It is the motto of the University of Notre Dame Du Lac, taken from an 11th century Marian hymn and a simple, lovely description of the woman we refer to as the Queen of Heaven. And yet in the shadow of her statue there, a dutiful commitment to the safety and physical security of the women of her community seems dreadfully lacking. So, apparently, is the pastoral compassion she would clearly have shown to a family suffering in the aftermath of a disaster.
The focus of what happened when Notre Dame authorities were charged with investigating Lizzy Seeberg’s sex assault allegation against a football player last fall must not be lost. District Attorney Dvorak’s decision not to file charges was an inevitability without a living victim; it says nothing about the truth of her allegations. What’s worth focusing on instead is what the school has done or will do under its own disciplinary process, which has lower standards of proof than the DA and no need of her testimony. What’s worth questioning is the fully accredited police department and veteran detectives whose full response to what Elizabeth Seeberg alleged was pitiful, slow and feckless.
But rather than doing the painful work of self-examination and sincere contrition, Rev. John Jenkins, ND’s president, continues to insist that the investigation was “thorough and careful,”signaling that “we followed the facts where they led” as if he knows something we don’t, and that this was all a misunderstanding or worse on Lizzy’s part. He’ll go as far to admit that things could have been done faster, but in the same breath asserts that “care in the investigation is more important than speed.” This is breathtaking. How can this undoubtedly erudite man not understand that, in an investigation like that one, speed and thoroughness are inextricably linked? NDSPD had a duty to react- quickly. They had a compliant, cooperative victim. They had detailed facts. They had remarkably easy to find witnesses and suspects. They had the reality of a threat communicated to Lizzy the next day. They dragged their feet and then she died. And when her parents sought answers the university stonewalled unnecessarily, incorrectly citing federal law to do so.
Of course, as my detractors will quickly note, we can’t ever really know what happened. This was a “he said, she said” case, and I don’t have a crystal ball. No, I don’t. And I don’t need one. Are we to believe that Lizzy Seeberg, with no history of being remarkably vindictive or divorced from reality simply made up every detail of that night (the accused- whose attorney says was a “complete gentlemen” telling her she’d need to “pee in the sink” for instance)? Does any serious person really believe she just fabricated this measured, reasonable account to her friends that night and the police the next day? It’s been pointed out that she never accused him of rape. Correct- she didn’t. And if she were an attention seeking liar doesn’t it make sense that she would have concocted a bigger story? Does it really resonate that a bright, hopeful young woman, new to a campus community, would choose to begin her first semester by taking on the most venerable football program in history for the sake of seeking attention? Over a regretful incident of touching? In order to “get back” at a student athlete she barely knew? And all of this after finally getting the opportunity to try again at college in such a promising environment after a long and difficult struggle? Are we to believe she made all of this up just because she wanted to risk the exposure, the backlash, the alienation of challenging the entire raison d’etre of her surroundings? Even if she can be accused of merely misunderstanding his actions, are we to assume she reported them anyway just to be on the safe side?
This is utter, vacuous nonsense and it would be laughed out of any other argument that didn’t involve a sex crime. Indeed, the people divorced from reality are the ones drawing nonsensical parallels between this case and Duke Lacrosse and claiming some veneer of plausible deniability in this player’s name. I’ll stake everything I’ve ever been or will be that the player she accused manhandled and scared the hell out of her exactly as she claimed. And he got away with it, allowed to continue playing football despite her complete, immediate, comprehensive and compelling account to authorities. Nothing- not even the snuffing out of a brilliant young life- was enough to convince Notre Dame’s football program to simply ask this young man to sit out a few games until it could gather facts and lend appropriate gravity to the situation. Her blood cried out for that, at very least. But it wasn’t to be, anymore than tracking down this football player- whose whereabouts in season are as easily traceable as the President’s- was to be before 15 days passed.
Lizzy’s father, Tom Seeberg, says what’s at stake here better than I could: “We are parents fighting for our daughter. We’re fighting for our sisters, our nieces and our granddaughters. If not at Our Lady’s university, then where? Where in the world would you fight for women? Where in the world would you fight for a cause like this?”
The cause is a noble and crucial one indeed, and it’s about more than this lovely young woman and the heartbreaking truncation of her life. It’s about more than Notre Dame, a school the Seebergs still love and admire. It’s about how we view girls and women, and how we respond when they are sexually degraded, exploited and attacked. What we’re facing is a plague, on college campuses as much if not more than anywhere else. And yet these environments, the very places where enlightenment should flourish and protection for young lives should be most prized, seem the most tone deaf to this problem no matter how much evidence is placed before them. I hope ND’s response to Lizzy Seeberg wasn’t colored by the fact that her accused was a football player. But that’s the perception many are left with. And under it flows a bitter current of resignation: The women of the Notre Dame community, as in most communities, are worth less than the men. Less than athletics. Less than reputations.
ND has a solid policy on paper to deal with sexual assault. It needs to give life to that policy with investigations that don’t make a mockery out of serious allegations. Father Jenkins and the leadership of his great university need to own, not duck, dodge and explain away what happened when his system encountered and then badly mishandled the plea of a young woman who approached it with an open heart and the desire to do the right thing. But much more than that, they need to contemplate more deeply the commitment they are willing to make not just to the Blessed Woman they venerate but the mortal ones who cross their campus as young, imperfect, and sometimes vulnerable students in need of respect, protection and at least a vigorous, competent response to violent behavior against them. Because on August 31, 2010, five months ago to the day, one of those women walked onto their campus and endured a jumbled, sick perversion of the Notre Dame motto.
She lost sweetness. Then hope. Then life.