Bob Jones University: Another Religious Institutional Failure Where Predators Are Concerned

In 1991, as a senior at UNC Charlotte, I held the position of governor of a statewide student legislature in North Carolina. At some point during my tenure, I had the opportunity to meet and briefly work with my counterpart who was the leader of a similar group in South Carolina. It was a relationship I should have been excited to forge. But I didn’t expect to like him, and for one foolish reason: He attended Bob Jones University.

Bob Jones, in Greeneville, South Carolina, is among the most conservative Christian and strict, biblically-based institutions of higher learning in the country. I had no issue with its basic principles, but BJU had been known for going far beyond most other Bible-based schools. Among a few other things I found distasteful, it did not admit black students until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000. So I assumed my counterpart would be smug, judgmental, and perhaps even bigoted.

I could not have been more wrong. He was, and remains, deeply religiously conservative. He is also among the warmest, most thoughtful, and most decent people I’ve ever met. He now lives in Maine with his wife and children, loves sailing, works as a medical professional, and continues to live a devout Christian life.

My point is that Bob Jones is hardly a place that produces uniformly bad people. In fact it produces mostly decent and honorable people, regardless of whether I agree with their politics or religious thinking.

But Bob Jones, like all formal institutions featuring strict religious dogma, an authoritarian structure and a generally insular environment, is especially vulnerable to exploitation by predatory people who infiltrate its community. This doesn’t mean BJU and places like it are more infested with predators than more liberal institutions. Predators are everywhere. But they tend to seek out and/or remain in favorable environments. As sad and unfair as it is, strict religious institutions are often excellent ones for predatory people, simply because predators can utilize aspects of them in mockery of what they’re designed for. Dogma, structure, and some distrust of outsiders are not in and of themselves bad things. Constricting things perhaps. The wrong choice for many, perhaps. But not destructive in essence.

What is destructive, however, is when religious dogma is perverted to “blame and shame” victims. When an authoritarian structure allows those in power to abuse relatively helpless adherents. And when a mistrust of outsiders is used to discourage reporting to civil authorities or even seeking professional help. Every institution with these attributes runs the risk of both infiltration by predators and then the unwitting nurturing of them once they’re inside.

It’s not what the institutions want; BJU’s leadership doubtlessly wanted its students harmed no more than the Vatican intended for there to be widespread abuse by a small but prolific percentage of its priests and nuns. Regardless, vulnerability remains because danger is always present, meaning that predatory people (who as far we know tend to appear for reasons we don’t in every imaginable situation) are always looking for places to hunt and hide. The one thing religious institutions can do to mitigate their inherent risks is to value the members of the institution more than the institution itself.

This means being utterly transparent about policies to prevent abuse, and allowing an honest assessment of how much it’s happening. It means making it publicly known that it will cooperate with civil authorities and seek help from professionals outside of its sphere of influence, even if that means risking exposure to a less Godly and sometimes unfair world outside the gates.

But like the Vatican (and many other religious institutions seeking to keep their reputations and authority intact), Bob Jones appears to have failed at this task, with a report released last week outlining widespread discouragement of reporting and in some cases startling victim-blaming by university officials. In many cases this treatment grossly exacerbated the harm done, and drove some victims not only away from BJU but from Christianity itself.

Again, this is the last thing BJU has ever wanted. But it’s what the institution has reaped, at least in some measure, and at least in part because of its brand mattering more than its students.

Rolling Stone: From a Crucial and Embattled Movement, Behold Your Work

I have devoted a career to a growing and viscerally important, but eternally beset and threatened movement to end sexual violence. On college campuses, such violence has revealed itself to be among the worst and most widespread.

I can say with head-shaking sadness and bitter disgust that I’ve never seen this movement- particularly where widespread and largely ignored (or concealed) college rape is concerned- damaged so profoundly and with such speed.

This has happened because of breathtaking incompetence and blind greed, period.

I don’t know exactly where the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, falls on this miserable continuum. Perhaps she was remarkably unprofessional but sincere, paving the road to hell with a genuine belief that she was doing right by a traumatized young woman she sought out for a hyper-sensationalized story. Or, perhaps she’s as guilty as Rolling Stone’s editorial staff seems to have been, green-lighting this substandard piece simply because it was obvious click-bait and a turbo-charged issue seller.

What’s left for this particular story is hard to say. Clearly, there are both discrepancies in “Jackie’s” account and now additional emerging circumstances that must create doubt in any reasonable mind as to the full truth of what was apparently related to Erdely. But does that justify a leap to the assumption that Jackie just made it all up? Hardly.

The idea that she completely fabricated a gang-rape, and then punctuated this vicious, elaborate hoax with a two-year long journey toward healing (including thoroughly corroborated Immense distress, withdrawal, depression, and then involvement in UVA’s anti-sexual assault movement) is frankly absurd absent some profoundly delusional condition. It’s even more absurd when one remembers that Jackie never attempted to “go public.” Instead, Erdely and her editors took her there after seeking out the most shocking example of campus sexual violence available.

