Christendom College says it has offered an apology to rape victims and their families. “We have failed our students,” said President Timothy O’Donnell.
But some alumni say that the statement is too little, too late, and that O’Donnell should resign.
“Timothy O’Donnell should resign as President of Christendom College,” said Greggory Gassman, class of 2010, on January 17. Gassman has since been removed without explanation from the official Christendom Alumni group on Facebook.
Joe Wagner, class of 2011, also called for O’Donnell’s resignation.
“Dr. Timothy O’Donnell should step down as President of Christendom College. The new policies he has announced are good, but it is a serious failure of accountability that they were not in place 20 years ago,” Wagner said.
College does about-face in response to public pressure
It was less than a week ago that Christendom College responded to our articles exposing gross mishandling of sexual assault and harassment. Christendom at that time claimed our articles contained “misleading information and serious inaccuracies.”
But yesterday, a spokesman for the college said, “I want to extend my gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Fisher for giving these women a platform to share their voices with us.”
The college never clarified what was inaccurate or misleading in our articles. It said that the administration “has ordered a thorough review of their policies and resources for cases of sexual assault and harassment” and that the college “has issued an official apology to the victims and their families.”
The college’s entire January 24th statement is as follows:
“WE WILL DO BETTER,” CHRISTENDOM COLLEGE EXTENDS SUPPORT TO VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AND HARASSMENT
College Executive Vice President Offers to Meet with Victims
Front Royal, VA (Jan. 24, 2018) – Following recent alumni accounts of administrative mishandling of sexual assault reporting at Christendom College, the administration has ordered a thorough review of their policies and resources for cases of sexual assault and harassment. The College has issued an official apology to the victims and their families, and has reaffirmed its commitment to ensure the people from whom its students are seeking assistance are equipped with training, resources, and the capacity to respond to a victim’s needs with compassion, knowledge, and the ability to help.
“We have failed some of our students,” said Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, Christendom College’s president. “I am grateful to each woman who has come forward with her story. 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.”
Ken Ferguson, executive vice president of Christendom College, has offered to meet personally with each and every victim in the presence of a certified trauma counselor. Anyone who wishes to meet is welcome to bring her own support personnel as well.
“We invite these victims to come forward and be heard,” said Ferguson. “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.”
Additionally, the College has hired experts to review campus compliance with best practices in sexual assault and harassment. Christendom revised its protocols in recent years and is constantly reviewing these protocols to ensure they are effective when a student reports sexual assault or harassment.
“Since I arrived four years ago, I have thrown myself into improving campus life for the student body,” said Ferguson. “We recently established a new wellness initiative so that any student who needs these services has ready access to them. We’re expanding that initiative to include trauma counseling and support for Christendom students and alumni who have suffered sexual assault.”
Those seeking to meet are invited to reach out to Ken Ferguson at (540-636-2900) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The statement was originally only searchable through the Christendom website, and could only be found by using a direct link. It is now available on the site’s homepage.
Adele Chapline Smith, the first Christendom almuna and rape survivor to share her story with readers of this site, said she forgives O’Donnell and is grateful for the college’s stated intention to change. Smith said:
“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; it is both welcome and appreciated. 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. I forgive Dr. Timothy O’Donnell for 25 years of negligence toward those women in the Christendom community who suffered sexual assaults.”
But Smith wants O’Donnell to resign for the good of the school:
“[W]hile I forgive him, as Catholics we know that true contrition involves amending one’s life – and forgiveness does not negate natural consequences. For the good of the school, for the good of the vision of Dr. Warren Carroll, and for the good of the generations of students that have walked across that graduation stage in the past — and will walk across it in the future — 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.”
The college says it has already changed and will continue to change. It says it wants to hear from students so it can help them.
We ask: Why now? What’s different? Why is today different from last week? Why is today different from last year, or ten years ago?
Last year, Christendom billed itself as “Almost Heaven.” Today, Christendom is calling for a day of fasting for its sins.
The only thing that has changed is that two blog posts were published on the internet. A handful of young women had the courage to speak up and tell their painful stories in public. But their stories have been available to President O’Donnell for years.
