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Billy Graham’s Grandson Is on a Mission to Root Out Sexual Abuse in the Evangelical Church

Evangelical Christian culture has a sex abuse problem. Can believers fix it?

Photo by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

Here is a pattern we’ve all come to expect: A victim of rape or sexual assault comes forward to authorities at the institution she is a part of, and authorities minimize the victim’s experience and are often more worried about protecting their institution’s reputation than getting justice for the victim or preventing future abuses. This has happened in sports, on college campuses, at small-town high schools, and within the Catholic church. Kathryn Joyce, in a lengthy piece for the American Prospect, profiles one man who believes, perhaps naively, that he can interrupt this process when it comes to evangelical Christian institutions. 

Boz Tchividjian is an unlikely advocate for victims of sexual violence. He’s the grandson of Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, a conservative Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell. But he honed his legal chops as a prosecutor who worked on many sexual abuse cases, and he’s turned that experience around to start GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organization devoted to investigating Christian institutions and improving their responses to people who report sexual abuse in the ranks. The only problem, as Joyce discovered, is that GRACE appears to be a little too good at its job, and often the institutions that initially hire it end up firing it rather than deal with their own cultures of covering up and minimizing sexual abuse.

The most high-profile example of this that Joyce reports on was Bob Jones University. The famously conservative Christian school brought GRACE in to clean house after 20/20 discovered, in 2011, that one of its graduates, a New Hampshire minister named Chuck Phelps, had, upon discovering that one of his congregants raped and impregnated a teenager, thought it appropriate to shame the victim by making her “confess” her supposed sins in front of the congregation. Bob Jones University didn’t want the story to reflect badly on the school, so it responded by hiring Tchividjian and his staff to interview faculty and students about their experiences with sexual assault. What they discovered was a culture of victim-blaming.

Jim Berg, the dean of students, was routinely mentioned as a source of pain for victims. One woman who started to experience psychological trouble after being raped back home was sent to Berg, who allegedly told her that she must have been doing something sinful to have caused the rape to happen. “He said that under every sin is another sin; that there is a sin in your life that caused your rape, and we have to find out what that sin was,” she recounts. Joyce interviewed three other students who say they were pushed out of the school when the administration became aware that they had survived sexual abuse. 

Tchividjian and his team were determined to bring all of this to light, believing, in Tchividjian’s words, that “your value and your reputation aren’t based on your accomplishments” but because “your reputation has been secured for you by Christ.” To this end, Tchividjian believes that Christian institutions should be welcoming the news that they’ve failed to support the victims of sexual abuse, so they can repent and learn from their mistakes. The institutions apparently do not agree. Just as other groups, such as an overseas missionary organization, had done before, Bob Jones University fired GRACE before the group had a chance to report its final results. 

All institutions have a tendency to deflect complaints from sexual abuse victims rather than run the risk of the public finding out that not all is perfect within their walls, but Tchividjian tends to believe that religious institutions are even worse breeding grounds for sexual abuse than most. Christians are “easy to fool” for sexual predators, in his estimation, because of their eagerness to recruit new people and their endless need for free labor from volunteers. “When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down,” he tells Joyce. “Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’ “

Can that be changed by GRACE and Tchividjian’s faith in his fellow believers’ abilities to do better? Well, once GRACE publicly shamed Bob Jones University for its firing, GRACE was brought back on, however reluctantly, to finish the work. The same need to keep up appearances that is typically used to silence victims might instead be used to persuade institutions to be more transparent and motivated to do better by victims in the future. That’s the hope that keeps Tchividjian plugging away after so many setbacks. “The Catholics have been forced through three decades of lawsuits to address this issue,” he told Joyce. “It’s my prayer that we’ll deal with it without being forced to.” Of course, Tchividjian and the victims he works for are forcing the issue. Only time will tell if their efforts lead to a less abusive, silencing environment for evangelical Christians who experience sexual abuse.