NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- All of the dozen family members gathered in Tom and Mary Seeberg's living room on Wednesday night said they've loved the University of Notre Dame, where 11 Seebergs have gone to college, for so long that they barely know how to process the way they've been treated by the school in the last three months.
Tom and Mary's daughter Lizzy, a 19-year-old freshman at Notre Dame's sister school, Saint Mary's College, committed suicide in September, 10 days after reporting that she had been fondled against her will by a Notre Dame football player whose aggressiveness terrified her so much that she froze, cried, and broke out in a rash.
Her fear for her safety in his dorm room after another couple left them alone was 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, she said in a police statement, until he was interrupted by a cell phone call and angrily "threw her off.'' The accused, a star whom head coach Brian Kelly has publicly praised in interviews both before and after Lizzy's death, has a history of behavior problems that continued even after he was recruited by Notre Dame; he was suspended during his senior year in high school for throwing a desk at a teacher who'd taken away his cell phone. Yet after Lizzy's allegations, he never sat out a single game, during a time that he could not have been "cleared," because he was not even interviewed by authorities until five days after she died -- 15 days after she'd filed her complaint. "How did they even know it was a 'he said/she said,' '' Lizzy's mother Mary asks, "when they didn't talk to the guy for 15 days? They didn't know what he'd say."
Almost preternaturally rational during a five-hour interview in front of their fireplace, the Seebergs understand due process and realized from the start that a case in which the only witness is dead was going nowhere -- an outcome confirmed by prosecutors on Thursday. No, what they want isn't money or vengeance but comfort, reassurance, and a process that does not deprive their daughter of the right to be heard posthumously, even if it is in a private disciplinary hearing at the school. "How do you not
call us in,'' Tom wonders, "and say, 'This is a complicated situation and there are things we can't say, but you need to know we intend to live our values'?"
Instead, they were stonewalled and stiff-armed. The lawyer they hired just to get the school to communicate with them reported back that Notre Dame's general counsel, Marianne Corr, had this message for them: "I hope the Seebergs know how bad this could get for them'' if they ever went public.
This was the second veiled threat the family received. The first came to Lizzy herself, in the form of a text message from the friend of the football player she said had assaulted her.
"We got kind of a double whack,'' says Lizzy's plain-talking 85-year-old grandfather, Bill Seeberg, a WWII Marine veteran and Notre Dame alum from the Class of '44. No, make that a triple: "First Lizzy's death, then two weeks later finding out about the assault; because we're old folks who couldn't understand such things, our kids kept that part from us -- wasn't that nice of them?''
Then came the galling refusal of Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins to meet with the Seebergs, or even read the letter they'd written him, on advice of counsel: "You've got a priest who's the head of it -- a priest! You have an assault and a death; why in God's name wouldn't he come to Mary and Tom'' and throw his arms around them? "That's what mystifies me – that's what makes you so damn mad,'' Bill Seeberg says.
"In the beginning,'' says Tom's sister, Kate Garvey, Saint Mary's Class of '79, whose husband, Lee, was her brother Dan's Notre Dame roommate, "we made excuses for anything they didn't do; we knew
they'd do the right thing,'' and kept waiting for a hero to emerge, "but the only hero in this whole story was Lizzy,'' speaking out at great cost. "I feel like I was a different person then; we were so hopeful, and we believed we were part of this family" of Notre Dame people.
On Thursday, a leader of that family, Notre Dame's Janet M. Botz, vice president of public affairs and communications, sent a letter to students and faculty that, in answer to a Chicago Tribune interview with Tom and Mary Seeberg, condescendingly suggests that "We also recognize that when a family is grieving for a lost child, procedures that are thorough and careful may be perceived as insufficient. The Seebergs have been and continue to be in our prayers.'' Then, Botz assures the ND community in vague and sometimes misleading terms that all is well, and even that Notre Dame has been attentive to the Seebergs.
Notre Dame's vice president of student affairs, Father Tom Doyle, whose duties until recently included overseeing the campus police who investigated Lizzy's initial complaint, is a friend of a family friend of the Seebergs and someone they have met once, at the Saint Mary's memorial service for Lizzy. He is also the only person other than the school's lawyer who has been in contact with them at all. "They lawyered up from the start,'' says Lizzy's dad. "We never received one condolence from the university,'' though they've suggested otherwise. "Not a card, not a flower.''
