Why Do Schools Cover Up Rape?

Is it the “private” part? Or is it the “fundamentalist” part?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve gone back and forth in these pages about the troubled history of evangelical colleges and sexual assault. Leading fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University have finally admitted to their own shocking denialism. At BJU and other fundamentalist schools, a cocktail of “purity-culture”-fueled attitudes and diehard loyalism fostered a legacy of abusive cover-ups.

As we see again today, though, fundamentalist schools are depressingly similar to non-fundamentalist schools when it comes to institutional cover-ups. Plenty of closed-mouth schools relegate the suffering of sexually abused students to secondary status.

In the New York Times, Alan Feuer relates the charges against Choate. Choate Rosemary Hall is an uber-elite boarding school in Connecticut. As Feuer reports, decades of student complaints about abusive teachers were hushed up. Predatory teachers were transferred or disciplined, but never reported or arrested.


Idyllic? …or menacing?

It’s not that students didn’t complain. One student contracted herpes from her teacher. The school allowed the teacher to finish out the school year, then the teacher transferred to a different private school in Colorado. Another student was coerced into having sex with a teacher by threats of bad grades and bad college recommendation letters.

In one case, according to the outside report released last week, a student who accused his former faculty advisor was told that the situation was complicated. After all, grateful alumni had just donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to honor the teacher. Had the teacher been sexually aggressive with students? Maybe, the school’s alumni director wrote, but “his teaching did reach a lot of kids since 1944, and I’d rather let it go at that.”

The problem, it seems, ranges far beyond the insular world of fundamentalist schools. As Yvonne Abraham noted in the Boston Globe, “you have to wonder how parents could ever again entrust their children to this school — or any boarding school.” She repeats the central question from attorney Roderick MacLeish: “Do these schools have the moral authority to continue to exist?”

Of course, the details of every nauseating case are different. Catholic schools suffer from their antiquated celibacy rules for clergy and their ingrained institutional denialism. Football schools suffer from their anything-for-the-win tradition of hero worship. Private academies like Choate suffer from their addiction to alumni loyalty. And fundamentalist schools suffer from their slanted gender assumptions and us-against-them mindset.

The depressing truth, though, is that when it comes to sexual abuse, fundamentalist schools are more similar to than different from the rest of the school universe. Institutional loyalty trumps care of students. Complainers are hushed up. Abusers are talked to, not punished.

The problem is more deeply ingrained than any of us want to acknowledge. It lies at the heart of the way schools work. In addition to teaching and caring for students, schools have to control them in a variety of ways. Once students are in that kind of situation, the possibilities for abuse will always surface. From fundamentalism to football to financial contributions, schools have always had plenty of reasons to hush up allegations of sexual abuse.

Why do schools cover up rape? Two reasons. First, schools rely on taking power and authority away from students. If every student were allowed to accuse every teacher, the authority structure of schools would collapse. And second, schools are at heart self-perpetuating institutions. Like most institutions, they will tend to protect themselves first and their students later.

Leave a comment


  1. Donald Byrne

     /  April 16, 2017

    After an early spurt of words spilt in self-gratifying nerdy palaver, lol, I kid, thank you for the money shot in the last graph. You hit the bullseye with that one.

  2. Some clarifications would make this a stronger case. Catholic universities have not had a rash of sex scandals where clergy are preying on college students. If you meant the church’s problem with pederast priests, that’s a rather different matter.

    BJU and CHR are apples and oranges as well. Most of the abuse at BJU involved college students victimizing college students. CHR is more like the Catholic church — powerful adult faculty exploiting younger adolescents through their position and environment, that classic (or medieval) scene for abuse: the boarding school.

    I would revise your conclusion this way to explain why all three institutions cover up rape: (1) to the extent they are allowed, all institutions give power and authority to company men, model students, and other compliant people who support a narrative that all is well especially when it isn’t. (2) To the extent they are allowed, all institutions take power and authority from any and all whistleblowers, dissidents and accusers, who may be victims and their allies, including parents, faculty, other clergy, and even outside activists, journalists, etc.

    It’s not about denying all students and subordinates power or even worrying they could all become accusers. Even in a very diseased and corrupt institution, most people in it are supportive members who will agree with the company line. The company line is about maintaining control by standing with the many against the few, even when this means using lies, deceit, and other corrupt tactics. The authorities in any group will always focus on the few who make accusations, and silencing them will be pitched as an act of protecting the group against enemies. It’s done because it can be done relatively easily, and as you say, self-preservation trumps all other values.

  3. Here’s another thought: religious and secular institutions both try to cover up sex scandals in ways that enable and protect predators, dismissing them only in the last resort. On the other hand, faculty (and maybe student) thoughtcrime is seldom covered up and appears to lead increasingly to rapid termination or other disciplinary action. Maybe this is a periodic phenomenon that spikes in response to extremely vexed social divisions and uncertainty about what is tolerable leftism/rightism. However, it is an odd combination at Christian colleges where sex scandals are more likely to be covered up than “liberal” views on science, sexuality, etc. are likely to be tolerated. I.e., actual sexual behavior deemed immoral and even criminal is tolerated more than people who merely think, for example, it’s not necessarily immoral for gay people to marry each other.

    • Another terrific point. As I found in the archives of the evangelical colleges I studied, students would also tend to get punished far more ferociously for anything that seemed to question the rules themselves than activities that merely broke the rules. In the early 1960s, for example, two students were kicked out of Wheaton for publishing at their own expense a thoughtful new-evangelical magazine. One faculty member complained that students who were caught drinking or having sex were given much lighter punishments. These rebels, on the other hand, had actually broken no rules. They were kicked out anyway, though, for “insubordination.”

  1. What Kind of School Abuses Its Students? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. Sex Abuse at School: The Bad News from Chicago | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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