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Liberty University sexual assault allegations reveal flaws in evangelical institutions

Liberty University students who say they were sexually assaulted say the university turned the blame on them.
Image: The Liberty University campus
Multiple students have accused Liberty University of not properly responding to their reports of being sexually assaulted.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images; MSNBC

Is there anything moral about the university started by Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of the Moral Majority? Between a recent lawsuit alleging the university ignored female students who complained of rape and the allegations of adultery involving former university president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, it sure doesn’t seem like it.

Twelve plaintiffs suing Liberty accuse the university of deliberate indifference, retaliation and negligence concerning their sexual assault cases.

A blockbuster article from ProPublica about sexual assaults at Liberty University is a window into the authoritarian and sexist foundations of evangelical belief. Twelve plaintiffs suing Liberty accused the university of deliberate indifference, hostile environment, retaliation and negligence concerning their sexual assault cases. The suit, which was originally filed in July in the Eastern District of New York, gained 10 new plaintiffs this month, making for a total of 22 plaintiffs who've filed against Liberty. On Tuesday, Liberty University President Jeremy Prevo posted a statement on the university's website that he said was a repeat of a statement the university made when the first lawsuit was filed:

"The allegations in the Jane Doe 1-12 v. Liberty University lawsuit are deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true. Many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years. Liberty has invested mightily in programs and personnel to help maintain a safe campus and to support any and all victims of sexual assault that came forward. Liberty has a robust non-discrimination policy, which includes an amnesty policy to encourage victims to make reports without fearing that their involvement in other activities like drinking alcohol or extramarital sex will be disciplined under the student honor code. That policy includes a fair process for resolving disputes about rape, sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation, as well as providing supportive measures as appropriate. It would be heartbreaking if those efforts had the results claimed in this lawsuit. We will immediately look into each of these claims to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true. Because the claims are made anonymously and go back many years, in one case over two decades, it will take some time to sort through."

Last year, Falwell resigned after reports of a sex scandal involving him, his wife and another man emerged. This year, there are accusations that the university suppressed reports of sexual assault that students made against other students. Even so, the university is still hiding behind the so-called Liberty Way. That honor code students are expected to abide by, which is rooted in biblical admonitions about morality and sexual behavior, is apparently also being used by administrators to sidestep Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination on campuses receiving federal funds.

According to the ProPublica report, in 2017, when freshman Elizabeth Axley reported that she'd been raped, Elysa Bucci, then the campus's Title IX administrator, asked why Axley had gone to the party and what had she had to drink? This alleged diminishment of the charges by placing blame on the accuser is cruel and unusual. Bucci, the Title IX officer named in ProPublica's story, has since left Liberty for Baylor University, an evangelical campus that notoriously flouted Title IX rules. ProPublica reports that Bucci did not respond to its requests for comment.

Axley’s description of her treatment at Liberty is in keeping with evangelical beliefs that often blame women for the transgressions of their assailants. Religious conservatives often view rape or sexual assault as the consequence of breaking moral codes that prohibit drinking, flirting or dressing immodestly. These tactics, coupled with biblical scriptures, are used to shame assault victims.

Liberty administrators reportedly took it a step further, by intimidating victims for breaches of the honor code. Some were given forms to sign by unnamed campus officials acknowledging that they may have broken the honor code; at least one was fined, ProPublica reported.

Liberty isn’t the only evangelical institution in the news for stories concerning sexual assault, either. As Mother Jones recently reported, 11 women who attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago said school administrators shamed them after they reported being assaulted. Lurid and disturbing stories of gang rape were part of the investigation at Baylor.

The Moody Institute responded to Mother Jones with a statement: “Moody Bible Institute remains committed to doing everything we can to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for all members of our community, and we are grateful to those who made their voices heard during this process.”

In 2018, after Baylor settled with a volleyball player who said she gang raped by up to eight members of the Baylor football team, the university released a statement:

"Baylor University understands that survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence seek resolution in many ways. In reaching a legal settlement, we acknowledge the challenges this survivor has endured and realize it's a small step in the healing process."

The statement also said: "Under new leadership, Baylor has taken significant actions in response to past reports of sexual violence within our campus community and implemented 105 improvements to our Title IX policy, processes and procedures. We remain steadfast in our commitment to properly respond to incidents of sexual assault, interpersonal violence and harassment."

The stories from Liberty, Moody and Baylor paint a grim picture of how complementarianism, evangelical ideas about gender roles, plays out in real life and leads to assault cases not being properly adjudicated. Male headship, the role of patriarchy and the expectations that women should be chaste and pure, even if they are forced, are among the tactics religious conservatives use to silence victims. Secrecy and shame are used to keep rape and sexual assault under wraps.

This unfair and relentless scrutiny of women is not uncommon in Christian churches and institutions where interpretations of scriptures about sexuality and purity put an undue burden on women who are expected to keep their virginity at any cost.

Liberty isn’t the only evangelical institution in the news for stories concerning sexual assault.

Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be desiring of women and are seldom held to account in evangelicalism for sexual sins. The Atlanta-area spa murders — by a Southern Baptist man who blamed his sexual addiction — in March were a product of a twisted preoccupation with sexuality by evangelicals who repress, molest and shame women but allow men to sexually abuse others, ask for forgiveness and abuse again.

This disgusting cycle of abuse and repentance is not only harmful, it is also in the service of protecting institutional reputations and those institutions’ finances. In its quest to present to the public and press a morally pure student body and university, great harm was done to the plaintiffs of the Liberty University lawsuit. Plaintiffs alleged that Liberty destroyed evidence and badgered and shamed victims in its attempt to intimidate them. The apparent goal was to preserve Liberty’s standing to donors, parents and the broader public.

In Prevo's Tuesday statement, he wrote, "With regard to accusations about the mishandling of Title IX in the past, there is an appropriate legal process to address those concerns in order to protect alleged victims and alleged accusers. We are embracing that legal process for the good of our institution but especially for all of those involved in these allegations."

Scott Lamb, a former senior vice president of communications at Liberty, recently filed a lawsuit against Liberty claiming that the university fired him because he pushed for administrators to respond to Pro-Publica’s questions about sexual assault. (Liberty denies that was the reason for his termination.) Some of the Jane Does have been speaking up for themselves and against Liberty on Twitter, and now there is a #Justice4Janes movement on Liberty’s campus, calling for systemic reforms to address sexual violence and harassment.

All in all, it is clear that Liberty University is facing a moral and legal crisis of its own making for not honoring the honor code it asked students to follow. The university has failed not only its student body, but also its so-called Christian witness to the world. Not only are university administrators hypocrites, they are hiding behind morality statements while practicing the worst kind of morality: abusing the abused in the name of God.