They Went to Bible College to Deepen Their Faith. Then They Were Assaulted—and Blamed for It.
Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.Megan Wohlers thought she had done all she needed to do. And even if she had missed something, she thought, she was on a Christian campus, full of other believers—someone would certainly intervene.
It was the fall of 2016 when the sophomore at Moody Bible Institute, one of the country’s most prestigious evangelical colleges, started the process of getting help. She was afraid for her own safety, and the safety of those closest to her. Her ex-boyfriend seemed undeterred by her pleas for him to move on. So, she tried to be systematic: She spoke with the public safety department at the school, and she wrote a letter to her ex, demanding that he leave her, her family, and her friends alone. She gave copies of the letter to a professor, the Title IX office, and Dean of Students Timothy Arens, as well as her parents, for documentation’s sake. The dean also promised to speak separately with the boy and tell him to back off. Surely, it would be enough.
Now, five years later, Wohlers, the once-starry-eyed teenager who’d dreamed of going to Moody since she was 10, whose father was an alumnus, whose ambition was to go to Central Africa to spread the gospel, is one of 11 women who have decided to make public their experiences with sexual abuse at the college. “The school encourages transparency and vulnerability with each other,” Wohlers tells me, “but the truth of the matter is people don’t open up to other people about what’s going on in their lives, and then when you do open up to administration, you get shamed and blamed.”
It is time, they’ve decided, for others to witness what they see as a systemic failure to address sexual misconduct at the school that describes itself as “the world’s most influential Bible college,” the place “where God transforms the world through you.” It is time to expose the people who were tasked with protecting them—under the laws of the country, under the laws of God—who at best looked the other way, at worst blamed them for the violence perpetrated against them.
And finally, it is time, they argue, to move beyond the purity culture that has defined and infected Moody—and imperiled women on campus—for far too long. “All the responsibilities are on the girls to be pure,” says Anna Schutte, who graduated from Moody in 2020. “You know, if a guy has a porn addiction and a sex addiction, you should pray for him. But if a girl gets assaulted, it’s her fault.”
Wohlers knew she wanted to attend Moody Bible Institute since she was a little girl.
Courtesy of Megan WohlersA lot of people like Wohlers—young, ambitious, and evangelical—set their hearts on Moody Bible Institute at an early age. It is essentially the “Harvard of Christian schools,” says Moody graduate Anna Heyward. “If you want to be a godly person and go into ministry, you go to Moody.”
The school was founded on the Near North Side of Chicago in 1886 by D.L. Moody, a passionate evangelist who sought to educate young people in the ways of God. Over the following century, it grew in prominence as a leader among Bible schools; Moody runs a vast “network of Christian radio stations, affiliates, Internet stations, podcasts, and related programming,” according to its website, as well as a publishing house. Though the student body is small—the school’s total enrollment last year was 2,870—it’s a central training ground for future generations of evangelicals and church leaders. Jerry B. Jenkins, a co-author of the bestselling apocalyptic Left Behind series, is an alum, as are a host of influential Christian authors, pastors, and activists.
Women may have enrolled alongside men at Moody from the start, but for all intents and purposes, men—students and faculty alike—have traditionally been regarded as spiritual authorities, both inside the school and in ministry more broadly. As Moody himself said upon the institution’s founding, “I believe we have got to have gap-men to stand between the laity and the ministers; men who are trained to do city mission work. Take men that have the gifts and train them for the work of reaching the people.”
The reasons for this are both formal and informal, though all are colored by the evangelical belief in complementarianism—that men and women are different according to God’s perfect design, meaning the genders have separate strengths and weaknesses that together reflect the image of God. Many of the dozen former students I spoke with criticized the school’s teachings regarding gender. The school’s Student Life Guide puts it this way: “Moody Bible Institute believes that humanity came from the hand of God with only two sexual distinctions—male and female—both in the image of God, and emerging from one flesh with the unique physical capacity to reunite as one flesh in complementarity within a marriage.” Men are considered to have been gifted with leadership, making them the godly heads of household and the authority on scriptural teachings. Women, however, are a moral authority of hearth and home, and are often confined to ministering to other women and children rather than a broader congregation. This translates pretty clearly to the faculty: 64 percent is male. A quick spin through the faculty page shows that most women teach in communications, counseling, or music—with the exception of a single female pastoral studies professor. (Women were not even allowed to study in the pastoral studies program until 2017. )
“I saw people that elevated issues of patriarchy to on par with what’s the core of the gospel,” says Clive Craigen, a former professor who led the urban ministries program at Moody and ultimately left over a difference in values. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m willing to die for the gospel, but I am not willing to die for this.’”
