On Lights in the Darkness: Baylor and Sexual Assault

When I arrived on the campus of Baylor University in August of 2008, one of the first things I was taught was that Baylor is a distinctly Christian community, concentrated on helping its students to the best of their capacity, and aiding students who are struggling. “There is help at Baylor,” we were told. This message contrasted greatly with what friends of mine were receiving from their graduate institutions, which amounted to, “We know it’s hard. If you want to quit, we won’t judge you.”

When I was finishing my first year at Baylor, a freshman student attempted to throw herself in front of a truck on the highway next to the school. She was sitting in a parking lot and suddenly bolted into traffic, hopping the fence between the lot and Interstate 35. She survived, but I don’t know what happened to her after.

After the revelations over the past month of Baylor’s failures in handling cases of sexual assault, I find myself thinking about that student from seven years ago. Did Baylor actually help? Was our hope that Baylor would help this student with her problems misplaced? I knew then and still know good people at Baylor. How does something become what appears to be a systemic problem, where students who are most vulnerable, who have survived the worst, are turned away at the door?

One of the things I appreciate most about this time of year is the quality of movies you can find at the cinema. There’s something to see every weekend, even if it is total Oscar bait. This past weekend, my friend and I went to go see Spotlight, a movie about the investigation into the Catholic Church’s decades long cover up of child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests. At several points during the film, Marty, the editor of the Boston Globe, proclaims that it isn’t about a person, it’s not about taking down one bad guy. It’s about systemic injustice and taking down the system that protected the offenders. This system includes everyone from the police who looked the other way, the ADA’s who refused to prosecute, the cardinal who oversaw the priests’ removal, to even, yes, the journalists who were reporting on previous cases who didn’t bother to investigate further.

We are all implicit when it comes to systemic sins. We are all responsible when a system acts in its own interests rather than in the interests of the students. Even those of us who want to do better, who tried to do better, are functioning within a culture that allows things to go unchecked or, worse, perpetuate the cover up ourselves. We don’t ask questions; we don’t push harder. We don’t follow up. We don’t.

Baylor has a systemic problem that cannot be solved by targeting one or two people on staff. Individual people failed, yes, but these individuals are supported by a system of apathy toward victims of sexual assault. Keeping status quo is okay, so long as only one or two people are harmed—and we can get those people to leave if we’re apathetic enough. Our culture—especially Christian culture—encourages silence. Baylor University must overcome both the ongoing culture of silence around sexual assault and the Christian purity culture that prevents open discussion about sexuality in any form.

I am proud to be a Baylor Bear. But I also recognize that being a Baylor Bear means that I, too, participate and participated in a system that silences and ignores victims of assault in the name of upholding a university’s reputation. It is hard to cry “Sic ‘Em Bears” when the men playing on the field were allowed to play without regard to their history of sexual assault. It’s hard to praise the university’s academic achievements whilst knowing some of the best and brightest students there are struggling to be believed about their assault and rape.

This is why I’m signing the Open Letter to Baylor. That’s why I’m writing about it now. Cultures of silence breed systemic injustice. Speaking up can literally save lives. Asking the right questions can save lives. Believing survivors—and protecting them—saves lives. As individuals, we cannot destroy the entire system. But we sure as hell can shine a light on it.