Bernadine Irwin Brings #MeToo Movement to Adventist Church's Doorstep

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One of the repercussions of this #MeToo moment in which we are living is that many survivors of sexual abuse have been forced to relive the trauma they have experienced. For Bernadine Irwin, that trauma took place on the campus of a Seventh-day Adventist boarding academy within the Southwestern Union Conference. Please be advised that her story, which follows, includes accounts of sexual assault that may be disturbing for some readers.

 

On a mild October day in 1962, sixteen-year-old Bernadine Irwin had it out with God somewhere between Ozark Academy and the bridge where Dawn Hill East Road crosses Flint Creek two miles outside downtown Gentry, Arkansas.

“Where were you last night? God, where were you?”

She looked skyward, cheeks tear-streaked, and screamed, “What happened to your words, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you?’”

Only a month into her junior year at Ozark, Irwin had her childhood stripped away. She now contended with very grown-up anxieties: “Are you even real? When I needed you most, you weren’t there!”

The evening before, Irwin said, her dormitory dean sexually assaulted her in the dean’s private apartment attached to the dorm. (At Irwin’s request, this article withholds the name of the dean.)

Irwin described the assault this way:

She had insisted that I come to her apartment with her. I responded, "But [dean of women], I need to go now. I have a big geometry test in the morning, and I need to study for it." Her expression suddenly changed. She firmly said, "No! You are coming with me now. I'm going to show you something in my apartment." Her office in the dormitory was right next to her apartment, with just a door between. I felt a wave of fear as she firmly took my hand and led me into her apartment. She walked me past her living room and into her bedroom. She ordered me to lie down on her bed. I began to shiver, but I followed her instructions. She lay down beside me and firmly moved her body over mine. At that point it felt as though I were separated from my body. She began touching me where I had never been touched before. When I resisted she shouted, "Stop it! Lie still! You thought you were so good, but really you're just a slut. Lie quietly!"

She said that when the dean violated her completely, she began sobbing, resulting in her being struck by the dean.

“She responded by slapping me across the face and then shouted, ‘Slut! Slut! You're just a lump of shit! I should have known you'd be no good at this. Get out! Get out you piece of shit!  If you ever tell anyone about this, I'll kill you. I will find you and kill you!’”

Irwin recalled that when she returned to her room, it was after 11:00 p.m. and her roommate was asleep.

“I crawled into my bed, put my pillow over my head, and sobbed until at last I fell into an exhausted sleep,” she said.

The account of the assault was corroborated by another former female student at Ozark Academy who alleged similar abuse by the same dean. The former student asked not to be named but described herself as “a close classmate” of Irwin’s. In a telephone interview, she told me that she recounted seeing the dean taking female students by the hands and seeing female students sitting on the dean’s lap. On another occasion, she said that the dean forcibly kissed her. “It was not normal and felt uncomfortable,” she told me.

Irwin said the same thing happened to her the next time she was confronted by the dean alone.

“When I next encountered [the dean] in the dormitory hallway, she checked to be sure no one was around, then she grabbed me, kissed me on the lips, and said, ‘Remember what I told you would happen if you say anything! I meant that!’”  

Irwin recounted feeling confused about why a woman would kiss her and do the other things she says the dean did to her. She wondered whether something was wrong with her that would cause her dean to behave that way toward her. But she did not discuss the incident with anyone for several nightmarish weeks.

After that, the dean became very distant and hardly acknowledged Irwin, who said that another female friend began spending nights in the dean’s apartment subsequently.

One evening, while Irwin and the classmate with whom I spoke were reading On Becoming a Woman by Adventist anatomist and professor Harold Shryock, they put their stories together.

“As we read, we came across a passage which spoke of homosexuality,” Irwin recounted. “Neither of us had heard that term before, but she said, ‘I think I know someone like that. Today in the hallway [the dean] grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth. I hated it! Wasn't that weird?'"

Though Irwin was fearful to talk about what she endured, the details of her assault came spilling out. “I didn't fully tell how bad it was though because I sensed my roommate was horrified by what I did share,” Irwin said.

“We discussed the possibility that something even worse could be happening to our friend who was spending nights in [the dean's] apartment. I suddenly realized that I had to tell. We discussed whom to tell and decided we both trusted Mrs. Bob Schneider, the boys' dean's wife the most. The next day, we both met with Mrs. Schneider.”

The following day, the girls were asked to meet with Mrs. F. H. Hewitt, the wife of Ozark Academy’s principal. Mrs. Hewitt asked them to relate what had happened. After they gave their account, they were told the Board of Trustees would be meeting the following week, and Mrs. Hewitt told Irwin she would need to give her account to the Board.

“Mrs. Hewitt told us that since it seemed that the worst had happened to me, I would need to meet with the Board in front of [the dean].”

Hewitt informed Irwin that her parents had been called, and they planned to drive the 600 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Ozark Academy. Hewitt also said that a call had been made to the principal of Milo Academy in Day's Creek, Oregon, where the dean had served the previous year as an English teacher. Irwin recounted that Hewitt said “there had been suspicions” at Milo, but evidently nothing that warranted specific action.