A natural, or unnatural as it were, extension of this is an all-consuming purity culture. Stringent adherence to abstinence before marriage places a unique burden on women to stay “pure” for their future husbands, while also working to make sure their attractiveness and sexuality do not become “stumbling blocks” for other men—think modest dressing, demure personalities, controlled bodies. In fact, in the SLG, as it is referred to by students, there is a disproportionate focus on women’s clothing—dresses and skirts must reach the knee, no leggings or yoga pants allowed, and neither is clothing that is “strapless, sideless, backless, or which reveals the chest or midriff.” Shoshana Zygelman, a 2020 Moody graduate, recalls being asked by a student who worked at the campus gym to wear shorts over her leggings when she was working out. “Students are encouraged to respectfully and courageously initiate conversations with one another” about their attire and whether it reflects godliness, the SLG explains.
On campus, there’s a tradition that’s often referred to as “ring by spring.” When female students get engaged, they take part in a ritual in which they ride up and down the elevators in the dorms, announcing their engagements at each floor. “Getting married, being in a relationship, that was seen as the ultimate goal,” recalls Zygelman. Wohlers tells me that she has heard the school referred to as “Moody Bridal Institute.” And where better to find one’s lifelong match than at a campus full of people who share the same spiritual identity?
These beliefs and dynamics, former students say, contribute to a culture in which men are given control over women, making them feel entitled to women’s bodies. And since purity culture assumes an end goal of marriage between two virgins, it makes sex into something mysterious and forbidden—yet also prized.
This, for me, is familiar terrain. I grew up in an evangelical setting, and in college I joined a campus ministry that pulled me deeper into a religion that always seemed to demand more personal sacrifice, usually because of my gender. In my research for this story, Moody struck me as a campus-wide version of that ministry. As Zygelman was telling me about the ways her clothing was policed, I flashed back to a game night at a male friend’s apartment, when his roommate came up behind me and yanked my drooping shirt back over my shoulder, admonishing me for not protecting the men in the room. I stared up at him. “Do not ever touch me without my permission again,” I said evenly. The night ended shortly thereafter. When I was ultimately assaulted in that same apartment, by a different boy, purity culture blurred my vision for years after I stopped adhering to its tenets. I could not name what had happened because I couldn’t let go of my supposed role as gatekeeper, the one who was supposed to stop it at any cost. All the women I spoke to who were survivors of sexual violence at Moody say they experienced a similar difficulty in finding the language to express what had happened, because it was impossible to see beyond the constraints imposed by Moody’s specific interpretation of Christianity. This also extends to the women I spoke with who experienced other forms of sexual misconduct; it can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.
When asked about the allegations in this story, Moody sent the following statement: “Moody Bible Institute remains committed to doing everything we can to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for all members of our community, and we are grateful to those who made their voices heard during this process.”
A current professor at Moody, who spoke to Mother Jones on the condition of anonymity, says he worries that this trust in shared spirituality translates into a false sense of security. “A parent might think, ‘I’d be afraid of sending my 18-year-old daughter to that big state school, but this community, it’s going to be safe,’” the professor says. “And so, I think that, in a certain sense, we have our guard down, and we think it’s not going to happen…but there are wolves who see our community like a bunch of dumb sheep.”
Wohlers remembers her first semester at Moody as close to perfect. She made friends easily, she excelled academically, and her spiritual growth and ministry opportunities were built into the curriculum. When winter break rolled around, she wished away the days until she could be back at Moody. Toward the end of her second semester, Wohlers felt a new closeness to God and an assurance that she was on the correct path. That was when she hit another Moody milestone: She began a relationship with a male student. “[The timing] just seemed like a total God thing, [but] I guess it’s like, we talk about the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she says, inadvertently echoing the Moody professor. “When you’re at a Christian school and especially when you’ve met the person that you’ve kind of always pictured in your head, you let your guard down.”
The relationship quickly became abusive—he began monitoring her texts, emails, and social media messages. He would bite her, insisting it was affectionate, but his teeth left angry grooves in her skin, even when he didn’t draw blood. “Right away, he started pushing all my boundaries,” she says. About two weeks in, she tried to break up with him the first time, but it began a cycle in which she would attempt to get out, and he would convince her to stay, with each phase further eroding her sense of self. “I didn’t know which way was up—kind of like if you go out swimming in the ocean and you get pulled under.”
During her relationship and the subsequent fallout, Wohlers sought protection and guidance. Everyone she talked to, she says, “completely failed” her.
Courtesy of Megan WohlersShortly after Wohlers attempted to end the relationship, he physically assaulted her for the first time. They had gone for a walk through the thick Chicago evening and settled in a patch of grass in Millennium Park, where there was little streetlight and hardly any foot traffic. It had been a romantic evening, and they began to kiss, but when his hands slipped under her shirt, she said no—she kept saying no, and he ignored her. He only stopped when she cried, sure that it was her fault, that she had tempted him. In response, he mocked her. The next day, a friend went with her to break it off, but the couple continued to talk long after her friend had left to go to class, and the conversation ended when she heard herself agreeing to stay with him.
As summer break approached, he began to talk more and more about marriage, pushing her to elope with him instead of going home to her family before the fall semester. On the one hand, that felt perfectly normal for Moody students; she knew classmates who had dated for a scant two to six months before they were married. On the other, she was uneasy about the relationship’s volatility, and unsure this was the man God intended for her.
