Sex Assaults at Evangelical Colleges, the United Nations, and the Vatican

Posted in: Criminal Law

There was a time when evangelical Christians said that they didn’t have issues with sex abuse or assault like the Catholic Church, because they did not have a hierarchical structure. The stories of Baptist abuse have challenged this assertion, as do recent stories about the mishandling of reports of sex abuse and assaults at two fundamentalist colleges: Patrick Henry College and Bob Jones University.

Fundamentalist Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status when it forbade interracial dating in a 1983 Supreme Court case. Later, its policies changed on interracial dating, but its current sex abuse policies to be in line with other religious entities more concerned about image, rather than children.

It has been widely reported that the school has been accused of mishandling reports about sex assaults by employees and reports from students of being abused as a child in a fundamentalist home. There is a persistent theme in the stories so far that are public, that the school blamed the female victims.

For example, Catherine Harris was told in the 1980s when she disclosed abuse as a child, that if she reported her abuser to the authorities, she “was damaging the cause of Christ, and . . . responsible for the abuser going to hell.” A victim of sex assault in the 1990s by a university employee was asked whether her clothing was “too tight” and told that “it wouldn’t look good for her if” she told anyone. These are troubling stories indicating that, if they are representative of the school’s response, it is far behind where it should be in terms of the protection of its students from sex assault and rape. The intimidation of the victims, the blame game, and the preference for the image of the religion over the needs of the victim are striking. And familiar.

When Penn State learned about Jerry Sandusky, it brought in an independent investigator to get to the bottom of the issues. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued a scathing report. Bob Jones University took that first step—the hiring part. The school hired an outside organization to investigate its history of dealing with the issues and make recommendations. But it did not carry through and instead, just before the report was to be released in March, the University pulled the plug on the 13-month investigation. Whether we ever learn the truth will be depend on one of two variables—whether the University gets back on track and/or victims sue the University for its creation of a culture in which abuse is hidden, rather than redressed. The South Carolina civil statute of limitations is not bad, but the culture encourages deference and submission, rather than an assertion of rights. BJU says it will do the former. We shall see.

According to a recent story in the The New Republic, evangelical Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, was founded in 2000 to provide a high-quality college experience for fundamentalist Christian students, particularly those that were home-schooled. Dubbed “God’s Harvard,” it is rigorous and supportive of the Christian patriarchy movement. Both the movement and PHC craft the male-female relationship from Ephesians 5:22, which states, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”

In this culture, women are responsible for safeguarding their virginity, and must guard against tempting men, who are subject to “’urges’” that are “irresistible forces of nature.”

Thus, the school and culture place the blame for sex assault squarely on the shoulders of the women badly treated. And, like the ultra-Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslim cultures, a woman who has had sex—even if it is a rape—can be treated as damaged goods. One talk at the school equated a woman who has had pre-marital sex as a used car. PHC appears to foster a culture tailor-made for male aggression against females. It does not accept any federal funds (even for student loans) and, therefore, is not governed by Title IX, but it is governed by the tort laws. Virginia’s civil statute of limitations should not give them much comfort, except for the fact that, like BJU, the culture encourages the victims to believe it was their fault.

When President Obama recently announced the federal study that documented that 1 in 5 women on campus are sexually assaulted, which I discussed in this Justia column, many were shocked. Much of it was linked to alcohol, though. The persistent binge drinking at so many colleges does not appear to occur at PHC, but sex assault still seems to be a problem, and the institution seems incapable of handling it in a way that is healthy for its female students. Neither of these schools is handling these issues well or professionally. Their faith gives them no defense.

The good news is that these two institutions are not being given a pass by the press, and, therefore, cannot just pray these serious problems away. The times have changed dramatically. There was a time when the press was complicit in the perpetuation of child sex abuse, because it declined to cover it, particularly when it involved religious institutions. That is history.

What is not history is the Catholic Church’s ongoing set of issues with clergy sex abuse. Both PHC and BJU would do well to pay close attention to what happens when a religious organization lets these issues fester, and it persistently chooses the image of the church over the needs of the victim. The Catholic hierarchy keeps putting itself in the crosshairs of fundamental human decency. That is a losing game. The same can and should happen at PHC and BJU if they do not own their errors, do right by their victims, and dramatically change their practices. Avoiding public disclosure and American justice will only prolong their scandals.