And now they’ve left her exposed and alone, regardless of their “apology” (revised after a backlash) that initially blamed her completely.

What’s left for the movement against rape, though, is as clear as it is damning: Legions of so-called “men’s rights advocates” and others who enjoy perpetrating myths and misogyny, are declaring victory. Jackie, they’re insisting, is emblematic of women everywhere. To the paranoid male, she’s a shining example of how college hook-up culture combined with alcohol has elicited reckless false reports from foolish, immoral women who then become desperate to claw back their virtue by “crying rape,” thus filling the prisons of the world with decent, if naturally red-blooded men.

Countless finger-wagging moralists and scolds with ready-made prescriptions to end a plague they really know nothing about are joining them, insisting that, at very least, Jackie is another “mistaken” victim, not of rape, but of the same reckless culture combined with new, politically liberal incentives to mistakenly cry rape when the real issue is “crossed signals” with a truly non-offending male.

For these two groups and so many more, Jackie is the rightfully exposed antagonist of their morality play, either because she’s a soulless liar or just another lost soul in need of everything from religion to hard-nosed advice on “how not to get raped.”

This is the deplorable handiwork of a publication literally as old as I am, and one that’s been culturally relevant and important far beyond its original focus on music (see Matt Taibbi, as an example), but that has miserably failed not just its readers but a theretofore unknown and healing, apparently contributing young woman as well.

Make no mistake; this was done for money and nothing more. I recall my father, when I was a kid, scoffing at the idea of a “liberal media” or a conservative one, for that matter. “What the media cares about,” he would say in an expression that’s now quaint, “is selling papers.”

Indeed. The almighty dollar is what matters. It’s what mattered to Rolling Stone when it came to pushing prematurely a damaged and traumatized young woman into the meat grinder of the 24 hour news-cycle and the twitterverse.  Journalistic ethics didn’t matter much. A still struggling movement they’ve set back a good 10 years didn’t matter much.

Jackie certainly didn’t matter much.

 

The Inevitable Doubting of “Jackie” and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Erdely

Our capacity for doubt when it comes to the accounts of victims of sexual violence- and apparently that of the world of journalism- never ceases to amaze me. Two weeks ago, a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing story emerged in Rolling Stone by reporter Sabrina Erdely. It was electrifying and remarkably popular. As of now, both the victim’s account and Erdely’s journalistic practice and ethics are being questioned.

I suppose I should not be surprised.

The primary objections to Erdely’s journalistic integrity rest on three primary foundations: 1) It’s only based on “the word of the alleged victim.” 2) Erdely made no attempt to contact the alleged perpetrators. 3) It’s just too horrible to be true.

First, as for Erdely basing her story solely on the apparently compelling, consistent and credible account of the victim, I’d remind the objectors of a legal maxim, often translated into a jury instruction in criminal cases and applicable in every U.S. jurisdiction I’m aware of: Testimony is evidence in a court of law, and if it is sufficiently compelling to the finders of fact (the jurors), then it may stand alone as the basis for a conviction. So jurors across the United States can base convictions beyond a reasonable doubt on the testimony of a single witness, but a reporter is reckless for accepting the account as the basis of a story?

Second, in terms of Erdely making no attempt to contact perpetrators, this is justified because they were not named. A fraternity was identified, but no individual perpetrators. According to Erdely, she contacted the fraternity and didn’t get very far, but what was she to do anyway? Erdely tells us that the victim, Jackie, for reasons explained, didn’t want the perpetrators she knew of to be confronted. She wanted to tell her story, not generate a mob. This is hardly indefensible; most victims of sexual violence do not report or tell anyone, let alone seek to create a public confrontation. Phi Kappa Psi is suffering scrutiny for sure. But not a single man is, whether affiliated or not. Thus, charges of “you didn’t get the other side of the story” make no sense, unless one or a group of men from the organization was willing to come forth and somehow prove a negative by either 1) accounting for the whereabouts of every member of the fraternity in the fall of 2012 or 2) describing the same encounter as consensual.

Third, in terms of the story being too ghastly, shocking, or indicative of coordinated evil on an otherwise august and civil campus to be true? I can only hope the doubters have never experienced something similar, within or without an environment like Rugby Road. An elucidating piece by Liz Seccuro, herself gang-raped at the same fraternity house 30 years ago, might allow some ugly but necessary light to penetrate the dark ignorance of some suspicious objectors. The LA Times’ Jonah Goldberg, for instance, can’t imagine how a bruised and bloodied woman could leave a darkened, loud college party without being noticed. I’d suggest he has either a limited imagination or limited experience with college parties. Politico’s Rich Lowry speculates that “the shock of [the story] led many people to recoil in horror upon the article’s release and ask, “How could this have happened at such a respectable school?” Actually, Mr. Lowry, there are legions of women (and some men) who know exactly how it could happen.

