Canadian college, church, and community ignored predatory choirmaster’s red flags

By Damien Fisher with additional reporting by Simcha Fisher

Uwe Lieflander used his position as a youth choir leader, music teacher, and college professor to spend years grooming the child he is accused of sexually assaulting when she became a young adult.

Lieflander’s alleged predation didn’t happen in a vacuum. The members of his small Canadian community, parents of his students, colleagues, and even a priest ignored red flags and explained away the behavior that Lieflander himself likened to grooming, and he was welcomed back to work with children even after the victim said he raped her.

Lieflander, 59, is now a fugitive from justice, having left Canada in 2017 for his native Germany before warrants were issued for his arrest. He now records YouTube travel videos under the name “The Vespa Idiot,” and some of the people and institutions that harbored him have yet to reckon with his abuse.

Lieflander in a 2021 Vespa Idiot video

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Sam, now in her late 20s, grew up in a large, strict, Catholic family in the Barry’s Bay, Ontario area. 

“My whole family are ultra-conservative Catholic,” Sam said. 

She said the family practiced a sort of manichaean, patriarchal faith, believing that the body is bad and shameful, and women and children are meant to be silent. 

Barry’s Bay in Madawaska Valley is home to a community of Polish immigrants who practiced an old-style form of Catholicism, but in the 1990s that started to change. New groups of traditional-minded Catholics began moving into the rural and isolated region, including apocalyptic novelist Michael O’Brien, and an early iteration of the right-wing Lifesite News. 

Some moved to the Madawaska Valley region to escape what they were sure was going to be the end-of-civilization event of Y2K; others came to build a traditional community. It was there, in Barry’s Bay, that Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy was founded in 1999. The young college with a handful of students made its place sometimes in the very homes of the local Catholic families, like Sam’s, who allowed the school to hold classes on their property. Sam’s family became enmeshed with the school, and it was Our Lady Seat of Wisdom that employed Lieflander. 

Sam agreed to share her story, and supply supporting documentation and contemporaneous witnesses. Her real name will not be used, and some information that could identify her will be obscured in this article. 

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom was originally founded to offer one-year degrees for mostly homeschooled students. The school’s unaccredited degrees were generally not recognized by other colleges, and for a long time the school served as a feeder program for larger Catholic colleges such as Christendom, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Thomas Aquinas College.

The college’s motto is Veritas Vos Liberabit: “The Truth will set you free.”

The school’s program continue to grow. In 2017, the Canadian Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development granted the school the right to offer Bachelor’s degrees. And this year, demonstrating the school’s continued growing acceptance by the mainstream community, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke agreed to allow Our Lady Seat of Wisdom theology professors Scott Nicholson and John Paul Meenan to teach remote catechism classes for the diocese.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in 2016

Sam was 15 when she first saw a performance by one of Lieflander’s youth choirs, known as a “Sparrows” choir, at a nearby Catholic parish in the fall of 2008. Lieflander was then a part-time music teacher at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and he operated several Sparrows Choirs throughout Ontario. He also founded the Sacred Music Society in Ottawa.

Lieflander started working at the private college in 2007 and became renowned as a musician and voice teacher. He had come up through the Regensburger Domspatzen (“cathedral sparrows”) boys choir in Germany, where, according to a report, over 500 boys had been sexually abused. 

Around 2008, Sam longed to be part of the charismatic Lieflander’s Sparrows choir operating in Barry’s Bay. She wanted to learn about music, but also sought some kind of escape from her deeply dysfunctional home life.

Although she was too young to attend college, she was allowed to join Lieflander’s Sparrows choir, and she also took private lessons for him at the college, which he used as a base for his private work. He also taught at several Catholic schools. He presented himself as a caring person, an “uncle” figure who looked after his students. Sam said there was a pattern of Lieflander forging especially deep connections with vulnerable children like her.

“Once you were one of his favorites, you really felt important,” she said.

Lieflander’s lessons included probing into her home life, and also his trademark method of touching children during rehearsal as part of his teaching method.

