Tag Archives: Religion

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.

Adrian Peterson, Culture, and Why Wrong is Still Wrong

Corporal punishment is wrong. Brutal corporal punishment of the kind Adrian Peterson is suspected of wielding against a 4 year-old child is both wrong and thankfully illegal.

But what about cultural norms- like the one espoused by Charles Barkley recently- that claim acceptance for ‘whipping,’ and imply that an unfair standard could be wielded against a traditionally oppressed minority? The answer is that those concerns are understandable. But ultimately they are excuses. And cultural excuses do not legally or morally excuse child abuse.

I was spanked (and occasionally, although rarely, worse). It was the wrong thing to do. I hold no resentment against my parents for it; they were doing the best they could with the resources and insight they had at the time. They have been honorable, loving and supportive otherwise, and gave us the tools we needed to navigate life in a largely healthy and successful manner. But the fact remains: Hitting us was unnecessary, and ultimately did more harm than good.

I have friends who remain conflicted about the value of spanking (either in terms of how it influenced them or how it might be appropriate for their children). One concern I hear is that the choice to spank could lead them to be considered ‘criminals.’ Or, if they were spanked, that their parents- most of whom were loving and decent otherwise- could be considered ‘criminal’ in retrospect.

But the issue is not a legal one when it comes to spanking within limits. This remains lawful in all states and will likely continue as such. The ‘limits’ are usually that visible marks may not be left. Generally, you can cause pain or discomfort with a hand or an object such as a paddle, but you cannot significantly bruise or scar your child.

Many of us had parents who did bruise or scar us, though. Often, they were decent, loving parents in every other important respect. But if they exceeded the limits of what is criminal today, they were dreadfully wrong, period. Of course they’re not in danger of criminal liability in most cases, and in most cases they shouldn’t be. But we can still acknowledge their failings, albeit in the context of a very different life. For those of us who were spanked within legal limits, in a planned, non-angry context (the ‘gold standard’ for corporal punishment), we can be confident and thankful that we were, in all likelihood, not deeply or permanently harmed by the experience.

Regardless, that experience is not necessary. And the risks outweigh the benefits.

The bottom line seems to be that there is conflicting evidence on whether spanking is hurtful and leads to more aggression, anger, dysfunction, etc. But I know of no evidence suggesting that hitting children has measurably positive outcomes, particularly in light of the physical and psychological risks (my mentor Victor Vieth wrote a great law review article on the subject).

What lingers in distinct cultural and groups and minorities, of course, is this uncomfortable notion: A form of discipline that many among them have practiced for ages will now be criminalized by the majority population. Particularly since that majority lacks a pattern of respect and fair-dealing with the minority, this is understandable. To some in minority communities (many of which are disadvantaged and disenfranchised), the threat of a powerful and moneyed majority seeking to criminalize them further for what’s always been done strikes them as unseemly, to say the least. There are also members of strict religious communities who cite scripture in support of hitting children. They, too, will understandably be concerned about a secular majority imposing its views on them despite what they believe is God-ordained.

I don’t blame either group one bit.

But still, hitting children is wrong. Objectively and essentially so. In extreme forms, like the one doled out to a toddler by Peterson, it’s rightfully condemned and legally prohibited. In mild forms, it will likely not be criminalized in the U.S. for a long time, if ever. But either way, it should be condemned and phased out permanently, regardless of cultural identity or religious imperative. The reason is simple: There is one thing which must trump cultural or religious sentiment- the welfare of individual children.



An Intolerable Glimmer and an Intolerable Focus on Controlling Women: Why I Still Fight Victim-Centered Rape Prevention

The “glimmer” is one of doubt. It’s the doubt that’s created when we analyze a rape perpetrated on a victim who was drunk, dressed seductively, or engaged in whatever behavior we have adjudged unwise and foolish. It’s a glimmer that allows for the blaming- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the victim. It’s a glimmer that allows for the exoneration- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the offender.

That’s what victim-centered rape prevention does. Regardless of how well-intentioned. Regardless of how coldly logical. Regardless of the reservoir of love and benevolence that lies behind it. Regardless. It still serves to create the glimmer. And the glimmer is too much.

See, we can claim we’re not blaming victims all we want when we advise seemingly obvious and demonstrably effective means of prevention. It does not matter; the effect still serves to blame victims and protect offenders. Why? Because sexual violence is a crime different from any other.

Read that again. Rape is categorically, undeniably in a class by itself. When one person attacks another sexually, the crime is analyzed differently than any other. Since criticizing Emily Yoffe’s State pieces earlier this week (her pieces are here and here) , I have received dozens of messages from people who construct analogies to other crimes to describe why her key advice (control your drinking) is simply sound advice and not victim blaming, regardless of how unfair it might seem. Others shake their heads and tell me I can wish for a kinder, fairer world all I want, but they’ll be damned if they won’t tell their daughters and sons exactly “what not to do” in order to protect them.

