For the second time this school year, a family has complained that the University of Notre Dame failed to swiftly and thoroughly investigate their daughter's report of being sexually attacked in a residence hall.
The family of a woman who attended nearby St. Mary's College says campus police delayed fully investigating her account that a Notre Dame student sexually assaulted her after she had been drinking.
The woman says she felt that police were more interested in protecting Notre Dame than in helping her. Her father, a Notre Dame graduate, corresponded with the university president and visited campus police to plead for investigative action.
"I'm involved in this because I love Notre Dame and I don't want to see this happen again," he said. "Notre Dame has done so much good over the years, but I think there's an issue that needs to be corrected."
Their experience mirrors the frustrations expressed by a suburban Chicago couple that the school failed to adequately investigate their daughter's sexual battery allegations last semester against a student. That woman, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg, of Northbrook, killed herself nine days after making the police report.
Both cases are being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education, which has launched an inquiry into how the nation's preeminent Catholic university responds to sexual misconduct complaints. Together, the incidents paint a picture of a campus police department that so frustrated both women's parents, they implored detectives to obtain evidence, question witnesses and treat their daughters' accusations with urgency.
The women did not know each other but had much in common, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Tribune. Both were 19-year-old students at neighboring St. Mary's and members of proud Notre Dame families. Both filed police reports within 24 hours of the alleged attacks and went to a hospital.
Seeberg's parents questioned the campus police department's reluctance to obtain cell phone records related to her case, the lack of transparency in the investigation and the delay in interviewing the accused. Police didn't interview the accused until Sept. 15 — 14 days after Seeberg reported the alleged sex attack. No charges were ever filed against him.
The other St. Mary's student filed a report of an alleged sexual assault on Sept. 5. Police did not speak with the suspect in that case until 11 days later. Authorities said the woman initially did not want to press charges — a claim she says is false and her father considers a poor excuse.
"It's not like a crime where someone steals $10 from you. It's not a petty offense," said the woman's father. "It's a serious criminal allegation, and it needs to be investigated."
As in the Seeberg case, St. Joseph County, Ind., Prosecutor Michael Dvorak said he will not file criminal charges. It would be difficult to convince a jury that the woman was too intoxicated to give consent, he said. Dvorak said his conclusion would be the same regardless of when campus police conducted interviews and gathered evidence.
In a two-page statement to the Tribune, Notre Dame said "sexual misconduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated." The university also defended its police department's professionalism and said it adhered to standards supported by local prosecutors and other law enforcement. It did not discuss details of the case but said the university takes all sexual misconduct allegations seriously.
"We regret that some are critical of our handling of sexual misconduct allegations, and we understand the pain these families are experiencing," the statement said. "At the same time, we stand behind the thoroughness, integrity and objectivity of our investigations, as well as the comprehensive services available to students who are subjected to sexual misconduct."
The woman and her father spoke to the Tribune because they say Notre Dame's response to her accusations, coupled with the handling of Seeberg's case, poses a public safety issue on the South Bend campus. The Tribune is not naming the woman because it does not identify victims of alleged sexual attacks except in rare circumstances.
A former prosecutor, the father said he understood the difficulties in bringing criminal charges. The accused said the sex was consensual, and the accuser had been drinking. Still, Notre Dame's obligation was to treat her allegation with respect and urgency, he said.
"If there was a prompt, thorough and comprehensive investigation conducted and they came to the conclusion in consultation with the prosecutor that they could not successfully prosecute the individual, I would rely on that," the woman's father said.
Legal experts and victim advocates share the two families' concerns over the investigations' timeliness, saying delays can allow evidence to be compromised.
"Ideally we want to see the (suspect) interview take place within 24 to 48 hours," said Anita Carpenter, executive director of the advocacy group Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Every situation is different, but victims have a right to an expedient, thorough investigation."
Even defense lawyers were surprised at Notre Dame's delays in interviewing the two men.
Barry Spector, a veteran Chicago defense lawyer who represented a Notre Dame football player accused of sexual misconduct in the 1990s, said police should never have waited to attempt to conduct the interviews.
"That's not an investigation," he said. "The suspects have a chance to get their story straight and to hire a lawyer. If you want to do a real investigation, you talk to them right away."
The Tribune first reported the Seeberg case in a Nov. 21 story that raised questions about the university's handling of her complaint. Spurred by that story, the Department of Education began making inquiries into how the university responded to that case and others.
Russlynn Ali, assistant education secretary in charge of the Office for Civil Rights, said the university was cooperating with her staff's review. Ali said she expected the review to be completed soon.
Records show the second woman reported to campus police she was sexually assaulted in the early morning hours of Sept. 4 in a dorm room.
According to a statement she gave to university officials, the woman said she was "very intoxicated" and could not remember what happened in the room. Her friends later found her with blood seeping through her denim shorts and running down her legs, according to her statement.
She said in her statement that she was a virgin and would never have consented to sex.
In a rush to leave the residence hall, she left her underwear and shoes in the man's room.
"When I woke up the next morning, I was distraught," she said in her written statement to Notre Dame officials. "For the first time in my life, I woke up wishing that I hadn't."
