Rape Culture and Protecting Their Own: Questions of Cedarville, ABWE, and Christian Culture

[content note: childhood sexual abuse, abuse cover up, victim blaming, rape culture]

In 2011, the nation was rocked by allegations that one of the NCAA’s most popular football coaches – Joe Paterno – had engaged in a massive cover up of a pedophiliac sexual abuse racket run by assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. The timeline of events for the case is well known and most of us can agree that Paterno’s actions became the focus of the media discussion and reports. Did Paterno do enough to report? Did he ignore the case for years? Should he have fired Sandusky when he first heard of the reports? The case was so volatile that students at Penn State rioted.

A national conversation began – and went pretty much nowhere – about the abuse culture inherent in sports culture. It didn’t matter if Paterno engaged in covering up child sexual abuse – he was a great coach! Somehow, a man’s accomplishments in one facet of his life elided massive moral failings in another. But this particular facet of rape culture is not constrained to the secular sphere – indeed, the last few years have held revelations of massive cover ups of sexual abuse within churches, failing to report known molesters, and transferring offenders to new parishes and churches, allowing them space to continue abusing. Like Paterno, who hid under a veil of presumed goodness to excuse legitimately immoral decisions, much of the church and its extensions (universities, parachurch organizations) rely on the presumption of goodness to essentially get away with murder.

One of the first incidences of widespread abuse came from the testimonies of survivors of abuse perpetrated in Bangladesh by a Baptist missionary commissioned by the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (formerly the Association of Baptists for Evangelism in the Orient) or ABWE. Dr. Donn Ketcham was a medical doctor at a missionary hospital in Bangladesh for a number of years, serving in a ministry and leadership capacity for decades. From his time in college onward, Ketcham participated in “numerous extramarital affairs.” Despite extensive documentation of his moral failings – failings which would force a pastor to resign now – Ketcham was allowed to become a missionary with ABWE until his tenure was terminated in 1989.

The reasons behind this resignation were cloudy at the time, but thanks to the testimonies of numerous victims, we have something of a picture. In September 1988, Ketcham began what he referred to as an “affair” with a fourteen-year-old child of a missionary who was serving in Bangladesh. “Extramarital affairs” and unnamed “sins” are how Ketcham and his organization would refer to his numerous predatory abuses of minor children until after the turn of the century.

In 1989, the fourteen year old came forward about Ketcham’s abuse, confessing it as an illicit sexual relationship to leaders at ABWE. She was forced to make and sign a confession of adultery for the church, and Ketcham was terminated. Throughout his termination process, Ketcham was allowed to dictate the narrative of how his abuse was discussed publicly, which gave him room to spin the PR to erase his predatory behavior.

This is important background for discussing how Christian culture creates its own Paternos, and handles them in ways worse than what Penn State did. The Paterno in our situation is Michael Loftis, former president of ABWE and current trustee and board member at conservative Christian Cedarville University in Ohio. In 2001, over a decade after the Ketcham’s termination from ABWE, Loftis was made president of the organization. Loftis had served with the organization as a missionary for approximately 13 years, overlapping with Ketcham’s tenure by a couple years, though it is unclear if they had any contact.

In 2002, a few months into Loftis’ tenure as president, several adult women came forward to urge ABWE to conduct an investigation into multiple cases of sexual abuse of missionary children that happened during the 80s and 90s. These women alleged that Ketcham was not the only abuser in the organization and that several other missionaries had conducted predatory and abusive relationships with young, female missionary kids (MKs) throughout their tenure with ABWE.

Loftis promised that an investigation would happen, and according to ABWE, one was opened. But that investigation went nowhere. Like Paterno, Loftis assumed that he had done enough to placate the complainants and continued his work as president. Despite urging throughout the 00s and up until 2009, Loftis seems to have been unconcerned with assuring that an investigation would continue or that these women would find some form of justice.

In March 2011, ABWE issued an apology to the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the organizations. They apologized for failing to protect them, for failing to investigate their claims, for making a 14-year-old victim of sexual abuse sign a “confession” of adultery. The statement begs forgiveness for their inactions and pledges to re-open the stalled investigation. It was around this time that ABWE hired GRACE, an independent firm dedicated to investigating how Christian organizations and colleges handle sexual abuse.

In June of that same year, Loftis was pushed out of ABWE as president, for reasons that are as yet undisclosed. ABWE’s statement on the matter is that Loftis’ termination did not have to do with his lack of action on the investigations of sexual abuse, but the timing of it makes it hard to see it as anything else.

Here, like Penn State, ABWE owned up to errors – for a time. But in 2013, they terminated GRACE’s investigation, a couple of weeks before GRACE was due to conclude their report and issue their findings. Much like what happened with Bob Jones University this year, it seemed that ABWE wanted to keep the report from coming out. As per their contract, GRACE has not released their findings.

Loftis, having left ABWE, is now semi-retired. However, like many semi-retired wealthy Christians, he is still on the board at a Christian liberal arts university – in particular, Cedarville University in Ohio. Cedarville, as an educational institution, has made several moves toward a more conservative fundamentalism of late. Since 2007, the university has been undergoing an ideological struggle, terminating staff who had the mere appearance of being affirming toward LGBT people and eliminating the philosophy major altogether, allegedly because of “liberal” influences. Most recently, Cedarville hired an inexperienced, non-credentialed woman into their Bible department and made her classes on gender and ministry restricted to women only. And most importantly, Cedarville is currently undergoing its own investigation under Title IX – an area of federal law that demands accredited universities must be subject to oversight on how they handle cases of sexual abuse on campus.

In any university setting, the board has a lot of power, but this is especially true in Christian liberal arts universities, where the board of trustees is responsible both for endowments and for overseeing the ideological direction of the university. With men like Loftis on the board, victims of sexual abuse who come to Cedarville essentially are unmoored, without support, because they will not find institutional support. Loftis, throughout his tenure at ABWE and now through his time on the board at Cedarville, has shown at best an indifferent callousness toward victims of sexual abuse, especially those who were minors at the time. His inaction on the investigation during his time as ABWE brings into question his sense of moral judgment and whether or not he should be trusted to help shape a university that is struggling ideologically.

Penn State’s firing of Joe Paterno likely would not have ruined his career (had Paterno not died soon after), because sports culture protects its own. Like sports culture, church culture does much the same – Donn Ketcham found a new church home shortly after being terminated from ABWE, and Michael Loftis finds protection amongst the board members at Cedarville. What needs to happen, if we truly want to care for survivors, is a cultural change – one that not only holds rapists accountable but those who protected them, as well.

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I am currently in the process of reaching out to survivors of the ABWE incidences to see if they can shed more like on what happened within the organization, particularly with regard to Loftis’ inaction after they came forward in 2002. Stay tuned for further updates along these lines.