Last week, the National Catholic Reporter published a lengthy piece on reported sexual assaults at Notre Dame. Its fulcrum is the case involving Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at nearby St. Mary's College who committed suicide in September 2010, just 10 days after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. That case led the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education to launch a seven-month investigation of Notre Dame that last summer resulted in a settlement agreement.
The Seeberg case is awful enough, but according to a former school administrator whose own daughter says she was raped 10 years ago, "They"—Notre Dame—"do a poor job in general." The takeaway from the NCR story—written by Melinda Henneberger, a political reporter for the Washington Post and a 1980 Notre Dame graduate—is that Seeberg wasn't the first woman to be put through the university's meat grinder after making a sexual-assault accusation. And judging by Henneberger's reporting, she won't be the last.
The smear about Seeberg was that she was "a troubled girl" who had "done this before" (according to friends and family members of a "long-serving trustee" at Notre Dame). She was "the aggressor" (according to the accused player's lawyer, a Notre Dame alum). She was "all over the boy" (according to a "top university official" at Notre Dame). After reporting the alleged assault to campus police, Seeberg was told by a friend of the football player: "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea." No charges were filed. Notre Dame police didn't interview the player—who was never disciplined by the school or the football program—until five days after Seeberg killed herself. Later, they told the family they weren't sure when they could follow up. "They said they were pretty busy," said Lizzy's mother, Mary, told Henneberger, "because it's football season and there's a lot of underage drinking."
And then there's Joe Power, a Notre Dame alumnus and a lawyer representing the player against whom Seeberg made her accusation. When Henneberger reached him for comment, Power immediately tried to bully her. It's a pretty remarkable passage, featuring some lawyerin' straight out of the Joe Amendola Starter Kit.
"Have you ever read the book To Kill a Mockingbird?" Power asked in a phone interview. Because, as in Harper Lee's classic, "this young lady was the aggressor." According to America's Best Lawyers, Power is the top personal injury litigator in the city of Chicago. Barreling right past innuendo, he said it was Lizzy who "had removed her blouse" and thrown herself on top of the player. And the player? "He put a stop to it, because his parents had taught him that was wrong. It's all untrue, according to the two independent witnesses."
He's referring to the player's friend who texted Lizzy, and to his date. Neither was in the room when the incident occurred, but before they left, Power said, "They observed that she was being rather forward and dancing with the young man; she was dancing for him." (Lizzy described the same moment this way: While they were dancing, the player began "pulling me towards him. It was uncomfortable but I didn't know how to stop it. Then he told me to give him a lap dance and I didn't know what to do. He pulled me down on his lap and he had his legs spread out. He started pulling my body around his crotch area and told me to keep doing it.")
When I asked Power whether his client's best friend and that friend's girlfriend could really be considered independent witnesses, he yelled, "First of all, you're a liar, because it's not his best friend, and she's no longer his girlfriend!" The two young men do now room together, in any case, and on social media the other young man posts video clips of his best plays, along with admiring comments.
"You should be writing for the John Birch Society, or the Ku Klux Klan," the lawyer continued, presumably because the player is black. "If you were in To Kill a Mockingbird, you'd be on the side of the Klan," out to destroy a black man falsely accused by a white woman. "And if you slander this innocent young man," he thundered, "you will pay!"
On Nov. 21, 2010, the Chicago Tribune first reported Seeberg's allegation, subsequent suicide, and Notre Dame's silence on the matter. But that day, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly made a joke in a conference call with reporters about the Tribune's ability to afford having dedicated so many resources to the story. There eventually was a campus disciplinary hearing for the player accused of sexually assaulting Seeberg in February 2011, but he was found "not responsible." (One of the more damning passages in Henneberger's piece includes a quote from Pat Cottrell, a retired Notre Dame security officer who specialized in sexual assault cases: "Just a regular Joe, if they were working a job on campus, I could go there and say, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you.'" But when an athlete is involved, he said, 'if they don't respond, they don't respond, and that makes it harder to do your job.' Notre Dame's statement said athletes get no special treatment, and police shouldn't in any case have to go through the Athletic Department.")