“We believe there are some bad things that have happened,” says Prairie Bible Institute’s www.prairie.edu president, Mark Maxwell. He adds that he has personally heard “half a dozen stories that seem to ring true.”
Maxwell is referring to allegations of sexual abuse connected to Prairie, a Christian Bible school founded in Three Hills, Alberta, 90 years ago, by the current president’s grandfather, L.E. Maxwell.
While the issue is not wholly new, it gained momentum in the summer of 2011 when some former students set up a Facebook page for their peers, and allegations of abuse started surfacing. In fact, discussion of the issue became so pervasive on the site that it was taken down; however, the discussion moved to another Facebook page: We Were Prairie Bible School Kids.
Finally, in November 2011, Mark Maxwell took hundreds of pages of the Facebook discussion to the RCMP.
As in many such cases, accusations and denials abound so that it is difficult to determine the extent and nature of the problem.
Maxwell and PBI managing director Peter Mal say they while there have been a lot of innuendoes and accusations, they only know for sure of “a few isolated incidents over a number of decades” and note that close to 20,000 people have come through the campus during its history. However, Maxwell adds that “if even a quarter of the accusations are true,” then there is justification for police involvement.
On the other hand, Linda Fossen www.lindafossen.com, who has been one of the administrators of the Facebook page, along with Catherine Darnell of Ontario, alleges that she knows of “more than 90 victims” dating back to the 1950s.
Fossen herself is one of them. A few years ago, she wrote a book, Straight from the Donkey’s Mouth, alleging that her father abused her for ten years, including when he was a married student at Prairie. Nothing was ever reported at the time, and Fossen’s father, apparently still pastoring in the United States, has vigorously denied the charges. It was this book that helped bring the issue out into the open, and led other victims to contact Fossen. She has since written another book, Out of the Miry Clay: Freedom from Childhood Sexual Abuse, and says she is currently writing a third book, on forgiveness. Fossen lives in Florida and runs an abuse-related charity, I am Whole, Inc. http://iamwholeinc.com
A story by Jeremy Klaszus in The Calgary Herald reported a 2002 incident when a 14-year-old student was assaulted by another student on campus. Prairie reportedly refused to report the incident to police but suspended the girl. However, the assailant was convicted, and the girl was readmitted, but allegedly barred from attending youth events with other males. Apparently Prairie paid a $20,750 settlement to the girl.
There was also an incident in 2006 when a high school student said she was sexually assaulted by a young man who was working in the kitchen at Prairie. The incident was reported to police, but no charges were ever laid. The student, however, has told her story publicly.
Maxwell notes that that incident does not concern Prairie Bible Institute directly but rather Prairie Christian Academy, a kindergarten-to-grade-12 school that was founded in 1938 as part of Prairie but which became an alternate school under the local public school board in 2004. However, critics point out that the incident took place on the Prairie campus, Prairie still lists the Academy on its website and the schools share dorms and kitchen facilities.
This illustrates a key aspect of the issue. The victims describe themselves as alumni and children of staff. Many were not students at the Bible college but at the Prairie elementary/high school. The children of staff members usually attended the elementary/high school.
Another case that has been linked to Prairie concerns Mark Archibald, a Prairie grad who has been convicted of sexual abuse at a Christian camp—but there has never been any evidence presented that he was guilty of anything while at Prairie.
Fossen has posted a half-dozen anonymous stories of abuse on her website.
Mark Maxwell says that the majority of cases he has heard about occurred decades earlier, and many occurred in private homes. Although some staff members have been implicated, no faculty members have been implicated as far as he knows, and most of the incidents were never reported to Prairie administrators until recently.
“Prairie leadership remains committed to dealing with allegations in an open and transparent manner,” Mark Maxwell said in a news release. He has freely talked with reporters about the issue, and the school has issued public statements.
Maxwell and the Prairie board have encouraged victims to contact police, and they have also offered to talk with victims. Fossen and others have rejected that offer, saying they do not trust Prairie administrators. Part of the distrust flows from very negative feedback she has received from Prairie alumni attempting to defend the school. However, half a dozen victims have talked to Prairie leaders, and one made plans to visit the campus as a step in the healing process.
A group of alumni have also offered to talk with victims, and some victims have taken them up on that offer.
Earlier this year, Fossen demanded that Prairie hire Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments (G.R.A.C.E.), a Virginia-based non-profit, to investigate the allegations or face a lawsuit. Prairie rejected that demand and instead asked Centre Street Church in Calgary to provide a “safe place to be heard.” Centre Street Church has a team of professional counsellors led by Miriam Möllering, who has a doctorate in Biblical counseling and is Pastor of Life Care Ministries. A few victims have also accepted that offer.
One of the problems for any resolution process is that Prairie’s alumni, including the victims, are scattered around the world.
Bridging the Gap
One Prairie alumnus who has tried to bridge the gap between the school and the victims is Tim Callaway, pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church in nearby Airdrie, Alberta. www.fcbcairdrie.com
As a graduate student at Trinity Divinity School in Chicago in the 1980s, Callaway came across an article about an evangelical church leader who had been accused of incest. Almost nothing had been written about sexual abuse in churches up till that time, so Callaway decided to write his master’s thesis on the topic. He wanted to test experts’ opinion that sexual abuse was as bad, or worse, in religious contexts as in society as a whole—something he had a hard time believing at first. But he surveyed a group of pastors and discovered that almost all had encountered sexual abuse in their pastoral ministry and almost none had any clue how to handle it. This was the era when sexual abuse issues were just beginning to become public.
Then, a few years ago, Callaway wrote his doctoral dissertation on Prairie Bible Institute’s first six decades. That thesis, Training Disciplined Soldiers for Christ, will be published later this year. In the course of his research, Callaway came across stories of abuse. By this time, he had encountered hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse in his decades of church ministry, so he had no trouble believing that many of the stories were true.
Callaway cited Fossen’s book in his research, and she in turn asked him to be an advisor for her ministry to sexual abuse victims.
Callaway has publicly criticized Prairie’s leadership for its slowness to understand the extent of the problem and to properly respond to victims.
Callaway recalls one girl who was in his class at Prairie who abruptly left campus with her family in 1971. Callaway has since learned that the girl was raped by a Prairie student who was an ex-convict. (In those days, Prairie students did a lot of prison ministry, and some of the inmates who had been impacted for Christ enrolled as students after they had completed their sentences.) The girl’s family abruptly left campus when they became convinced Prairie’s administration was not going to do anything about the incident. Callaway finds the story essentially believable.
On the other hand, Callaway does not accept Fossen’s accusation that Prairie leadership was guilty of systematic “coverup and collusion” in regard to the abuse. For one thing, it is not fair to judge past actions by current standards, he says. Several decades ago, not much was known about sexual abuse, and no one knew what to do about it.
Callaway also points out that Prairie leaders were never informed about many of the cases, and in other cases they did act. He says, “I truly believe that if the administration had known about (what was being done to) Linda, they would have done something.”
Callaway’s family moved to the Prairie campus in 1959, and his father was on the Prairie board, so even though many cases of abuse never became known, Callaway knew more than most. He knew of staff being fired for sexual improprieties (usually sex between adults, not abuse) and of students (both male and female) being expelled for having homosexual sex.
Callaway also suggests that it is simplistic to suggest that the proper course would always have been to report cases to the police. That just wasn’t done decades ago. He agrees that Prairie administrators, like leaders in many religious institutions, can be faulted for trying to “protect the reputation of the Lord” at the expense of victims. However, he also suggests that going to the police isn’t always helpful. One big problem is the difficulty in obtaining evidence that will stand up in a court of law. “It doesn’t mean nothing happened,” he says, just that the charges are hard to prove. A good number of cases that have been reported to authorities have not resulted in charges.
Further, Callaway says, many victims do not want to publicly talk about what they have experienced. There are usually 10 to 15 victims for every one who comes forward. This helps explain why Mark Maxwell and the other Prairie leaders have only been contacted by a handful of victims, while dozens have contacted Fossen. “People who criticize Linda should realize that she speaks for 12 to 15 others who will never come forward,” he says. In fact, he suspects that there are likely many who will never even talk to Fossen.
“Many (victims) don’t want to embarrass their parents or send Dad to jail,” he says. “Many said all they needed was to tell someone.”
It is easy to see some frustration in the public statements of Mark Maxwell and other Prairie leaders. Despite what seem to be sincere attempts to be transparent and open to victims, many of the victims don’t trust them, and they are being blamed for events that happened decades ago and which, in many cases, Prairie leaders knew nothing about.
Maxwell says that police have told him that “crimes are committed by people,” not institutions and that the “school is just a location.” The school is not guilty of anything criminal unless there is collusion, and even then it is individual administrators who are guilty.
It is common for leaders of religious institutions to deny responsibility for sexual abuse, Callaway says, because that is what their lawyers tell them to say. The unspoken reality is that while individuals may be guilty of the crimes, it is usually the institutions that end up being sued.
This means that institutions have a responsibility to guard against abuse. Callaway says that police told him in a church context that the church is responsible for “anything that happens on our premises and anything done by an employee.”
Ironically, in the past, Prairie was “infamous for its social regulations to keep the genders apart,” Callaway says. L.E. Maxwell taught “death to self, crucifixion of self”, so the sexual abuse “stands out in contrast…It gets more attention in that environment.”
Mark Maxwell agrees, saying that “the black shows up against the light.”
On the other hand, Prairie also believed in the “total depravity” of human beings. “Where you have human beings, you will have all dimensions of immorality,” Callaway says. “This is the human condition.” So, as much as we would like to believe that the church is free of sexual sin, “more of it goes on than we would want to know.”
Callaway also points to the Bible, saying the Old Testament is full of accounts of sexual sin, even in King David.
Callaway also says that his research has taught him that sexual abuse is more common in “strongly authoritarian, patriarchal communities,” which Prairie certainly was in the past, because this gives authority figures power which they use to cover their abuse. “Men will use their role as head of the family to leverage abuse.”
Fossen says that her father quoted L.E. Maxwell’s teaching on parental authority while abusing her.
Mark Maxwell agrees that the “overly authoritarian” teaching of the earlier years is “something we should criticize ourselves for” because it made it “easier for abusers to get away with it.”
That teaching is one thing that has changed at Prairie.
On the other hand, since taking over two years ago, Maxwell has guided Prairie back to its roots of focusing on Bible training. In recent years, like many other Bible schools, Prairie had begun to move toward teaching arts and science like a university. But it hadn’t worked. At its peak, Prairie’s enrollment had reached about 500, but it had dropped to less than 150. With the return to a focus on Bible training, enrollment rose 17 percent last year to about 190, and the school is hoping for a further increase next year, in spite of the bad publicity in regard to sex abuse.
Peter Mal notes that while some people had “very bad experiences” at Prairie, many had “great experiences.”
But moving forward will also include dealing with the past. “It has been a painful experience for me to personally hear some of these stories of abuse,” Mark Maxwell said in one of Prairie’s news releases on the subject. “Prairie leadership remains committed to dealing with allegations in an open and transparent manner. To the best of our ability, our goal is to assist complainants to find healing, including, and where appropriate, to help call those responsible to account.”
Maxwell says he is not going to “waste time defending the reputation of the school or of God.” He adds that it would be wrong to “use God to defend people who did bad things. God didn’t do it, and He will help us get out of this.”
In an earlier interview, Callaway stated, “At the end of the day, getting this in the open is a good thing.”