Bob Jones University President Steve Pettit said Tuesday that the weeks since school leaders were criticized for the way they counseled victims of sexual abuse have not been easy on anyone.
“It has been particularly difficult on a few,” he told students during a chapel service in which he spent 16 minutes responding to a yearlong investigation by Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.
He did not name those he was talking about, but the two most harshly criticized by the GRACE report were Bob Jones III, the chancellor and grandson of the founder, and Jim Berg, who handled most of the counseling during almost 30 years as dean of students.
GRACE found that students who reported abuse were blamed for bringing it on themselves and that proper authorities had not been notified. The organization said Jones, as the president from 1971 until 2005, and Berg, who stepped down as dean in 2010, were primarily responsible.
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The report recommended that Jones be disciplined and that Berg be banned from both counseling and teaching counseling and that the school no longer use or sell his books or DVDs.
Pettit gave a general response during chapel service and referred to the university’s website for more specifics.
The website said personnel matters are private and will not be made public. It also said Berg’s sermons and materials were reviewed and found to be biblically sound. The school will continue to sell them and to use them in courses.
“Thousands of believers have benefited from his books and hundreds of churches have used his materials with great spiritual profit,” the website said.
Jeffrey Hoffman, who talked with GRACE investigators about being molested when he was 9 by a BJU staffer who worked at his church, said he was disappointed with the school’s response. Hoffman was born on the campus and went to school there through high school.
“It doesn’t sound like it’s going to change a thing,” he said. “What they’re saying is the Bible is sufficient but they hired some people who told them what they were doing isn’t biblically sound and it’s not psychologically sound and this is them saying we’re going to stick with our amateur guy.”
The GRACE report identified Jones III and Berg as two of the biggest problems, Hoffman said.
“GRACE was giving them the ability to jettison all the old and move forward with all of the new,” he said. “Outside therapists who are committed Christians, a road map to the future and they slammed the door shut.”
Berg told GRACE investigators he had on-the-job training in addition to reading books and articles and attending a conference. His style of counseling was criticized by several victims who said he asked rapid-fire and personal questions such as whether they had been drinking or had been involved with the man before.
Hoffman also said he felt dismayed that the university was not going to announce whether any personnel changes were made.
“They don’t feel like they are accountable to anyone,” he said.
Focused on rules
Berg was recently featured in a video about the seminary, and the website lists the itinerary for trips Jones III will make to North Carolina and Wisconsin later this month and to Singapore in May.
In 2012, Stephen Jones, then president of the university, asked GRACE to conduct the review, which began in January 2013 with an online survey. The investigative team included a lead investigator who is a lawyer and former prosecutor, a mental health professional, a seminary professor, a project coordinator and a project director.
They talked not only with victims but also those who knew victims and people who had heard sermons or attended classes that dealt with the issue. They gathered police reports, court documents, class materials, counseling records, recordings of sermons and lectures and training videos made by Berg and others.
About half of 43 victims interviewed were abused before arriving at BJU, the other half while they were students there, the report said. Sixty percent of them said they felt blame and disparagement for coming forward. One third of the victims said they did not feel comfortable telling school administrators of the abuse.
Pettit said since the report came out he has communicated with one of the women who was interviewed by the GRACE team and came away feeling grieved that she had not been helped.
“We did not understand the depths of her trauma,” he said.
Also in his remarks to students, Pettit called sexual abuse a heinous crime that requires abusers be brought to justice. He noted that some had been helped by loving counseling but acknowledged that others had not. As he did when the GRACE report was released, Pettit asked for forgiveness from victims.
He said it was apparent that the university was too focused on rules and not enough on people.
“Over the years our system of discipline created barriers with many of our students. Some students reported that they were afraid to share their problems out of fear of facing discipline,” he said.
The GRACE report identified several students who had been expelled or asked to leave the university after telling a school official about abuse that had taken place before they were students there.
One student who left the university before earning a degree will be allowed to return, the university said on its website.
Previously, the university’s discipline and counseling were handled by one man, Berg.
“We did not discipline in love,” Pettit said.
Pettit said many of the changes in the university’s procedures were made before the GRACE report came out.
A full-time women’s counselor was hired in 2012. In 2013, the university’s policies on sexual abuse were rewritten and updated again in 2014 based on recommendations of a Fort Worth, Texas, organization called MinistrySafe. Also in 2014, the university separated women’s counseling from the office that handles discipline. That ensures confidentiality, the university said.
Several students told GRACE their privacy had been breached by school personnel, including one woman who said her hometown pastor was called.
All employees are considered mandatory reporters — those specifically required by state law to report all allegations they become aware of — which the university said exceeds state and federal law.
The GRACE report faulted the university for not reporting certain allegations, but Pettit said the panel he put in place to review the report found no instances where any law had been broken. In addition, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed all the university’s files on people who had reported sexual assault or abuse and found the university had followed the law.
Pettit said he knew some BJU supporters want to put the GRACE report behind them.
“I want to keep it before us,” he said. “I don’t want to forget what happened.”
He said he has asked for a comprehensive review of student life, which would include student leaders. Besides discipline and counseling, the review will include the code of conduct, living in a dorm and leadership training.
“The culture of our student experience has been a point of struggle for some of our students,” he said. “The primary point of struggle was not so much the rules but the way they were handled or enforced.”
He said he believes most students agree with the rules, but want to be treated like adults.
“We are not going to change our belief that the Bible is our authority and guide for spiritual life and growth, but we are going to become more biblically focused on our student experience at BJU.”
The GRACE report described an atmosphere of fear that extended into dorms, where students were encouraged to tattle on each other. At the center of this is a rule in place ever since the school was founded in 1927 in Panama City, Florida, by evangelist Bob Jones Sr. He required that if someone knows a rule is being broken and doesn’t report it, he or she is as guilty as the rule breaker.
The university also will begin a more formal victim advocate program and develop more training for faculty as well as members of the Board of Trustees.
In addition, the university is planning a student care center. The details of the center were vague, but the website said students can expect help with “a variety of issues and it will include an appropriate number of biblical counseling personnel.”
When the GRACE report was made public in December, Pettit announced a committee would study it and report to him within 90 days. That group included a biblical counselor, an executive administrator of a regionally accredited university, a professor of pastoral counseling, an attorney who works in abuse and abuse prevention, a human resources executive and a member of the BJU Board of Trustees.
The committee members asked the university to not release their names. The committee met with university officials in February, the website said.
Pettit attempted to draw a line between BJU now and BJU before.
He announced at the chapel service that 392 students signed what was called a statement of empathy for victims. He called it “a clear example of the BJU of today.”
He said that some might think paying for such a report was misguided.
“I believe we were providentially guided by God’s hand,” he said.
Others think the university leadership should have come out swinging, defending itself and its past.
“We wanted our former students to know they were more important that our institutional reputation,” he said.