Listening In: Boz Tchividjian

WARREN SMITH, HOST: Boz, first of all, welcome to the program. And what I’d like to ask you to begin with is to ask you to describe GRACE. First of all, what is the organization? What does it stand for—the acronym—and what do y’all do? 

BOZ TCHIVIDJIAN, GUEST: 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, was a sexual crimes division chief. Had handled thousands of those cases. And when doing those cases, I came into contact more often times than I wished with situations of abuse inside churches. And almost without exception, I experienced or witnessed how churches had either failed to protect the vulnerable or responded really bad when the issue came to light. And so when I was in private practice, I thought, man, what do I do with all of the stuff I learned on the front lines as a prosecutor?

And long story short, I said, well, if I can get some other folks around the country who have a similar burden, who love Jesus, love his church, but who are also experts in multi disciplines to come together and work together to begin to help equip and educate the church to become the safest place for vulnerable people, including children, and for survivors. And give them the right tools on how to do that. I think a lot of what I saw as a prosecutor, some of it was malicious, no doubt, and intentional. A lot of it was because these churches and these church leaders simply didn’t have the tools in their toolbox to even begin to understand or comprehend the issue. So to be able to come alongside them and to be able to provide them those tools through training and education so that maybe they can minimize the opportunities available for offenders inside the church. And then when something does happen, the church can actually respond with excellence in a way that draws survivors into the church and not what I saw oftentimes as a prosecutor, which was shoving them out the door. 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, you know Boz, I think I first started running into you when I was doing a lot of investigative journalism for WORLD Magazine and, you know, I was writing stories about Bill Gothard, for example, and Mark Driscoll and others. And I would call you and ask for a quote or is what I’m seeing here, you know, something that you’ve seen elsewhere and that kind of thing. And so I, you know, even though this was the first time we’ve ever met face to face, I’ve known of your work. And so it’s interesting to me that you say that, you know, you’re coming alongside churches, to help them develop best practices and that sort of thing. Where I have run into you and what seems to also be an important part of your work, though, is in some ways kind of doing the forensics after it’s happened, right?

TCHIVIDJIAN: So, yeah, that’s a great point. So GRACE sorta has two branches, two primary branches. One is the safeguarding certification where we go in and do the training and equipping them. We assign a church a certification specialist who will work with the church for anywhere three to six months in really helping them not only develop best practice policies and procedures, but educating and training from top all the way down. The other branch of the organization is our independent investigations. So what we found was over a period of time if somebody steps forward and says, this happened to me 10 years ago and nobody did anything about it, the church is now in a position to either ignore that which had been going on for years or to do something about it. But they’re not equipped to be able to begin addressing and investigating themselves.

And so we began, I think our first investigation was a missions agency back in 2007, 2008. I had never intended on doing investigations with this organization, but they came to us and I looked at our board and I said, well, half of us are former prosecutors. We’ve got a clinical psychologist, a couple of pastors. We probably know how to do this. So our board actually conducted the investigation. That’s grown and developed now to, I think we’ve got about 12 or 13 ongoing investigations around the country. We’ve got a team of forensic investigators—most who are either former child abuse or sexual abuse prosecutors or major crime investigators with law enforcement.

SMITH: Well, in fact, I would even go so far as to say that as a reporter covering these cases, one of the ways I assess the level of seriousness of an organization at dealing with the issues is this, have they brought GRACE in yet? Have they brought Boz in yet? How do you feel whenever I say that? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Nervous. Listen, we have a lot to learn. I’m learning stuff every day. I think the thing that we bring that’s unique is we are going to dive into an independent investigation and we will find and identify the truth wherever it is. And, you know, a lot of times when we’re finished, the church organization is not real happy with us. But that’s not my concern. My concern is to get to the truth. And oftentimes what I’ve found during those investigations is that we will meet with reported survivors and they will share their experience. And oftentimes we’re the very first individuals who actually have listened to them. I’ve had emails from survivors going, are you sure you’re a Christian organization? Because I’ve never met Christians like you who will sit in and listen to us without sharing a Bible verse or praying or trying to push the gospel back on them, but just listen to what they have to say.

