Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Notre Dame Football and Rape Victims — Why You Should Care

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There’s a scandal that’s been long a-brewing in Notre Dame . . . and no, it’s not related to star football player Manti Te’o or his fake girlfriend.

No, it’s much worse than that.

It’s about at least one rape, by at least one Notre Dame football player, that’s apparently been covered up by higher-ups at Notre Dame.  It’s about that coverup, and about how the Athletic Director of Notre Dame, Jack Swarbrick, would rather discuss the Te’o situation, bizarre though that is, than the reputed sexual assault (or assaults).  And it’s about the abuse of trust by Catholic priests, who are in positions of power in the Notre Dame hierarchy and are apparently much more concerned about the big money coming in via Notre Dame’s football program than any justice for rape victims.

Now, you might be asking, “Why do you keep saying ‘victims’ in this case, when only one (unnamed) football player has been implicated in the latest scandal?”  Well, it’s simple.  As Melinda Henneberger, herself a Notre Dame graduate, reported in the National Catholic Reporter back on March 26, 2012:

On her way back to St. Mary’s College from the University of Notre Dame, just across the street in Notre Dame, Ind., freshman Lizzy Seeberg texted her therapist that she needed to talk ASAP. “Something bad happened,” read her message, sent at 11:39 p.m. on Aug. 31, 2010. A sophomore in their dorm bolted from her study group after getting a similar message. When they talked a few minutes later, Lizzy was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing: “She looked really flushed and was breathing heavily and talking really fast; I couldn’t understand her. I just heard her say ‘boy,’ ‘Notre Dame,’ ‘football player.’ She was crying and having the closest thing to a panic attack I’ve seen in my life. I told her to breathe and sit down and tell me everything.”

Lizzy Seeberg”s story is the main one under discussion, as she reported the crime to the police.  She wanted justice to be done.  But then, as Henneberger’s account clearly shows, Lizzy Seeberg was pressured by various people at Notre Dame (mostly students) to drop the case.

Instead of dropping it, she committed suicide.

But Henneberger uncovered other current troubles.  As she wrote later:

Lizzy wanted it to be better for the next woman. But one subsequent case, never reported until now, involved another young woman who decided that you really don’t mess with Notre Dame football. A year ago February, a female Notre Dame student who said another football player had raped her at an off-campus party told the friend who drove her to the hospital afterward that it was with Lizzy in mind that she decided against filing a complaint, that friend said.

So, did you catch that?  Here another woman was raped, but did not go forward with her story because she, too, was afraid of being pressured.

Here’s another tidbit from Henneberger’s article:

One Notre Dame parent and longtime donor I interviewed, who asked that his name not be used because his daughter had reported being raped by a fellow Notre Dame student, said a top university official told him Lizzy was without question the aggressor in the situation: “She was all over the boy.”

So it’s obvious that the Notre Dame higher-ups appear to be seriously into blaming the victim.  But they didn’t want to have to admit that’s what they were doing, which is why it was all innuendo, rumor and guess.

As Henneberger points out:

In a sense, Lizzy’s ordeal didn’t end with her death. The damage to her memory since then is arguably more of a violation than anything she reported to police — and all the more shocking because it was not done thoughtlessly, by a kid in a moment he can’t take back, but on purpose, by the very adults who heavily market the moral leadership of a Catholic institution. Notre Dame’s mission statement could not be clearer: “The university is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” But in this case, the university did just the opposite.

Henneberger also wrote a column for the Washington Post (her regular gig) explaining why she would not be rooting for Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship.  As she put it:

It’s not only what I believe went on at that off-campus party, or in the room of the player Lizzy accused, that makes it impossible for me to support the team, though that would be enough. The problem goes deeper than that, and higher, because the man Lizzy accused had a history of behavior that should have kept him from being recruited in the first place. And as bad in my book as the actions of those young men was the determination of the considerably older men who run N.D. to keep those players on the team in an effort to win some football games.

Among those being congratulated for our return to gridiron glory is ND’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, who refused to meet with the Seeberg family on advice of counsel, and other school officials who’ve whispered misleadingly in many ears, mine included, in an attempt to protect the school’s brand by smearing a dead 19-year-old.

And that smearing was brutal.  This was a young woman who volunteered her time at her local church.  She was a political conservative (not that it matters).  She was someone who firmly believed she should save her virginity for marriage, all according to Henneberger’s NCR report.

Yet she was called “mentally unstable.”  A sexual innocent, she supposedly was “all over the boy.”

