WARREN COUNTY – Christendom College has responded with a promise of change, after initially sending mixed messages in reaction to a Catholic blogger’s post citing a campus environment of sexual segregation leading to off-campus sexual encounters that sometimes evolve into sexual assaults and rape of female dating partners by male students.
In Simcha Fisher’s blog titled “Are Women Safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part 1” the private, Catholic college teaching a strict conservative brand of the faith was initially cited by two former female students for, first creating an unrealistically sterile atmosphere of sexual segregation, then failing due diligence in investigating reports of the occasionally dire consequences of that atmosphere. The women, one named and one unnamed, said their allegations of sexual violence by student boyfriends off campus were essentially swept under the rug by the college administration with minimal consequences for the alleged male perpetrators; and little in the way of support for them as victims of sexual violence.
According to blog author Simcha Fisher and her husband Damien, an initial response from Christendom College President Timothy O’Donnell alleged “misleading information and serious inaccuracies” in their story, but then went on to apologize to past victims of such incidents within the Christendom student body. The Fishers stand by their posts and told Royal Examiner on January 29, “Any accusation of inaccuracy has yet to be detailed to us by anyone at the school, though we still await their call … We have still yet to hear from the college despite numerous honest attempts to speak to them, and any statements otherwise from the school are simply untrue.”
‘We will do better’
About a week after the initial response from the college president, in a January 24 post on the school’s website under the all-caps headline “WE WILL DO BETTER,” CHRISTENDOM COLLEGE EXTENDS SUPPORT TO VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AND HARASSMENT,” Christendom Executive Vice-President Kenneth Ferguson expanded on O’Donnell’s initial apology, offering to meet with student victims, past and present, and thanking the Fishers for shedding light on the problem. O’Donnell even added to the apology portion of his initial response – “We have failed some of our students,” he stated.
College Vice-President Ferguson then suggested a path forward, saying, “We invite these victims to come forward and be heard. We value their insight on concrete ways we can make this campus as safe as possible for women. And we ask, if possible, for their forgiveness. I want to extend my gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Fisher for giving these women a platform to share their voices with us.” In the post under the “News” category on the school’s website, Ferguson also offered that meetings with victims include a “certified trauma counselor” and any “support personnel” those victims wished to have accompany them.
“I am grateful to each woman who has come forward with her story,” Christendom President O’Donnell continued, “We need to hear you and your experience. Disclosing abuse and its aftermath is painful and difficult, and it takes a tremendous amount of courage. To those students who have been harmed, I am deeply sorry. We will do better.”
Contacted January 30 about follow-up questions regarding the Fisher report, the administrative reaction and any potential policy review in the wake of the sexual assault issue surfacing, Christendom Director of Public Relations Zachary Smith said the school administration had no additional comment at this time, but would expand on its response in the future.
A past culture of silence …
For some the administrative apologies come late, particularly from school President O’Donnell. Simcha Fisher reports that some alumni, though no numbers are offered, have called for O’Donnell’s resignation as college president in the wake of the attention garnered by her two blog posts on Christendom’s past failures to appropriately deal with sexual violence by and against members of the student body. Adele Chapline Smith, Christendom College Class of 2012, was the identified victim of an alleged October 2009 rape by a fellow Christendom student that raised the specter “Are Women Safe in Christendom’s bubble?” Smith is one of those voices seeking positive movement forward, though she believes that movement cannot occur under O’Donnell’s stewardship of the school.
“From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank Christendom College and Mr. Ken Ferguson for an excellent first step in repairing the damage done to the women of Christendom and their families under the O’Donnell administration …I am disheartened that this was not their initial response, but I am open to further dialogue with the college and am eager to hear how the administration plans to implement these changes,” Smith stated in Fisher’s second blog on the matter. “I forgive Dr. Timothy O’Donnell for 25 years of negligence toward those women in the Christendom community who suffered sexual assaults … It is my firm belief that Dr. O’Donnell should step down from his position as President of the college, and that Christendom College should implement Title IX regulations to ensure a safe and transparent environment for all current and prospective students.”
