US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Dept. of Education to Notre Dame: Change how you handle sexual assault

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I’ve been troubled re-reading the accounts of what happened the night St. Mary’s student Lizzy Seeberg was sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player, and the (lack of) response from the Notre Dame police after Seeberg did the right thing and reported the incident. But not surprised. Such are stories are far too common. Most troubling is that this incident took place a school that prides itself on being a preeminent Catholic university. Being preeminently Catholic, one would think, would include responding to an accusation of sexual assault in fewer than four days and not waiting 15 days to even talk to the accused. Seeberg committed suicide 10 days after the assault.

Just how should the church (whether a university, parish, or charitable organization) handle sexual assault and domestic violence? The question has been on my mind since posting this month’s Sounding Board and survey (on domestic violence). Well, the U.S. Department of Education, having stepped in to conduct a seven-month investigation of the handling of the Lizzy Seeberg case, says that the way Notre Dame has been handling it needs to change.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Dept. of Ed and the university came up with a nine-page agreement which includes a requirement that Notre Dame “wrap up administrative reviews within 60 days and to have a written policy stating that sexual misconduct allegations are evaluated by administrators using a lower burden of proof than in criminal courts.”

The Trib also reports that “after [Seeberg’s family] came forward, three other women and their parents spoke to the Tribune about similar frustrations. In particular, they complained that campus police delayed interviewing suspects and that months passed before administrators resolved cases.”

As we’ve seen in the priest sex abuse crisis, agreed upon policies and procedures for dealing with accusations of sexual assault or abuse go a long way, but it’s up to the university to take them seriously. My hope (and prediction) is that, unlike the with bishops, the accountability built into the university system will compel the school in the right direction.