They stayed together but she went home. One day, while he was visiting her family, he heard her little sister mistakenly refer to him using another ex-boyfriend’s name; in a conversation with Wohlers afterward, he threatened the sister’s life. Later that summer, when she went to visit him, he assaulted her once more. When she returned home, fearing there was no way out, Wohlers attempted suicide and was hospitalized for 24 hours. He called her father, which led to a heated confrontation. At that point, she ended the relationship for good. (Wohlers’ ex-boyfriend declined to comment to Mother Jones.)
Still, as she worked to process all that had happened over that summer, she became fearful that the situation could escalate when she got back to school—her ex had continuously tried to contact her, and his threats against her family had shaken her. After seeking advice from a professor she trusted, she decided to ask for support from Moody’s Title IX office, which was run at that time by Associate Dean of Students Rachel Puente and Director of Accreditation and Assessment Camille Ward. From her grandparents’ house in Florida, she called the Department of Public Safety, and an officer kindly walked her through the steps for filing a Title IX report once she returned to campus.
But when August rolled around, she opted not to file formally, hoping she could take other measures to ensure her safety and put the saga behind her; she thought the letter she wrote her ex, asking him to leave her alone, would do the trick —plus “Dean,” the paternalistic shorthand that students used for Dean of Students Timothy Arens, had promised to talk to him. Wohlers recalls Arens telling female students that if there was a boy who wouldn’t leave them alone, to “drop him like a hot rock.” Come talk to Dean, he assured them, he’d take care of it. She also remembers Arens telling them that if they found themselves missing their fathers, they could have a “daddy-daughter” coffee date with him. Wohlers doesn’t remember much about her meeting with Arens, but she does recall feeling brushed aside and hurt when he didn’t follow up with her. She doubts he ever spoke with her ex. (Arens did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.)
Over that semester, her former boyfriend’s aggressive behavior escalated. He transferred into two of her classes, and he followed her around campus. If she spoke to a boy, he would introduce himself as her ex-boyfriend and say Wohlers was free to date whomever, he was cool with it, he was trying to get over her. As the months wore on, she tried to ignore him, but it wasn’t long before she got an email from him saying someone neither of them knew had nude photos of her. She interpreted this as blackmail. It was December when she went to the Title IX office, this time to formally file a report. She felt she had no choice.
She was surprised at how smoothly the process went at first—the woman who helped her seemed nonjudgmental, directing her to classify her case as “stalking” and assuring Wohlers that the case would be resolved quickly. Filled with relief that she wasn’t interrogated or belittled, she left with a packet of information on legal and counseling options. She felt a cautious skip of hope in her chest as she crossed campus.
But soon, everything became a battle. Two male public safety officers were assigned to investigate her case, along with one woman, Assistant Dean Gayla Gates, whose presence Wohlers approved of—wanted, even. But her ex objected to Gates’ involvement for reasons unknown to Wohlers, and Gates was removed. Wohlers went ahead anyway and spent two and a half hours recounting the abuse to the two officers. “I hadn’t gone into that much detail with anybody since the breakup,” she recalls. “It was really hard to talk about details, especially to men.”
Not long afterward, her abuser was kicked out of student housing, and Moody public safety officers informed him that he had violated the school’s Title IX policies regarding dating violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. That’s when the situation abruptly changed. A Title IX administrator—Wohlers can’t remember who exactly, though the document is addressed to Ward—presented her with an eight-page letter written by her ex that accused her of a stunning range of misconduct, including graphic descriptions of alleged sexual misbehavior that made her appear as the instigator and claims that twisted her mental health history to make her seem hysterical and unreliable. In it, her ex says Wohlers was the one to bring up marriage and that she suggested a “shotgun wedding” after they performed oral sex on each other when she went to visit him, just before she attempted suicide. “I do not know what Megan told the investigators,” he wrote, “but I know that she consented to everything we did, and that we discussed consent and boundaries frequently.” The power of the letter, she says, was the way her ex distorted fragments of the truth into something ugly and unrecognizable.
“How do you move past trauma?” Wohlers asked a professor. He told her she needed to take responsibility for the part she played in her own assaults.
Courtesy of Megan WohlersWohlers herself then became the subject of a new investigation as an appeals committee was formed to look into the claims outlined in the ex’s letter. Her blood simmered, thinking of perfect strangers sorting through claims of her apparently depraved sexual behavior, debating her sanity. She was beginning to buckle under the weight of the trauma when Ward, in the Title IX office, told her she could file a campus restraining order against her ex, but she’d need to drop the charges against him before he’d drop his own allegations.
She wrestled with the decision. A campus restraining order would mean he could still approach her in Chicago—Moody’s campus is only a 25-acre enclave in a sprawling metropolis—but she was exhausted. The entire semester was consumed by the Title IX process, and another one, in addition to her studies, seemed unimaginable. She agreed. Still, she was shocked when she saw that the agreement included a nondisclosure clause forbidding her from discussing the details of the case.