Around 9:30 p.m. Sept. 4, she called the Notre Dame crisis hotline and went to the hospital. After she consented to DNA evidence collection and provided a statement to police, a Notre Dame officer took her back to her dorm to retrieve clothing she wore the night of the incident.
Overwhelmed by the events and a medical exam she viewed as necessary but "intrusive," the woman told police she was unsure about pressing charges. She later said she thought campus police would be in touch with her soon. But she did not hear from them.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, e-mailed a campuswide alert on Sept. 6 about the reported sexual assault, as required by federal law. Authorities had not yet spoken with the accused student, who, fearing he was the target of the complaint, disposed of the underwear left in his room.
"I was afraid of being falsely accused and threw the panties, which I had been planning on giving back to the girl, away," he told the Tribune in an e-mail. "I told this to the police and told them I had made a mistake in doing so."
Dvorak said it ultimately did not matter that the underwear was thrown out because the man said the interaction was consensual. He added that the woman also destroyed evidence when she took a shower before going to the hospital, but that it ended up not being a factor in the case.
According to a timeline provided by sources familiar with Notre Dame's investigation, authorities ran a background check on the accused student Sept. 7 to see if he had any outstanding warrants or posed a threat to the campus. The department assigned the case to a detective Sept. 8 — more than 72 hours after the woman reported being sexually assaulted. Authorities waited because the department was stretched thin by the first home football game of the season Sept. 4, sources said.
According to the timeline, police did nothing more until Sept. 10, after the woman's father requested to meet with detectives and inquired about developments in the investigation. To his surprise, he said, there were none.
A detective told the father that police were waiting for his daughter to contact them again, he said.
Law enforcement experts say it is common for sexual assault victims — especially those who quickly file a police report — to be unsure about pressing charges. In fact, the International Association of Chiefs of Police model policy states a victim should "not be expected or encouraged to make decisions regarding the investigation" in the incident's aftermath.
The Tribune spoke to more than a dozen law enforcement experts and victim advocates, and none supported placing the onus on the alleged victim to reactivate an investigation after making the initial report.
Though there is no national protocol, the majority said they would have opened lines of communication with the woman within the next day or two. But a Notre Dame consultant said she would wait three to five days to initiate contact so as not to further victimize an already traumatized person.
Sources said Notre Dame follows a countywide protocol that suggest officers wait about a week.
"Timing is everything," said Dolores Stafford, the former George Washington University police chief who has consulted with Notre Dame's department. "If you do it too quickly, the victim could feel like you're pressuring her. If you wait too long, it makes them feel you don't care."
Police also could have launched the investigation with just the woman's statement and the physical evidence she provided, experts said.
"If you've got a person who's willing to go to the hospital and willing to take an exam, then you have something to work with," said Mark Wynn, a retired police investigator and nationally known expert on sexual violence prevention. "She has reported a felony in your jurisdiction. You have to investigate."
The woman and her parents met with campus police on Sept. 11.
Three days later, the detective assigned to the case interviewed the woman again at a Perkins restaurant and asked if she was sure she wanted to press charges, the woman said. She began to lose faith in the detective, and documents show she later asked for future conversations to occur at the police station.
"It seemed that protecting Notre Dame was her best interest, not me," the woman said.
The woman's friends, including a classmate who saw her bleeding after walking out of the dorm room, provided statements to police via e-mail but were not interviewed until five weeks after the report was filed, she said.
On Sept. 15 — four days after the parents had flown to South Bend and 10 days after the report — detectives for the first time attempted to interview the accused student. They were unable to find him until the next day despite having access to his class schedule, sources said.
When contacted by the Tribune, the man said he provided a DNA sample, answered investigators' questions on several occasions and allowed his room to be searched and photographed.
In the early weeks of Notre Dame's investigation, the woman's father called and e-mailed detectives asking for updates. He questioned them about why they had not interviewed witnesses or inspected the futon where his daughter said the alleged assault occurred.
Shortly afterward, the woman's father said, police stopped speaking with him. He received an e-mail from a university lawyer telling him the investigation was being handled properly.
The woman said she has not heard from police since mid-October. A source said police left a message Oct. 14, but that she did not call back. A prosecutor called her Tuesday to tell her there would be no charges.
The university's silence is difficult for some law enforcement experts to understand.
"You have to stay in close touch with your victim," Wynn said. "To keep them in the dark and not tell them what's happening can be scary stuff for the victim."
The woman was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression after the reported assault and is still undergoing counseling.
Shortly before the fall semester ended, she read a Tribune story in which the Seebergs described their feelings of betrayal. She said she understood their fight to have the case taken seriously.
She wondered why — when Lizzy Seeberg's case ended tragically — police did not stay in routine contact with her.
"Looking back, I'm surprised that they dealt with my case in the exact same way after the loss of another student's life," she said. "I thought that would have given them incentive to speed up my case."
The woman also empathizes with the Seebergs' struggle to speak out against the university they loved. She, too, grew up in a Notre Dame family believing the campus represented a higher standard.
"You don't want to think that this happens at Our Mother's university. I refer to Notre Dame as God's campus," she said. "It's hard to love it like I used to."
She has transferred to another college.
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