Well, it’s been a busy Autumn for Bob Jones University–and doubly so for those of us keeping tabs on the school’s less-than-honorable activities. Several stories dominated the headlines earlier this season, most notably declining enrollment and the Stephen Jones Disappearing Act. With national college enrollment trending drastically upwards in the last few years, curious minds are asking: what else besides a sputtering economy might explain BJU’s shrinking student body? Perhaps the best answer comes from University Chancellor Bob Jones III himself, who explained in a February 4th faculty meeting that
The bulk of our student body over the years came from Christian schools…[that's] evaporating before our eyes. I don’t know where the next generation will come from.
But all that is just the place-setting. A new controversy is once again bringing the local and national spotlight to 1700 Wade Hampton Blvd., and it’s a biggie.
Many readers will already be familiar with the story of Tina Anderson and her rapist Ernie Willis–Willis’ trial attracted the attention of Christians around the world after he was arrested in 2010 due to a Facebook post hinting at the then 13-year-old story. In particular, the trial resonated with abuse victims whose suffering has gone unnoticed in church situations sickeningly like Tina’s.
But not everyone agrees on Tina’s story, and here’s where things turn ugly (and dangerous for the Bastion of Fundamentalism). Before the trial, defenders of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement of which Tina’s abuse was a tangential result asked us to “get the facts” before judging Tina’s Pastor, Chuck Phelps, and his passivity in reporting Tina’s abuse.
With the trial over and Willis convicted and imprisoned, we can now safely say the following: Chuck Phelps, despite his claims to the contrary, didn’t do nearly enough to report the rape of his young parishioner Tina. He claims to have contacted the police repeatedly back in 1997, reporting Willis’ crime and asking the police to take action. When they didn’t, Phelps figured he’d done his part and resumed business as usual at Trinity Baptist Church. Willis remained as a church member and Tina, who had become pregnant due to her rape, moved to Colorado where her child was born. Phelps’ and Tina’s stories sharply diverge here: Phelps claims that Tina relocated at the urging of her mother and admits no responsibility for her removal, however convenient it may have been for his reputation. Tina says the move was a deliberate cover-up to protect the high-ranking men of Trinity Baptist, most prominently Willis and Phelps.
But you don’t even have to take Tina’s side to see how criminally neglectful Phelps was in 1997 and the years that followed. To put it simply: any pastor who, discovering that a rape has been committed upon a young girl in his congregation, does anything less than confronting and immediately bringing the rapist into police custody is passive. Phelps was wrong every minute of every day that he allowed Willis to remain in his church and free to harm other children. His excuses here serve only to show the pathetically low standard to which IFB preachers hold themselves in abuse situations–a standard which is coming under increasing scrutiny.
All of this is coming to a head now, and here’s why. Chuck Phelps has this year been blessed with a truly great Fundamentalist blessing: he’s been named to the Board of Bob Jones University. This fact has not gone unnoticed among BJU alumni–particularly in the world of social media, where the official BJU page has become a kind of bulletin board for angry reactions from a wide range of observers. Alumni, current students, and people who’ve no relation to the University at all. A petition has garnered hundreds of signatures. Everyone wants to know: why is Phelps being honored with this position when his actions, regardless of which story you believe, were hopelessly un-Pastoral?
And now, for the Big Gamble. In the absence of President Stephen Jones, the school’s philosophical, spiritual and political direction has fallen once again to Stephen’s father, Bob Jones III. This Jones is also the Chairman of BJU’s Board and thus directly responsible for Phelps’ nomination to and acceptance on it. So: while the storm rages at Penn State, while national attention is fixed on the topic of sexual abuse, Bob Jones III faces a choice. Renounce the ties to Phelps, repent of a shameful culture of secrecy and neglect of children –or Stand Without Apology for Phelps and take the Big Gamble that controversy will not engulf BJU yet again.
Today, in a chapel message sure to be long remembered, Bob Jones III answered–with The Gamble.
Sexual molestation–it will not be swept under the rug, it never has been. It’s not the way we operate. It’s always reported to the authorities…Nobody would be kept on the Board or on the faculty who did things like that, who swept things under the rug.
The answer from Bob Jones III on the Phelps situation is clear: he’s our man. We stand behind what he’s done, and we admit no wrongdoing on his part.
It would have been easier, you might think, for BJU to simply ask Phelps to resign his Board membership. But that’s not how they do things. It never has been. When the school was embroiled in controversy over its racist dating policies, BJU stuck by their outrageous “scriptural support” until the media scrutiny was so fierce that they had to recant. But repenting and admitting wrong is not in the Jones DNA, and any reversal of BJU policy must be coupled with an assertion than no wrong was ever done in the first place. The dating policy was an “insignificant thing”, Bob Jones III told Larry King. That was a lie, and Bob Jones Sr. bears testimony to that.
But this gamble is bigger, because Bob Jones III has gone on record in public support of Phelps and in opposition to the efforts of concerned onlookers to bring change–efforts which Jones calls “Satanic”. Don’t believe me? Just look at this site, which is chronicling email responses received from BJU board members in support of Phelps.
BJU’s gamble is that the world won’t notice their foolish endorsement of Phelps. That the light of justice which is sweeping over so many ugly, well-hidden truths at schools across the country won’t shine on them. I wouldn’t bet on that.