That marked the end of the formal investigation, but it was not the end of her ordeal. Afterward, she struggled to keep her grades up, fighting anxiety and depression and lingering shame. Worse still, she was assaulted twice more by two different boys while she was a student at Moody. She mechanically continued to go to her classes, but she could not bear to be looked at; she took to wearing black, baggy clothes and sunglasses.
She was desperate for some comfort or guidance from an authority figure. She confided in a professor she didn’t know well but with whom she had always felt a sort of kinship. “Oh,” she asked, “were you playing with fire?” The hope she had felt crumbled. She cautiously approached another professor: “How do you move past trauma?” she asked. He wanted to know what had happened, and she told him. He told her that she needed to take responsibility for the part she played in her own assaults.
“Every single authority figure I ever talked to completely failed me,” Wohlers says. “My department head, professors, I trusted the Title IX department, they all completely failed me. So I just kind of gave up.”
While to some degree all college campuses share blame in failing to create a safe environment for female students, schools that adhere to a religious standard have a very specific set of circumstances that complicate what should be straightforward: that sexual assault is a crime that requires consequences for the perpetrators and protection for the survivors. In July, for instance, 12 women from Liberty University, another prestigious evangelical institution, filed a lawsuit that echoes many of the claims Mother Jones has investigated at Moody, including a moral code that complicates sexual violence reporting.
The heart of the problem is that religious tenets at places like Moody and Liberty are inextricably woven into campus and academic culture, creating a fundamental conflict with Title IX’s aim to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex. “In evangelicalism, there’s a sort of fantasy, that we would like to be just really peculiar in our ability to forgive and restore and to not look like other communities, where the forgiveness of Jesus and his demeanor and restoration would be exemplified,” the current Moody professor told me. “My sense is that we often offer that to sexual abusers. We want to be excessively, strangely forgiving…and of course the sexual abusers, these guys are predators—they know how to talk the talk.”
“My best #MBIAdvice is to not go to MBI.’”
“I had no clue when I was there that anybody at Moody had ever gone through this before.”
Students outside the Moody Bible InstituteJeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty
Title IX, of course, is supposed to provide some measure of accountability. But its enforcement can be inconsistent, particularly at religious institutions, which are provided a carveout that allows them to claim that the law is in conflict with their beliefs. “They can’t say, ‘We’re religious, and therefore we don’t have to comply with all of it,’” explains Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “They have to indicate which parts…actually conflict with their religious tenants.” In practice, this has largely allowed certain religious institutions to simply dismiss or ignore Title IX violations. The lawsuit against Liberty University, for instance, alleges broad mishandling of Title IX complaints, including cases in which women were punished when they reported their assaults because they themselves had violated rules prohibiting premarital sex.
The law became even weaker under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who expanded the applicability of religious exemptions to include nearly any school that decided to claim them. What’s more, DeVos made it possible for schools to invoke the carveout’s protection at any time, even after a complaint was filed. “Under the [revised] Title IX rule, the [Department of Education] made it very clear that schools don’t have to request an exemption in advance,” Patel says. “There were reports of schools being worried that they were being shamed [when it was] disclosed that they were receiving an exemption—basically stating that they wanted to be able to discriminate against certain types of people and why—and they didn’t want that to be publicly available.”
Moody didn’t become a Title IX school until 2012, when it began accepting federal funds. Among its first Title IX complaints was a case in 2016, when a female student, Coria Thornton, tried to join the pastoral studies program. She vividly recalls going to the curriculum desk, filling out the required form, and being told that was not a choice she was allowed to make. She also remembers how a group of male students simply laughed at her when she told them she wanted to be a pastor.
Then–communications professor Janay Garrick helped Thornton file a Title IX complaint, arguing that denying women the opportunity to focus on pastoral studies was discriminatory. The two women recall the Title IX administrators, namely Ward, rejecting Thornton’s complaint on a minute technicality. (Ward did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.) After Garrick threatened to escalate the issue to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Moody eventually chose to open the program to women.
While the matter was technically closed without any formal Title IX adjudication, the culture that created the conflict in the first place did not change, leaving Thornton and Garrick to deal with the social and professional fallout. Thornton recalls hostility and isolation while she worked toward her degree. “There was definitely a lot of gossip and things,” she remembers. “It was a really tense environment.” Garrick, who is an ordained minister and says she was clear during the hiring process about her egalitarian views, was shunned by her colleagues and administrators for helping Thornton. “I didn’t imagine the extent of what [the cultural differences] would be like,” Garrick says. By her second year as a professor at Moody, she says Dean Arens was not speaking to her. “Tim Arens is at the center of brushing all these sexual assault charges under the rug,” Garrick says. “It’s his rug.”