Both wonder how Jackie’s friends could have been so equivocal about reporting, and how the university could be so tepid about taking the matter to the police. Again, I can only say they have severely limited experience with the reality of sexual violence as it usually plays out in college life, and even less insight into how such violence is normally responded to. A fair debate continues about the role colleges should play in adjudicating sexual assault. But what must be understood is that the desires of victims, particularly given the gross limitations of the criminal justice system, drive the seemingly laissez-faire reactions of college administrators when rape comes to their attention. The idea is to empower, not dictate.

Doubting Jackie’s account is anyone’s prerogative. Doubts about Erdley’s reporting of it should stand on firmer ground.

 

 

 

Yes, Bill Cosby is Probably Guilty, and No, There Are No Heroes

I don’t like it either.

There’s nothing to like. There was nothing to like in realizing that Woody Allen, a filmmaker I credit for much of my worldview let alone my sense of humor, is guilty- in my opinion- of molesting his daughter. There was nothing to like in realizing that Michael Jackson, who even as a rock-n-roll obsessed teenager I believed was pure magic to watch, was guilty- in my opinion- of molesting children at his ranch near Santa Barbara.

Perhaps Bill Cosby is the most unpleasant realization yet. Cosby, after all, is more than a brilliant entertainer. He has been a symbol of hope and progress for a generation and some of its most marginalized and disenfranchised members. I was never a devotee of the Cosby Show, but I enjoyed what I saw, and even as a kid I loved the fact that star and cast developed a lasting and convincing image of a loving, educated and successful American black family.

Later, as a paternal figure and blunt critic of what he considered were negative aspects of black culture, Cosby was still heavily admired. Why? Because at bottom, he was looking out for black boys and young men, wanting what was best for them as an increasingly endangered species in a cultural and socioeconomic meat grinder.

But Cosby is almost certainly guilty of a pattern of sexual violence involving the use of his influence, his victims’ relative powerlessness and lack of life experience, the brutal competitiveness of his industry, and drugs and alcohol. By my count now, no less than 15 women have accused Cosby of similar acts under similar circumstances. There is consistency. There is a pattern. Few if any of the women who have come forward- particularly recently- stand to gain anything from their allegations. They are taking on no less than an American icon; a man of grace, class, considerable power and influence. He’s a national treasure; they know well they are contributing to a national heartbreak. They know they’ll be viciously targeted in terms of their motives, their credibility, and indeed their very sanity.

There’s a very, very large chunk of an already sad and disillusioned country that doesn’t want to believe Cosby is guilty of anything. Like many people who consider sexual violence in the very system that’s supposed to address it- the one I’ve spent a career in- they’ll find a reason to believe it’s just all a big lie. That Cosby never, over three decades against more than two dozen different, unrelated women in several states, committed any crimes.

Maybe it was a misunderstanding that just happened over and over again, altering lives along the way. Maybe it’s true that women are just really vicious as a gender and don’t have a problem falsely accusing men of among the most heinous crimes imaginable. Maybe it’s really satisfying, fun and quickly profitable to turn yourself into an instant media curiosity as a victim accusing a beloved figure of rape.

Yes, and maybe the tooth fairy will leave my IRS bill under my pillow if my latest root canal fails and I need an implant.

In fact, gravity brings rain to the ground and water is wet. In fact, if the man at the center of these allegations was an ordinary plumber, or systems analyst, or cab driver or cardiologist, the belief in his guilt would be widespread and probably correct. Legally, Cosby has been convicted of nothing and found civilly liable for nothing, and it’s correct that he remain legally unburdened. But Cosby has cultivated an image both as a public figure and at times a moral scold. He’s earned this scrutiny if nothing else. It’s awful. But so is the truth, much of the time.

The reality of heroic acts is the saving grace of our existence; well-lived lives often contain blessed aspects of it. There was, as just one example, great worth to the Cosby Show far beyond the laughs and the tender moments, and it should live on regardless of Cosby’s reputation.

But heroism itself is dangerous and inconsistent with the human condition. We’re too complex for halos; they’re best left to the saints. And the songs. And the myths.

American Horror Story: Though the Heavens May Fall, Let Justice Be Done

Tom Hogan is the District Attorney of Chester County, Pennsylvania. He is seeking the death penalty under Pennsylvania law for the murder of three year-old Scott McMillan, who appears to have succumbed to multiple, repeated, and ultimately murderous acts of physical abuse from the defendants in the case, Jillian Tait, the child’s mother, and Gary Fellenbaum, her boyfriend.

These acts included beating the toddler with a homemade whip, smashing his head through a wall, and hanging him by his feet while beating him.

“Though the heavens may fall, justice will be done to these defendants” was Hogan’s final statement at press conference yesterday.

Capital punishment will likely end in this country as society continues to evolve, as the unalterable risks the death penalty imposes are further exposed, and as notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ continue to be shot through with the complex realities of mental illness and extenuating circumstances. That isn’t necessarily a terrible prospect.

Regardless, while a penalty of death is still an option, and assuming that Tait and Fellenbaum are 1) factually guilty of the pre-mediated, torturous murder of this child and 2) legally sane, I wish my brother prosecutor Tom Hogan one thing as this miserable case plays out in a court of law:

Success, all the way to the needle.