In response to a request for comment, Milo Adventist Academy’s current principal Randy Thornton said, “Our records indicate that [the dean] was employed at Milo Academy for the 1961-62 school year as an English teacher. I have not been able to confirm any employment prior to this school year. Also, [she] was NOT employed at Milo as a dean.”

Irwin said the prospect of confronting both the Board and the dean in person left her feeling alone and scared. “I felt as if an avalanche were crashing down on me,” she said. “The thought that the entire Board would hear all of that and that I would have to face them in front of [the dean] was terrifying.”  

On the day of the Board meeting, November 3, 1962, Irwin was called to the principal’s residence where she encountered the board and the dean in the living room of the home.

“As I entered the room, my entire body began to tremble,” she recalled. “When I was asked questions, I had to be told to speak up. My voice was quavering so much that it is a wonder that they understood me at all.”

She remembered seeing all the men seated in black suits with white shirts and black ties. “I recall that one of them said it was important to protect teachers and deans from students who might not like them,” she said.  

Irwin said the worst moment of the meeting was when she looked into the dean's eyes.  “There was nothing there but unadulterated hatred,” she said. “I could almost hear her repeating, ‘I’ll kill you if you tell.’”

According to records from the Southwestern Union Conference, the Ozark Academy Board voted on November 19, 1962 to terminate the dean. No criminal or civil charges were filed.

Speaking on behalf of the Union for this article, Communication Director Jessica Lozano said,

It is difficult to determine what protocol may have been in place 55 years ago to handle a situation such as this. We apologize to any individuals who have been hurt and affected because of this situation. If similar allegations were to arise today, we can confirm that they would be handled with the utmost urgency, importance, and sensitivity. The incident would immediately be reported to the local authorities and child protective services; an employee would be placed on immediate leave, pending a determination of the incident; and if the legal investigation showed that the allegations were credible, the employee would be terminated, and the reasons for termination would be placed in the personnel file.

After her termination, the dean returned to her home in Lincoln, Nebraska, which was also Irwin’s home town. The dean did not respond to numerous phone calls seeking her comment on the accounts reported in this story.

Irwin recalled being told that the dean sought out a lawyer in hopes of suing Irwin, which never happened. She also recalls that her parents raised the possibility of Irwin’s having to testify in court against the dean. “I told them I really hoped not to,” she said.

The assault had a profound impact on Irwin’s parents, especially her mother. “To my mother's dying day, she never forgave herself for sending me to Ozark Academy. Although I always told her it certainly wasn't her fault, she still blamed herself for not protecting me.”

That summer Irwin’s family moved to Oregon where she went on to graduate from Laurelwood Academy. “Though that put thousands of miles between me and [the dean], I still had nightmares that she would show up and fulfill her promise to kill me,” she recounted.

Irwin said the trauma of what she endured also had a physical manifestation. “Prior to the assault, I had a nice complexion. After the incident I developed a case of severe cystic acne so bad that it looked for a while as if I had oozing boils on my face.” She said she remembered feeling that now she was becoming just as ugly on the outside as she felt on the inside. “Over the years, I have had multiple surgeries in an effort to modify the scarring,” she said.


Recovering from one of several surgeries, Bernadine Irwin is seen with her dog, whose head is also wrapped in solidarity.

Irwin said that the assault she experienced at age 16 marked a turning point in her life. Years spent dealing with the traumatic stress from those events led her to identify with the abused and the marginalized. “I coped by intimately identifying with those in our society who, in my opinion as a clinical psychologist, are the greatest victims, namely, the homeless, the gang kids, and the mentally ill.”  

Irwin pursued nursing at Walla Walla College and then chose a Master's degree in Psych/Mental Health Nursing in order to better understand vulnerable populations.

“While studying at Loma Linda University toward my M.S., I worked what was known at the time as ‘the back wards’ at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, California. That was where the ‘hopelessly mentally ill’ were housed,” she said.  

During her time working with Patton’s “hopeless” patients, through “total commitment to listen to others wounds from the standpoint of love, compassion, and hope,” she was able to make significant inroads.

In 1972 Irwin graduated with an M.S. In Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing from Loma Linda University, followed by both clinical practice and teaching at Walla Walla University from 1972-1974. From 1974-1977, she taught at Southern Adventist University. In 1984, Irwin received a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology with a subspecialty in teens and addictions from United States International University.

“I chose the doctorate I did and both the teaching and therapy practice I have out of my commitment to do what Viktor Frankl so aptly describes as finding transformational meaning in tragedy,” she said.

Irwin also taught at Loma Linda University for thirty-three years where she came in contact with thousands of Seventh-day Adventist students.

Irwin’s Ozark Academy dean went on to teach again in the Adventist educational system at College View Academy in Lincoln, Nebraska, several decades after her departure from Ozark. She taught in public schools in the intervening years.

Asked to comment on her employment at College View, current College View Academy Principal Brian Carlson said, “According to records, [she] was employed part-time at College View Academy between 1999-2003. Her duties included teaching, counseling, guidance, and testing.”