And so, you know, even when at the end of the investigation, sometimes churches and organizations don’t follow our recommendations and that’s their choice. And sometimes it can be frustrating. But a few years ago when I got really frustrated with that, God reminded me that his most powerful work in those investigations was the process and not necessarily the outcome. Was the process of us encountering and affirming and humanizing a group of people who had been abused and oftentimes ignored by the very institutions that were 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.

SMITH: Well, I don’t know what kind of confidentiality issues you have to deal with. I’d like to ask you some specific questions and situations if I could about individual situations, but before I do that—

TCHIVIDJIAN: I probably won’t be able to say much. 

SMITH: Okay. Fair enough. As a former prosecutor, you know that sometimes we journalist asks obnoxious questions—

TCHIVIDJIAN: You gotta do what you can. 

SMITH: Yeah. And then you can feel free not to answer. But before I do that, I do want to ask you to maybe step back or I’d like to step back from the individual cases to say, are there common threads? I mean I know as a journalist, you know, there are things that I do—follow the money, the classic Watergate thing is often a fruitful route. Another is that if somebody is trying to hide something, that usually means there’s something to hide. If there’s transparency and openness, that’s usually a good sign. And whenever I don’t find transparency and openness, that’s usually a bad sign. You know, the old saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant is I’ve found to be often true, at least whenever I’m doing investigative journalism and trying to look for things. What are some of those in your world? Are they the same or are they different or are there more than that? Whenever there are perpetrators—either sexual fraud or some other kind of fraud, financial fraud or otherwise—what do you see in common?

TCHIVIDJIAN: Well, keep in mind when we do investigations, there tend to be two-fold. One aspect of the investigation is investigating the actual allegations of abuse that have been made. The other is evaluating the response of the church. We think it’s really important to—we’re not just investigating this over here, but to be able to say, okay, what did the church know? When? Who knew it? How did it respond? And then what can the church do to demonstrate genuine repentance to those who’ve been hurt? So, to answer your question, you’re sort of looking at different things and depending on what situation you’re looking at. So with churches, for example, I’m looking for churches who are transparent, who aren’t hiding the ball from us, who are cooperating with us, who are willing to take the risk and make hard decisions that may be even unpopular.

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. And I’m looking for that. When I start getting church leaders who start wavering or who start backing away from what they originally agreed to or when we start discovering things and if they find out that we’ve been discovering things and suddenly now they’re not as cooperative with us, suddenly now they’re not making particular witnesses available to us, that’s a red flag because that’s telling me, wait a minute, what do you think you’re doing is causing us not to go there. As a former prosecutor, that’s exactly where I’m going right now. I think with offenders, you know, I teach my law students to this and that is you look for cooperation.

Yes, you hear the testimony of the reported victim, but those types of cases are very seldom. And I hear this a lot and it shows, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of the issue is a lot of people say it’s just he said, she said. And the reality is, if you’re a really good investigator, you will go and look for cooperation. You may not find cooperation of the actual sexual victimization. 

SMITH: So, no physical evidence, no DNA, that sort of thing. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Correct. But you may find cooperation. For example, I’ll just give you an example. I give to my students. A case I prosecuted years ago, child said this father—his best friend’s father—sexually assaulted him upstairs in a room. Father said, no, I didn’t. That’s crazy. So one would say, okay. He said, she said, what are we going to do?

Well, I want it to know who’s the truth teller here. Let’s dig a little bit deeper to find out who the truth teller is. So this child said, we said, well, tell us about the room you were in. And he begins to share the room. Had a pink Teddy bear up on a shelf in the corner of the room. Tell my investigator, go to that house, go to that room, see what’s up there. Sure, he comes back and goes, pink teddy bear. Now does that mean that that this child’s disclosure about the rape was true? That in and of  itself doesn’t mean that. But what it tells me is that this child, we’ve checked what he has said out and it’s been confirmed. And we do that over and over and over again and pretty soon over a period of time in most of these cases, what surfaces is one of these as a truth teller and one of them is not. And more often than not, my experience has been that the child or the victim is the one telling the truth. And the adult offender is not. 

