ACTION ITEM: Now you can read and sign a petition to FUS administration here.
Today, an article came out from the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) by Jenn Morson, detailing the ways that my alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) has systematically failed to support student victims of sexual assault.
This news comes on the heels of the report out of Christendom College, revealing horror stories of how women were sexually abused while at school, and then not supported by the administration in order to maintain the reputation of that Catholic institution. (Read more at NCR. Read more at Simcha Fisher.)
So what went wrong at Steubenville? And how can my beloved alma mater address her faults and come out the other side?
Blaming the Victim, Claiming the Blame
In the case of Christendom, the college does not accept federal government loans and grants, and is therefore not subject to the rules of Title IX, which mandates procedures for handling complaints regarding sexual discrimination, harassment, or violence.
Not so FUS, which accepts federal funding while giving lip service to Title IX training. In fact, Brenan Pergi, FUS’ vice president of human resources and coordinator for Title IX, is on the record as calling the sexual harassment training “an inconvenience.”
Unfortunately at FUS, and in many other Catholic schools, the prevailing attitude towards reports of sexual assault is twofold:
- Victim blaming; and then
- Claiming victim status for the aggressor and/or the school.
Let’s take a look at these two attitudes one at a time.
She Had It Coming
In two of my other articles, “The Problematic Mike Pence Rule” and “Dating in a #MeToo Age,” as well as my video on modesty, I’ve been unsurprised to find many men and women continuing to put the onus of a man’s behavior on a woman.
This is that old trope: “What were you wearing? Why were you drunk? Well, you asked for it.”
This is, in fact, removing the responsibility of the Self out of the self-control.
As a woman, it can feel momentarily “empowering” to believe this narrative. Because if I had only “worn something different, had one less glass, never left the house” I can convince myself that either somehow I’m complicit in my own assault, and therefore not a victim, or that all my actions have absolute authority over men, and I am therefore not a victim.
For men, the narrative is obviously one of cowardice and sloth. If the woman is, like Eve, to blame, if the man “can’t help himself,” then the man neither has to change his behavior, examine his own flaws, or bear the brunt of the responsibility for his actions.
But it’s a pernicious narrative. It’s a false narrative. It is – I daresay – an evil narrative. And it leads to further retraumatization of the victim as she continues to be accused of “asking for it,” even as her abuser is patted on the back for having only criminally assaulted her because “he couldn’t help himself.”
No one asks to be assaulted. And men are fully capable of controlling their actions.
Even and especially at Catholic institutions.
I’m Just a Poor Boy, Nobody Loves Me
The second failure of too many Catholic schools and college campuses is in the protection of the assailant’s and the institution’s reputation over the safety and support of the survivor.
This is where FUS, in particular, has been publicly problematic for a while.
For example, Dr. Anne Henderschott, a member of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life which is housed at FUS where she teaches, consistently uses language of victim-status on alleged sexual predators, saying in her most recent article for MindingTheCampus.org that: “An increasing number of college presidents are becoming swept up in the fallout from the #metoo movement.” As though those removed from office for abusing women, and not the women themselves, are the ones deserving of pity.
Similarly, Dr. Stephen M. Krason, another FUS professor and the director of Veritas, writes often (and without citation – see my snarky take here) about how abused women are to blame for men’s failures. In his article, “What Sexual Harassment ‘Crisis?’” he writes:
“Can’t [women] truly be viewed, at least to some degree, as cooperators with wrongdoing? As has now become apparent in the supposed campus rape crisis, it is not unheard of that a young woman who has been involved in a consensual sexual affair that has gone sour will allege that she was raped as a way to get back at the man.”
“Students must avoid such apparel as: bared midriffs or short cut tops which expose midriffs or lower backs upon stretching or sitting, plunging or low necklines or necklines that expose cleavage (when bending over or when standing), cut-off or mesh or muscle shirts, tube tops, tank tops, halter tops, spaghetti strings or strapless and other clothing that fails to cover the shoulders or back, clothing that is not fully opaque or that inappropriately exposes parts of the body, very short shorts or skirts or dresses, pants with slits in their sides, or clothing which has off-color or suggestive messages on it.”
When Krason first published this article, Franciscan University of Steubenville’s official page tacitly endorsed his victim-blaming and assailant-protecting by posting the article with a pull quote on its Facebook wall. When several alumni complained on the post, instead of answering, FUS deleted their comments – including several comments which accused a married professor who still works at FUS of soliciting sex from his students at an off-campus bar.
To reiterate: FUS’ first move was to silence, not to support or to examine for evidence. Is it any wonder, then, that today’s article has come to light?
A Change is in the Air
It can be painful to admit one’s failures. Especially, when one’s failures include covering up criminal proceedings and retraumatizing the women in your care. This is no small thing. But I do believe that Steubenville can learn from its failures, and become better. If not, I want to share a story from my own time teaching at a Catholic school.
From 2003-2007, I was part of the theology department at a Catholic High School in the Boston diocese during the priest scandals. Naturally, we were all highly on the alert to sexual misconduct, especially since we were dealing with adolescents at a parish school daily.
One year, the faculty was called into the principal’s office for an announcement. One of our students, a young woman whom everyone knew enjoyed her sexuality, had accused three male jocks in her grade of raping her at a party.
The principal, a woman herself, grudgingly said that because of the high tensions surrounding sexual crimes the boys were going to be punished (or “punished” as they were made to stay home for a week – the horror), although, as she said, “We all know that [the girl] is lying.”
I shudder with shame to think of my own silent part in that student’s life that day. I didn’t contradict the principal. I didn’t question her assessment. We were given no details other than what we knew of those students, and certainly the three jock boys were jerks but it was very hard not to believe that because we all know [the girl] was joyfully promiscuous, well…didn’t she have it coming? Didn’t she ask for it? Shouldn’t she be the one thrown out of school? Weren’t the higher-ups being put upon for having to rule in [the girl’s] favor? Wasn’t it all a sham?
The boys were given a week free at home, while [the girl] walked through the halls, all but branded with an invisible scarlet A. Believed by very few: even in the students body who were quietly influenced by our own tight lips, who were in turn quietly influenced by the principal’s angry apathy. I watched, then, as [the girl] struggled with other abuses throughout her four years there. She came from a rough home anyway. She was in a few of my plays. I hope that gave her some slight peace.
And I’m relieved to see on social media that she’s come through the horror of her youth – which I didn’t help – and has carved out an amazing life for herself. In defiance of all of us adults who failed her.
Like Oscar Schindler, I could have done more. To repeat G. K. Chesterton, what’s wrong with the world is me.
To encourage young men and women, ready to blame the victim: look at your own actions – and inactions. “For what I have done, and for what I have failed to do.”
To the administrators and faculty at Franciscan University of Steubenville, to repeat: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievious fault.”
And then those other words: “To confess my sins, to do my penance, and to amend my life.”
UPDATE: A previous version of this article mistakenly exaggerated the mishandling of the sexual misconduct cases at Christendom. The facts have been reviewed again and the wording changed in order to accurately reflect the situation. Many thanks to the person who pointed out the error, and many apologies to those affected by these events.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
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