As a private school not receiving federal funds, Christendom College is not subject to Title IX regulations. According to its official website, Title IX is a federal civil rights law dating to 1972 that prohibits sexual discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal money. While most famous for improving campus athletic opportunities for women, there are 10 areas addressed by the law, the other nine are: “Access to Higher Education, Career Education, Education for Pregnant and Parenting Students, Employment, Learning Environment, Math and Science, Sexual Harassment, Standardized Testing and Technology.” Due to Title IX, schools receiving federal funding must legally respond to and record reports of “a hostile educational environment based on sexual designation” the website states.
… absent Title IX
In Simcha Fisher’s “Are Women Safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part 1” blog post, Adele Smith traces the history of her experience with the Christendom College administration in the wake of what she described as an off-campus rape that scarred her emotionally, spiritually and academically.
Only over a year-and-a-half later in 2011 did she begin to turn a corner in the realization of the full extent of her situation. She traced that turning point to her and her brother staying on after attending a party hosted by a Theology teacher identified as Eric Jenislawski following a debate society meeting. Talking about her troubles at school she confided in the teacher about what had happened to her.
“I’m so sorry you were raped,” she reported Jenislawski telling her. Fisher then writes of Smith’s reaction, “At first she didn’t want to allow that word, and grew defensive, blaming herself for the assault … But Jenislawski was the first one who made her feel like the rape wasn’t her fault. He encouraged her to get counseling and to tell the school administration what had happened.”
Soon after, Smith reported the rape, as well as some subsequent physical and psychological harassment by her ex-boyfriend on campus. She was promised the school would conduct a “complete and careful investigation.”
Some time later, based on her report of the alleged rape and her ex’s ongoing harassment on campus, the college acted on her allegations – but it wasn’t the action she and her family had hoped for. The school explained that her former boyfriend would be charged with harassing Smith “after a prior incident.” That prior incident is not specified as an alleged rape.
Fisher’s blog quotes the report to the alleged perpetrator: “We have reports that indicate that you have violated the Code of Student Conduct by harassing another student and causing emotional harm. The reports indicate that Adele Smith indicated, after a prior incident with you, that she no longer wanted a relationship with you. Then on November 24, 2009, you sat next to her on a bench and made unwanted contact with her by placing your hand on her knee. Furthermore, it is alleged that you continued to harass her by trying to provoke her to slap you, hit you or kiss you … Therefore, you are being charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct”.
Following a July 2011 disciplinary conference that violation was deemed “Harassment”. The perpetrator’s punishment was cited as not living on campus for a semester and refraining from further contact with Adele Smith. Fisher reports that barred from living on campus, Smith’s accused rapist “was taken under the wing of one of (the school’s) founders and professors, William Marshner,” whose house he lived in that semester.
… and ‘teaching tool’
Smith told Fisher that during her senior year she was alerted that Marshner was talking about her situation regarding the alleged date rape in his moral theology class, “using thinly veiled language.” Simcha Fisher wrote of Marshner’s use of Smith’s situation as a “teaching tool”: “The teacher gave the class a hypothetical example of a young man and woman who were dating and decided to go off campus to Skyline Drive. In the example, they decide to fornicate, but then the young woman regrets her choice, and decides to claim the young man attacked her.
“In what world is this okay?” Smith asks. “It was my story. Everyone knew.” Smith complained to the school, and she says they gave Marshner “a slap on the wrist.”
Dating in the Christendom ‘bubble’
Smith cited a culture of “strict segregation of males and females” on the Christendom campus and a ban on any open displays of affection, including holding hands. Life in this socio-religious environment denying ANY expression of adolescent or post-adolescent emotional connection of a potentially sexual nature – the Christendom “bubble” referenced in the blog’s title – inevitably leads couples who have formed emotional bonds to go off campus, Smith said.