SMITH: Yeah, no, I get that. That, you know, if somebody tells you 10 things and you know nine of them are true, there’s a, you know, could be lying on that 10th one, but there’s a pretty good chance that the 10 things are true, especially if the other person tells you 10 things and eight of them are false. And so I get all of that. But I’m wanting to push on that a little bit Boz, when you’re a prosecutor, you’ve got the power of the state behind you. You’ve got subpoena power for example. How do you deal with situations where you don’t have that, where it truly is dependent upon the willingness to cooperate.

TCHIVIDJIAN: These investigations are purely based on voluntary cooperation. So we try to address that before we even sign the engagement agreement. And that is with the church leadership and the engagement agreement spells that out. Like your responsibility is to fully cooperate with this investigation and to pay our invoice. That’s an important part too. And if you don’t, you’re in violation of the agreement and we’ll walk away. And we have. We’ve had to walk away on some investigations because that was happening. Now, because of that—for example, we did an investigation about a year and a half ago at a church in Florida where the focus of the investigation was the current senior pastor. Now, they put them on leave during the investigation, but one of the things that we required at the beginning was that this senior pastor—that he had to be obligated to meet with us.

And so even though we didn’t have the power of the subpoena power, the church leadership said, listen, you need to go meet with them. If you want us to even consider that you stay on, you got to cooperate with us. And he did. Usually we don’t have—with GRACE—at least in the last number of years, we haven’t had much of a problem getting the cooperation of abuse victims. But that’s taken years to develop. This work, the most important part of the work we do is developing the relationship and trust of survivors. If we don’t have that, if they’re not going to meet with us, the whole process is futile. 

SMITH: Well, and back to our earlier part of our conversation. So you’ve got situations where there are problems and you’re coming in and doing sort of a, if you will, if I could say it this way, a more of a forensic investigation. But then there are other situations where the church doesn’t have any known problems, but they do know that it’s possible. I mean, we live in a broken world and there are human beings in the church and we want to make sure that we’ve got protections in place. We want to make sure that we have protections to protect the church from liability. We also as good shepherds we want to make sure that our flock is being protected as well.

TCHIVIDJIAN: I would just reverse that. Should start with the flock and not the liability. 

SMITH: Okay. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yeah. We have to, if we’re going to do this work well, we have to—liability is way—and I’m speaking as a lawyer. Liability is a far second to what should drive us as a church is to make this place the safest place for children and other vulnerable people. Now, most of the time as it relates to protection, those two will coincide. You know, if you are making the church safe and that’s what it’s driving you, yeah, you’re going to have less potential of liability. The problems we run into is not on the protective end of things. It’s on the response end of things. If you are—if you’re institutionally focused, what could happen, and we’ve run into this is somebody comes forward, discloses abuse by, let’s just hypothetically say youth pastor. Well, the institutional response will be, well, we don’t really want to know—if this guy’s been here 10 years, do we really want to know if there are 10 other victims or 15 other victims that might have been here years ago? Ah, that’s just gonna create a lot of liability for us. So, let’s not poke that hornet’s nest. Where we would say as somebody who, as an institution, it needs to be victim focused. Absolutely. When you learn that somebody has been sexually abused by somebody on your staff or in leadership, you have a moral obligation to make sure that there are not other survivors out there who are suffering silently that you don’t know about. And if that creates more liability, so be it. 

