The Future of Sex Abuse Reform in the SBC

A document of 1504 showing King Henry VII sitting in the Star Chamber and receiving William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester, and clerics associated with Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral, as well as the Mayor of London

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The English court of Star Chamber, Edward P. Cheyney wrote, has become “a synonym for secrecy, severity, and the wresting of justice.” Bedrock principles of the Anglo-American justice system such as the protection against double jeopardy and the right not to incriminate oneself are in large part the enduring reaction to the abuses of Star Chamber.

Thus, it was no small thing for Judge José Cabranes last week to write that “it is no wonder that, in some cases, these [university disciplinary] procedures have been compared unfavorably to those of the infamous English Star Chamber.” Briefly, the facts of Vengalattore v. Cornell University are as follows.

Dr. Mukund Vengalattore was a tenure-track Professor of Physics in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2009. From 2009-2012 Dr. Vengalattore worked with a female graduate student who is identified only as “Jane Roe.” In 2014, Vengalattore’s request for tenure was under review by the Physics Department. Beginning in May of that year, Roe began to accuse Vengalattore of various forms of misconduct: that he threw equipment at her and that he had engaged in sexual misconduct. In February 2015, Vengalattore’s request for tenure was denied. During an interview with Cornell employees acting as the investigators, Roe further accused Vengalattore of raping her.

On March 2, 2015, Vengalattore was summoned to Cornell’s Title IX office “to ‘review [an] alleged romantic relationship with a student under [his] supervision in or around the 2011 calendar year.'” On March 3, he was informed for the first time of the allegations against him. It was only toward the end of that 3-hour-long interview that Vengalattore was told that he had been accused of rape.

The way that the university went about conducting its investigation was, in a word, startling. For instance, “When [Vengalattore] was eventually informed that Roe was accusing him of rape, he asked to have assistance of counsel; [the investigators] told him that was not necessary.” Furthermore, When Vengalattore asked on what date Roe claimed he had raped her, the investigators refused to answer. Instead they asked Vengalattore to take a blank December 2010 calendar and mark off for them the days he had been in town.” This, as the court notes later in its opinion, was “information he clearly would have been advised not to provide” if a lawyer had been present.

The most blatant trampling of due process, however, might be a portion of the investigators’ report that the Second Circuit drew attention to on page 22 of its opinion (emphasis in original):

The Report “determined that the lack of evidence supporting a year-long romantic relationship actually supported Roe’s allegations, because ‘[c]ommon sense experience is that secretive relationships carried out by faculty members and students can be carried out without others, including other students and colleagues, becoming aware.'”

Did you catch that? The investigators concluded that “There’s no evidence of a relationship, therefore you must have done it.”

So much for the presumption of innocence. So much for burdens of proof. So much for standards of evidence. So much for anything mildly resembling protecting the rights of the accused.

Here, again, is Judge Cabranes in his concurring opinion (emphasis mine):

Vengalattore’s allegations, if supported by evidence, provide one such example of the brutish overreach of university administrators at the expense of due process and simple fairness. His allegations, if corroborated, would reveal a grotesque miscarriage of justice at Cornell University. As alleged, Cornell’s investigation of Vengalattore denied him access to counsel; failed to provide him with a statement of the nature of the accusations against him; denied him the ability to question witnesses; drew adverse inferences from the absence of evidence; and failed to employ an appropriate burden of proof or standard of evidence. In other cases and other universities the catalogue of offenses can include continuing surveillance and the imposition of double jeopardy for long-ago grievances.

Elsewhere, I have criticized the “specialized inquisitorial procedures that universities have developed for sexual-misconduct cases.” These procedures can deprive the accused of various rights, including the right to a public hearing or the complete record of a private hearing, the right to have counsel speak on the accused’s behalf, the right to friendly witnesses, the right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses, and the right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Even short of formal discipline, such lack of due process may inflict reputation harm, particularly where rules of “confidentiality” make it effectively impossible for an accused to respond publicly to damaging pronouncements by managers of the university grievance system.

Any fair-minded person who takes the time to read the rest of the opinion must be given serious pause. If we suppose there were a spectrum of possible reactions that ranged from completely ignoring Jane Roe’s allegations to terminating Dr. Vengalattore on the spot way back in May 2014, it’s beyond dispute that Cornell University falls much closer to one end of that spectrum than the other. Almost every right that most people would consider fundamental to justice was undermined or denied altogether in Dr. Vengalattore’s case.

Now, an SBC pastor or church member might want to ask, “What does that have to do with the number of casseroles at our next fellowship meal?” Here it is: if Southern Baptists aren’t careful, the same kind of system that may have ruined Dr. Vengalattore could be coming to the SBC.

The above case encapsulates only some of the kinds of injustices that the Title IX system cultivates. It should alarm Southern Baptists that some who want reforms to address sexual abuse in the SBC see the Title IX system as a model to follow (in fact, some clearly imply that the Title IX system does not go far enough).

This context must be kept in mind when Southern Baptists meet later this month and discuss the recommendations of the Sexual Abuse Task Force. Will Southern Baptist “pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees, and volunteers” be treated the same way that Dr. Vengalattore was treated by Cornell? Will they be kept in the dark about the details of allegations against them for months, denied a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves, and treated as guilty until proven innocent? Will the independent third party that is proposed for investigating such allegations treat the lack of evidence as evidence? These are only some of the questions that must be answered.

The most important question of all, however, is one that only a few seem willing to ask: what does God’s Word have to say about all this? The Bible clearly and unequivocally condemns sexual sin in all its forms. The Bible no less clearly condemns false accusations and showing partiality in judgment. In being faithful to the Book that God has given them, Southern Baptists cannot—indeed must not—cast aside one of God’s commands in pursuit of another.

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