And this caricature of a young woman is something most rape victims will recognize, especially if they’ve tried to report a sexual assault at Notre Dame.  According to Henneberger’s report:

In 1974, a South Bend woman who was hospitalized and then spent a month in a psychiatric facility after reporting being gang-raped by six Notre Dame football players was described by a top university administrator as “a queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back.” No charges were filed, but the accused were suspended for a year for violating school rules. At the time, even so revered a figure as Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh said: “We didn’t have to talk to the girl; we talked to the boys.” Hesburgh, who is 94, made that remark to Notre Dame alumnus Robert Sam Anson, who in his student days had founded the campus newspaper. Anson quoted Hesburgh in a story very much like this one, written 35 years ago.

Those who argue that, if anything, Notre Dame is too hard on its athletes regularly cite the 2002 expulsion of three players and a former player accused of gang-raping a woman, though none of them served a day in jail. But their accuser insists they were only expelled after officials failed to dissuade her from going public: “First they said, ‘No one’s going to believe you.’ ” When she went to South Bend police anyway, Notre Dame officials “treated me horribly at every opportunity. I had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and I was afraid they [the players] were going to come after me again, but [school officials] wouldn’t let me park my car on campus because they said that wouldn’t be fair to the other students. When I tried to make an appointment with the counseling center, they called me back and said they couldn’t see me because of pending legal matters, though the legal matter they were talking about was the state versus these four rapists.”

So the anecdotal evidence is overpowering.  But you might be asking yourself, why isn’t there more of a paper trail regarding all of these various accusers?  (Much less a public outcry on the level of, say, the Penn State debacle of a year ago, something the Nation’s Dave Zirin wonders about as well.)

It’s simple.  The town of South Bend, Indiana, doesn’t have much in the way of industry any longer.   It’s economy is dependent upon Notre Dame, and to a substantial extent, on how many fans come to see Notre Dame’s football team every year.

Because of this, there’s a motive for covering things up.  There’s a motive to say, “No, that couldn’t have possibly happened here,” even when it’s obvious that something bad has happened.  And it sounds like from Henneberger’s exhaustive report at the National Catholic Reporter that Notre Dame, systematically, has done its level best to silence as many rape victims as it possibly can.

And I’m not the only person to feel that way.  Henneberger, in her Washington Post column, talked with Kaliegh Fields, a St. Mary’s junior who attempted to help Lizzy Seeberg back in 2010.  Pay close attention to what Fields has to say, as her final question is the one that’s been perplexing me ever since I started reading about Lizzy’s plight:

“I’ve watched almost every game this season and there’s not a single time that I don’t feel extreme anger when I see [the accused] on the field,” said Kaliegh Fields, a Saint Mary’s junior who went with Lizzy to the police station. “Once I start thinking about the people who put the school’s success in a sport over the life of a young woman, I can’t help but feel disgust. Everyone’s always saying how God’s on Notre Dame’s side,” she added. “And I think, ‘How could he be?’”

So after all this, you might be wondering why you should care about what’s going on at Notre Dame besides its football program.  Or besides the current scandal with regards to Manti Te’o and “did he, or did he not, know that his girlfriend wasn’t real.”  Or besides the fact that this one place, South Bend, Indiana, is dependent upon Notre Dame and its football program to stay alive in these uncertain economic times.

But if you have read everything I’ve posted, and honestly cannot understand why I’m hopping mad that Lizzy Seeberg did not get justice done . . . well, as Mr. T used to say, “I pity the fool.”

And the longer I think about it, the more I agree with Dave Zirin: the Notre Dame football program should be given the NCAA’s death penalty, because there’s something wrong when life becomes far less important than football.

Even at Notre Dame.

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 18, 2013 at 3:25 am

2 Responses

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  1. Amen. I don’t care what the women’s reputations were, either: No means NO. You stop. Do not pass go. End of story. If those boys didn’t/don’t get that, they are the ones with problems, not the girls. And if the university can’t understand that, they have even bigger problems.


    January 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    • Thanks, Stephanie. I agree with you, of course. I don’t understand why any school would want to malign the reputation of a dead young woman, first of all. Second, it’s just wrong that Ms. Henneberger was able to uncover so many instances of problems at Notre Dame, yet they are unwilling to do anything whatsoever about it. I just do not get that — human lives are much more important than football.

      And if you are not listening when a woman says “no,” there’s something wrong with you, Mr. Football Player — or Mr. Joe Blow.

      Barb Caffrey

      January 19, 2013 at 12:47 am

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