If Father Jenkins had read their letter, would things have turned out differently? Is he running the school, or are his lawyers setting its moral tone? Can you be a God-based institution that puts liability concerns ahead of people? Didn't we learn from the clerical sex abuse scandal that ignoring wrongs does not make them disappear, but on the contrary multiplies them? And WJLU – Would Jesus Lawyer Up?
According to documents provided by the Seebergs, Notre Dame officials claimed that Lizzy had not formally requested a disciplinary proceeding investigating the behavior of either the accused football player or the friend of his who, after Lizzy reported her allegations to the police, sent her what she considered a threatening text. A screen shot of the text, which the Seebergs showed me, says, "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.''
Notre Dame also ruled that Lizzy's family had no standing to request a disciplinary hearing, nor did the friend who co-signed Lizzy's written account of what had happened on August 31, the night she said she was attacked.
Politics Daily has also confirmed that the accused player was suspended in high school for aggressive behavior towards a teacher, according to a newspaper account published at the time because he was a star player. The mother of a former classmate of the accused told me that after years of complaints that he regularly bullied other students, he was expelled from middle school in the 7th grade for threatening a girl.
Every day of elementary school, this woman told me, her daughter would come home in the afternoon complaining about something the boy had done. "She'd come home saying, 'I hate him! I hate him!' and I'd say, 'You can't speak about anyone like that.' Then one day in the fifth grade she told me he had picked up a girl in their class and thrown her -- tossed her like you'd toss a piece of paper. He was bigger than everybody else, and violent.''
The player did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment, and Notre Dame's spokesman, Dennis Brown, returned a detailed phone message with an e-mail that said, "As I'm sure you can appreciate, you're asking me something specific that I simply can't respond to.''
That this player was recruited despite this history is shocking only because my alma mater touts how carefully it selects players. "They sell themselves as living their beliefs,'' Tom Seeberg says. Or rather, "they sell that, drip it, ooze it and have commercials on TV about it.''
Lizzy had struggled with an anxiety disorder and depression since her freshman year at Loyola Academy. She made the varsity cheerleading squad at the school, but started having what first seemed like asthma symptoms that were really panic attacks. She felt better once she transferred to a public school where she was under less pressure. According to the records her family gave me, she'd fought back suicidal thoughts periodically since high school, too. But she was also the liveliest girl at any party, a country music fan who loved cooking, hammering nails for Habitat for Humanity, and leading her church youth group. "Lizzy was always idling at a little higher RPM,'' said her father, a commercial insurance broker. "Didn't she eat life up?'' he asked his wife.
She was close to both of her parents, and texted her mother before going out the night of the incident that she and a friend from Saint Mary's would be getting together with two Notre Dame guys. "She said the one who was interested in her was a football player,'' her father said. "Her mom asked, 'Nice guy?' She said she didn't know yet.''
At times, her father said, Lizzy could be uncomfortably forthcoming, for instance announcing to him out of the blue a couple of years ago that she planned to wait until after she was married to have sex. Although she had dated a little in high school, "she was naïve in that area, I would say,'' her mother said. "I just don't think she was ready for that -- that whole dating world.''
Between 10 and 11 p.m. on August 31, she and a friend had a couple of beers in one of the guy's rooms, then went to the football player's room to have a "dance party." After the other couple left, according to the report Lizzy filed with police, the player told Lizzy to drink out of an opened beer container, and though she was hesitant, she did so, she said, because of the "tone'' of the demand.
He "began to talk to Lizzy about his sexual activities and ask her about hers," an account by the Seeberg family lawyer says. "Lizzy did not feel safe. She asked to go to the restroom,'' but he insisted there wasn't a ladies room on the floor, and said she would "have to pee in the sink."
"I was extremely scared at the time of the assault,'' Lizzy told police, "and believed my safety was at risk resulting in doing what he asked of me.'' After she got out of the room, she immediately told her friend about what had happened, and e-mailed her therapist in Chicago.
The friend Lizzy told about the incident in detail immediately after returning to campus that night was not interviewed by the authorities until Sept. 22 -- the day before the Seebergs' meeting with Notre Dame's lawyers. On Sept. 23, the investigator in charge of the case at the university's police department told Mary Seeberg that he didn't know just how quickly they could finish looking into the allegations: "They said they were pretty busy because it's football season and there's a lot of underage drinking." The investigator also told the family that he had conducted a phone interview with the young man who'd sent Lizzy the menacing text, and had told him to "knock it off and not have any more contact."
