Protestant Churches Grapple With Growing Sexual Abuse Crisis The conservative nature of many Protestant schools and churches has been blamed for shielding child abusers. Journalist Kathryn Joyce talks efforts to bring them to light.

Protestant Churches Grapple With Growing Sexual Abuse Crisis

Protestant Churches Grapple With Growing Sexual Abuse Crisis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The conservative nature of many Protestant schools and churches has been blamed for shielding child abusers. Journalist Kathryn Joyce talks efforts to bring them to light.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of program where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality. And today, we want to take a closer look at how one faith community dealt with allegations of sexual abuse within its ranks. Now, of course the Catholic Church has been in headlines for years for its handling - or mishandling - of this issue in congregations around the world. But evangelical and other Protestant groups have also confronted this issue, of course, of the sexual abuse of young people.

Kathryn Joyce wrote about this for The American Prospect in a piece titled "By Grace Alone." And she's with us now from our bureau in New York. Kathryn Joyce, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KATHRYN JOYCE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And I do want to say that this might be the type of issue that is not appropriate for all listeners. So with that being said, I think a lot of people, as I said, are familiar with the allegations of sexual abuse and how that unfolded in the Catholic Church around the world. Talk about what prompted Bob Jones University, which is a very important evangelical institution, to look at this issue within its own community.

JOYCE: Absolutely. Well, Bob Jones University, which is based in Greenville, S. C., is considered by many to be the flagship institution of fundamentalist Christianity. If you are a more fundamentalist Christian in this country, Bob Jones would be one of the top choices that you would consider sending your children to. And it's a school with more - a presence that really dwarfs that of a normal university. It's tied to thousands of churches across the country. It has a network of affiliated feeder schools that send children there. In some ways, Bob Jones's influence is so great that it almost functions as a denomination in terms of how people affiliate themselves with the school and its corresponding institutions.

But a couple of years ago, in 2011, a story came out on 20/20 that for many people within that broad Bob Jones community made them really think about how the school was responding to allegations of rape or sexual abuse. And it was a story actually that didn't take place at Bob Jones University but instead at a church up in New Hampshire. There, about 15 years before, a teenage girl had been raped and impregnated by a deacon in her church. And when she became pregnant and her mother took her to the pastor, rather than help the family go to report this to the police or take some sort of other action, this young woman, this teenage girl, was made to stand before her congregation while her pastor read a confession. And then she was sent out of state away from her family. So when this came out years later...

MARTIN: Well, it's not just that, but you also reported that the rapist, who was a registered sex offender, was also made to confess, but to adultery, and not rape. And he remained at the church. He was able to stay.

JOYCE: And he remained at the church while she was sent away. Absolutely. And when this came out 15 years later, people were looking at this. And they were looking at the pastor involved in this - the pastor who made the decision of how to handle this. And it turns out he was a Bob Jones graduate, for starters, but not just that. He also served on the Board of Trustees for the school as well as two other affiliated Bob Jones boards. So here was a man who was, you know, very much enmeshed in the leadership of the school, and this is how he had chosen to deal with the rape of a minor girl - by seeming to punish the girl and allow the man who raped her to go unpunished.

MARTIN: Was this just the edge of the spear, or had there been other examples like this that got people within the evangelical Protestant world - or particularly people connected to Bob Jones - saying that this is not OK? Were there other things, or was this the straw that broke the camel's back? Or were there other things too?

JOYCE: Well, there were definitely other things. For - I think this really just became a galvanizing moment because it became so visible because it became such a national story. But there was already a community of Bob Jones alumni who were starting to raise a lot of questions about how the school handled sexual assault or rape or sexual harassment as well as number of other issues on the school in terms of academic or student freedom.

But particularly with regards to how the school handled sexual offenses, the Tina Anderson story really hit a chord. And a lot of people started talking about, you know, something similar happened to my roommate, something similar happened to myself - that they had been sexually assaulted while they were on campus at Bob Jones University, or they had been raped or molested years before they went to the school. But while they were there, they went to people in the administration. They went to their deans. They went to their counselors because Bob Jones has, you know, a very kind of regimented counseling and discipline system.