“There was a lot of touch,” Sam said about her lessons. Lieflander taught over 14,000 students. 

Lieflander is described as a musical genius who could draw out remarkable performances from children. He would place his hands on them as they sang, in order to get them to understand where the sound was coming from. 

A few Sparrows parents were uncomfortable with the practice, but most accepted the explanation that touching was necessary to his method, according to our source. He would also have children sit on his lap, and routinely played “chasing” and “grabbing” games with them. Around 2015 and 2016, a small number of parents involved with Lieflander’s choirs pushed for him to stop touching children as part of his singing education. 

When a small number of parents confronted Lieflander about his unorthodox teaching style and demanded that he change, Lieflander reportedly pushed back. Lieflander, who liked to consider himself something of a friendly uncle to his students, told the parents he had studied the grooming process of child abusers and determined there were 12 steps abusers used, the source said.

“I do all 11 of them, but not the 12th,” Lieflander reportedly said, according to our source.

Lieflander in a 2021 Vespa Idiot video

The source said so many parents and others let their guards down around Lieflander, in part because he was so open and brazen about his behavior. In retrospect, he may have been bullet proofing himself against any accusations that might come out, our source said.

Eventually, in 2011, the Ottawa Catholic School Board expressed concerns about his habit of touching children during Sparrow choir rehearsals. Rather than stop touching the children, he resigned. His resignation caused a media stir, and parents at one school protested the school board’s actions, saying they did not object to the touching. Lieflander continued leading private Sparrows choirs, and Our Lady Seat of Wisdom continued to employ him.

As Sam and Lieflander’s student-teacher relationship intensified, he began discussing her home and family life in more detail. When she was 16 and 17, Lieflander decided that her family was not up to the task of caring for Sam, and he told her he was going to take greater control of her life, for her own good. Sam’s home life did not improve during the next couple of years, and her mental health spiraled. She started cutting, and Lieflander began encouraging her to run away from home.

At 18 she fled to a relative, but her emotional crisis did not abate, and after several months she went to what was billed as a Catholic rehabilitation facility in Florida. Sam spent two years there before she returned home to Barry’s Bay. 

It was 2014, Sam was 21, and numb from her years in Florida at a center that she described as a cult. Severe dysfunction still plagued her family. Soon after she got back, she went to another Sparrows concert and Lieflander picked up with her where he left off, making her feel both special and dependent on him.

“I was still in awe of him,”she said. 

She restarted music lessons with Lieflander and told him about her troubles. Lieflander directed her to call him “Dad.” He told her he would make all decisions for her, and that he expected her total obedience.

“He completely took control,” she said.

Over the summer of 2014, his control grew to include threats of emotional isolation if she ever disobeyed him, she said. He also persuaded her she was part of his family. She had to give his home address as her home address, for example, and he would randomly demand she recite it for him. 

Lieflander got her to attend Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in the fall for a year, earning one of the one-year degrees the school granted in Christian Humanities. They held hands, and he told her she was his child, and that she was emotionally 11 years old, she said, and he continued to insist she call him “Dad.”

“I am going to let you be the child you were never allowed to be,” Sam recalls him telling her. 

He also used the nearness of the school to exert more control over her, Sam said. As a student at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, she had to check in with him on a daily basis, and he required that she have a bedtime that he set for her, she said. If she displeased him he would put her under a “house arrest,” she said. 

As their relationship intensified, he started giving her 20-minute hugs in his office at the school, and had her sit in his lap so he could look down her shirt, she said. The encounters at school behind closed doors felt like a kind of molestation, Sam said. Lieflander told her to keep their relationship private, but at least one other Our Lady Seat of Wisdom staff member noticed an oddness to their relationship. When the subject was broached, the staffer said that the administrative response was: “That’s just Uwe.” 