Concerning whether information regarding the dean’s dismissal from Ozark would have been made available to other prospective Adventist employers, potentially preventing her being hired, Carlson said, “I have no information about what was provided or not provided at the time of her hiring at College View Academy.”

All of the principals and administrators with whom I spoke for this story uniformly stated that the Adventist institutions do not tolerate sexual harassment and assault on Adventist campuses and pointed to written policies regarding the handling of allegations of assault.

Ozark Adventist Academy Principal Mike Dale during a phone conversation reiterated that Ozark has a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment and directed me to the Southwest Union code of conduct. Dale noted employees’ responsibility to immediately report any abuse.

Randy Thornton referred me to the language in Milo’s handbook regarding sexual harassment:

Milo Adventist Academy will not tolerate acts of sexual harassment, nor will we tolerate retaliatory behavior in response to a complaint of harassment. In like manner, false claims of sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Such actions will result in a timely review and if warranted, disciplinary action. Students or staff who suspect or experience sexual harassment should report it immediately to the administration or any staff member. Further, Milo affirms the governing policy of the North Pacific Union Conference (NPUC) Education Code on this topic which we acknowledge and reprint in the Staff Handbook. A copy of this policy can be found here.

Brian Carlson said, “At College View Academy we deal with all reports of sexual harassment or assault in a swift manner and direct them to the appropriate authorities.”

The Southwestern Adventist Union Conference said,

The Seventh-day Adventist Church strongly denounces this type of behavior, particularly within the context of membership and employment. It is of vital importance that our children and vulnerable members be protected, and we work diligently to avoid the potential of these situations within our churches and schools. Our hearts go out to victims of this type of assault and we welcome dialogue with those affected to ensure that they are properly supported and provided with appropriate counseling.

Even with strongly-worded policies regarding sexual harassment in place, there have been acknowledgements that abuse still occurs and that more needs to be done.

In a recent article for the Adventist Review titled "Predators in the Pews," David Fournier, chief client officer for Adventist Risk Management, wrote about sexual abuse within the Adventist Church. Fournier said that ARM, which handles most of the claims brought against church entities involving accusations of abuse, has responded to approximately 160 sex abuse claims over the past decade. Fournier cautioned that “many cases go undetected or unreported to ARM because not all instances of sexual abuse become claims.”

Fournier discussed ways the Adventist Risk Management and other entities have worked to mitigate abuse within the Adventist denomination, especially to keep children safe. He concluded, “Despite these good efforts, there is yet room for us to grow in how we process and react when any type of abuse is suspected or discovered.”

Irwin, who now serves as the founding president of Freedom To BeThe George Irwin Foundation, said that over the course of her professional life (she is also a licensed equine therapist who works with at-risk teens), she has witnessed hundreds of stories of abuse, including within the Adventist community. “The stories I have heard over the years have been totally horrendous!” she said. Irwin’s interest in the #MeToo Movement has stemmed from “multigenerational sexual abuse within Adventism” that she has encountered.

Many victims of sexual abuse have been hesitant to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse in large part because they have not been taken seriously, especially within faith communities. In November 2017, Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch introduced the hashtag #ChurchToo in order to call attention to the problem within Christianity.

“In practically every situation I have come across,” Irwin said of abuse within the church, “the victim is either not believed, or the perpetration is minimized, and the perpetrator has stayed within the church's employment, with their criminal actions being further buried by them being moved to a different school or church or conference,” she said.  

“There has been a ‘Big Boys' Club,’ with church administrators often covering for each other and saying such things as, ‘That was so horrible what so and so said about you when we all know what a godly person you are.’”

Even in the few cases that have gone to court, Irwin said that it is often other church leaders who have stood up and said the accusations are false. “In a case in Indiana, the church even paid the legal fees of the perpetrator.”

Many victims of abuse in religious contexts have left their faith communities. I asked Irwin whether she ever thought of leaving the Adventist Church. She said that while she understands why many victims of sexual and religious abuse have chosen to have nothing more to do with their faith communities, “probably up to now I've stayed because of the brand of Adventism I grew up in. I am a fourth-generation Adventist, and my own family were primarily unconditionally loving and opposed to legalism.”  

Irwin also cited her parents’ advocacy for her following the assault and “the abundance of multigenerational friends” she has had in each of the places she has lived as reasons her faith stayed in tact. “It's true that while I grieve the devastation of what I've described here, I also love my church. This love I hold in some respects both makes my anguish more acute and also my determination to evoke change more committed.”

Regarding what she hopes to see happen, Irwin said that her commitment is twofold: “I would like to reach out and be an advocate for victims, and I hope to transform the Adventist Church’s response to perpetrators of sexual violence and their victims.”

She has created a private Facebook group, Addressing Abuse in Adventism, for survivors of sexual abuse within the Adventist Church. She said her goal is to provide a place where they can be heard and to connect survivors with resources.

 

Jared Wright is a News Correspondent for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Title Image: Bernadine Irwin from Ozark Academy's Annual, The Flintonian. Left, in 1961 prior to the events described in this article and right, in 1963 following the incidents.

 

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