Ahead of the Notre Dame football team's appearance in the Sun Bowl this Friday, the president of the university granted his hometown newspaper quite an interview in defense of the school's handling of the Lizzy Seeberg case.
Seeberg is the 19-year-old Saint Mary's College freshman who committed suicide 10 days after accusing a Notre Dame football player of molesting her in his dorm room. At the time of her death, the campus police to whom she reported the incident still had not interviewed the player.
In an interview with the South Bend Tribune
, the Rev. John Jenkins attributed the 15-day delay in interviewing the accused to "discrepancies" between the hand-written account Seeberg wrote immediately after the incident on Aug. 31, and an account she provided to police on Sept. 5.
"There were discrepancies in these two complaints that required some careful evaluation,'' Jenkins told the South Bend paper. "And that was done.'' That assertion contradicts what Seeberg's parents say they were told by police investigators. During a five-hour interview
with Politics Daily on Dec. 15, Tom and Mary Seeberg said those investigators told them back in September that the two accounts were "materially the same," though the second was more detailed. The Seebergs also said in that interview that police had told them the player's account of the evening was essentially consistent with their daughter's -- except that he had characterized the fondling Seeberg described as frightening as consensual.
The Seebergs are a Notre Dame family -- 11 of them have attended the school over the last century -- and their loss has been compounded by Jenkins' refusal to meet, talk to or even read a letter from them. Other than the school's lawyers, the only Notre Dame official who has met or spoken with them is Father Tom Doyle, vice president of student affairs. Doyle is a friend of a priest friend of Lizzy's, and someone Lizzy's father met briefly at her memorial service at Saint Mary's; since then, the two have spoken on the phone a number of times.
In the Tribune interview, Jenkins says he avoided the family in an effort to remain innocent of the facts of the case: "I'm the ultimate court of appeal in disciplinary matters," Jenkins said. "And consequently, I try to remain somewhat distant so I'm not tainted by one side or another presenting their side of the story."
He did not explain how, if he still does not know the details of the case, he could be so sure that the investigation had been handled well. Or if he does now know the facts of the case despite his best efforts to steer clear, why has he still not picked up the phone and called the Seebergs?
Further, if those involved in any eventual disciplinary hearings weren't supposed to have contact with the Seebergs, why was it OK for them to speak repeatedly by phone with Doyle, whose duties until recently included overseeing the campus police who investigated Lizzy's initial complaint? And isn't there an inherent conflict of interest in having the same person oversee both the investigators and the students being investigated?
Jenkins did, however, both ask and answer the obvious question: "Could we have acted more quickly? Yes, we could have acted more quickly, perhaps, and that's an area we could improve on.'' But, he added, "I would emphasize this: In a case like this, care in the investigation is more important than speed."
Lizzy, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook and had suffered from anxiety and depression since her freshman year in high school, died of an intentional drug overdose of the anti-depressant drug Effexor. Before going out on the evening of August 31st, she texted her mother that she and another Saint Mary's student were crossing the road to Notre Dame to hang out with the other student's boyfriend and a friend of his, a football player Lizzy had met the previous evening.
When the other couple left her alone with the player in his room, she said she was manhandled against her will in a way that made her freeze, cry, and break out in a rash. "I was extremely scared at the time of the assault,'' she wrote, "and believed my safety was at risk resulting in doing what he asked of me.'' Literally the minute she got out of the player's dorm room, she told friends what had happened, and e-mailed her therapist in Chicago. Yet the friend Lizzy told about the incident in detail immediately after returning to campus that night was not interviewed by authorities until Sept. 22 -- that is, 23 days after the incident, and the day before the Seebergs' meeting with Notre Dame's lawyers.
When Mary Seeberg asked police investigators in September when they might wrap up their investigation, the reason they said it might take time had nothing to do with care being more important than speed: "They said they were pretty busy because it's football season,'' she said, "and there's a lot of underage drinking."
Notre Dame has repeatedly said in statements that its officials would be breaking federal law protecting student privacy if they spoke about the case. Though that law remains on the books, Jenkins told the paper he was speaking out now because "I cannot stand by and allow the integrity of Notre Dame to be challenged so publicly. The values at issue go to the very heart of who and what we are at Notre Dame."
Jenkins dismissed as "simply not true'' the Seeberg family's feeling that the allegation wasn't taken seriously or investigated energetically: "This was a thorough, careful, impartial investigation.'' As proof of its thoroughness, care and impartiality, Jenkins cited the St. Joseph County prosecutor's eventual acceptance of the conclusions reached by the Notre Dame police investigators: "And if it had been handled superficially, if it had been inadequate, the prosecutor -- whose job it is to review that investigation, to decide whether the investigation is inadequate -- could have called for more inquiry or further evidence.''