Ironically, what sent Lizzy into a final tailspin was attending a mandatory school orientation on date rape; she had a panic attack during the session and had to leave. The Seebergs don't seem inclined to sugarcoat any aspect of her experience; when I asked Tom if he thought his daughter's death, which was caused by an overdose of the antidepressant Effexor, could have been accidental, he said no: "It's pretty clear. She wrote, 'I'm in an f'ing hole.' ''
Police said the accused and Lizzy had told essentially the same story, except that he'd said that everything that happened was consensual. And in the final report it released Thursday, the office of St. Joseph County prosecutor Michael Dvorak -- whose oldest son went to Notre Dame, as did his assistant prosecutor -- said, as expected, that there would be no criminal case:
There were two separate allegations made by Ms. Seeberg against two separate individuals, both of whom were students at the University of Notre Dame and one of which who was also an athlete. First, there was the allegation of Sexual Battery. . . . Secondly, there was a complaint about text messages received by Ms. Seeberg. . . . The content of the text messages sent does not rise to the level of a criminal act as defined by Indiana's Harassment statute. The student subjectively believed Ms. Seeberg's complaint was false and therefore he had a legitimate purpose for his text messages. Our review of these two criminal allegations and our decision not to prosecute either of them is based upon the evidence as well as the likelihood that Ms. Seeberg's statements -- as a consequence of her untimely death on September 10, 2010 -- would be found inadmissible in a court of law.
So, case closed?
Not exactly. For the Seebergs, the hurt continues to be exacerbated by their alienation from Notre Dame, where Tom's brother Dan Seeberg's son has two classes with the accused. "Part of the definition of my life is being a Notre Dame person, so there's a shattering of faith, at least for now," Dan told me. The family's ties to the school go back to Tom's great-uncle, Buck Shaw, an All-American who played for Rockne. Yet on Wednesday, after 85-year-old Bill Seeberg brought his 12-year-old grandson Mark, Lizzy's brother, a U.S. Marine Corps flag for his room, Mark took down the ND "Play Like a Champion Today" flag and said, "Probably don't need that any more.''
The extended Notre Dame community has been hit by this tragedy as well, whether we acknowledge it or not. I, too, am second-generation Notre Dame -- my father and both of his brothers went there, and my Uncle Francis roomed with Frank Leahy. Though they won a national championship my sophomore year, the football program has always been the least of what made the school special in my book; to me, the most impressive ND stat has nothing to do with our now-distant football glory or the 800 valedictorians who were rejected by the admissions office one recent year, but the fact that every year, more than 90 percent of students do volunteer work in the community.
My proudest day as a Domer -- the nickname for Notre Damers refers to the Golden Dome that's topped by a statue of Our Lady -- was when Father Jenkins stuck by his guns, and in the face of enormous criticism, introduced Barack Obama to the student body at the school's 2008 commencement. When hecklers started shouting, the students -- overwhelmingly pro-life and conservative, and the majority of them probably Republicans -- quieted them by chanting the football cheer, "We are ND.'' Not because they necessarily love Barack Obama, you understand, but by way of saying, "You do not disrespect the president of the United States in our house. That is not who we are."
When I heard that same cheer at the USC game I attended in Los Angeles with my whole ND-loving family a couple of weeks ago, however, it made me sick to my stomach knowing that one of the kids on the field had been accused of violating a vulnerable young woman -- and that my school has its priorities so thoroughly backward that it didn't bother asking him about it for two weeks.
Evidently, it was more important that this player get suited up and take the field against Purdue and Michigan than that he answer questions from the cops about what happened in that dorm room. Should a school that can't show any more respect for women than that just take the Virgin Mary off the top of the Dome and be done with it? ND may or may not ever reclaim its former gridiron glory, but the school's efforts to protect its prospects have put something far more important at risk.
In the Christmas letter that Father Jenkins sent alums this year, he talks about our common Christian duty to answer the knock at the door, as did the first saint from Holy Cross, the order that founded Notre Dame, who was a humble doorkeeper at a school in Montreal. Like that saint, Andre Bessette, Jenkins says, we must "answer the door to the world's poor and sick, its heartbroken and suffering." The Seebergs are knocking, still, Father Jenkins, and even now, it's not too late to do the right thing and let them in.
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Click play below and use the arrows to scroll through a slideshow of photos provided to Politics Daily by the Seeberg family