“It’s just a natural human need to connect with someone you’re in a relationship with. Just to hold hands, they’d go off campus for a date; and by ‘off campus,’ it could in be in the woods, or in a field down the road. There are not a lot of options if you don’t have a car,” Smith told Fisher.
“So you end up having couples potentially isolate themselves. They should be able to express themselves romantically in a public setting, which is a safer setting to learn how to navigate as a couple. Instead, you’re put into remote, isolated areas where things can get out of hand.”
And that is precisely what Adele Smith says happened to her, and apparently an unknown number of female Christendom College students over the years. Smith pinpoints what she describes as rape at the hands of her then boyfriend and fellow Christendom student to Friday, October 2, 2009, on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about thirty minutes away from the college campus.
Fisher’s report on Smith’s experience points to a written exchange between her father Scott Smith and Christendom President O’Donnell after the investigation was concluded. O’Donnell appears to justify the “harassment” finding based on the fact the alleged rape took place off campus.
“The alleged assault of Adele did not take place on campus. Rather, the incident apparently occurred in a national park several miles away from Christendom’s campus,” Fisher quotes from O’Donnell’s letter to Scott Smith. “Moreover, both Adele and Mr. [redacted] are adults — meaning that Christendom faculty and staff have inherently limited options for enforcing standards of appropriate (or even prudent) conduct, especially when students leave the confines of campus.”
Adele Smith also believes the fact that there was no stated prohibition against rape in the student handbook at the time was a factor (a reference was added in 2013). She noted that students are punished if they are found on campus intoxicated, even if their drinking took place off campus.
“We care if you drink off campus, but not if you rape off campus,” Smith said of her perception of the administrative attitude she encountered in 2011.
Exclusion from the ‘bubble’
In Part 2 of her blog report, Simcha Fisher cited the denial of Adele Smith from membership on Christendom College’s official alumni page on Facebook, observing that Smith’s former campus boyfriend and alleged rapist is, however, a member. While some alumni had been added to the group during the timeframe Smith was denied membership, Simcha Fisher reported that, “Several alumni say they have been removed from the group without explanation after they shared Smith’s story.”
Simcha Fisher then traced several posts on the alumni site illustrating an agenda of presenting the allowed membership’s alma mater in the best possible light, under the ongoing stewardship of current college officials. Assistant Director of Alumni and Donor Relations Vince Christe is cited as moderator of the alumni Facebook page.
In her second post on the issue, Simcha Fisher shared a post on the alumni site from a female member citing “the recent controversy that has broken out regarding campus policies and procedures regarding sexual assault.” The woman then suggested a counter-initiative:
“It is my belief, and has been my experience, that the culture of Christendom College promotes the dignity, inherent worth, freedom, and safety of all women on campus, in the community, and the world at large. This page is for the collecting the personal testimonies of female alumni and students who know first hand the ways in which Christendom culture, faculty, staff, and community members do this.”
Simcha Fisher reported that the subsequent “positive testimonies” titled “A Letter about Christendom College Culture” were e-mailed to her, citing the school as a “pocket of fresh air offering an oasis away from the sewage of the culture at large.”
Some female alumni and their supporters might counter that some of that cultural “sewage” has leaked onto campus. – And if so, perhaps it flowed a shorter distance than the secular world at large. Court filings in a civil suit surrounding the case of then Human Life International President Father Thomas Euteneuer indicate the “rock star” of the “pro-life” movement began sexually-abusive exorcisms on a woman he had installed as his secretary on the Shenandoah Shores Road HLI campus in 2008, culminating with Euteneuer’s removal from HLI’s own institutional “bubble” in 2011 and return to his home diocese in Florida by his bishop; and an apology for “lapses in judgment” issued by the priest.
The civil suit was filed by Euteneuer’s victim in 2012, the year Adele Smith graduated from Christendom College.