FRONT ROYAL, Virginia – Following allegations that Christendom College mishandled student sexual assault reports, the college’s administration has said it is committed to doing better.
Donna Bethell, chair of the college’s board, told Catholic News Agency that Christendom takes recent reports seriously, and has hired an outside firm to conduct a review of the college’s policies regarding sexual assault prevention and reporting.
“We have brought in a professional group that is expert in sexual assault policies and procedures, and they are reviewing our entire program and will give us a report on whether we are meeting best practices – not just Title IX, those are regulatory minimum requirements – but best practices in providing our students with the protection and services they need.”
In mid-January, the small Catholic college in Front Royal, Virginia, was rocked by allegations that the administration had mishandled several cases of sexual assault in the Christendom community. The initial allegations were published in a series of blog posts by Catholic writer Simcha Fisher.
Among those who came forward with their stories is Adele Smith, who says that she was raped by her then-boyfriend during a date in Shenandoah National Park in 2009. Smith was a sophomore at Christendom, where her boyfriend was also a student.
Smith told CNA it took her a while to process what had happened to her. She eventually filed a report with both local police and the park service, but was told that there was very little chance of a conviction.
Meanwhile, she said, her alleged rapist was continuing to verbally harass her on campus, and her physical and mental health were suffering.
“I developed major depressive disorder and rape-related PTSD,” she told CNA. “I’ve been on medication ever since. I’ve struggled a lot with self-harm and suicidal ideations. Medication and therapy is the only thing that’s been helpful in coping with that.”
Smith told CNA she approached the administration during her junior year. She said she was told that because there was no policy against sexual assault in the student handbook, and because the alleged rape took place off campus, the school could only investigate the harassment charges.
Christendom notified the male student that he was being charged with harassment following what was described as “a prior incident” between the students, according to a July 19, 2011 letter obtained by CNA. The letter said that he was not allowed to talk to Smith or transmit messages to her through other people, during the ensuing investigation.
Christendom found the male student guilty of harassment, according to an Aug. 8, 2011 letter also obtained by CNA.
According to the letter, the college sanctioned the student with a year’s housing suspension, two semesters of disciplinary probation, a prohibition from contact with Adele Smith, and restricted access to campus for one semester.
Initial reports said the student was restricted from on-campus housing for only a semester, though the letter sanctioning the student explicitly stated that he would be subject to “Housing Suspension for 1 year.” A representative from Christendom College told CNA she was unable to clarify the term of the student’s suspension from on-campus housing.
Initial reports also said that the student lived with a founding professor of the college during his housing suspension, though CNA was unable to verify this.
Smith acknowledged the complexity of her situation. “I don’t have any proof, because I have no witnesses,” she told CNA.
She said it was at several points in the investigative process that made her feel her concerns were being dismissed.
“[T]he sense that reputation was more important was just pretty damaging to my faith and to my confidence and to my self-esteem, because you’ve already been victimized by one person, and then a whole institution just kind of tells you that you don’t really matter.”
She noted that documents charging and sanctioning the male student, which were reviewed by CNA, did not mention the rape allegations. Smith said that omission was “shattering.”
When she reached out to the administration for updates on the investigation, “it was always really slow getting a response.”
She also believes the school should have been proactive in ensuring that she did not have to attend classes with the male student while the investigation was ongoing.
“The burden of me not encountering my rapist was entirely on me. They handed me his class schedule and the time that he would be allowed in the library.”
It was up to her to avoid him, she said, and on a small campus, this was often difficult.
There were usually two different sessions of a class, Smith said. “I would go to the 9:30 for example, and if he was there, I would leave and I would go back to the 10:30 class.”
Smith also said that when her father wrote a letter to college president Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, the president responded with a letter, obtained by CNA, which mentioned Smith by her first name, but referred to her alleged rapist with the formal title “Mr.”
