Cry, Cry for Old Notre Dame

Last month I wrote a post titled Rah Rah for Rapists which has become the most shared post of this blog to date. Much of the information I cited in that post was from an article in the National Catholic Reporter titled Reported Sexual Assault at Notre Dame Campus Leaves More Questions than Answers.

The author of that article, Washington Post political reporter and ND alum Melinda Henneberger, published a post last month on her WP She the People blog titled Why I won’t be cheering for old Notre Dame (in tonight’s BCS Championship football game in Miami).

I am heartened by Henneberger’s post.

Although I did not attend the University of Notre Dame, I had been an enthusiastic fan of the Fighting Irish since the age of twelve. Because the college I attended, DePaul University, did not have a football team, I never stopped cheering for the Irish. I even cheered for them over my own Blue Demons to the point that my dormmates threw me in the shower after an ND basketball upset.

Like Henneberger, I’ve been hearing remarks of exuberation by relatives and friends who are loyal Notre Dame fans. But, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one on the planet who has a problem with an institution that so blatantly puts the success of its football program and public image over the safety and well-being of individual – shall I say ordinary – students, not to mention a little matter called truth.

Over the weekend, Henneberger participated in an online Q & A referred to as Ask Melinda Henneberger about Notre Dame’s Sexual Assault Problem. Many of the comments by anonymous participants rang a familiar tune to me as someone who has worked in the area of Catholic clergy sexual abuse for nearly a decade and who operates the web site

While Henneberger responded to legitimate questions, she ignored the many ignorant comments, questions, and personal attacks and with good reason. I happed to relish in reading and responding to such comments and so I have done so below.