SMITH: Well, I appreciate that correction. Thank you, Boz. I guess the real spirit of my question, where I was wanting to go with this is that, so you’ve got a church that you know, doesn’t have any known problems but they still want you to come in. And I realize that every situation is different. Every church is going to be probably at a different place based on past experiences with youth protection policies and so on. But what would you tell a church first thing? I mean, is there like, you know, first meeting you’re standing in front of my deacon board or my elder session and what are your sort of first principles? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: The first step we take usually in our certification, which is exactly what our certification initiative is, is beginning to develop an understanding, a relationship with the leadership. Because when you have relationship, there’s trust and there’s respect. And so we develop that relationship with the leadership. But in addition to that, we realize that everybody’s coming from different life experiences. Many have a lot of knowledge of this stuff. Many don’t have any knowledge of this. So we provide the materials, required materials that all of them have to read—most of which we’ve developed. So that everybody at least can get in the same ballpark. They may not be in the same part of the ballpark, but they need— because if you’ve got leadership, if you have an elder board and you’ve got some elders that think this stuff never goes on, it’s just a big, you know, there’s some big liberal agenda of trying to destroy the church. And then you’ve got others that say that this is going on all the time. It’s probably happening right now. And I mean, there’s no way you can function as leadership when something like this suddenly surfaces, unless you’ve received the education and training from the experts. 

So that’s the first thing we do is we start with leaders and then we move down from leadership to staff, to childcare workers. But then we go to the broader congregation. We cannot just be training our leaders and educating our leaders. We have to be also educating the congregation. And also our kids. 

I said earlier today, you know, when I would drop my daughter off at youth group, I go home. I don’t know what’s going on at youth group. And if I’ve not given her and others the tools in their toolbox to even be able to identify behaviors that at least should be concerning, that’s not good. I need to be doing that. 

And then to be able to train and equip the staff to know that if somebody to you, if a youth comes to you and says, I’ve seen this, instead of minimizing it or walking away, you’ve been trained and equipped to know how to properly respond to that and what to do with that information. So it’s very comprehensive, but I think it does have to start at the leadership. 

My experience has been if the senior—and this is not the way it should be, but it is—if the senior pastor is not fully on board with this process, it’s not gonna work. And so it’s really key. We spent a lot of time on that, too. And sometimes it takes a little time to work with them, but that’s where that relationship and trust becomes that much more valuable.

SMITH: Boz, I’d like to pivot just a little bit in our conversation and talk a little about the dynamics of some individual situations that I know about and also the dynamics of a whistleblower. You know, I just read Rachael Denhollander’s book and you know, one of the things that sort of stood out for me is that it’s tough for that first person to come forward. And in the case of the Larry Nassar case, it was Rachael and a couple of other women that came forward first. But often whenever they do come forward, it becomes what I call a Spartacus moment where, you know, then everybody starts standing up and saying, I am Spartacus, I am Spartacus. Other people find their courage. Has that been your situation or has that been your experience whenever you’ve gone into churches and you found abuse, that it’s never kind of just once, but it’s often people knew about it and kinda didn’t say anything and kept things quiet and there are many victims? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: You don’t find that in every case, but you do find that oftentimes in, in these types of environments. I mean, the reality is that especially in the church, abuse survivors—and we have to really focus on trying to look at it through their lens—but they’ve been abused by somebody inside the church. There’s a great deal of shame and embarrassment. There’s a degree of worthlessness and there’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of fear, especially if it’s a leader, because that leader has been—throughout that time that person has been abused, that leader has been planting the seeds that—whatever seed works that you are not going to say anything about it. So if it’s a small child, if you say anything, I’m gonna kill your parents. If it’s somebody older, if you say anything, I’m going to say that you pursued me or that I’ve learned a lot of your vulnerabilities and secrets throughout this abuse and I’m going to expose all of that. Or quite frankly, I’m just going to destroy you. 

And you know, we have such a power differential inside of our churches with leadership and even adults and children, that that’s a very powerful force. So oftentimes, and I think Weinstein’s a good example too. You know, he was this very powerful Hollywood executive. 