“I thought it was incredibly insulting,” Smith said. “It was just kind of another subtle message to us that we didn’t matter, that I didn’t matter to the school, that I wasn’t even deserving of that small indicator of respect.”
She also said that she raised the question of why a policy against sexual assault was not part of the student handbook.
“I was told that these sorts of things take time, and that there were a lot of other factors involved in terms of changing the code of student conduct,” she said. A policy against sexual assault was added to the handbook for the 2013-2014 school year.
Donna Provencher is vice president of communications & victim outreach for the Christendom Advocacy and Support Coalition (CASC), a group not affiliated with the college. She told CNA that Smith’s story is not unique.
CASC has “spoken to 12 victims whom the [Christendom] administration personally failed,” Provencher said. She says the group is also aware of six more potential victims via friends or family members.
In total, the group alleges there occurred “18 known rapes and sexual assaults between the 1980s and 2016, 16 of those between 1998 and 2016 under [current Christendom president Timothy] O’Donnell.”
In a Jan. 24 statement, O’Donnell acknowledged failings, and announced that a thorough review process was being undertaken.
“We have failed some of our students,” he said. “I am grateful to each woman who has come forward with her story… To those students who have been harmed, I am deeply sorry. We will do better.”
CASC has called for additional steps to both prevent sexual assault on campus and improve how reports of assault are addressed.
Although the college does not accept federal funding and is therefore not bound by Title IX regulations, the advocacy group believes the school should voluntarily adhere to reporting regulations so that prospective students and families can see the statistics regarding sexual assault cases.
The group has called for faculty and staff training to help them recognize signs of abuse, and for a full-time nurse to be made available to students.
In addition, it says, an independent panel should be used to assess rape cases, because the president and dean of the college could have conflicts of interest between protecting students and protecting the reputation of the school.
Amanda Graf, director of student affairs at Christendom, said that many of these recommendations have been implemented by the college in recent years, or are currently being considered.
A presentation is given to students during freshman orientation outlining the college’s expectations regarding student behavior, policy on assault – including definitions – and instructions on how to file reports, she said.
Faculty members, student life staff, and resident assistants are trained in how to receive reports of assault, and to recognize signs of it.
“Obviously, it’s not just, ‘Do you have a process in place? Do you have the right paperwork?’ But it’s ‘Do the students trust the people that they’re reporting to? Do they actually believe that when a report is made, something will happen?’” Graf said.
She said efforts in the last several years have included adding more female staff members on campus, creating more formation events, and spending more time getting to know the students “so they are really confident and comfortable bringing us any reports they might have.”
Questions of whether to increase the nurse practitioner’s office hours and who should adjudicate cases of sexual assault will be discussed with the firm conducting the review of Christendom’s practices, Graf said. She noted that adjudicating cases of sexual assault currently falls under the Student Affairs Department at Christendom, which she said is in line with practices at most colleges.
“We’re really interested in doing an in-depth study of how effective our education has been and how we can improve it,” she said. “Going forward, we have this great firm that is going to make sure we’re doing everything in the best way to serve our students and to serve our mission.”
Graf stressed the importance of discussing challenging topics in order to move forward and improve.
“We always need to be having these conversations,” she said.
Members of CASC have called for O’Donnell’s resignation, pointing to numerous reports of poorly handled assault cases during his tenure.
Bethell told CNA that from what she has seen, the Christendom community “very strongly” supports the president.
“While nobody for a minute says bad things could not have happened, they also want to say that this is an excellent institution that has played a very important and positive role in their lives, and you don’t want to lose sight of that,” she said.
In recent days, Bethell said, the college has issued an open invitation to alumni who want to discuss anything that happened to them while they were students, and meetings have begun being held.
“We’re hoping to help to heal, and also to learn how we can improve our practices and policies, and recognize what happened,” she said. “The truth is what’s most important to us, and the welfare of our students and alumni. That’s an ongoing process, and it’s already begun to bear fruit.”