And when they went to those counselors, frequently they were counseled not to go to the police, not to make any report or share this with her family. And in some cases, even told that their rape was based on a sin in their own life, and that they had to dig deep and figure out what that sin was before they could confront the fact that they had been sent against.

MARTIN: But the story doesn't end there. I mean, that's one of the things that you wrote about that Bob Jones, after the story became a national story, they hired a group called GRACE, which had investigated allegations of sex abuse in two Christian missionary groups. And you say in the piece, it's hard to overstate the significance of this hire. So tell me why.

JOYCE: GRACE - it's short for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. And this is very much an evangelical Christian group. It is peopled by lawyers, pastors, psychologists, theologians who are all volunteering to be a part of this organization that has taken as its mission to find a way to encourage Christian institutions, Christian churches to be part of the solution for child sex abuse rather than part of the problem - as too often they say they are.

This group - who they're headed by really kind of makes a Bob Jones hire really extraordinary because this GRACE was started by a man named Boz Tchividjian, who is the grandson of Billy Graham, who probably all listeners know, you know. He was called America's pastor. He is one of the most well-known evangelists in American history. And Billy Graham, historically, had a very interesting falling out with Bob Jones Sr., the founder Bob Jones University.

Graham had gone to Bob Jones University. He had been kicked out. Bob Jones had told him he would never amount to more than a poor country preacher somewhere out in the sticks. And though the two later became friends, they split again because Billy Graham was seen by Bob Jones Sr. as being too ecumenical, too accommodating to modern society. And that split really became a dividing line between what we now know as evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians.

MARTIN: So fast forwarding here for people who are not as acquainted with kind of the back story - so it was an important thing because there had been this rift. But it's also important as an acknowledgment that there was a problem. Was it - was there not? I mean, to say that we're going to confront this as opposed to pretend it wasn't there.

JOYCE: Absolutely. It was Bob Jones, at this famously insular university, reaching outside of itself to another institution, to another group to say come and investigate us. See how we've done wrong. And really that was a groundbreaking moment.

MARTIN: Well, what was some of the problems that GRACE found at Bob Jones University? Did they find problems?

JOYCE: Well, first I should say that GRACE has not yet released its report. Its report should be due out this summer. But I know from speaking to a number of people who did speak with GRACE, we can get a sense of some of the issues that they shared.

So starting at the very end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, GRACE started doing interviews with dozens of former students and staff and alumni. And they were talking mostly about Bob Jones University's response to sexual abuse and rape. And they found a number of patterns, as I mentioned before - that students were frequently counseled not to report to the police, that many of them received counseling that suggested that they were at fault or that there was some sin in their life that had led to their assault or to their rape, that kind of the counseling structure seemed to protect perpetrators or accused offenders and re-victimize people who were coming forward with these stories.

And these stories started to come out. People were talking about them a little bit online. And then in January, GRACE announced publicly in one of its kind of customary updates on its website that it was almost done with the review, and it was almost done with interviewing. And it would soon start to write its final report. And then a few weeks later, there was this stunning news that Bob Jones University fired GRACE. It came out of nowhere, but they sent them a termination letter and said that they were letting them go and that they wanted to meet to renegotiate new terms for a new contract.

MARTIN: So what do you think all this means?

JOYCE: Well, I think, you know, I'll just kind of take the point from GRACE and Boz Tchividjian himself that the sort of scandal we saw in the Catholic Church - we're now starting to see so many sex abuse scandals in so many evangelical and Protestant churches that it's almost becoming a crisis of the same magnitude. And that I think for many Christians who are not Catholics, you know, they've long looked at the Catholic Church scandal and thought, you know, this is an issue of celibate priests. This is not an issue that we're going to have to deal with. But increasingly we're seeing, you know, just in the number of scandals that have arisen just in the past 12 months in evangelical and other Protestant Christian institutions - we're starting to see so many cases that we're really lining up for an evangelical Protestant sex abuse scandal.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with author and journalist Kathryn Joyce. We're talking about her reporting on efforts to address sexual abuse in the evangelical Protestant church. Her piece is called "By Grace Alone."

