Basyle "Boz" Tchividjian is shining a spotlight on the sexual abuse of children in Protestant churches—a scandal he says may be larger than that of the Catholic Church.
Photo by Raymond Boyd / Contributor
Basyle "Boz" Tchividjian walks a fine line. On one side, he's the ultimate evangelical insider. His grandfather was the famed evangelical preacher Billy Graham, who exerted immense influence over American politics, culture, and theology. Tchividjian has followed in the family business, teaching law at Liberty University, the Christian college of famed Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell. On the other side, he's one of the most articulate critics of evangelical institutions, at times sounding like a new atheist prophet alongside Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher. He says that churches can be ideal environments for sexual predators who target children. And that traditions of shame, male power structures, and public relations myopia help keep abusers in positions of power and the abused silent.
Tchividjian sees it as his Christian duty to root out abuse in the church, and to build defenses against it. His organization, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), has been hired to investigate high-profile Christian institutions like Bob Jones University and New Tribes Mission. GRACE revealed frightening levels of sexual abuse and, as he told me during our interview, "the common thread of institutional protection at the expense of the individual."
Tchividjian has even had to deal with sex scandals in his own family. In 2015, it was revealed that Boz's brother, Tullian Tchividjian, had committed what the GRACE board described as a "gross misuse of power" in his extramarital relations with adult members of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Over the years, Boz has come to recognize that many churches do not have policies in place to deal with accusations of abuse. And too often they blame the victims for seducing their abuser. In an attempt to combat this, Tchividjian recently co-authored The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries, attempting to help church leaders address difficult questions about predators in their communities and how to avoid further harming someone who has already been traumatized.
We recently spoke with the grandson of "America's pastor" about why some churches protect predators, how sexual ignorance leads to abuse, and where Jesus stood on child abuse.
VICE: How big of a problem is child sexual abuse for Protestant churches?
Basyle "Boz" Tchividjian: It's hard to answer that with any degree of certainty, because the research out there is pretty minimal. If you accept the general statistic that one in four women and one in six men will have been sexually victimized before they turn 18, then you have to acknowledge that those same people are inside of our churches and faith communities. So if you had 100 men and 100 women in your church, 20.5 percent of your church would be survivors of child sexual abuse.
How does the issue of sexual predators within Protestant churches compare with the massive scandal the Catholic Church as endured?
A few years ago, data was gathered from some of the top insurance providers for Protestant churches. It was found that they received 260 reports a year of minors being sexually abused by church leaders or church members. Similarly, the John Jay Report on the Catholic Church came up with 228 credible accusations by priests.
Again, sexual abuse is one of the most underreported criminal offenses. But if you just look at these numbers, they tell us that more children are being abused within Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church. One aspect of that is that there are way more Protestants and Protestant churches than there are Catholics. But for me, it's important to share that statistic when speaking with Protestant audiences so that they stop pointing their fingers at the Catholic Church and engage more with their own church.
I have a friend who is a pastor in a Presbyterian church, and when she started at a new church, she preached six or seven sermons about abuse. She told me that since then, "I've had ten women approach me and tell me that they had been sexually abused as children, and that I was the very first person they ever told." And this is a small church.
I think the reason they approached her was that in preaching about it from the pulpit, she created a safe space for them to talk about it. It's a great example about how most of our churches aren't creating safe spaces. Too often victims are afraid to say anything because they're afraid of how people will respond.
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How do the church leaders typically respond?
It's such a spectrum. There are some that respond very well. The younger generation of pastors seem to get this issue more and are willing to talk about it. But we, unfortunately, do have a lot of pastors who don't think it happens, and prefer to embrace a false narrative that makes them more comfortable.
It's common to see a desire to protect the institution at the expense of the individual. Yet the gospel that Christians proclaim with their lips is all about a God who sacrifices himself in order to save [others], but when it comes to abuse, we often do the opposite.
So we have to educate our church leaders about this issue so we can try and eliminate victim blaming when disclosures are made. Telling the victim it was their fault because of how they were dressed or were acting, or forcing them to forgive the offender, just compounds the shame they are already going through.