In 2018, Garrick filed her own lawsuit, claiming discrimination under Title IX and alleging retaliation for her advocacy for female students who wished to pursue ordination. Her complaint noted that the school had not explicitly claimed exemption status by the time the lawsuit was filed, but in 2019 a court cited the exemption carveout multiple times in a memorandum opinion. The case is ongoing.
Even as Garrick’s lawsuit has moved forward, what was happening at Moody largely escaped the notice of the general public. But then, starting last year, much more started to come to light—and it became impossible to ignore.
Wohlers managed to graduate from Moody in 2019. It was only a year later that she learned that hers was not an isolated experience. “I had no clue when I was there that anybody at Moody had ever gone through this before. And now the girls I’m talking to, I’m like, ‘Man, you were there when I was there going through this—had I known, we would have…’” she tells me, trailing off.
It started with a Facebook post. In June 2020, her alma mater had shared an image of a slender blond woman in a cap and gown, overlaid with big white letters asking alumni to “Give us your best #MBIAdvice.” Instead, Anna Heyward, a 2017 graduate, used it as a warning: “My best #MBIAdvice is to not go to MBI,” she wrote when she shared the image. “95 percent of their faculty, staff, and students are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and trump [sic] worshippers.”
When Wohlers came across the post, she immediately saw her own experience reflected back at her. Heyward wrote that, when she reported her sexual assault to the school, administrators mishandled it and “manipulated me into not telling anyone in order to graduate.” A list of similar allegations from other students followed beneath Heyward’s post. “People, I think, really realized that it wasn’t just them,” Heyward tells me. “Because it’s such a taboo subject to talk about at Moody.”
Anna Heyward has organized a group of survivors who are pushing for change on Moody’s campus.
Courtesy of Anna HeywardWohlers reached out to Heyward and shared what had happened to her. As Heyward heard more stories like Wohlers’ and like her own, she began to realize that she was bearing witness to an epidemic of abuse running largely unchecked throughout the campus. Over the next couple months, she collected 11 stories from fellow survivors—some named, some anonymous—and compiled them in a Google Doc. These women, the MBI Survivors, then used their individual stories to call out institutional failings at Moody in an accompanying Change.org petition, which had collected more than 3,000 signatures by the time this story was published. “Harm that includes instances of stalking, discrimination, sexual assault, and rape…were made worse when members of our community in positions of authority, specifically Dean Arens, seem to have an inability or unwillingness to act to address them,” the petition says. “While we have no desire to malign individuals out of spite, we feel it must be addressed that a few individuals who have been tasked with protection of Moody students have failed.” The petition also asks that Puente, the associate dean of students, be removed from her position as Title IX coordinator. (Puente did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.)
In the Google Doc and in conversations over the past few months, Heyward has expanded on what happened to her at Moody. By her 21st birthday, she was in a relationship with another student who she says turned abusive. That night, he insisted they have a drink to celebrate, despite her hesitation to violate Moody’s rules prohibiting alcohol; he waved her off when she said she was getting too inebriated and put another glass of wine to her mouth to force her to drink, all in the name of properly commemorating the occasion. Later that night, he raped her. After it happened, she could only feel shame—when she tried to confront him, he told her that she tempted him and he was just doing what she wanted.
The abuse continued, not always under the influence of alcohol. She internalized it as her fault. Heyward felt that all her work to stay holy and abstinent had been for nothing, and it was easier to just let him do what he wanted; she was tired of fighting. There was also no one she could talk to. She felt she had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that was that. Then, one night he hit her. She eventually reached a breaking point and ended the relationship. (Heyward’s ex-boyfriend declined to comment to Mother Jones.)
Shortly after she broke it off, she was called into the office of the urban ministry outreach, where she and her ex served. Two faculty members, including Craigen, the former professor, told her they “knew everything.” Heyward let the whole story spill out of her. The faculty members encouraged her to go to “Dean” and the Title IX office.
She was stunned by his responses. “But you drank the alcohol, right?” he asked. “What did you do to deserve to be hit?” Arens put her on probation for the remainder of her time at Moody as punishment for her sins, and he also forbade her from dating because, he said, she “had a problem with tempting male students.” By the time the meeting was over, she was drained; she numbly entered the Title IX office and told Puente she couldn’t go back through the story again; could she please just get the details from Dean Arens? Puente said she was sorry for what Heyward had been through, but if she filed a Title IX report, it would ruin her ex’s life. She left without filing one.
After Heyward reported her assault, Dean Arens asked, “But you drank the alcohol, right?”
Courtesy of Anna Heyward“It’s very troubling that the school would punish her if she came forward with a report of sexual assault, because that’s going to have a chilling effect if survivors know that they could be punished for other conduct that occurred leading up to the assault,” Patel says. “The school should instead be creating conditions that make students feel safe and comfortable with reporting.”
