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.