That’s understandable. But here is an undeniable truth: Leave aside my belief that all that advice, even if it works in many situations, also potentially opens up the hearers to other vectors of attack. For those who would still prefer to create rules and encourage loved ones to follow them in order to best play the odds, I will challenge them on at least one aspect of their thinking: They cannot avoid a charge of victim-blaming by claiming they would give similar advice to anyone in order to avoid, say, robbery (by walking on well-lit streets), or car theft (by locking doors).

Rape isn’t like robbery, car theft, or even murder. Sex, and how we view it, doesn’t allow for that.

The nature of sexuality in our culture (and most others) does not allow for it to be analogized to any other crime. The nuances and complexities of sexual interaction, seduction, flirtation, gender roles, the intensely private and culturally shame-based nature of the whole subject, the relation of the sexual organs to the excretory ones, the continued prizing of “purity,” etc, etc, etc, all combine to make sexual crime one that is always analyzed differently from any other.

So the danger of tipping the scales even a tiny bit and judging victim choices, thus marginally exonerating offenders, is magnified with sexual crime.

Another hard truth: The further we dig into the nature of sexual crime, the further we must dig into the nature of sex itself. And that means taking an honest look at gender roles, expectations, and deep-seated fears and obsessions that have shaped how society judges, treats, confines, punishes and subjugates women.

Read that again also, if you would. Far too much of the debate concerning how women can and should protect themselves from men is polluted with the continuing and still deeply unresolved obsession that men (and some women as well) still have with women as sexual beings. Our major religions, our societal structures, our laws, customs and mores. How many are hyper-focused on controlling female sexuality? When we can answer that question honestly and accurately, we’ll have uncovered much of what is wrong with how we seek to prevent rape.

That, in a nutshell, is why I find even the best intentioned, victim-centered prevention strategists to be ultimately wrong-headed. Try as they might, they are still tipping the scales. They are still creating doubt. As a prosecutor, that’s a thing I was trained very carefully to avoid when justice is on the line.

Equal Opportunity in Adoption: Necessary, Proper and Desperately Needed

“No person eligible to adopt under this statute may adopt if that person is homosexual.”

So states, in oddly plain and blunt legislative language, the law of the State of Florida.   Last month, a Miami-Dade judge declared the law “unconstitutional on its face” and unrelated to the best interests of the child.  She appointed custody of an infant (removed from home almost immediately) to a family member who is a lesbian in a committed relationship.  Florida’s Department of Child and Family Services filed its appeal last week.  The state’s argument and the spirit of the 1977 law boil down to the idea that adoptive parenting by homosexuals is so obviously harmful to children that prohibiting it is “rationally related” to a legitimate state aim.  The idea is that heterosexuals are, by definition, better parents.  This claim, wherever it asserts itself, is more than baseless and bigoted toward homosexuals.  It is tragically shortsighted and remarkably cruel to the roughly 100,000 American children (about 7% of them in Florida) waiting to be adopted out of the foster care system.

Several gay friends of mine refer to straight people as “breeders.”  And indeed, breed we do.  Heterosexuals, generally by definition, produce millions of children each year.  And a disturbing percentage of us rip our own children apart like dogs with a chew toy.  In two very different cities where I served as an ADA, I encountered fathers who sexually abused their children over years, beginning before the children were in first grade.  I saw mothers who literally starved their children to death, or pimped them out for drugs, rent or just extra cash.  I saw toddlers pressed against heating grates by one or both parents as if in a waffle iron.  I saw fathers who shook infants to blindness and epilepsy, their ribs snapping like dry twigs in the process.  In one particularly brutal shaken baby case I prosecuted in the Bronx in 2006, the mother sided with the offending father (a drug dealer) and refused to cooperate with me even while her son languished in a NICU on the edge of death.  The people who did these things came from a broad diversity of racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and circumstances.  In fact, there were only two things common to every one of the most brutal physical and sexual abuse cases I worked on:

1.  The children involved, if they survived, needed new homes and new parents.

2.  The biological parents, whether perpetrators or accomplices, were all heterosexual.

I’m not claiming that homosexual parents, adoptive or biological, can’t or don’t abuse their children.  I’m just saying I’ve never seen it.  Not in nearly 15 years.  The point is not that homosexuals are perfect.  The point is that they’re human, and when they are successful, compassionate, loving and stable adults who want to improve the life of a child without a home, they should be considered as adoptive parents.

Opponents of homosexual adoption often try to point to non-religious, “objective factors” to support their arguments.  They never get far.  No reputable scientific evidence supports a single claim that homosexual parents will be less successful or even that they will somehow foster a homosexual lifestyle on the part of their children.  One of the last legislative pushes to prove that homosexuals are naturally disordered and dangerous as parents came from a particularly despicable Virginia legislator in 2004 (to my eternal shame, he represented my hometown of Sterling Park for seven years). The bill he finally got passed in the House of Delegates would have required social workers to investigate whether perspective adoptive parents were homosexual.  The rationale, that homosexuality was related to increased levels of child molestation among other things, was based largely on junk science spewed by a single discredited and religiously biased sociologist.  The bill, and the sociologist, were eventually routed in the Virginia senate, thanks in good measure to courageous Republicans who called this effort out for the rank bigotry that it was.