SMITH: Harvey Weinstein, that really sort of in some way started the #MeToo movement. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yeah. He was as very powerful Hollywood executive. He was sexually assaulting people left and right, and people were absolutely terrified to step forward because he terrified them. He would send private investigators after them. He would warn them, you know, that if this happened, they would never, you know, either never work again, but their lives would be destroyed. And so this is what I tell people, as soon as that first person comes forward, the spotlight gets flipped on. And as soon as that spotlight gets flipped on, the power of that particular person diminishes 50% and usually that person is not nearly as powerful as you think they are. 

But once that spotlight’s been turned on in their power diminishes, others then become emboldened. Not only by watching that first person step forward and say, man, if he or she can do it, I can too. But then at that point in time, others can go, you know what, he’s not—it’s almost like the Wizard of Oz. I was really afraid. Now we’ve pulled back the curtain and he’s not nearly as powerful as I thought he was. And folks start stepping forward. I think you see that in a lot of situations where the offender is somebody, which is in all cases, I guess, whose got a good degree of power or at least perceived power. And it’s amazing how that power keeps so many people silent. 

A great example of that as Bill Hybels at 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 and who would control the narrative and who would immediately spin a narrative that he’s the victim and these people are perpetrators. And the reality is that’s exactly what happened. 

SMITH: Yeah, that is exactly what happened. And since you mentioned Bill Hybels, you know, I’ve covered some of these stories, Boz. You know, covered the Willow Creek Bill Hybels story. Covered Bill Gothard, covered some of the Sovereign Grace story that happened as well. And I do wonder if you could react to this. It seems to me that there’s also another dynamic that maybe unique to the church and that is a lot of these women who are victims, girls and women who are victims, love the church. They love the people and they know that if they speak up, it’s like pulling the pin out of a hand grenade in that church. It’s going to blow up the church. And they don’t want to do that either.

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yeah. I think that there’s a tremendous amount of tension because oftentimes they have grown up in these environments where even though this man may be victimizing me, if I say something, it’s not just going to implode the church, but it’s going to destroy his career and his ministry. And it’s a really distorted way of looking at it, but going, wow, but God still look at all the people that God has saved this man. And they’ve been told repeatedly growing up, don’t do anything to hurt the church. 

SMITH: Touch not God’s anointed is I think the verse that gets used.

TCHIVIDJIAN: Or if you do this, I mean, I had kids on the mission saying—they’re missionaries—the abusers who were abusing them said if you step forward and disclose this, which would require your parents to leave the mission field, the bush and come back to this boarding school, there will be Africans going to hell because of that.

And we wonder why those kids stayed silent for decades because here these—I mean, look at it through the lens of his little seven year old boy being told that the Africans are going to end up in hell if he says something about this abuse. It’s a tremendous manipulation and in my opinion, a horrific crime on top of the already existing crime of abuse. 

SMITH: Well, given all of that, Boz, and as we maybe sort of come to the end of our time together, we’re clearly at an inflection point in this conversation, right? I mean, the #MeToo movement, the #WeToo movement, the #ChurchToo movement, however you want to describe it. This conference that we’re at here this weekend, I mean, this conversation is happening in ways that it has, to my knowledge, never happened before. Does that make you hopeful or is it does it cause any grief for you?

TCHIVIDJIAN: It doesn’t cause me grief. I think I want to see more than a conversation. It’s easy to put on a conference. It’s easy to talk about it because it’s, let’s face it, the whole world’s talking about it. It’s the hard work of rolling up your sleeves without the cameras around and effectuating 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. And so I think time will tell and I think a lot of survivors out there are understandably skeptical and they like the conversation. They’re probably a little uneasy that the Southern Baptists are hosting a conference on this subject so early, which I understand. But we have to move beyond the conversation into substantive cultural transformation and time will tell if that happens.

SMITH: So what would be a sign to you, though, that it is happening? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Well, I suggested something tonight during my presentation. Develop a commission just like the Australians did in Australia, develop a commission for the response, institutional response to sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist convention. 

