. He points to the abuses that allegedly took place at Jesus People USA—the Chicago-area evangelical commune, which was no bastion of stringent rules—as an example. “Whether we label it fundamentalist or evangelical, I’ve seen it span the spectrum,” he says. “I never thought of New Tribes as fundamentalist. But I’d say there was that concentration of authority, and often that concentration morphs into legalism.” But Tchividjian says GRACE doesn’t exist to challenge legalism, either. “Our job is not to go and assess the theology of the groups we’ve been asked to investigate. Our job is to investigate the alleged abuse and, obviously, as part of that investigation, you assess the culture and assess whether that culture plays at least a part of the problem in determining whether the abuse is systemic. But I’d never say our mission or role is to address legalism.”
However, the New Tribes report explicitly criticized the mission’s legalism, as did New Tribes leaders themselves in their initial mea culpa. Tchividjian consistently argues that a less legalistic culture would help groups deal with the sins of their past. “It would mean a church is OK with being transparent, and acknowledging failure,” Tchividjian says. “As a Christian, I tell institutions, your value and your reputation aren’t based on your accomplishments. If it is what you’ve communicated to the world through the gospel, your reputation has been secured for you by Christ. That should liberate you to be transparent, to acknowledge failure.”
To survivors, that logic is clear. “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 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,” 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.
As Bob Jones University learned this February, allegations are bound to become public no matter what the institution does. The findings of GRACE’s report will make news, and the news will be ugly. But if the school forthrightly confronts the findings and pursues repentance and reform, it could not only save itself but revive itself. Working with GRACE has given the university an opportunity to transform its national reputation as the quintessence of all that is pinched and patriarchal about fundamentalist Christianity. That would make Bob Jones a different kind of model—a positive one for Protestants hoping to avoid the reputational devastation the Catholic Church is still bringing down on itself.
GRACE’s evangelical truth commission could also help ease the financial hits to come. Most abuse survivors, Tchividjian says, don’t want a settlement. But when they are confronted with institutions that lawyer up at the first hint of allegations, and that refuse even small gestures of acknowledgment or repentance, lawsuits often result. “Usually the lawyers are the last offices they go to,” he says.
Even so, following GRACE’s path will be painful. That is what’s so audacious—sometimes to the point of being unrealistic—about it. GRACE is challenging Christian institutions to live up to their teachings, to “expend themselves, even to the point of death, to demonstrate love for a very hurt soul,” as Tchividjian says.
“If you think about it in the Christian context,” he continues, “God did his most powerful work when Jesus, his son, was at his most transparent and vulnerable, on the cross. So why do we approach all these things differently?If I’m a Christian, why am I not driven by the fact that if we mess up as an institution, then when we’re most transparent and vulnerable, that’s when God can do his most powerful work? I’ve seen that in churches: When they do respond that way, it’s pretty powerful what results in the lives of survivors.”
There’s a quixotic quality to Tchividjian’s crusade. Surely he’s tilting at windmills to think powerful institutions, which reap hundreds of millions in donations and employ thousands of Christians—an entire faith-based economy—will willingly jeopardize their own survival. But the persistence of Tchividjian and GRACE is itself a statement of deep faith: the belief that churches, schools, and missions will imperil their existence for the sake of doing right—radical sacrifice through radical truth. So far, it still amounts to faith in things unseen. But whether in Cape Town, or as Tchividjian might say, on Calvary, such things have manifested before.✠