Heyward saw her ex once more, about a month after the breakup, at a small end-of-year banquet celebrating the urban ministry. Heyward was asked to give a speech, and after she had agreed, she was informed that the ex would be there despite her requests for protection from him. It would be a shame, someone on staff suggested, for all his hard work to go uncelebrated. That night, Heyward delivered her speech. Afterward, the emotion she’d been working so hard to hold back began to burst forth. She fled to the bathroom and sobbed. “It was honestly one of the worst days of my life,” Heyward says.
As time passed, Heyward realized that she needed to do whatever she could to ensure no one else went through a similar experience.
When most people think of Title IX, it comes down to sexual assault. But the environment at Moody, and the insidious way it devalues women, enabled a whole range of abuse and other potential Title IX violations. And in these cases, Moody proved wholly inept in supporting vulnerable students. If, after all, the powers that be refuse even to acknowledge that anything sexual, let alone unwanted, could be happening on campus, how could they possibly provide a remedy when it does?
Christine Bowers, another member of the MBI Survivors group and a 2020 graduate, alleges Moody’s office of residential life failed to intervene in the abuse and harassment she experienced at the hands of a roommate. The conflict started as many roommate conflicts have—over the way beds are arranged. The roommate wished to position the beds on top of one another and for Bowers to take the top bunk, even though Bowers has physical disabilities and needed her bed to be low to the ground. Yet when Bowers returned from winter break, her bed had been raised so she could not get in. She went to her resident adviser to seek counsel and was told, “Just pray for her. She has a lot going on.”
From there, it escalated. “She started nitpicking my body, nitpicking the way I dress,” Bowers says. Or if Bowers was in the room while her roommate changed, she would remove her clothes slowly, accusing Bowers of enjoying it while she mimicked a striptease. When Bowers herself changed in the room, her roommate would act repulsed and insist she do so elsewhere. If she were within arm’s reach of Bowers, she would spank her. On a campus where homosexuality was considered grounds for punishment, if not expulsion, Bowers feared somehow these interactions would suggest she was queer; she also now believes this made people in power more reluctant to intervene.
Then, one day, toward the end of the spring semester, Bowers came into her room to find her roommate with a friend, laughing, watching a video. The roommate waved her over, and Bowers saw that the video was of her, asleep, while her roommate humped the air around her and mimed spanking her. It had been posted to Snapchat. “I brush it off and go, ‘Haha, so funny,’” Bowers says. “But inside I’m dying.” (Bowers’ former roommate did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones.)
“On one hand, I really love Moody, I really truly do—I don’t think you can get a better Bible education anywhere. But I was left with some really heavy scars.”
Courtesy of Christine BowersIt took the summer for Bowers to process all that had happened as more than just a bad roommate situation and to see it clearly as sexual harassment. When she returned to campus in the fall, she wrote in the MBI Survivors’ Google Doc, her “depression also flared up” and she “was barely functioning and going to class.” She sought out Puente, whom she knew from her work as president of the student disability ministry group. “I had heard stories from other girls on my floor about Rachel Puente and Dean Arens and the Title IX process, but I never really gave it credence because I’m like you…guys are being overdramatic, you’re just more liberal-leaning, you probably just don’t like the ruling or whatever,” she says.
She recalls the initial interaction with Puente as somewhat brusque—Puente said she was sorry for what she’d experienced, gave her a form to fill out, and sent her on her way. When Bowers returned with the form, Puente frowned and asked if Bowers had a copy of the video. Bowers shook her head; of course, she didn’t. Puente took the report, told Bowers there wasn’t much she could do, and sent her on her way. Later, Puente informed Bowers that she had spoken to the two girls who had taken the video, and they had insisted that Bowers “just happened to be in the background during some fun,” she recounts in the Google Doc. And with that, the investigation into Bowers’ complaint was over.
“On one hand, I really love Moody, I really truly do—I don’t think you can get a better Bible education anywhere,” Bowers tells me. “But I was left with some really heavy scars. They healed wounds, and stitched me up, and at the same time, they were cutting new ones.”
For some students, like Audrey Chiles, these complicated, even predatory relationships extended to faculty members. When Chiles, who is not part of the MBI Survivors group and is sharing her story publicly here for the first time under the protection of a pseudonym, got an email in the fall of 2010 from a former professor asking to meet, her first thought was that something had gone wrong. Had she failed the required class? That didn’t seem possible—Introduction to Ministry hadn’t even been demanding.
Donald Martindell was a busy man, he told her, and his course load and administrative responsibilities as both a professor and an athletic director afforded him an assistant. His current assistant was graduating, and would she be interested in the job? On-campus jobs like this were rare because they were popular for their convenience and perks, like opportunities to stay on campus during the summer at a reduced housing rate. There was no need to send a cover letter or resume, he assured her; he had seen all he needed to see in her class participation, casually referring to a specific instance Chiles didn’t recall, which she found odd. But the opportunity was particularly appealing, especially since she was a transfer student who had been struggling with feeling isolated. She accepted on the spot.
