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Protestant Church Faces New Sex-Abuse Scandal as Victims Defy Threats, Censorship to Speak Out

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Is the Protestant world is teetering on the edge of a sex-abuse scandal similar to the one that rocked the Catholic Church? We are joined by reporter Kathryn Joyce, whose cover story in The American Prospect profiles Boz Tchividjian, a law professor at Liberty University — a school founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell — and former prosecutor who worked on many sexual abuse cases. Tchividjian used his experience to found GRACE — Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. GRACE made headlines in February when the famous evangelical school, Bob Jones University, hired it to interview faculty and students about their experiences with sexual assault, then fired it before the it had a chance to report the results — only to hire it back after a public outcry. Tchividjian is the grandson of the famous evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a new exposé that asks if the Protestant world is teetering on the edge of a sex-abuse scandal similar to the one that has rocked the Catholic Church. The person trying to address the problem may surprise you. As sex-abuse allegations multiply, it is Reverend Billy Graham’s grandson who is on a mission to persuade Protestant churches to come clean. Kathryn Joyce’s cover story in The American Prospect profiles Boz Tchividjian, a law professor at Liberty University, a school founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell, and former prosecutor who has worked on many sex-abuse cases. He used his experience to found an organization called GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.

AMY GOODMAN: GRACE made headlines in February when the famous evangelical school, Bob Jones University, hired it to interview faculty and students about their experiences with sexual assault, then fired it before it had a chance to report the results, only to hire it back after a public outcry. Well, reporter Kathryn Joyce joins us now to discuss this major exposé, “By Grace Alone: As Sex-Abuse Allegations Multiply, Billy Graham’s Grandson is on a Mission to Persuade Protestant Churches to Come Clean.” Kathryn Joyce is also the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.

Kathryn, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you begin where you began your piece?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Sure. Well, in 2012, there was some pretty remarkable news that came out of Bob Jones University, which for decades has been the flagship school of fundamentalism in this entire country. In a lot of ways, Bob Jones is more than a school. It’s the center of a nationwide network of Bob Jones-affiliated churches, feeder schools. They ran a curriculum business, a music publisher. It was really just a foundational institution in the most kind of extreme conservative Christianity that we have schools for in this country. But in 2012 they announced that they were hiring this organization, GRACE, to come in and do an assessment of how they had handled allegations of rape, of sexual assault, of sexual harassment that had happened on their campus. And it was really surprising, not just because Bob Jones has been such a remarkably insular institution, with people kind of being born at the hospital on Bob Jones campus and living their entire lives within this kind of total institution, but because they were reaching out to Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian, because Billy Graham and Bob Jones Sr., Bob Jones I, had just a historic falling out, that really led to the schism that we see today between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who Tina Anderson is.

KATHRYN JOYCE: Sure. Well, Tina Anderson was a 15-year-old church member of a church, a fundamentalist church in New Hampshire. And about 15 years ago, she was raped by her church deacon, for whom she babysat. And she became pregnant. And when she and her mother went to their pastor, who was, by the way, a board member of Bob Jones University, rather than help them go to the police or confront her rapist, he had her stand before the entire church while he read a confession of her pregnancy and then sent her away, essentially, out of state to deliver her child. So, for a lot of critics of Bob Jones, former alumni who had become dissatisfied with the way the school handled a lot of different things, including sexual assault and harassment, this became a sort of emblematic moment: This is how Bob Jones deals with rape—they blame the woman, they send her away. And so this became a really galvanizing moment, and from there, they demanded that GRACE be hired.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let’s hear from Tina Anderson in her own words. ABC’s 20/20 interviewed her in 2011. In this clip, she describes what happened after she and her mother reported the rape to Phelps.

TINA ANDERSON: Pastor Phelps took me to a passage in Deuteronomy where it talks about if a girl doesn’t cry out, that she obviously was a part of it. And he told me that I was lucky I didn’t live in Old Testament times, because I would have been stoned.

ELIZABETH VARGAS: Stoned to death.


ELIZABETH VARGAS: For being pregnant.


ELIZABETH VARGAS: For being raped.

TINA ANDERSON: Yeah, because I think Ernie claimed it was consensual.

ELIZABETH VARGAS: Did it matter to Pastor Phelps that a 15-year-old girl can’t legally give her consent?


ELIZABETH VARGAS: During the meeting, Tina was also alarmed by a remark she alleges Pastor Phelps’s wife Linda made.

She actually asked you if you enjoyed having sex with Mr. Willis?

TINA ANDERSON: Yes. I was in complete shock, and I think I was just blown away that that would even cross her mind.

ELIZABETH VARGAS: Linda Phelps denies saying that, but according to Tina, Pastor Phelps tells her to write a statement asking church members to forgive her transgression.

TINA ANDERSON: For allowing a compromising situation to occur, because I had let him in my house.

ELIZABETH VARGAS: Which brings us back to that October Sunday in 1997. Hundreds of congregants filled the pews at Trinity Baptist Church. Children and teenagers are asked to leave the sanctuary.

