Former student claims school mishandled sexual misconduct allegations, ignores own rules
By Abby Sewell
The Western Seminary, a prominent conservative Baptist educational institution with its headquarters in Portland, Ore., is currently embroiled in a messy lawsuit with a former student who is accusing the school of corruption. A small post-graduate institution, with about 700 students spread across three campuses, Western trains people to work as pastors and missionaries preaching an evangelical Christian faith.
The student in question, Randy Chapel, claims that the administration used a trumped-up charge of “moral failure” to suspend him from school and fire him from his position as graduate assistant, breaking both its own guidelines and federal laws in the process. The case, which involved Chapel having a sexual relationship outside of marriage, led to his suspension from the school 10 weeks before he was to have graduated. Meanwhile, one of Western’s top administrators, Steve Korch, who worked to see that Chapel would be suspended, was himself involved in a case of “sexual misconduct” with a 16-year-old girl years ago. Neither Western nor the Baptist Church has disciplined Korch for the incident, which came out in the course of Chapel’s lawsuit.
Randy Chapel began studying at Western’s San Jose campus in 1999, where he became a graduate assistant to Professor Jim Sawyer in 2001.
Sawyer said, “Randy is very bright, very talented, the best graduate assistant I’ve ever had. He also came out of some very difficult personal situations and when he came to the seminary was very damaged.”
In December 2001 Chapel met a woman by the name of Debbie Brumbraugh, with whom he had a short-lived relationship. By both their accounts, the couple had sex on at least one occasion, which, as it was an instance of sex outside of marriage, would have been considered “fornication,” and therefore a “moral failure” by the school in any case. According to Chapel, there was only one occasion on which the two of them had sex, and, believing it to be a sin, he went to Sawyer to confess shortly thereafter.
Brumbaugh, however, alleged that they had sex on multiple occasions and that on one of these occasions, it had been nonconsensual. She also testified, however, that on another occasion, Chapel had rebuffed her when she attempted to initiate sex. In e-mails to Chapel and others, she said that she thought Chapel should marry her to make up for their sin. In February of 2002, Brumbaugh contacted Korch, the executive dean of the seminary, who then brought the situation to the attention of other administrators in the Student Development Committee. They did not, however, approach Chapel to let him know that charges were being made against him.
The Student Development Committee held a hearing on April 2, 2002, in which they decided to dismiss Chapel from his graduate assistant position and suspend him from the seminary. According to Chapel’s attorney, William Dresser, the school sent Chapel a notice of the suspension on April 12 giving him a 30-day period to appeal it. On April 16, however, the school listed on Chapel’s record that his education was already terminated.
Dresser said, “I think that goes to show they had already decided he was a goner.”
According to Chapel and those close to him, the sudden loss of his education and career prospects due to what he alleges to be false charges, made him suicidal, and he wrote a letter to Bert Downs, Western’s president, expressing that feeling. The school did not respond.
Chapel alleges that Western did not follow its own guidelines when it initiated disciplinary action without first informing him of the charges being made against him. The school has also refused to turn over records relating to the case to Chapel, including e-mails in which Brumbraugh gave her version of the story. These records were part of his student file and, according to federal law, should have been made available to him within 45 days of a written request.
Downs said he was not at liberty to discuss specifics of the case, due to laws protecting student privacy.
“The bottom line issue is: Can an entity like Western have a code of ethics for its student body and enforce that code?” he said.
He was also unable to comment on whether Western had followed its own guidelines in terms of addressing the charges against Chapel.
“In general, we take great care to follow the procedure in our handbook,” he said.
Chapel’s mother, Carol Nye-Wilson, who has been staging a one-woman protest at the San Jose campus, said that administrators were unfair in not bringing the charges to Chapel to allow him to tell his side of the story. She believes that some of the faculty disliked Randy because he had complained when Matt Tuck, the son of Professor Gary Tuck, was hired to work under his father as a graduate assistant, counter to the guidelines in the school handbook.
Nye-Wilson said, “This is a Christian organization, and part of their policy in the student handbook — and it’s standard Christian practice — is that if you have a problem with somebody, you go to them first and try to gain them. It’s just an honorable way of treating people, and Western Seminary did not do that.” Ironically, Korch, who helped to see that Chapel was suspended, was himself involved in a case of “sexual misconduct” at 25, when he was the youth pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orange County, Calif. The girl with whom he allegedly initiated a relationship (whose name was withheld due to her juvenile status) was 16 at the time and a member of the church youth group. According to a statement she presented at Korch’s deposition in the Chapel case, she felt violated by her relationship with Korch and retained lasting emotional damage that affected her ability to have normal relationships for the next 30 years.
Because she never pressed charges, however, Korch was able to go on to attend and graduate from Western Seminary and to pastor several churches, eventually gaining an administrative position at the seminary.
“Korch’s ordination was based on his good standing, but if the churches that ordained him had known that he molested a 16-year-old child, they would not have ordained him. He never would have been hired at Western,” Nye-Wilson said. She has been contacting leaders of the Conservative Baptist Association of America to ask that Korch be defrocked.
Korch could not be reached for comment.
If nothing else, it appears that Western probably mishandled the Chapel case. First, although Brumbaugh alleged that Chapel had forced her to have sex on one occasion, the school did not seriously investigate the matter as a case of sexual assault. Instead, the focus was on Chapel having had an ongoing sexual relationship outside of marriage. Second, the Student Development Committee did not approach Chapel to tell him of the charges against him. The hearing at which his fate was decided was held at the Portland campus, while Chapel was in San Jose and unable to attend it. Testimony favorable to Chapel, which was entered by Sawyer, was not brought up at the hearing.
Downs could not comment on whether the case will affect how the school will deal with disciplining students in the future. He did say, “I think this is an area where all of education is doing some exploring, so we will certainly stay cognizant of that wider exploration.”
The trial is set for Oct. 31. If Western loses, it faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
Abby Sewell is a local writer and former Alliance intern.
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Last Updated: October 8, 2005