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Doubts raised about Rolling Stone rape account

Rolling Stone magazine has issued a statement putting into question parts of its story on rape culture at the University of Virginia.

Rolling Stone magazine on Friday backed away from key aspects of its blockbuster story on rape culture at the University of Virginia, specifically the shocking opening account of a student identified as Jackie who claimed to have been gang raped at a fraternity house in 2012. "Our trust in her was misplaced," the magazine wrote, citing "discrepancies" in Jackie's story. 

Pi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the piece, also released a statement Friday afternoon disputing some factual allegations in the piece.

On the magazine's website, managing editor Will Dana wrote, "In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account." He later added on Twitter that the "failure" to report out the story "is on us, not her," meaning Jackie.  

In its statement, the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi said it has been cooperating with a newly-opened criminal investigation by the Charlottesville police department, but that "our initial doubts as to the accuracy of the article have only been strengthened as alumni and undergraduate members have delved deeper." The statement cited three issues in particular: That no member of Phi Kappa Psi worked as a lifeguard at the Aquatic and Fitness Center in 2012, where Jackie said she met her assailant;  that there was no party at the fraternity house on Sept. 28, 2012, the date identified in the piece; and that fraternity pledging and initiation at the university take place in the spring and not the fall.

"Moreover, no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim," the statement said. 

"The University remains first and foremost concerned with the care and support of our students and, especially, any survivor of sexual assault," said the University of Virginia's president, Teresa A. Sullivan. "Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today's news must not alter this focus."

Experts say survivors of trauma often recall what happen to them in inconsistent ways, but one thing is clear: Rolling Stone did not do its due diligence in confirming key aspects of Jackie's story.  Only a very small portion of rape reports are false, according to a comprehensive analysis of empirical research on false reports ; according to one study of a university police department, about 5.9 percent of reports were false, which the authors said was consistent with other rigorous studies.

"It is our hope that this will not deter victims from coming forward and reporting their assault," said Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline, in a statement. 

A message left with the Charlottesville Police department about the status of the investigation was not immediately returned. 

In the past week, media critics have questioned the journalistic practices of the author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who has given mixed accounts of whether she tried to get in touch with the alleged assailants. It now appears she did not. 

Though Rolling Stone said it made its decision not to track down the alleged assailants out of deference to the victim, Jackie told the Washington Post she had asked Erdely to be taken out of the story altogether and the reporter refused. 

Msnbc reached out to Erdely on Friday afternoon. She previously declined an interview request to discuss her reporting practices.  

RELATED: UVA board calls meeting to discuss campus rape

The Washington Post reported it had interviewed Jackie and her friends about the story in recent weeks and found inconsistencies in the account. Jackie's friends, who were called on to corroborate her story in Rolling Stone, had come to question her story, the paper reporter, though they said they believe something traumatic happened to her in that time period.

Friends and sexual assault advocates said they had only just learned the name of man Jackie said had invited her as his date to the party where the crime allegedly occurred. The name, the Post reported, "turned out to be similar to the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi. That man told the Post he had never met Jackie.   

Jackie told the Post, “I never asked for this [attention]. What bothers me is that so many people act like it didn’t happen. It’s my life. I have had to live with the fact that it happened every day for the last two years." 

What is not in dispute is the critique of the university's response to sexual assault allegations, which was supposed to be the core of the story but was largely overshadowed by the dramatic account that opened the story. 

The UVA board called a meeting discuss campus rape last week, ultimately passing a resolution stating a policy of zero tolerance toward sexual assault. After a three-hour discussion, the board also announced that the violence prevention organization Green Dot would begin bystander awareness training in January. 

The university has suspended all campus fraternity activities until the end of the year. “Sexual violence is a very serious issue in the Greek system, but it’s a very serious issue and it’s much larger and much more complicated than the Greek system itself,” the president of UVA’s Inter-Fraternity Council told reporters last week.  

A video has emerged showing Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo — who plays a prominent role in the Rolling Stone article — acknowledging several UVA students had been suspended, rather than expelled, after admitting to sexual assault.

The federal government was already investigating the university for possible violations of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, and the Clery Act, which requires reporting of on-campus crimes to the government. UVA is one of a smaller number of campuses under a stricter “compliance review” by the federal government, suggesting deeper and broader concerns.

The full Rolling Stone statement is below. 

To Our Readers:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled "A Rape on Campus" by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university's failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie's account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence. 

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.

Will DanaManaging Editor