The first few months were fairly standard. She came into work three or four days a week, a few hours at a time, and soon her new boss became a regular presence in her tiny, dim office. Then he began to close the heavy wooden door during his visits, despite the mundanity of the conversation. From there, he began to find excuses for physical touch—to pick a stray hair off her sweater or gently pull at a sleeve and inquire whether her shirt was new. “It’s an oddly invasive thing to do,” she recalls. “But it wasn’t like he lingered or necessarily tried to touch explicitly inappropriate parts of my body. It just kept me off balance a little bit.”
As Chiles spent more time working with Martindell, her discomfort increased. She was 20; he appeared to be somewhere in his 50s. With each passing day, he seemed to grow fonder of her—he began to refer to her by her first initial rather than her name, telling her that her makeup made her eyes look pretty. “You’re my rock,” he told her. “I don’t know what I would do without you.” He began reading through her Twitter feed to bring up her tweets in conversation, usually settling into the chair on the other side of her desk after he closed the door. She smiled tightly through these interactions, planting her feet firmly against the plastic mat under her chair to eliminate any chance of rolling closer to him.
As the spring semester ended, she began to prepare for a summer study-abroad trip to Europe. She recalls him growing melancholy at the prospect of her departure. “Before I left to go, he called me into his office, and again, of course, closed the door, and gave me a father-to-daughter sort of speech, except I was not his daughter,” she remembers. Solemnly, he told her, “If you are ever in any trouble, if you get stuck, if you get caught in a situation, if anything happens to you, you need to get a hold of me, and I’ll do whatever the hell I need to do to make sure you’re okay.”
She went; she was okay, and in fact, she had the time of her life—she spent her 21st birthday at the Globe Theatre in London watching a play about Anne Boleyn. “I did not need a lick of alcohol to feel like I had a very satisfactory 21st birthday,” she says.
And yet, even though alcohol is banned on campus, there was a case of beer waiting for her in her office when she returned. It was underneath her desk, and she found a carton of cigarettes in her desk drawer. The note said, “Welcome to adulthood.” Chiles was enraged; she angrily went into Martindell’s office, asking him what he was thinking—didn’t he know this could get her expelled or kicked out of her theater group? He quickly told her it was just a joke. Still, the gifts continued. After she was in a school theater production, he came by her dorm room around 10 p.m. to give her flowers and a card. At the office, he gave her a baseball card of a player who shared her last name. There was a coffee mug that said something along the lines of “We’re friends and all but you know too much.” The mug, he told her, was something he’d picked up in a tourist shop on vacation; what he really wanted to get her was a sign that said, “I love you a latte,” but he couldn’t because his wife was with him. He began to mention his home life more—his in-laws were coming to town, or he wished she would come to dinner because her presence would make it bearable. And, oh yes, his wife was going to be out of town for a week. She tried to ignore it all and do her job.
In the late spring of 2012, Martindell told her he needed to speak with her off campus, suggesting a Starbucks. Chiles warily met him there, and he told her that he was stepping down from his position as athletic director because he was overburdened. “I’m just so grateful you’re going to be here, because I couldn’t do this without you,” he told her. “You know how much I love that position. You’re my rock.”
He told her, “I agape you.”
That startled Chiles. He was using the Greco-Christian word that means love, but it’s a very specific kind of love—it’s pure, unconditional, the kind of love that exists between Christ and the Church. It is not romantic, but it is powerful love in its highest form.
Meanwhile, the gifts kept coming, becoming so extravagant she had to turn them down. He wanted to buy her a laptop; he presented her with a check for $100. (Martindell did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.)
Finally, at the behest of her friends and family, she went to Moody’s human resources department. Her meeting with the HR representative was very professional and matter of fact. Chiles laid out all that had happened, and the representative told her that she would likely need to resign. A couple days later, Chiles checked her inbox and found an email from a generic Moody HR address, telling her that she was to complete her hours for that day, go back to her dorm, and send an email to Martindell resigning. She was not to speak to anyone about what had happened, and they would not help her find other work, though they did send a list of open positions on campus that she could apply for.
“It was horrible. I had to work through the entire day and look at him and talk to him and talk to other co-workers knowing that I had to go back to my dorm that night and send an email that was a resignation with no explanation,” she says. “Human Resources never presented Title IX as an option for me.”
After the MBI Survivors’ Change.org petition went live in October 2020, school officials sprang into action and announced plans to seek an independent investigation into their Title IX processes. Arens and Puente would step down for the duration of the investigation, though soon after the announcement, Arens made the decision to take an early retirement.
The school hired Grand River Solutions, a California firm that provides investigative services to schools that are facing serious criticism regarding Title IX processes. From the start, Grand River Solutions was cautious in its messaging about the scope of its work, taking care to emphasize that its function was simply to recommend improvements to the process—any real action would have to be taken by the school.