Following on the point that you just made that there are people outside of the Catholic Church who would say, well, this is a structural problem of the Catholic Church. This is a problem of celibacy. This is a problem of these men of - kind of a sexual maturation. You know, being all - sort of being together or not knowing a lot about the outside world or not having a release for their feelings or, you know, all kind of things that a lot of people have - outside of the Catholic Church - have liked to attribute to this - the particularities of the way the Catholic Church is structured. That's not the case here. You know, for the most part they're - those facts don't apply. I mean, there are some people who choose a celibate lifestyle, but it's certainly not, you know, required. So did you identify or did GRACE identify any through-line in the kinds of places where this kind of thing was likely take place?

And I just - I do want to say that you identify some really disturbing behavior in your article. And I - we're kind of glossing over a little bit, but we can't because the fact is that you're talking about people using their religious authority, in some cases over very young people, to manipulate them into doing things that are not healthy for them, not appropriate for them and can have lasting scars. I mean, so I just want to be sure that I understand - that I let people understand that you detail all of this in this report which we don't. So did you see any through-line around the kinds of places where this kind of thing was likely to take place?

JOYCE: Absolutely. GRACE is now working on its third report - the Bob Jones report - after the school hired them back. That should be out this summer. But in the other two reports that they've worked on, all three of them, we can see issues that arose in terms of authoritarian cultures where there was a strict hierarchy in place and, you know, people of the lower ranks of the hierarchy were not in a position to ask questions or, you know, really to kind of fight back.

There was a lot of what you were just speaking about which is something that GRACE refers to as spiritual abuse - manipulating one's faith - a child's faith or a young woman's faith or a young man's faith to make them participate in abuse. That's obviously not helpful for them - or to cover it up - that the spiritual abuse was a large part of this.

But also I think whether we're talking about in mission fields where children were abused at the hands of missionaries who, you know, as you mentioned, were not celibate but were married with children of their own, or at Bob Jones University where people were coming to administrators with stories of things they'd experienced before they got there. A lot of times it was, you know, this authoritarian structure which just kind of in a way helped covered up this abuse, helped silence victims.

And also, an interesting thing I want to note, just before we go, is one of GRACE's main points, which is that churches, in many ways, and religious communities, they tend to have a lot of abuse in them. Not because believers are inherently more abusive, but because kind of the structure of a Christian church, and its, you know, its mission to be opening to new converts, to welcome new believers makes it also particularly vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of that openness and trust.

MARTIN: Tchividjian is quoted in your piece as saying - well, you paraphrase him - saying he fears it's only a matter of time before this all blows up in their faces and threatens the survival of powerful Protestant institutions. So what kinds of strategies is GRACE and the leaders of this movement advocating for congregations to try to correct this pattern or to guard against this?

JOYCE: Right. Well, GRACE does an awful lot of abuse prevention trainings and seminars at churches and ministries all around the country. So prevention I think is a huge part of their work. But in terms of abuse that has already happened, GRACE's model is really interesting.

When I was reporting on this, I kept thinking of it as something akin to a truth in reconciliation committee. That's not quite the metaphor that they use, but in a way, what they're talking about is an idea of radical truth. That institutions that have, you know, witnessed abuse in the ranks and all too often have responded in the wrong way by silencing victims, by discouraging people from coming forward to law enforcement - that they need to be willing to let these facts come to light because that is the most powerful and healing things for victims. And that they need to hear - he's making very much a theological point - but that if they are the believers they say they are, that they need to not be worried so much about their reputation and instead be worried about basically doing the right thing and allowing these facts to come to light.

And kind of as a side benefit to that, Boz says that oftentimes victims are not - they're not looking for a settlement first and foremost. Really what they're looking for is an acknowledgment within their community that this happened and that this was wrong and some sincere justice of repentance. So for a lot of Protestant institutions that could be facing very serious lawsuits in the same way that the Catholic Church has faced humongous lawsuits - that in some cases have bankrupted diocese across this country. You know, GRACE is saying if you come forward, if you let these facts come to light, you might also have kind of the side benefit of discouraging people from going and pressing very extensive lawsuits.

MARTIN: That was Kathryn Joyce. You can read her piece "By Grace Alone" in The American Prospect. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOYCE: Thank you so much for having me.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.