SMITH: So credible reports get it immediately investigated. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Well, no. You’d develop a commission made up comprised of leaders, survivors, not just what I said tonight, acceptable survivors. 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, whether it’s in person—confidentially—or through written reports, and to share their stories so that this denomination—this should go on in all denominations quite frankly—but so that this denomination can hear the voices of each and every suffering survivor that’s out there. You cannot move forward until they deal with the past. So that’s one practical action step that can be done. 

And you know what, that’s hard work. The first few days, maybe there’ll be a lot of press, but the Australian commission lasted five years and they met with over 7,000 victims. And had I think I read earlier three volumes of recommendations. But that was a significant action step. And if I think if the Australian government can do it, the church of Jesus absolutely should be doing it yet. 

SMITH: Boz, this might fall into one the category of one of those questions that’s obnoxious and that you want to answer, but whenever I told some of my friends that I was going to be interviewing Boz Tchividjian they said to me, I mean your last name is unique enough, that they thought of Tullian. And they said ask Boz what the conversations are like over Thanksgiving dinner in that household. Is the work that you do and some of the issues that he’s been involved with created some tension and anxiety for you? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Well, first of all, I spend Thanksgiving with my wife’s family, so that really is not relevant. 

SMITH: So that answers that question. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yeah, that’s just not a topic I talk about publicly. You know, our, our board posted a statement at that period of time because they felt that was important and I respect and agreed with that. But, you know, for me, 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—no, there are many others who can speak on that. And if people know my work and know my heart, they should probably pretty safely presume my my thoughts on it.

SMITH: Sure. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: But that’s all I’ll say. 

SMITH: Well, what final question before I let you go. Your grandfather—Billy Graham—offered, I think it was called the Modesto Manifesto, offered decades ago a model for church leaders. How does it feel to you as his grandson to sort of be, to look back on that experience? To look back on that and sort of realize that he had a very long and faithful career of having high integrity on these issues and then carrying that legacy forward for you. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yeah, I mean, he was always had been a tremendous example to me. I think probably the greatest example Daddy Bill, that’s what I called him, was and still is to me today is genuine humility. Here is a man that could get presidents on the phone in front of me and get off the phone and pull the chair out for the lady who had help 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 Christian leader was somebody that was all that. In a day and age where we have created a Christian—we as a society have created these Christian VIP, that live lives that are so beyond what most Americans live and who don’t have a lot of patience for the rest of us, the people who can’t give them something in return, that’s very refreshing. I loved how he always pointed to Jesus. He was literally uncomfortable with the attention being on him. And I think the only thing I can attribute to that is that’s I think one of the reasons God picked him was that 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, a tremendous example to me. Was not a perfect person, made many mistakes. He’d be the first to say that. I didn’t agree with him on everything. But it doesn’t matter. He was, to me, in a day and age when the cameras are turned off and some of these leaders act very differently compared to when they’re on, my grandfather was the same person. And so the fact that I saw that up close helped me realize that you can do that, you can do it. But perhaps some of these people in these particular positions shouldn’t be in those positions to begin with because they don’t have the personality or character to even do that. 

SMITH: Well, I know he died to him a little more than a year ago and the last few years of his life he was not maybe fully present and competent, but did he know the work that you were doing? Did y’all talk about it? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yes, we did.

SMITH: What did he think about it? 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Really troubled him. I think one time he said it gave him just a deeply heavy heart to hear about the work that we were doing because—

SMITH: That you were doing it or that you had to do it. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Yeah. That’s a good distinction. Yeah. That when I would share with him some of the work that we were doing, he was genuinely distressed. I don’t think he realized the prevalence of this issue within the church until I started having conversations with him about it. 

SMITH: Well, Boz, thank you for your work. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Absolutely. 

SMITH: And thank you for your time. 

TCHIVIDJIAN: Absolutely. Good to be here.

(Photo/YouTube, GRACE)

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