Timothy O’Donnell has known about rapes for years
Today, the school is acting. New members of the administration pledge real reform. But Timothy O’Donnell already knew for years what the rest of the world knows today.
Long before the college apologized, O’Donnell knew that this anonymous student also says she was raped by a Christendom student; that he also got away with it; that he also was protected by Christendom professors. She says that Timothy O’Donnell knew and decided not to act.
The woman says in her letter, “The college knew about it. But REDACTED continued his education at the school his daddy helped found without any ramifications. The college allowed a sexual predator, a rapist, to walk the halls of that institution for 4 years without a single thing being done to halt his reign.”
O’Donnell received this letter in December of 2017. We have confirmed that it was addressed to O’Donnell and that it refers to Christendom.
Adele Smith and other critics denied entry to alumni group
The school said on Wednesday that it is interested in hearing from “each and every victim.” But Adele Smith, the survivor who forced the story into the public eye, has been denied entry into the official Alumni group on Facebook. She has received no explanation for the denial.
Her rapist, though, is a member. Other alumni have requested entry and have been accepted during the same time frame that Smith requested entry and was denied. Several alumni say they have been removed from the group without explanation after they shared Smith’s story.
Positive testimony welcome; critics silenced
Just days earlier, Tom McFadden, Vice President for Enrollment & Marketing, solicited stories from Christendom alumni on the official alumni group, which is moderated by Vince Christe, Assistant Director of Alumni and Donor Relations.
Jane Riccardi, an alumna of Christendom, then suggested in the group that former students collect positive stories into a file to promote the idea that Christendom is an unusually safe place that “promotes the dignity, inherent worth, freedom, and safety of all women on campus.” Riccardi said in an email that she “was hopeful to begin a constructive and helpful conversation.”
Shortly after stories began coming in, it became apparent to some alumni that the stories were not all positive.
“If someone unsympathetic gets hold of the link [to the page for testimonies], it’s all over,” said one alum.
“This is definitely a concern,” another agreed.
Riccardi responded, “Thank you for pointing this out. I’ve changed the privacy settings and will instead collect responses by email.”
Riccardi then collected the positive testimonies into a document called A Letter about Christendom College Culture and emailed it to the Fishers, calling Christendom “[a] pocket of fresh air offering an oasis away from the sewage of the culture at large.”
As of Friday, January 19, the official alumni group included in its guidelines the rule: “[P]lease refrain from posting articles or engaging in discussions about topics that criticize . . . Christendom College.”
Several almuni have reported being thrown out of the Facebook group, apparently for violating this rule by discussing the articles detailing Smith’s rape.
Christendom says it wants students to come forward and report sexual abuse, to tell their stories. Some alumni express deep skepticism that the same college that excluded unfavorable testimony from alumni one day will be open to hearing and acting on damaging testimony from students the next day.
More stories of rape are ahead
We are currently working on corroborating seven other stories of sexual assault of Christendom students, including students who are currently enrolled at Christendom. These reports were grossly mishandled by the administration that is still in office.
Title IX would require the college to collect and report data
In the North Virginia Daily, Executive Vice President Ken Ferguson said:
“[W]hen [Director of Student Affairs] Amanda [Graf] and I arrived on the campus we built and documented the current (policy) which Amanda and I believe meets the rigorous requirements of Title IX despite the fact that the college is one of the few colleges in the nation that doesn’t receive any federal money and is not under the auspices of Title IX.”
Alumni say they are grateful for Ferguson’s efforts, but cannot trust the school’s intentions until O’Donnell is held accountable for his failures.
Gassman said, “I hope [Wednesday’s apology is] sincere. Sadly I’m skeptical since the school went 25 years without opting into Title IX reporting despite numerous rape and assault allegations. Taking GI Bill funds during that time while insisting they take no federal funds takes real concentrated effort to avoid Title IX and its reporting provisions.”
According to the latest available tax returns, O’Donnell’s compensation from the college totals over $320,000.
O’Donnell considered the college helpless to punish likely rapists a mere seven years ago . Despite claims that the school voluntarily meets Title IX requirements, the school still does not collect or report incidents of sexual assault or harassment.