The prosecutor he is referring to, Michael Dvorak, is the father of Notre Dame graduate Ryan Dvorak, who is running for mayor of South Bend, where Notre Dame is located. The fact that filing charges against a player for the home team would not exactly boost his son's electoral chances would seem to pose at a minimum the appearance of a conflict for Dvorak -- though in fact, the Seeberg family realized early on that there was little real chance of charges being filed in a case in which the accuser was dead. Their criticism has focused far less on the player than on the way Notre Dame handled the investigation from the start. What the family wanted, at least as of Dec. 15, was a meeting with somebody other than a lawyer and a disciplinary hearing for the player and his friend, who the day after Lizzy reported being assaulted sent her a text that said, "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with notre dame football is a bad idea.'' His girlfriend also sent Lizzy a number of texts, including one the day after the incident that said, "dude are you ok." A few hours later, she took a different tone, texting Lizzy to "get in my room asap." Asked why, she answered, "because you need to tell [the player's friend] what's going on.'' The following day, she texted Lizzy again, saying, "I'm freaking out idk what to do.''
The texts were examined at Tom Seeberg's insistence. The player's friend was interviewed by phone, on Sept. 2, after Lizzy told police about the threatening text. And the girlfriend, who Lizzy's parents say dumped her as a friend after she reported the incident and did not attend a campus memorial service for her, was interviewed by police on Sept. 3. A prosecutor's report notes that Lizzy's statement differed from the statements of the three other students interviewed, though only the accused was in the room with Lizzy at the time of the incident.
In his statement on Dec. 16, the day he announced no charges would be filed in the case, Dvorak said that subpoenaed cellphone records were "inconsistent with parts of the complaint itself." In her account of the evening, Lizzy said that she thought the football player and the friend who later sent her the text warning her not to mess with Notre Dame football might have been texting each other in the room about leaving the player alone with Lizzy. Phone records showed that they had not been texting each other, or anyone else, during that time, though her parents say that does not mean they weren't checking incoming messages. It's unclear why prosecutors see the fact that she was mistaken on that point as a major "discrepancy'' in Lizzy's story. Her parents said her impression that she had been "set up" by friends who she thought had put her in danger by leaving her alone with the player bothered her as much as anything else about the incident, because she felt they had betrayed her trust.
In his final report, Dvorak seemed to defend the student's decision to send Lizzy the text warning her about taking on the football program: "The student subjectively believed Ms. Seeberg's complaint was false and therefore he had a legitimate purpose for his text messages.''
Notre Dame grad Joseph A. Power Jr., the high-powered Chicago attorney who has been hired to represent the accused, told the Tribune that his client is mulling legal action against what he called the "false accusations" that he "raped Seeberg or otherwise attacked her sexually.'' Seeberg never alleged that he raped her, but according to her statement, she did consider the incident an assault.
According to her report, she became uncomfortable when, after the other couple left the room, he began asking her about her sexual history and detailing his own. Lizzy's mother said in our earlier interview that the player told Lizzy that his first three weeks of football training had been a nightmare because it was the longest he'd ever gone without having sex. When she told him she had to go to the bathroom so she could get out of the room, she said he answered that there was no ladies room on the floor and she would "have to pee in the sink.''
Power told the South Bend paper that his client "did nothing wrong.'' In fact, Power said, "he was a complete gentleman."
Whether there is such a thing as "a complete gentleman" who invites a girl to pee in the sink is as subjective as what integrity looks like. But if a delay of 15 days before talking to the only other person who knows what happened in the room that night is the mark of a by-the-book investigation, then the book needs to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch.
Since my earlier pieces -- here
-- criticizing my alma mater's handling of the case, I've gotten a lot of mail from my fellow alums, most of them as heartsick as I am over the leisurely and lawyerly way this matter was handled -- and since actions do speak louder than words, the terrible message the university's response sends Notre Dame and Saint Mary's women. The circle-the-wagons and blame-the-victim reaction is so reminiscent of the official response at the height of the clerical sex abuse scandal it's painful. Back then, officials at the Vatican, which I was covering at the time for the New York Times, routinely referred to the scandals as the handiwork of the enemies of Holy Mother Church; now, the party line is that to expect better of Our Lady's university is to be in league with its "haters." Did we really not learn that problems do not die of neglect, but only multiply when ignored? Or that it's the see-no-evil kind of love for an institution that can hurt it the most?
Whatever happened in that dorm room can never now be proven or prosecuted, and it's far from clear that it would have been even if Lizzy had lived. Yet even if Lizzy's account is 1000 percent accurate, she has arguably been treated even more shabbily by Notre Dame than by the football player, and in plain sight.
Yes, Notre Dame is in survival mode now, against the backdrop of another tragedy -- the October death of 20-year-old Declan Sullivan, the football team videographer who was up on a scissor-lift in a wind literally twice as strong as any in which he should have been allowed up on the tower. Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick called weather conditions that day "unremarkable" prior to the gust that toppled the lift. Sullivan didn't feel that way; in a tweet shortly before his death, he said, "Gust of wind up to 60 mph well today will be fun at work . . . I guess I've lived long enough :-/." The Chicago Tribune quoted Swarbrick as insisting that until a gust out of nowhere, "It couldn't have been more normal in terms of the weather conditions at the time.''
Indiana's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been investigating Sullivan's death, and the U.S. Department of Education is launching an inquiry into the way Notre Dame handles sexual harassment complaints. I no longer expect Jenkins to pick up the phone and call the Seebergs. But if the school thinks it can protect the brand without rethinking the way it handles such cases, I must once again disagree. And Father Jenkins, any crisis manager who'd let school officials call a windstorm a normal day and a 15-day delay the hallmark of a judicious process is not doing the university any favors.