TINA ANDERSON: Then Pastor Phelps said, “We have a matter of church discipline to deal with.”

ELIZABETH VARGAS: First, Ernie Willis stands up and admits to adultery and asks for forgiveness.

TINA ANDERSON: And then Pastor Phelps said, “Here’s a completely different matter,” and made me get up, and he read my letter and then told everybody I was pregnant.

ELIZABETH VARGAS: What did that feel like standing there in front of that entire church having that letter read?

TINA ANDERSON: Completely humiliating. I was sobbing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Tina Anderson being interviewed on 20/20 back in 2011. Her pastor, Chuck Phelps, as you mentioned, went on to become the president of Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin and served on the board of trustees of Bob Jones University, as well as on its missionary and youth camp boards. And so, once again, here, as in the stuff we’ve been looking at the Catholic Church, we’re seeing this church trying to handle this all internally, protecting the perpetrator, and no criminal charges or even exposure beyond the church occurring.

KATHRYN JOYCE: Absolutely, and I think this is—this is sort of the message that GRACE says that they put out there, is that way too often churches respond to these stories, which do happen in all culture, which happen in secular cultures just as much as in religious cultures, but a lot of times churches respond by circling the troops, by saying, “We need to protect the cause of Christ. If we let this get out, this is going to damage our ability to save souls, and so we need to keep this quiet.” And as we could see from that clip, I mean, that’s just—that’s horrifying, to put that on a young girl and make her carry, you know, the weight of that assault in order to protect the church’s reputation.

AMY GOODMAN: So can you talk about what’s happened with the investigation at Bob Jones University and then talk about the next investigation of GRACE, the MKs, the missionary kids?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Sure. Well, the Bob Jones investigation is still ongoing currently. The report has not yet been released. But what happened was, after about a year of doing interviews with about—I think more than 100 students and former staff and current staff, Bob Jones pulled back, and just a few weeks before GRACE was finishing its last interviews with staff, Bob Jones pulled back, and then they sent, out of the blue, a termination letter to GRACE saying, you know, “We’re letting you go. You’ve done amazing work, but we’re terminating you. And let’s get together and form a new contract.” There was no reason given for this. And everybody who was observing this and everyone who was close to the matter thought that there was really only one explanation, which is that GRACE had found things that Bob Jones did not want them to find and make public. There was a massive outcry. This was covered everywhere from The New York Times to The Washington Post. Conservatives were condemning it just as much as liberals. The American Conservative wrote some very scathing pieces about Bob Jones’s decision. And eventually they hired them back. And as far as I know now, GRACE put out a statement about a month ago saying that right about now they are finishing up their interviews and beginning to draft their final report. So we should see that in the next couple of months.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, your article also focuses considerably on Boz Tchividjian and GRACE. Could you talk about how he got involved, the grandson of Billy Graham, in this issue and why it’s so important that he has been taking a lead in this?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Absolutely. Well, Boz started—Boz is a lawyer, and he got his start in his career as a criminal sex-abuse prosecutor in Central Florida. And while he was there, he told me that he noticed this upsetting pattern among his colleagues. A lot of them tended to plea out sex-abuse cases very quickly, as though it was too horrible to dwell on, to take to court. And so he eventually asked the district attorney if he could take on all of those cases, and he ended up establishing a sex crimes unit within the DA’s office there. And they prosecuted hundreds of cases over eight years that he was there.

And during that time, he came to see some, also, additionally troubling patterns with regards to how religion played a role in this. Whenever pastors came to court in a supportive role, almost always, he noticed, they were sitting on the side of the accused. They were sitting behind the defendants’ table, rather than there to support the victims. He was starting to hear stories from around the country. People were calling him and asking, saying, “I had this situation in my church where, you know, some girls were molested. The father went to the pastor. The pastor counseled them that, you know, 'Look, the abuser is very repentant. How about we just have him get more involved in church life, and will that be repentance enough and we can forgo reporting this to the police?'” So, he was starting to see some patterns of just kind of the absolute wrong reaction to sex abuse and molestation and rape.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Boz Tchividjian in his own words—yes, the grandson of Reverend Billy Graham, the former prosecutor who’s now the founder of GRACE, which again stands for Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment. Tchividjian spoke at a conference last year about sexual offenders in the Christian community.

