Responding GRACE-fully To Abuse: A Conversation with Boz Tchividjian
Editor’s Note: Boz Tchividjian is a co-founder and the executive director of GRACE: Godly Response To Abuse in the Christian Environment. Tchividjian recently spoke at the Caring Well conference, hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention. The conference took place in Dallas, which is where MinistryWatch President Warren Cole Smith had this conversation with him. You can listen to the conversation here.
Warren Smith: Can you describe GRACE?
Boz Tchividjian: Sure. GRACE stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. GRACE was founded in 2004. I had been a prosecutor for a number of years, then a division chief and handled thousands of those cases.
I came into contact more often than I wished with situations of abuse inside churches. Almost without exception, I witnessed how churches had either failed to protect the vulnerable or responded badly when the issue came to light. So I found other folks around the country who have a similar burden, and who love Jesus and love His church. We work together to equip and educate the church to become the safest place for vulnerable people, including children and for survivors.
A lot of what I saw as a prosecutor was malicious and intentional. But a lot of it was because churches and church leaders simply didn’t understand or comprehend the issue. So we come alongside them to provide training and education so they can minimize the risks and the opportunities available for offenders inside the church.
When something does happen, the church can respond with excellence in a way that draws survivors into the church, rather than shoving them out the door.
WS: You also do forensic work, too. You will come in after an incident has occurred and try to get to the bottom of things. Is that right?
BT: Yeah. That’s a great point. The safeguarding certification is where we go in and do the training and equipping. We assign a church, a certification specialist who will work with the church for anywhere from three to six months, helping them develop best practice policies and procedures, and educating and training from the top all the way down.
We also do independent investigations. Somebody steps forward and says, “This happened to me 10 years ago and nobody did anything about it.” The church might now be in a position to do something about it, but they’re not equipped to investigate themselves.
I think our first investigation was a missions agency, back in 2007 or 2008. I never intended to do investigations, but they came to us and I looked at our board and I said, well, half of us are former prosecutors. We have a clinical psychologist and a couple of pastors. We know how to do this. Our board conducted the first investigation. Now I think we’ve got 12 or 13 ongoing investigations around the country. We’ve got a team of forensic investigators, most of whom are either former child abuse or sexual abuse prosecutors, or major crime investigators.
WS: Boz, I would go so far as to say that one of the ways I assess the level of seriousness of an organization in dealing with the issues as is to use this standard: Have they brought GRACE in yet? How do you feel when I say that?
BT: Nervous. Listen, we have a lot to learn. I’m learning stuff every day. The thing we bring that’s unique is this: we are going to dive into an independent investigation and we will find the truth, wherever it is.
A lot of times, when we’re finished, the church is not real happy with us. But that’s not my concern. My concern is to get to the truth. And what I find during those investigations is that we will meet with survivors, and they will share their experience, they tell us we’re the first individuals who actually listened to them. I’ve had emails from survivors who say, “Are you sure you’re Christian organization? Cause I’ve never met Christians like you, who will sit and listen to us, just listen to what they have to say.
Sometimes churches and organizations don’t follow our recommendations. It can be frustrating. But a few years ago, when I got really frustrated, God reminded me that His most powerful work is the process, and not necessarily the outcome. The process of encountering and affirming and humanizing a group of people who had been abused and ignored by the very institutions designed to protect them.
And to me, that’s the most important thing that we could ever want to do in a situation like that.
WS: When you’re investigating a church or a ministry, what do you look for?
BT: It’s really important not just to investigate a particular incident, but to ask: what did the church know, and when, and who knew it? How did it respond? What can the church do to demonstrate genuine repentance to those who’ve been hurt? I’m looking for churches who are transparent, who are cooperating.
I tell church leaders all the time at the beginning of investigation, this may be the most difficult season of your life and you’re going to have people on both sides screaming and hollering at you, and you have to just keep going. Let us keep going down the field.
WS: How do you deal with cases that happened years ago, or with cases in which there were no direct witnesses?
BT: I teach my law students to look for corroboration. I prosecuted a case years ago in which a child said his best friend’s father sexually assaulted him upstairs in a room. The father said, no, I didn’t. So what are we going to do?
Well, I wanted to know who’s the truth teller here. Let’s dig a little bit deeper to find out who are the truth tellers. So we ask the child to describe the room. He says the room had a pink teddy bear up on a shelf in the corner of the room. I tell my investigator, go to that house, go to that room, see what’s up there. He finds a pink teddy bear. Now, does that mean this child’s disclosure about the rape was true? It doesn’t mean that, but we do that over and over and over again, and we ask questions of the alleged perpetrator, as well, and over a period of time, in most cases, what surfaces is this: one of them is a truth teller and one of them is not. My experience has been, more often than not, the child or the victim is the one telling the truth and the adult offender is not.
