Christendom responds to claims it brushed off rape cases

FRONT ROYAL – Christendom College responded Thursday to a blogger’s claims the school failed to prevent rape or sexual assaults on female students years ago.

College President Timothy O’Donnell issued a response that began by saying the blog post contained “misleading information and serious inaccuracies,” then went on to apologize to the people involved in the incidents described as well as any victims of sexual assault or harassment.

“We would like to apologize to any of those in our community who feel they were not properly responded to concerning an alleged sexual harassment and assault,” the response states. “Christendom College will continue to do everything it can to understand how to best respond to these very difficult and tragic situations. In retrospect, the College may not have served these victims as well as we could have, and for this hurt we are truly sorry for any additional pain that this may have caused.”

Simcha Fisher posted a two-part story on her blog titled “Are women safe in Christendom’s bubble?” on Tuesday. Fisher, a Catholic, writes about her faith in her blog. Christendom’s response appeared on Fisher’s blog Thursday and she thanked the college for responding to her article. The first part of the story focuses on claims made by a former student that a classmate raped her and that the college failed to acknowledge the incident or punish the perpetrator for committing the act. Simcha Fisher claims the “school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture” facilitates sexual assault and the administration works harder to protect the college’s reputation than to protect its students.” The second part of the piece claims similar incidents happened at the college, including one in January 2005, but does not identify victims.

Simcha Fisher’s husband, Damien Fisher, spoke by phone Thursday. The Fishers live in New Hampshire and don’t have any connection to Christendom, Damien Fisher said. But the couple started to investigate the matter over a couple of months after seeing comments posted on social media, Damien Fisher recalled.

O’Donnell was not available for further comment Thursday. Christendom Executive Vice President Ken Ferguson spoke by phone about the Simcha Fisher piece and the college’s response. Ferguson points out that Fisher’s piece names an individual identified as a sexual assault victim in the first of two parts. The second piece does not identify any victims by name, Ferguson said.

“The college is aware of an adjudicated case in 2009 I believe,” Ferguson said, citing the first piece. “I’m not sure what the motivation is of the blogger to bring up decades old information … and unfortunately I cannot comment legally, due to confidentiality laws around sexual harassment and Title IX specifically because I’m bound to keep that information confidential.”

Ferguson would say only that the college’s student life department adjudicated the 2009 case. Ferguson wouldn’t expand on the president’s statement about “misinformation and inaccuracies” or cite specific examples in the blogger’s post, saying “because they’re half-truths and require further discussion with the blogger to understand even where and why the data and information is coming from.”

“We offered to speak to the author and they declined because they said they wanted to release the information before we could have a meeting,” Ferguson said. “Extremely odd. So they didn’t have any desire to get to the truth of the article.”

The blogger included some information provided by Amanda Graf who now heads up the college’s Student Life department that would deal with sexual harassment or assault claims, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he was not aware of any sexual harassment or assault claims made by a student at the college in his five years at Christendom. However, Ferguson said college officials have conducted interviews with students about potential infractions.

“Obviously the world around us is changing faster than we can keep pace with and I think, for the most part, and I certainly take this position, this ‘metoo’ movement is a very great and good thing that’s coming and great good is gonna come out of it,” Ferguson said. “We’ve had great open discussions with our students. Victims are for the first time being heard and we as a college certainly support it.”

Shortly after Ferguson and Graf joined the Christendom staff, the college added a sexual assault and harassment policy to its student handbook. The college had a policy prior to 2013 that the person who headed up Student Life prior to Graf likely used, Ferguson said. That policy did not appear in the handbook, he added. Ferguson credited Graf with developing the policy.

“Both myself and … Graf were not here when this case was adjudicated so I don’t know what policies and procedures they were following,” Ferguson said. “But, certainly, when Amanda and I arrived on the campus we built and documented the current (policy) which Amanda and I believe meets the rigorous requirements of Title IX despite the fact that the college is one of the few colleges in the nation that doesn’t receive any federal money and is not under the auspices of Title IX.

“But we apply it in terms of the adjudication of sexual harassment as best practices and, as written, we believe that policy, as of 2013 … represents best practices as it deals with and protecting people who were victims of sexual harassment,” Ferguson added.

Federal regulations known as Title IX require universities and colleges to respond to and fix hostile educational environments. Title IX schools also must make information about sexual assaults and other crimes that take place on campus publicly available. Title IX rules do not apply to Christendom because the college does not receive federal funding.

The handbook now includes a sexual assault policy that states Christendom, “as a Catholic institution, strives to uphold and protect the dignity of every person and provide an environment in which students can thrive in their academic and personal development. Acts of sexual assault, misconduct or harassment will not be tolerated by the College and, upon discovery or disclosure, will be investigated through the disciplinary conduct procedure. Students are encouraged to report sexual assault, harassment, and/or misconduct immediately to a professional staff member in Student Life.”

The policy defines sexual assault as sexual contact without consent ranging from forced kissing and touching to forced intercourse. Sexual harassment and/or misconduct constitutes unwelcome sexual comments, advances, and other verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is meant to intimidate, degrade, or coerce another.

The college can impose sanctions including dismissal if the disciplinary procedure finds the accused responsible for committing sexual assault. The policy entitles the accused and accuser to the same opportunities to have others submit testimony for the disciplinary proceeding. The policy states that college shall inform both parties of the outcome. The policy also states that any student who is victim of sexual assault while enrolled at Christendom is encouraged to contact a professional staff member in Student Life who can provide resources and/or direction in proceeding with a disciplinary conduct procedure.

On the net

Read the blog post at https://tinyurl.com/y7397kcd

Read O’Donnell’s full response statement at https://tinyurl.com/y82n36r2

An earlier version of this story should have attributed the statement that “school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture” facilitates sexual assault and the administration works harder to protect the college’s reputation than to protect its students” to Simcha Fisher.