BOZ TCHIVIDJIAN: See, oftentimes offenders, when they start abusing, especially depending on the age, there comes a point oftentimes, not always, where the child, as they get older, starts to say, “Wait a minute, I don’t think there’s something wrong with us.” And so, this child starts asking questions. The child starts to resist. The child starts to be more cautious about what’s going on. And so, what you have is, you start off with, when the child’s younger, this is an expression of God’s love. And when the child starts resisting and starts asking questions and starts putting up some roadblocks, what does the offender do? This is where you see the true heart and deception of the offender. They now take a biblical truth that they’ve been distorting to abuse the child, and now they take that same truth and distort it to silence the child: “You should be ashamed of your sin.” Distancing from God, “Because of your sin, God doesn’t care about you. But I do.” Can you think of others? See, this is—this is from the pit of hell, I really believe that, because this is taking—this is taking God’s beautiful truths and using them to eviscerate a soul.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Boz Tchividjian in his own words, the grandson of Reverend Billy Graham. And what did his father and grandfather say about what he was doing, what he is doing?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Well, it seems to me that he has full support from all members of his family. I did not get a chance to speak with his grandfather, but I understand that all members of his family are very supportive. I know his uncle, kind of a controversial character, Franklin Graham, has actually hired him to implement some sex-abuse awareness and prevention training in his own very large Christian relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this—you cover what is happening at Bob Jones University. You also talk about—and maybe you can expand on it—the issue of abuse among missionary children. But also, what about the traditional Protestant churches—the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Are there any churches that are actively doing what you consider to be a positive effort to be able to root out this kind of abuse in their ranks?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Sure. Well, on the second point, first, absolutely, there are a lot of churches that are being very proactive about this. And GRACE has a hand in that. I got to attend one of GRACE’s sex-abuse prevention trainings at a relatively small church in Calvary in Central Bucks County in Pennsylvania. It was Calvary Chapel Church. And the pastor there had made it mandatory for all of his staff and volunteers to come and learn about this, so there were hundreds of people that were attending this training, because they were mandated to, and then hundreds more came just because they were very concerned about the issue.

And I understand that that’s something that is happening really kind of across the board, in the mainline churches, as you said, the Methodists and the Presbyterians, but also in the more conservative churches. To give credit where it’s due, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in this country and the second-largest church after the Catholics in this country, they passed a resolution last year saying that the denomination had to be better about responding to and reporting sex abuse. I know one of the conservative Presbyterian denominations is doing the same thing later this year.

AMY GOODMAN: And the missionary kids?

KATHRYN JOYCE: And for the missionary kids, these were the subject of GRACE’s two first investigation, two different very large international missionary groups, where the children of the missionaries being stationed in foreign countries, known in Christian culture as MKs, missionary kids, they were enduring just kind of epidemic levels of sexual abuse in a number of different countries. GRACE’s reports focused on two in particular, on the New Tribes Mission and their boarding school in Fanda, Senegal, and also ABWE, another missionary organization, and what happened on the mission field they had in the 1980s in Bangladesh. And two different situations, but a lot of similarities, in some ways, in that these were both kind of very authoritarian atmospheres where children were expected to do what any adult kind of in their world was telling them to do, and this made them, sadly, kind of very vulnerable to abusers who came by.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about the missionary kids. What about the people in the communities they come to, for example, in Senegal or in Bangladesh? What happens to them?

KATHRYN JOYCE: I’m sure that there are stories there, as well. GRACE’s two reports in these situations focused on what happened to the children of missionaries, but I’m sure there are even more untold stories in terms of the children already living there who were, in many ways, much more vulnerable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In some of your writings, you’ve dealt with the issue of patriarchy and its relationship to religious thinking. Any sense on your part whether there are structural or philosophical directions in the churches that allow this kind of stuff to be covered up?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Well, I think, absolutely. And obviously, not all very conservative Christians or all members of the self-described patriarchy movement are going to be abusive. But reading all of these reports and looking at all of this and speaking to dozens of people, it kind of does become clear—and GRACE’s assertion—that a main factor contributing to abuse and the silencing of abuse, of victims, is authoritarian structures that focus much more on rigid rule following, on hierarchies within a church or within a community, on the subordinate role of women and children. And when you have all of these things coming together alongside a culture that sees it as imperative to cover up mistakes so that you can still promote the cause of Christ, that you are being a good evangelical witness, a lot of these things conspire to make abuse not just more common, but much more invisible.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what most surprised you, Kathryn Joyce, in your investigation?

KATHRYN JOYCE: Well, I think what surprised me the most was watching in real time this pattern happen of GRACE going and starting and doing this investigation, getting a year into it, having spoken to dozens, a hundred of people, and then having the institution back out. This had happened once before with the mission group ABWE, and then it happened again with Bob Jones. And it was very interesting to see that. And it raised this interesting question about whether or not there is a catch-22 at the heart of GRACE’s incredibly admirable mission, that they are being hired by the groups that they’re investigating. And I think that that’s a really interesting question to ponder, but I think we also have to look at their work and say that this is very well—very much needed.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Jones University is based in Greenville, South Carolina. That does it for this segment, but we’ll continue to follow this. Kathryn Joyce, thanks so much for your report.


AMY GOODMAN: Cover story of The American Prospect, “By Grace Alone: As Sex-Abuse Allegations Multiply, Billy Graham’s Grandson is on a Mission to Persuade Protestant Churches to Come Clean.” We’ll link to it online. Also, Kathryn is author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.

When we come back, we go to Connecticut to a 16-year-old trans girl. How is it that she ended up in solitary confinement in prison? She has not committed any crime. Stay with us.

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