The United Nations vs. the Vatican

By now, we all know the pattern and story of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but just in case you thought it really was over, the United Nations entered the picture.

Last month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child grilled the Vatican on its abysmal record on the protection of children from pedophile priests. Now, it has issued a damning report, which includes numerous recommendations for the Vatican to bring its practices into compliance with international standards on child protection. As a sovereign nation, the Holy See does not get a pass on such standards simply because it is a religious entity as well, particularly when it is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There is one line likely to be lost in the media coverage, but it may be the most important for the future of children worldwide, and particularly the United States. Near the end of the document, the Vatican is urged to “[p]romote the reform of statute of limitations in countries where they impede victims of child sexual abuse from seeking justice and redress.” This is a litmus test for any institution publicly declaring its intent to protect children.

This recommendation would require the Vatican and the United States bishops to do an about-face.

The statutes of limitations have been the primary and often the only barrier to justice for the vast majority of child sex abuse victims in the United States and elsewhere. Most victims can’t come forward until adulthood, on average age 42, so a deadline for filing criminal charges or civil claims that occurs before age 50 prevents access to justice. This deadline has halted cases where the perpetrator admits the abuse, the diocese has proof of its knowledge about the perpetrators is in its own files, and the victim has corroborating evidence. Scores of victims in New York and beyond deserve a chance at justice. Their cases would educate all of us on who the hidden predators are, and who among us is now suffering in silence.

SOLs are often valuable in cases involving property and contracts or crimes where the victim is more likely to contact the authorities close to the crime, e.g., a burglary or armed robbery or car theft. In contrast, there is no SOL on murder, because the victim has no way to report the abuse. Child sex abuse is similar in that the victims are often incapacitated from coming forward for years.

Unlike murder, though, where perpetrators tend not to be serial murderers, when it comes to child sex abuse, the perpetrator tends to have multiple victims, and is likely to do so even late in life. Therefore, shutting victims out of court at any age endangers other children, who might have been protected had the earlier victims been able to get into court. Any case filed against a perpetrator holds out hope that others will be vindicated and will join forces with that victim against the perpetrator and any institution that empowered him.

The only entities in the United States investing millions of dollars in blocking victims’ access to justice are the Catholic bishops in each state. That is especially true in New York, where the SOLs are some of the worst in the country, and where estimates that the New York City Archdiocese alone is covering up abuse by hundreds of priests. Prosecution and lawsuits crack open the truth for the public to see. They are the only reliable path to the truth.

Let us hope the Pope and the Vatican take the UN’s injunctions seriously and order the bishops here to stop using parishioners’ dollars to bar victims’ access to justice. Certainly this is an item that President Obama should mention when they meet next month.

The President has been mute so far on the epidemic of sex abuse and assaults in religious entities in the United States. It is time for him to step up for all victims, and to stop pandering to religious entities. There are no more elections, Mr. President. Only problems to be solved.

  • gator

    Very good article. Religious entities should not get a pass.

    • Ted Harvatin

      But Bill Clinton should

    • David Schmidt

      Nor should Bill Clinton have received a pass or rather passes.

    • Tom

      Totally agree. The Church should not be given a pass. But what about Hollywood? What about people like Polanski, Allen? What about the NY school system? Rates have dropped in the Catholic Church, but should be zero. However rates have not dropped in NY schools in the last decade, and are much higher than the Church. What about NY’s fashion industry? What about the UN, in places like the DRC, where they blocked investigations? etc etc..

  • leslie jenkins

    I note that the article focuses on female victims and male offenders within the religious community. I find that a bit confusing recognising that scandals have been rocking the church since the early 80’s starting in Newfoundland Canada and the victims were primarily male children. The feminist community which runs the sexual assault community generally points out the numbers when siting gender and always in favor of the big bad man and the broken little girl victim….. I would like to see stats on sexual assault in the relgious community noting the gender other than the typical and incorrect muth being pushed of male offender and female victim.

  • DianaG2

    The Vatican is not a U.N. member as a “religious entity”. It is a nation like any other, and it has no jurisdiction over any other country

  • Artur Sebastian Rosman

    There’s a much bigger issue than the religious sex abuse scandals. Those seem to be a diversion from a much bigger problem as recent pronouncements by Dawkins suggest: