Moody Bible Institute claims to provide “ministry to victims of sexual exploitation” as part of its religious education. Credit: Jesse Garrison / FLICKR

Months after droves of Moody Bible Institute students, parents, and alumni accused the religious college of grossly mishandling sexual violence claims, a group of survivors say the school’s administration has ignored their calls for change and shut them out of a third-party investigation.

In an October 2020 petition on that’s garnered thousands of signatures, a group calling themselves MBI Survivors spoke out against what they and their supporters say is a culture of fear, misogyny, and unchecked sexual abuse at the school—with a majority of the accusations specifically naming Tim Arens, a now former vice president and dean of student life, and Rachel Puente, former Title IX coordinator, for sweeping assault claims under the rug.

In the aftermath of the petition, Arens resigned abruptly in November, more than six months before he was expected to retire. Puente has been put on administrative leave pending a third-party investigation by Title IX consulting firm Grand River Solutions, the school said in November.

But despite those public efforts, survivors say nothing has changed at the school to keep them safe.

Moody Bible Institute, founded in 1886 by evangelist and businessman Dwight Lyman Moody, is a fundamentalist Christian higher education institution that offers academic degree programs mostly revolving around religion, such as biblical languages, youth ministry, and “ministry to victims of sexual exploitation,” their website states. The school has nearly 1,500 undergraduate students at its Old Town campus, with an additional 1,500 enrolled online, in graduate programs, and at locations in Spokane and Michigan.

But, as MBI Survivors’s petition alleges, the school isn’t exactly the haven its administrators would have prospective students—particularly female students—believe. “While many of us have found God and His calling on our lives within the walls of Moody, some of us have also faced harm. Harm that includes instances of stalking, discrimination, sexual assault, and rape,” the petition states.

Within the petition and its thousands of comments, current and former students who have survived sexual assault and harassment detailed their alleged experiences at the school with painful specificity. In an accompanying document, several wrote more specifically about the abuse they say they faced at the school.

Anna Heyward, a Moody alum who is leading the petition, described dating and then being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by a Moody graduate student who also worked at the school. At one point, she told the Reader, he hit her in the face just days after he raped her.

Heyward wrote that after she spoke with Arens to detail the physical and sexual abuse she endured, he began to interrogate her and brush off her allegations.

She says he asked her, among other things: “What did you do to deserve to be hit?”

In response to the allegations she made, Heyward says she lost a scholarship. She also had to send monthly e-mails to Arens confirming that she was “following his rules,” and was additionally told that in order to graduate from Moody, she had to agree not to press charges against the man she says raped her, and had to additionally agree not to speak about the alleged assault with anyone.

Others who contributed to the document made similar accusations—that they were told they had to drop charges against abusers in order to graduate.

The allegations against Arens and Moody, however, are nothing new. One former student who says she went to the school in 1995 wrote that the culture that Arens perpetuated then had long-lasting repercussions on her life.

“Dean Arens and others in leadership have—for decades—normalized situations of emotional, verbal, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse against women,” she wrote.

And it’s not just students who say that Moody Bible Institute mistreats women. Janay Garrick, an ordained minister and former communications instructor, sued the school in Illinois federal court in 2018 over gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, and what she called “a campus-wide hostility toward women.”

Garrick told the Reader that she was often belittled by male colleagues for her appearance and her clothing, was unduly denied a promotion, and had to fight to convince the school to admit female students into a pastoral ministry degree program.

“They are rooted in a theological doctrine that women are less than, even though they espouse that we’re all made in the imago dei, the image of God,” Garrick said. “And it’s not only the lack of visibility of women in high levels of administration, lack of visibility in key speaking roles. If you are a woman, like I was, who was vocal and believed in teaching critical thought over indoctrination, then you’re called into offices and chastised for your dissent and your inflammatory rhetoric.”

According to the school’s website, while nearly half of its enrolled undergraduates are women, there is only one woman among its six senior academic leaders.

Garrick also said she spearheaded Title IX complaints on behalf of students over discrimination and assault that went nowhere. She says she was fired in April 2017 but had to continue teaching until December after she vocally supported female students on campus and opposed what she felt were sexist and discriminatory policies.

In October 2020, an Illinois federal judge refused to dismiss Garrick’s case outright—trimming a hostile work environment claim but leaving those alleging disparate treatment and retaliation claims intact.

Through director of public relations Brian Regnerus, Moody Bible declined multiple requests for interviews with administrators.

The allegations against Arens, Puente, and Moody come after the controversial tenure of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who sought to insulate from punishment those accused of sexual assault at colleges and universities. In May 2020, the Department of Education released a final rule that activists and legal experts, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said at the time “dramatically reduc[es] schools’ obligations to address sexual harassment and assault.”

Among other things, activists said the rule uses an overly narrow definition of sexual harassment and allows colleges and universities to dodge their duty to investigate off-campus harassment or assaults between students.

The Biden Administration has promised to reverse those rules and to strengthen protections for sexual assault victims on college campuses. President Biden, an outspoken advocate for sexual violence victims, stated on his campaign website that his administration would “restore the Title IX guidance for colleges, including the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, which outlined for schools how to fairly conduct Title IX proceedings,” and would increase fines on colleges for violations of the Clery Act, which requires federally funded colleges and universities to report information about crime on or near campus.

The MBI Survivors’ petition makes four requests of Moody president Mark Jobe that “we feel . . . will help our community address the harms that have been caused, which will then lead to healing.”

They are to:

  • “Create a process for Student and Alumni voices to be considered in the naming of a new Dean of Students to replace Dean Arens.
  • Replace Rachel Puente as the Title IX coordinator and create a process for Student and Alumni voices to be considered in the naming of a new Title IX coordinator.
  • Remove any Title IX decision makers who also have disciplinary powers (as Title IX requires), and replace them with impartial members of our community who can evaluate Title IX claims without considering potential disciplinary measures for the reporter.
  • Annually publish Title IX complaints made, with identifying details redacted, in a way accessible to Moody students, Alumni, and parents.”

In an October 20 statement following the petition, Jobe said Puente would step away from her part-time Title IX Coordinator role, and that Arens would also step away from any student discipline-related responsibilities during the course of a third-party investigation into the school’s Title IX office and its handling of the allegations in the petition and accompanying document. But the statement took an additional step to defend Arens and Puente, and the school’s feelings toward the pair.

“This temporary reassignment of a portion of their responsibilities does not mean, and let us be clear, that we have determined that Dr. Arens, Mrs. Puente, or anyone else involved in these issues have done anything inappropriate,” Jobe says in the statement. “Please do not read into these actions any judgement by us toward Dr. Arens or Ms. Puente.”

Roy Patterson, a former community relations director at the school, has since been named interim vice president and dean of students.

Anna Heyward started a petition about Moody's handling of sexual violence cases that's garnered thousands of signatures of support.
Anna Heyward started a petition about Moody’s handling of sexual violence cases that’s garnered thousands of signatures of support.Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

But Heyward and others say they were shut out of a process to select Arens’s replacement, and have additionally been left in the dark about the third-party review of their claims. On February 8 of this year, Moody Bible administrators wrote in a public update that the fact-gathering phase of the investigation had concluded, with Grand River Solutions now reviewing the information the company gleaned during its review.

But again, sexual assault survivors at the school say they have been ignored. After the MBI Survivors account on Twitter shared that only four of the 11 women who met with the school in October had been interviewed by Grand River Solutions as part of its investigation, the school extended the previously closed fact-finding phase.

Heyward also told the Reader that Jobe blocked the MBI Survivors account on Twitter two days after the school extended the fact-gathering phase of the investigation.

Grand River Solutions has not responded to the Reader’s requests for comment.

Alongside this reckoning over misogyny and sexual assault at the school, many students who identify as LGBTQ+ also said they have been mocked, ridiculed, and abused by school employees and classmates alike, signaling a more pervasive lack of safety.

Megan Steffen, who graduated from Moody Bible in 2019, says she first went to the school to be close to her sister, who was also attending, and because of a no-alcohol policy that she and her family thought would help her stay sober after a fight with alcohol abuse.

“I think about what I was thinking, and it feels like there’s nothing I could have done to prepare for the chaos that was about to ensue,” Steffen said.

After a year and a half of “getting by” at Moody— which she said involved “walking the walk” and keeping her head down—Steffen was getting closer to fellow students and felt more comfortable being her authentic self, meaning coming out as a lesbian.

After she came out, Steffen’s experience on campus shifted dramatically. She would get called into administrators’ offices for social media posts and unfounded campus rumors. While administrators would schedule meetings under the guise of checking in on her, Steffen said she would often be blindsided by a barrage of accusations.

“I don’t even know how to describe it. It just felt like chaos and a whirlwind,” Steffen said. “I literally felt crazy those final two years.”

As for faculty and staff, Steffen faced what she calls a more organized effort to punish her for being queer as her time at Moody came to a close: a handful of professors reached out to the college’s administration to object to her diploma when it came time for her to graduate.

“I had to try and make a case for myself as to why I deserved that diploma that I paid for and had completed,” Steffen said. She did eventually receive her diploma.

Another former student, Maddie DeVaughn, echoed Steffen’s experiences at the school, particularly the homophobia and near constant surveillance from students and employees.

DeVaughn says they were excited about attending a religious institution when they started at Moody in 2017.

“I went to Moody because I loved Jesus a frickin’ lot,” DeVaughn said. “And I wanted to learn about theology, and I loved reading the Bible. I was working in ministry before, and I was out to myself. I loved Christianity, and who I thought God was at the time. I was really trying to follow what I thought God wanted for me.”

“It’s really easy to want to go to Moody,” they said. “It’s technically really cool. If you’re a Christian, and you want to move somewhere, and you want to be with people your age, it’s a college.”

One of their worst tormentors was a classmate: “One of my girls in my small group was like, ‘You know, you’re going to hell for this right?’ And I trusted her because I thought she was cool, and she was not cool,” DeVaughn said. “She consistently was just like, ‘Well, that’s because you’re a dyke.’ And she would leave me notes and be like, ‘I’m praying for you.’”

The unending abuse eventually pushed DeVaughn to the edge, and after a suicide attempt, they described a concerningly cavalier interaction with school personnel regarding an obvious mental health crisis.

“I was literally dripping in water from Lake Michigan after trying to drown myself and two public safety officers were like, ‘Oh, you know, I get sad sometimes too,’” DeVaughn said.

Both DeVaughn and Steffen signed the Heyward-led petition. And like the claims of sexual violence and misogyny, their claims and concerns remain unaddressed.

And until Moody makes more substantial changes, Heyward and others say that the school will continue to be unsafe, particularly for female and queer students.

“Until there is real change implemented, abusers can roam at Moody untouchable,” Heyward said. “My hope is that Moody would make the changes they need to abide by Title IX law, while also creating an environment that supports victims.”   v