Recovering Grace, a website dedicated to publishing documents and stories related to abuse in Bill Gothard’s various organizations, has recently unearthed a few troubling tidbits that point to similarly abusive tactics used at BJU over the years.
Recovering Grace has been in operation since 2011, but has made headlines in recent weeks because its revelations finally reached critical mass, resulting in Gothard being put on administrative leave by his ministry, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (known as the Institue in Basic Youth Conflicts during its early days). You can read more about this news from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, among many others.
The scandal involves a wide array of allegations spanning decades. According to dozens of victims who’ve told their stories on Recovering Grace and in its comments, Gothard and other IBYC leaders used their “spiritual authority” to control, abuse and manipulate employees, mainly young women. Gothard himself stands accused of sexual harassment and failure to report child abuse, among other things.
An investigation of this scale necessarily implicates more than one organization, and in this case BJU is among those named. In 1980, two BJU officials (only one is named, a Rev. Van Gelderen) were summoned by Gothard to help him downplay a scandal that was about to overwhelm his multi-million dollar ministry. You can read more about that scandal on Recovering Grace, but suffice to say that the two BJU men were used by Gothard in his attempt to hush up accusations of sexual harassment against Gothard’s brother. Gothard asked the two BJU officials to help convince the IBYC board not to send a letter to supporters admitting the scandal and apologizing, and they obliged. Their plot failed, however, and when the board overruled Gothard and the BJU staffers and demanded that the sexual harassment be dealt with, Van Galderen reportedly reversed his stance and regretted coming at all. This incident is a fascinating parallel to BJU’s current PR troubles, as the school clearly still clings to a strategy of withholding potentially damaging information until the story has already exploded in the media.
Most damaging in this narrative, though, is a remark Van Gelderen made to the IBYC board when trying to dissuade them from properly handling sexual abuse:
They explained that “this kind of thing had happened also at [Bob Jones] University and this is how they have always handled it there.”
This ominous declaration can only mean one thing: in the 1980s, BJU already had a firm process in place for dealing with cases of sexual harassment and scandal within its administration. Whatever else that process might entail, it’s clear from Van Gelderen’s testimony here that covering up information and keeping supporters in the dark was key. Here’s the full text of this passage:
At the end of May 1980, discussions were still ongoing as the directors and staff attempted to approve a draft for a letter explaining the situation to the seminar alumni pastors. Bill was strongly against sending out this letter, but IBYC staff and leadership had almost completely lost confidence in his judgment by this time. Bill had lost control over his staff, and he knew it. They refused to remain under Bill’s asserted authority and were insisting upon straightforward and public transparency about the scandal. Bill pulled in two men from Bob Jones University—the administrative vice president and a BJU board member, Rev. Van Geldren, to help confront the staff. The BJU delegation rebuked the staff, stating that “a letter to pastors should not be sent out, and that it was wrong to inform the pastors and supporters of the Institute what was happening.” They explained that “this kind of thing had happened also at the [Bob Jones] University and this is how they have always handled it there.” In the end, though, Bill did send out a letter. The public and the media had picked up on the story, and he decided that he needed to make a statement.
In a sharp turn of events, two days after confronting the staff, Rev. Van Geldren had already apologized to the chief pilot (who was involved in uncovering the scandal) for his blind support of Bill, and apparently informed him that he had come to the conclusion that Bill could not be trusted. Rev. Van Geldren then did what we pray many parents are doing right now as they read these reports thirty years later—he withdrew his daughter from working at the Institute.
The second incident reported by Recovering Grace involves one of BJU’s longest-serving (1967-2013) Board members, John McLario. McLario was called in by Gothard to be a replacement for his father as IBYC chairman and president. This revelation shows a strong connection between BJU and Gothard’s ministry at this time, and a willingness on McLario’s part to help smooth over the scandal that was then threatening to destroy the IBYC. McLario did more than just accept the positions at IBYC, however. On his first day as new leader of the IBYC, McLario demanded that all of Gothard’s former staff, many of whom were victims of sexual harassment, declare their allegiance to the IBYC or lose their jobs. Here’s the full quote:
The media frenzy was being held at bay with partial truths about mishandling of Institute properties. Some prominent members of the IBYC staff and of the evangelical community began to step forward to help handle things. John McLario, an attorney and executive council for Bob Jones University, was asked on July 8, 1980, to take over as IBYC president and chairman of the board. William Gothard, Sr., submitted his resignation to the IBYC board on this same day. McLario took a heavy-handed approach to what he believed to be a rebellious staff. According to one timeline, “McLario meets with the entire staff and, without anybody saying who he was, he commenced to inform the entire staff that they have one hour to decide to resign immediately from the ministry or continue to work without any more resistance or questions. This action of McLario was fully supported by the Board and Bill Gothard.” At least one of the girls who had been involved with Steve received a phone call from McLario pressing her to remain compliant and silent about all that had happened (we are told this inspired exactly the opposite reaction from her). Within days, approximately one-half of the IBYC staff had resigned or been fired…
…As is often the case in fact versus fiction, what happened next was both anti-climactic and profoundly remarkable. John McLario abruptly resigned only seventeen days after assuming Institute leadership, reportedly to avoid dealing publicly with his own alleged sexual immorality.
Drawing conclusions from these incidents is simple enough: some of BJU’s highest-ranking, longest-serving and most-respected leaders were complicit in the horrifying abuses perpetrated by Gothard and his minions upon their staff. BJU was the first place Gothard turned to when he needed people to help him cover up scandal. And according to his own words, a respected BJU leader said that BJU, even in 1980, was already long practiced in “handling” scandals in a manner meant to protect leadership and silence victims.