Shame is a big issue with male victims of sexual abuse. They're often the most silent of survivors inside the church. I've had male survivors tell me they didn't want anyone in the church to know because they thought that they would be labeled a future offender and everyone would keep their kids away, or they would be accused of being gay.
How are women impacted by the purity culture and gender roles of evangelicals when it comes to this issue?
Certain pockets of Christianity promote a culture that keeps women very ignorant about these issues. It's sort of a perfect storm: You have an ignorance about anything concerning sex, you have a view that men are in charge and have a higher degree of value, and you have a leadership structure that gives authority often to one person.
Often the girl doesn't realize what she's experiencing is abuse until much later, because she's ignorant of sex. And that ignorance is exploited by people who want to abuse children.
Most descendants of famous preachers aggressively defend their status and legacy. But you, the grandson of Billy Graham, ended up doing advocacy on behalf of a taboo topic. How does that happen?
I did have a family member who suffered abuse. But I didn't really begin digging deep into this issue until I was a prosecutor. It was during that time that I encountered these cases closely. It's one thing to read about these cases in a newspaper, it's another to sit in a room with a girl who's been sexually victimized by her father's best friend or her father. Or to sit in a room with parents who just learned that their child has been sexually abused by another family member. It's heart wrenching, and you begin to understand the lifelong impact that it has on victims and those in their lives.
The few cases that I had that involved a faith community, I saw the faith community respond to it in a terrible way. More often than not, if the pastor or member of the church came to court to speak on behalf of somebody, it was on behalf of the perpetrator, and not the victim.
And I remember thinking: There's something not right about this. If you read the gospels, Jesus is always on the side of the marginalized, the wounded, those who've been cast out. But that wasn't what I was seeing in the courtroom or churches.
In Jesus's time, during the Roman empire, children were valued only slightly above slaves, and abuse was rampant. And here, Jesus comes saying anybody who hurts a child should have a stone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea. But in today's church, children are often second-class citizens.
How do church leaders respond when you approach them about this issue?
It's mixed. Some fear it will stain their institutional reputation, or personal reputation, if they did uncover a situation and it got out. Often, that's in the guise of something more pious like "we don't want this to stain the reputation of Jesus. So we have to take care of it internally."
Sometimes people argue that sexual abuse is everywhere, so why pick on the church?
Of course it is everywhere. My focus is on the church because that's where I grew up, that's where I've seen some of the horrors. That's where I've encountered survivors who, in tears, tell me that they can't pray to God because the man who abused them was praying when he abused them, or reading scripture while he was raping them.
Should there be any kind of support for potential abusers seeking help before they harm anyone?
We've intentionally focused on victims, because I've found that the perpetrators are often the ones with the most support from the church. Having said that, there are people who are earnestly struggling with this issue and are deathly afraid of telling anyone about it because of how they'll respond. There should be resources for those who haven't acted on those impulses to come forward and get help. But it's tricky, because you see a lot of lying, manipulation, and narcissism with abusers. It's difficult to know if they're telling the truth when they say they've never acted on their impulses.
How has this line of work impacted you as a parent, and as someone who teaches at one of the largest Christian institutions in the US?
You don't want to be paranoid and lock your kids in a room. But we also don't let our kids do sleepovers, because I've met with too many victims who were victimized by a friend's parent at a sleepover. I don't tell other parents not to do that, but it's our policy. Also, we talk about this issue a lot with our children. In many, ways it's been good for them, and hopefully it will shape them when they become parents.
The years of doing this line of work has given me a pretty low view of the church. It has also given me a much higher view of Jesus, and that's what allows me to go another day and keep my faith.
When you grow up as an evangelical Christian, you have this nice neat view of God and the world. And when you start doing this work, that all gets shattered. Because how do you answer when someone asks you, "Where was God when my dad was coming into my room every night and molesting me? Was he watching? Why didn't he stop him?" Those are questions I don't have answers to. All I can do is grieve with them and maybe get a little angry.
But studying who Jesus was while he lived on this Earth has given me a greater appreciation for who he was in relation to this issue. There was no greater defender of children than Jesus.
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Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Tullian Tchividjian was at one time a member of the GRACE board. This was incorrect. This article has been updated.