Although Biblical views of homosexuality (and similar non-Judeo-Christian religious tenets) are the primary force behind laws like Florida’s and efforts like Virginia’s, I won’t engage in a wholesale bashing of these religious views.  There’s enough of that going on, and bigotry against religious people is as bad as bigotry toward anyone.  To hold strict religious views is a private and sometimes difficult choice, and I know many decent Christians (among other religious) who struggle to reconcile the doctrines of their faith with their common experience as compassionate people.  I draw the line, though, when positions based solely on religious doctrine become law in a pluralistic society.  And I draw it in red when children- discarded, debased or destroyed by the supposedly “sexually healthy” people who created them, are languishing in a far too often chaotic, uncertain and flawed foster care system.

Angel Band Project: Nudging Me When I Needed It Most

There’s a fairly young but now well-used expression that goes “Let go and let God.”  For the last several weeks in particular, although it goes quite a bit farther back than that, I’ve been struggling with something that feels like the inverse:  “Let God, or let go.”  In other words, I feel like I’m nearing a “two roads diverged” choice in terms of my spirituality.   The choice is about how I’ll view God, and God’s love.  On one hand, I can accept a personally involved, loving God (as Christians should) and continue to try to make sense of the world He created within that framework.  On the other, I can let go and give in to long-held Deist tendencies that tell me that God is there, magnificent and basically benevolent, but that He loves us in a way we can’t- and aren’t supposed- to understand.  That even from within Catholicism, the prism I still view God through, I’ll come to believe that His presence in our lives- this one, anyway- isn’t what I was brought up to think.  I’m hardly the first person to struggle with this question.  Untold millions have viewed and suffered human horror that dwarfs my imagination; my life is charmed by comparison in every conceivable way.  Yet many have come down still on the side of traditional notions of Judeo-Christian worship.  I don’t know where I’ll end up, but despite the tonnage of horror I do see, I’ll admit there are times when God seems to remind me, if subtly, that things aren’t as clear as I’d like to think.  The Angel Band Project is one of them.

The Crime.

In July of 2009, Teresa Butz was 39, engaged to her female partner, active in charitable causes in the Seattle area, and a deeply loved daughter, sister, friend and member of her community.  As the two slept, a young man entered their home through a window with a knife.  He raped and began stabbing both repeatedly until Teresa decided to fight back.  She saved her partner’s life and lost her own.  The crime was one of the worst local police had seen in years.   This one act, spurred on by whatever unholy combination of drugs, instability and pure, undiluted evil, altered forever the life of one of these decent women and ended that of her soul mate in a paroxysm of blood and terror.  We in the system have ways of dealing with these things, sometimes involving alcohol, cigarettes, or 100 other forms of self-medication.   I usually get by with a few stiff drinks and can normally avoid the ontological angst.  But stories like this one, thankfully rare but still being made, are the building blocks of the dark doubt in my mind that there is rhyme or reason to anything in the world as we see it.

The Project.

Teresa’s story has an angelic twist, though, something that despite the horror and sadness surrounding her death, scatters the darkness and bubbles up fountain-like with something hopeful.  Something beautiful.  Something almost ordered.  Teresa’s partner, you see, is a conservatory trained vocalist.  Her brother is a Tony award winning musician and actor.  At Teresa’s funeral and memorial service, the singing and music experienced there inspired a project, which is Angel Band.  It involves these two and others who loved Teresa, hitting different studios around the country and recording a tribute collection of songs in her honor.  What I’ve heard so far is sometimes melodic and haunting, sometimes rock and roll heavy, but always captivating.  It’s a work still in progress, easy to follow either on Facebook or the band’s web page.   The proceeds will go to support a group I work with and admire greatly called The Voices and Faces Project.  Voices and Faces is a documentary project that specializes in memorializing- either through audio or video- the accounts of survivors of sexual violence.  Some are women in old age who for decades had never uttered a word of what they suffered.  Some were violated in war, some in marriage, some in childhood.  Their accounts put a deeply human face on sexual violence, something desperately needed in order to take one more step toward ending it altogether.  It is, yet again, a matter of light, even a spark, penetrating and then destroying darkness.

I guess it’s the power of that light that, through both of these projects, threatens in benign fury the neat and unhappy picture of the world I have.  But light is just a symbol.  The real, beautiful, bountiful thing is order.  Order suggests a Creator.  Order suggests a destination as well as a journey, however tortured or smooth.  Order suggests a reason for a beating heart.  A reason for giving a damn at the end of another day.  This isn’t to suggest that the chasm created by Teresa’s death will be at all filled by the great gesture of Angel Band.  But it helps to see darkness- blind, random and cacophonous- scattered by light so wonderfully clear and guiding.

Upon the assassination of John Lennon, Elton John noted in song “it’s funny how one insect can damage so much grain.”  Thanks to the acts of one particular insect, I’ll never know Teresa Butz.  I’ll never experience her warmth, her kindness, her spirit.  But thanks to the courage, love, and resolve of these remarkable people, I am blessed with a profound sense of what they saw in her, and more importantly, what just might lie beneath the surface- ordered, sane, and loving- of a far too broken and random looking world.