Sexual Assault and The Failure of Catholic Schools

Sexual Assault and The Failure of Catholic Schools April 16, 2018

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:

  1. Victim blaming; and then
  2. 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 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.”

Krason goes on to complain that women are immodestly dressed, an obsession of his which even spills over into his course syllabus.  The poor professor, such a victim of these women who possess skads of potentially visible skin, actually decrees in his syllabus that he “reserves the right to dismiss students from the classroom if their dress in a particular class is immodest or inappropriate.”  Which impropriety apparently includes Krason’s favorite erogenous zone, the ever popular back and shoulders, as he details:

“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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom G

    By the logic of your article here, women literally never falsely accuse anyone. And you have previously written, I believe, that you considered Mr. Fason’s concern about some allegations being so far in the past that it’s impossible to defend against them to be a guilty conscience on Mr. Fason’s part about his past perhaps coming back to haunt him. You are rigging the system at this point to make it impossible to overcome an allegation.

    Literally, by logical deduction, you are shifting the burden to one of a presumption of guilt. I am becoming more and more convinced that this #MeToo movement will only realize the harm it is causing when a sufficient number of innocent people are harmed.

    Also, is a woman ever to blame for literally anything? What agency do you even have under this thinking?

  • Women are to blame for lots of things. Just not for getting raped, because rape is a thing that happens TO you, not a thing that you do. You understand that, right? If you got mugged, and I said it wasn’t your fault, would you declare “but are men ever to blame for anything?” Well sure, but not for being victims of crimes!

    I don’t think women never bring forward false accusations. But given that it happens less than 5% of the time, according to the best studies that have been done on the subject, it’s very odd that the accusations are always *assumed* to be false. When a college deals with 20 rape cases and only ever disciplines the man in a single case, either they are so statistically anomalous as to have completely reversed the odds … or they are giving *much* less credence to a woman’s claim than they should.

  • Tom G

    I will read the “best” studies you are citing to. But I’ll tell you right now that I’m betting that those “best” studies have a bad premise buried deep down in their analysis. But if there is not a bad premise, I will concede the point. But I’m telling you now that I am very suspicious of a “study” claiming to show that false accusations happen less than 5% of the time.

    You cannot compare rape with a mugging. That is not a good analogy.

  • Tom G
  • Thanks for the article; it’s interesting and helpful. Though it doesn’t cite any statistics, it does demonstrate that it is possible to discover the difference between false and true allegations. I feel a false dichotomy is often set up: either we dismiss victims’ accounts altogether unless there is completely indisputable evidence (which there almost never is, because rapists don’t usually rape in front of cameras or witnesses) or we are forced to simply jail all men who are accused. But it’s not as impossible to sort out as all that.

    Here’s an article you may find enlightening about the kinds of people who make false rape claims, and the kinds of claims they make:

  • What is your reasoning for assuming there’s a problem with the studies? (E.g. the ones cited here: Is it because you think women are unusually prone to lying, such that more than one in twenty of them lies? Or is it because you think rape is very rare? Sadly, it’s not.

    Why is my analogy not a good one? Of course men sometimes lie, just as women do, but it’s a lot more common for someone to be the victim of a crime than to pretend to be one.

  • Tom G

    True, it is not that impossible to sort it out. There is consolation in that, to be sure. And I agree with you that the horrid false dichotomy you reference is to be rejected.

    But when I see protests of charging decisions by prosecutorial authorities, I have serious concerns. Who the hell is this mob to question the investigation or prosecution of an allegation? By what authority do they self-righteously analyze a decision like that with the arrogant benefit of hindsight?

    And what of the decisions by college administrators? Do these folks who believe Catholic schools have “failed” have a standard of proof they would have administrators follow? If so, what the hell is that standard of proof? Why are they so reticent to articulate their standard of proof? Are they arguing that school administrators should have a prosecutorial mindset about allegations? Why is no one willing to acknowledge the serious and obvious ridiculousness of their demands? Because they haven’t seen enough heads roll?

    This makes absolutely no sense, this anger at freaking college administrators for not “taking rape seriously enough”. The difficulty many appear to have with acknowledging the obvious problems with their reasoning adds to the disconcerting nature of their claims. There are obvious problems with that reasoning. How difficult is that to acknowledge?

  • Tom G

    Please be patient with me as I am kind of excitable on this issue. One of my biggest fears in my line of work is conviction of an innocent person.

  • I’m seeing a lot of misconceptions here which I can sort out right now.

    I’m going to talk about Christendom, given that it’s my school and I know less about Steubenville. But in the case of Christendom, the problem wasn’t that they adjudicated rape cases and came up with the wrong answer. It’s that they *refused to adjudicate them at all.* Victims were told things like “well, there’s nothing in the student handbook about rape” or “we don’t have proof so we’re not going to look into it.” If a college can’t even bother to pull the accused into an office and ASK about it, I think we can safely say they’re being negligent.

    What standard of evidence should be used? The standard in civil cases, which is called “preponderance of evidence.” This means that there is more evidence that an infraction happened than that it did not happen.

    You’re criticizing the critics of Christendom and Steubenville for not articulating what they want, when all this information has been readily available for the asking. In Christendom’s case, it’s all online at You could contact the author of the Steubenville article to find out what she and fellow alumni would like to change.

  • I totally understand that. I don’t know your work, but I follow The Innocence Project and The Marshall Project and I know false conviction is very worrisome. Too often juries go with their presumptions about what the defendant is like, based on race, appearance, skill on the stand, and so forth. To say nothing of innocent people pressured into plea bargains. One thing we can do is to make sure sentences aren’t unduly harsh. No one should ever receive the death penalty, because we can almost never be that sure. And a prison sentence shouldn’t be a sentence to be raped by fellow prisoners.

    Beyond that, I am not entirely certain what to do. I do know ceasing to prosecute crime altogether can’t be the answer.

  • Tom G

    Sorry to duck out on you, @sheilaconnolly:disqus It appears that one of my comments was marked as spam, so I think I have to consider the possibility that Ms. Snyder finds my comments to be spam or trolling. Perhaps I ought to engage in some self-reflection on my commenting habits.

    Anyway, I have thus deleted my comments. You have my word, however, that I will read the articles you cited to as well as the links to which those articles cite. Thanks for engaging me on this. As in our previous conversation, I do appreciate it.