In mid-April, Moody announced that the investigation had been completed and issued an apology “to those members of our Moody community who experienced a lack of empathy and follow-through” regarding their Title IX reports and “those whose reports were not processed as rapidly and efficiently as they could have been.” The administration said the school had developed almost a dozen commitments based on the report that would be “fully operational” by the fall semester. (When asked about the allegations in this article, a Moody spokesperson also listed steps the institution is taking to improve Title IX processes, including expanding the relevant office, following the 2020 audit of its Title IX compliance by Grand River Solutions.)
Heyward says she was pleasantly surprised that the report was made public and pleased that investigators were clear that Moody is in need of reform. Indeed, the report identifies a “lack of trust and confidence” in the institution’s processes for handling Title IX cases and suggests that the school “address its overall organizational structure” to better process reports and respond to allegations appropriately.
But Heyward and others say they can’t help but worry all this won’t mean much in practice. For one, the report was not made public until after the Board of Trustees met and approved the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, possibly allowing the school to use financial limitations to avoid real reform. And while many survivors felt their interviews with the investigators were reasonable and unbiased, they know the investigators are being paid by the institution they are investigating. “There’s money involved,” Heyward says. “I don’t trust anything Moody does.”
Heyward also says the group is hurt that school leadership hasn’t reached out to them directly since the report was made public; in fact, the MBI Survivors received an email from Dwight Perry, senior vice president, provost, and dean of education, explaining that the administration would no longer respond to emails from the Google account they’d set up. “This doesn’t mean anything if we don’t see policy change,” Heyward says.
There is a much bigger reason, though, to be skeptical: The investigation didn’t take on any of the underlying cultural and religious issues that enabled the abuse in the first place. Grand River Solutions does not carry any religious affiliation—a feature touted by both the firm and by Moody—though that may have been a weakness rather than a strength. In a Twitter thread, Moody alumna Emily Joy Allison—who is a co-founder of #ChurchToo, a campaign that has exposed sexual abuse within religious institutions—says that true reform cannot happen on campus without a serious reevaluation of some of the school’s beliefs with regards to gender.
Overall, the report defers to the stringent evangelical culture at Moody, saying that the solution can be found in upholding the principles that the school holds dear. While it does attempt to reconcile those values with some forms of accountability, it also seeks to “reflect and embrace Moody’s values.” For example, the report recommends that “Moody continue to utilize the guidance and procedures set forth in the SLG and Employee Information Guide to address consensual sexual contact that is inconsistent with Moody’s evangelical Christian values,” avoiding altogether the weighty stigmas that create a barrier to reporting.
In turn, in Moody’s 11 commitments, which broadly outline a new dedication to the Title IX process, there is clear intent to adhere to its biblical values. The pledge, for instance, says the school will “enhance education to clearly distinguish between consensual sexual conduct prohibited by Moody’s student life policies and non-consensual sexual conduct.” But how can it do that, survivors wonder, without tackling purity culture—which does not even engage with consent, because it refuses to acknowledge sex to begin with? “The problem that I saw was that there wasn’t this healthy, open dialogue about human sexuality,” Garrick, the former communications professor, says. “Instead of talking about it, all these external rules were put in place.”
In the end, this makes it difficult for the survivors, who see purity culture and complementarianism as inextricable components of their assaults, to imagine that the school could become safer without reckoning with its ideas about gender and power.
Craigen, the former professor who led the urban ministries program, also acknowledges how deeply these ideas have ruined even the best intentions. In our conversation, he is adamant that the Moody administration isn’t malicious—but he does realize the campus culture has deep and glaring flaws that include sexism. “Only men are seen up front,” Craigen says. “I think patriarchy—even soft, nice patriarchy, if I can use that phrase—probably worked against some stuff being addressed. I think it made us feel like, ‘Well, we care about these things, we would never do that, our men would never do that.’” Of course, Craigen acknowledges, they would, and they have.
There are more Moody survivors than anyone can definitively say. Some declined to speak to Mother Jones for this story; some, for their own reasons, have been unable to come forward at all. There are surely many names that we cannot know. But now, many of them at least see they aren’t alone. The MBI Survivors share trauma, to be sure, though they also share much more from months of Zoom meetings to discuss holding their alma mater accountable; email chains about strategy; and a social media group for general support.
For her part, Wohlers has found healing within the community of survivors. Still, she feels she lost a piece of herself at Moody that she can’t get back. The first time we spoke, she told me she isn’t looking to “watch Moody burn.” “I just wish that the school was better equipped to deal with stuff like this, because I think they’ve swept a lot of stuff under the rug. And it’s not just like, a Moody problem. It’s a Christian culture problem.”
Wohlers remains steadfast in her faith in God—it is the people and the institutions that she no longer trusts. By sharing her story, and by moving to Thailand later this year to work with victims of sex trafficking, she hopes to become the person she had needed for support while she was at Moody. “I’ve kind of told God, ‘Okay, if you’re going to let me go through this, you better use it,’” she says. “I hope someday they learn to be better about it as a whole, because we deserve better. And that’s not how Jesus would have acted.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Moody Bible Institute official who informed Anna Heyward that her former partner would attend at an end-of-year banquet. The error has been corrected.