WS: Boz, I just read Rachel Denhollander’s book on the Larry Nassar situation, a situation that was instrumental in breaking wide open this conversation about sexual abuse that the country is having today. One of the things that stood out is that how tough it is for that first person to come forward. In the Nassar case, it was Rachel and a couple of other women who came forward first. But then many women came forward. Nearly 200 people. Is that common?
BT: You don’t find that in every case. But you do find that church abuse survivors have a great deal of shame and embarrassment and a lot of fear.
A great example of that is Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek situation. I mean those women were absolutely terrified to step forward because this is a man that had, in their view, an immense amount of power, someone who would control the narrative and who would immediately spin a narrative that he’s the victim and these people are perpetrators. The reality is that’s exactly what happened.
I worked with children of missionaries who were at a boarding school. Their abusers said, if you step forward and disclose this, your parents will have to leave the mission field. That means there will be Africans who will go to hell because of you. And we wonder why those kids stayed silent. You have to look at it through the lens of this little seven-year-old boy being told that the Africans are going to end up in hell if he says something about this abuse. That’s a horrific crime on top of the already existing crime of abuse.
WS: We’re clearly at an inflection point in this national conversation. We now have the MeToo movement, the ChurchToo movement. This conference. This conversation is happening in ways it has never happened before. Does that make you hopeful?
BT: I want to see more than a conversation. It’s easy to put on a conference. It’s easy to talk about it because, let’s face it, the whole world’s talking about it. The hard work is rolling up your sleeves without the cameras around and effecting cultural transformation. That’s what I haven’t seen yet and that’s what I’m waiting to see. I’m hopeful. The fact that we’re talking about it is perhaps a good first step. But we have a long way to go. So I think time will tell and I think a lot of survivors out there are understandably skeptical. We have to move beyond the conversation into substantive cultural transformation.
WS: What would be a sign to you that this cultural change is happening?
BT: I suggest developing a commission, like the Australians did. Develop a commission made up of leaders and survivors. Not just what I call the “acceptable survivors,” but survivors who may be very critical of you. Put them on a commission and invite every person who’s ever been sexually abused or assaulted in a Southern Baptist Church to report to this commission.
This should go on in all denominations. You cannot move forward until you deal with the past. So that’s one practical action step that can be done. That’s hard work. The first few days. The Australian commission lasted five years and they met with over 7,000 victims. Three volumes of recommendations. I think if the Australian government can do it, the church of Jesus absolutely should be doing it.
WS: Boz, I’d like to conclude our conversation with a couple of personal questions. When I told some of my colleagues I would be interviewing you, they said I should ask you about your brother Tullian, who has been involved in a scandal that is directly related to the issues we’ve been discussing. Does that make for an awkward Thanksgiving?
BT: Well, first of all, I spend Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. So, that really is not relevant. That’s just not a topic I talk about publicly. Our board posted a statement, because they felt that was important. I respect that and agreed with that. But I don’t talk about it publicly because I don’t want to generate a new type of story, which is: Oh, look at these two brothers. People know my work and know my heart. They should pretty safely presume my thoughts on it. But that’s all I’ll say.
WS: Your grandfather, Billy Graham, offered what was called the Modesto Manifesto, decades ago, as a model of behavior for church leaders. How does it feel to you, as his grandson, to look back on his life and realize that he had a very long and faithful career of high integrity on these issues. Do you feel like you’re carrying on that legacy with your work at GRACE?
BT: He was always a tremendous example to me. Daddy Bill, that’s what I call him, was and still is to me today an example of genuine humility. Here is a man who could get presidents on the phone — in front of me — and then get off the phone and pull the chair out for the lady who had helped cook the meal that night and engage in conversations with her. He just valued the humanity of those around him.
And he never thought that a pastor or a Christian leader was somebody that was “all that.” We have created a society with Christian VIPs who live lives that are so beyond what most Americans live, and who don’t have a lot of patience for the rest of us. Given that, his life was very refreshing. I loved how he always pointed to Jesus. He was literally uncomfortable with the attention being on him.
I think one of the reasons God picked him was his character. And he had my grandmother, who would kick them under the table if he started to veer in one way or the other, which was good.
So, yeah, he was a tremendous example to me. He was not a perfect person. He made many mistakes. But when the cameras are turned off, some leaders act very differently compared to when they’re on. My grandfather was the same person.
WS: Did he know the work that you were doing? Did y’all talk about it? What did he think about it?
BT: Yes, and it really troubled him. One time he said it gave him a deeply heavy heart to hear about the work that we were doing.
WS: Because you were doing it, or because you had to do it?
BT: That’s a good distinction. When I would share with them some of the work that we were doing, he was genuinely distressed. But I don’t think he realized the prevalence of this issue within the church until I started having conversations with him about it.