  1. Cry that it wasn’t rape. Many comments on Henneberger’s Q & A criticized the use of the term “sexual assault”, pointing out that the complaint filed with the Notre Dame police by Saint Mary’s College student Lizzy Seeberg did not include what is generally described as rape. To this argument, I say “So What?”  The term “sexual assault” is what many law enforcement jurisdictions now use in place of the word “rape”. According to many criminal codes, sexual assault also refers to criminal acts where there is no penetration. And so, the fact there there was no penetration does not mean it was not a sexual assault or that no crime was committed. Also, the University of Notre Dame sells itself of a morally superior institution with members of superior character. Defending a football player by minimizing the extent of his alleged sexual assault of a coed is hardly something to brag about.
  2. Cry False Allegation. Some of the comments brought up famous cases of men being falsely accused of rape. “Remember Tom Robinson?”, they ask, referring to one of the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. And, don’t forget about the Duke lacrosse players and anyone else they can think of who has been falsely accused of rape. These are talking points that the attorney for the football player whom Seeberg accused has supplied to the puppetry of the Notre Dame community. Joe Power is an ND alum and asked Henneberger, “Have you ever read the book To Kill a Mockingbird?” There is only one problem with this argument. Tom Robinson was totally innocent. Tom didn’t do anything wrong. Contrarily, according to Seeberg’s account, “she froze and cried as he groped her, then threw her off of him and said, ‘I could get kicked off the team for this’. What the player did may not have been ‘rape’ and it may or may not have been criminal, but he was no choir boy and he was no Tom Robinson. According to Henneberger who has thoroughly investigated the Seeberg case, the football player she accused “had a history of behavior that should have kept him from being recruited in the first place”.
  3. Cry that he can’t defend himself. Many of the Notre Dame followers complain that the football player can’t defend himself. I’ve heard this before. The reason administrators of Catholic institutions remain silent in the face of such accusations is not because the are especially dignified or respectful, quite the contrary. Their silence is all a part of the cover up as their actions are driven not by compassion or concern for the wounded but by the legal advice of their highly-paid counsel. Nothing has stopped Notre Dame from identifying the accused. And nothing has stopped the accused from publicly defending himself, except maybe an aggreement he has made with the school. He is on scholarship, afterall. Because Notre Dame has chosen to keep his identity a secret, shadows of doubt have been cast upon other players who fit the description even though they had nothing to do with the incident. The player was on the team in 2010 so he must be either a junior or a senior this year. Henneberger, who knows the player’s identity but does not reveal it, has reported that he is black (in response to race-card comments by Power). As I explain in #8, we can also conclude that he is a starter – possibly a star – on the team. Is it running back Theo Riddick? Running back Cierre Wood? By Notre Dame not coming clean from the get-go, it leaves the gossip chains to run wild, to the detriment of the innocent.
  4. Try to discredit the Victim. Many of the anonymous commentors have not held back in denigrating Lizzy Seeberg just as they demonized the victim of the alleged 6-player gang rape back in the ’70’s. This isn’t just a case of ignorant fans mouthing off, however. Officials at Notre Dame and Power have led the charge. Just as with Catholic bishops and diocesan spokespersons nationwide, the powers-that-be start the ball rolling with their desired talking points and then watch as their minions spread their propaganda. Make no mistake: this is all a sophisicated strategy. As the NCR article reveals, and as is often the case, other victims are intimidated into silence – thereby denied any justice – after witnessing how victims who do come forward are publicly humiliated and recklessly defamed. That is the Church’s plan all along and, sadly, it works.
  5. Try to discredit the messenger. True to form, the Catholics who attempt to defend Notre Dame’s handling of the Seeberg case have accused Henneberger of selfishly seeking publicity, money, and fame. They have criticized her writing, her research, and her motives. Because they don’t want to face the truth she has presented, they instead attack and try to discredit her. How dare she rain on their parade, particularly during an undefeated football season!
  6. Blame everyone else. It’s really amazing the lengths some people will go to protect their fantasies – in this case, Notre Dame and the accused player(s). When the six players were accused back when I was in high school, the Notre Dame fans in my family accused the University of Southern California of paying off the young woman who accused them. Now, in the Seeberg case, some Notre Dame fans are blaming Lizzy’s parents, friends, her therapist, Saint Mary’s College, and anyone else they can think of for her death – anyone other than the accused player, the ‘friend’ who sent her intimidating text messages, or anyone else related to Notre Dame. Notre Dame, remember, is blameless – indeed infallible.
  7. Point Elsewhere. Not only do the Notre Dame defenders recklessly play the blame-game for Lizzy’s death, but they also point elsewhere to divert the focus of campus sexual assaults away from the Golden Dome where there is clearly a huge problem. Then, it’s “Remember Penn State?” This strategy is also common in the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Instead of looking inward – or in the mirror, Catholic defenders often look everywhere else – the Boy Scouts, public schools, the YMCA. This is akin to children busted with the broken cookie jar, pointing to each other with fingers covered in powdered sugar. There is a name for the response – moral relativism. It means trying to justify one’s own behavior by pointing to the misbehavior of others. It is not a just defense. In fact, the Catholic Church preaches against it, believe it or not.
  8. Point to prior suspensions. Some Notre Dame fans have tried to defend Notre Dame’s handling of the Seeberg Case by pointing to how the school has suspended accused players in the past. Let’s see, a South Bend woman reports to the police that she was gang-raped by six Notre Dame football players. The university suspends them for one year. Two leave and four are back on the field the following year. If they were innocent, why were they suspended? If they were guilty, why were they not prosecuted? And why did Notre Dame let them back on campus? In 1998, Notre Dame expelled Cooper Rego after being accused of rape by a Notre Dame student. Why did they toss out Rego and not the others? The fact that he was a back-up tailback made all the difference. Had Lizzy been attacked by a 3rd-stringer, her case may have been more properly handled and she may still be alive. But, “We are ND!”
  9. Practice selective outreach and compassion. Institutions that claim moral superiority over others must rack up a bunch of good deeds in order to make their claim the least bit believable. The Catholic Church in general, and the University of Notre Dame, specifically, have plenty of good deeds to tout. However, their acts of kindness are not across the board. They are selective. Again, the legal beagles probably have a lot to do with who gets recognized and who doesn’t. The fateful incident in the football player’s dorm room that led to the death of Lizzy Seeberg happened on August 31, 2010. On October 27, 2010, Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan fell to his death when the 40-ft lift on which he was filming football practice for the coaches was blown to the ground in 50+ mph winds. Notre Dame loves Declan. They paid a huge tribute to him during one of their football games later that season. Meanwhile, all Lizzy gets from the school is villified. As one text message that was sent to her before she died, “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea”. Declan didn’t mess with ND football. In fact, he literally gave his life for Notre Dame football. He had tweeted moments before his fall that he was terrified up there in the wind. He should not have been up there. He should not have died. But he probably didn’t want to let the team down. It’s all about the team. As a consequence, Declan Sullivan is a hero at Notre Dame while Lizzy Seeberg’s memory is trashed.
  10. Sin by omission. In Catholic-speak, there are sins of commission and sins of omission. The former is actively engaging in wrong-doing while the latter is not doing what one ought to do when one ought to do it. Perpetrators of sexual assault are evil-doers. According to many of my friends who have been sexually assaulted or abused as children, men and women who aid, abet, or cover-up sexual crimes are even worse than the rapists. They say the rapists are sick while those who protect them are evil. Then there are the ‘by-standers’. Those who go to great lengths to distort the truth, discredit the victims, and protect the idols of their worship no matter what. And, there are the ostriches who choose to live in LaLa Land and remain ignorant of the pain all around them in order to keep their own levels of comfort intact. Notre Dame President Jim Jenkins is a member of this group along with the alumni, donors, and fans who will be cheering on at least one rapist tonight. These are all sinners in one capacity or another.

We all know the saying, “The truth will set you free”. Unfortunately, many, many people don’t believe it. They don’t want to face the truth. They don’t want to admit the truth.

I was one of those people back when the Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Willie Fry, and Al Hunter were accused of rape. When such accusations come about, it seems to be in our human nature to side with the person(s) we know as opposed to the accuser whom many of us don’t know.

We all knew O.J. and many of us loved him if not for football for the Hollywood characters he played. And so, many of us didn’t want to believe he would be capable of murder, at least before all of the evidence was in. Unfortunately, such blind worship only keeps us in the dark and true joy simply does not exist in those dark places, only superficial jubilation.

I am waiting for the day when the University of Notre Dame and the Roman Catholic Church practice what they preach and live by the morality they claim to possess, regardless of the score.