Positive: School no longer expels pregnant students while allowing fathers to stay
According to alumnus John Connolly on his Facebook page,
“Though supporters of the college assert that the college would never abuse its right to expel and that the failure to take action in the 2009 case [of Adele Smith] was a protection of fairness and justice, we must remember that the college for many years would expel women for the crime of getting pregnant out of wedlock. Fathers of these children were allowed to stay on campus, while the women were forced to pay back crushing student loans without a degree. This hypocrisy eventually was reformed… when the word started getting in the public eye.”
Several alumni note that the school no longer expels students who become pregnant, and indicate that it is one of many positive signs of change at the college.
Amanda Graf’s name consistently comes up among alumni and current students as a dedicated and tireless force for change.
Alumna Donna Provencher said, “Ken [Ferguson ] has come out swinging for the victims, and we’re grateful for his support.”
Smith said, “I applaud Mr. Ferguson’s new policies, and suggest the administration reach out to the Bishop of Arlington requesting His Excellency’s aid in reforming the campus culture, student life formation, and curriculum. I love Christendom College. Those who are standing up for victims also love Christendom College. I very much look forward to further dialogue with Mr. Ferguson about our next step forward. Christendom can and must become the gold standard among Catholic colleges when it comes to upholding the dignity of the human person and protecting victims of sexual violence — a place where graduates truly do go on to restore all things in Christ.”
There are good things about Christendom, current and former students say. Dozens of letters of support continue to arrive in our inbox, expressing deep love for the school and a trust in the administration’s desire to change.
We believe women, and we that means we believe the many, many women who have good things to say about their experience at Christendom. We have read every one of their letters, and there were many.
But their good experience does not negate the horrific experience of the victims, including Adele Smith, the anonymous blogger, the anonymous women in our second story, and the seven others whose stories we continue to research. O’Donnell’s continued presence, and his continued refusal to take direct responsibility, is an insult to all of them.
The Christendom Advocacy and Support Coalition, a new public advocacy group for victims of sexual assault from Christendom, has made this statement:
The Christendom Advocacy & Support Coalition would like to personally thank Mr. Ken Ferguson for the school’s public apology to those women in the Christendom family who have been deeply wounded under the O’Donnell administration; for the rollout of bright new plans and policies going forward; and for taking survivors seriously and encouraging them to meet with him. While we would wish for the sake of the survivors that a response like this had been the school’s initial response, we are nonetheless deeply grateful for progress made.
If the school offers to cover the travel and lodging/childcare costs for these victims and their families to speak to Mr. Ferguson, that would be a very encouraging sign of confidence.
While this is not the end of the changes Christendom needs to make in its cultural attitudes and student life policies regarding sexual assault, mental health, etc., we are pleased to have open lines of communication with the college and see such a heartening and hopeful first step taken toward restoring all things in Christ.
On behalf of the victims, we are grateful that the school is taking direct action, thanks in large part to Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Graf, to review current measures and commit to better systems going forward. We hope to see soon what this looks like in terms of concrete details, and we maintain that compliance with Title IX guidelines is a critical additional step for the school to implement.
We would like to take this opportunity to encourage all of our supporters to personally reach out to Ken Ferguson (email@example.com; (540) 636-2900) to thank him for his support and for believing women.
When we know better, we do better. We must believe women’s stories, for our faith tradition depends upon belief in a woman’s story.
“People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.” –Servant of God Dorothy Day
St. Francis, pray for us.
St. Thomas More, pray for us.
St. Maria Goretti, pray for us.
Bl. Laura Vicuña, pray for us.
Servant of God Dorothy Day, pray for us.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us.
#BelieveWomen #RestoreChristendom #Instaurare
CASC offers a private support group. Those interested in joining may contact Adele Smith, President: firstname.lastname@example.org or Donna Provencher, Vice President of Communications & Victim Outreach: email@example.com
Bridget Randolph is Vice President of Public Policy.
Image: the front of a flyer for Christendom College. The flip side allows that they “cannot exactly guarantee Heaven upon graduation from Christendom College,” but touts their impressive stats: “only 1 known apostate” among graduates, and “only 1 known divorce.”
The flyer is echoed by sentiments in this article by Tom McFadden in Seton Magazine. McFadden has worked for Christendom since the year 2ooo. Photos used with permission.