Lieflander in 2021

During her time at the school, Sam sometimes had emotional meltdowns, and Lieflander was allowed at least once to enter her dorm room and “put her to bed.” At the time, the school did not allow men and women to be in each other’s dorms. Only a family member, like a parent, would be allowed. The school denies knowing these bedtime visits happened, but one instance has been confirmed by a witness. 

In 2015, Sam graduated with her one-year Christian Humanities diploma and started work in Ottawa as a nanny, but she kept seeing Lieflander, and would go back to the school with him. Lieflander continued to foster a controlling paternal relationship with Sam, telling her she needed him.

“He would say if withdrew his support for even 15 seconds, I would die,” she said. 

He ramped up the sexual relationship as well. He started getting her to take her clothes off in front of him, so that he  could “help her heal from her wounds,” she said.

“He told me he owns 51 percent of me, and I own 49 percent of me,” Sam said.

The sexual conduct finally escalated to rape, she said. It did not take place on campus. Sam did not want the details of the assault included in the story, but disclosed them in interviews with us, and her story is supported by the criminal charges brought by law enforcement.

During this time she started to self-harm again and she developed an eating disorder. Lieflander kept exerting control over her as a possessive father-figure, she said. 

“He would say “I always know what’s best for you and what you want, because I own you and you can’t live without me,” Sam said. “He said I was a nymphomaniac because he was too, I had his DNA because I was his daughter, so I was, too.”

It was cancer that finally disrupted their relationship. Sam was diagnosed with lymphoma in early 2017 and scheduled an appointment for pre-chemotherapy. The woman she had nannied for went to that first appointment to offer support, and it was there Sam told the nurse she was sexually active. Then Sam disclosed to her friend whom she was sexually active with.

“I told her it’s Dad (meaning Lieflander).  She freaked,” Sam said.

Sam had been sheltered from the world and naive about sex when she started her relationship with Lieflander. Her friend and her friend’s husband had to sit Sam down and explain to her how wrong Lieflander’s actions were.

“Deep down I knew she was right. It broke me,” Sam said. “People would ask how’s the cancer going. I lost all my hair, but nothing could compare to what I was feeling inside. How’s cancer? Oh right, cancer.”

Once she got her bearings, Sam started telling people about the abuse and rape. This was in May and June of 2017. She wanted to make sure the college knew and could protect any other possible victims. She also started contacting the many parishes where Lieflander still operated Sparrows choirs, to make sure they knew. Sam was aided by a friend, who was able to corroborate that the disclosures were made.

One of Lieflanfder’s attorney’s, Tamara Bubis, an associate with criminal defense law firm Engel & Associates, declined to comment on the case when contacted.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom responded to Sam’s disclosure by not renewing Lieflander’s contract, she said. The school, in a statement made just days ago, four years after the events, now claims it fired him. The school never followed up with its own investigation or review of Lieflander’s conduct on campus. It did not inform parents or students about the alleged abuse, and it did not contact law enforcement. Lieflander’s Sparrows choirs began shutting down because of Sam’s disclosures, and he left the country in the summer of 2017, and returned to Germany.

One of the people Sam told about the abuse was Fr. Marco Testa, then the pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Port Perry. Testa was reportedly supportive and sympathetic when Sam disclosed the alleged abuse, but she later found out that Testa brought Lieflander back for concerts at Immaculate Conception in January of 2018, after he heard allegations that he had groomed and raped her. 

Lieflander rehearsing for the Sparrows concert at Immaculate Conception in 2018

Testa is no longer serving at Immaculate Conception. Neil MacCarthy, public relations and communications director for the Archdiocese of Toronto, refused to divulge where Testa is currently residing. MacCarthy claims Testa retired at the end of 2020. MacCarthy declined to comment on the 2018 concert with Lieflander. Testa is reportedly aware we have requested to speak to him, but he has so far not responded. 

Fr. Marco and Lieflander at Immaculate Conception in 2018

Sam went to police a few weeks after the January of 2018 concert.  Charges were not brought forward until January 2019 when Ottawa police obtained warrants for Lieflander’s arrest.

Lieflander, who has yet to face charges in court, currently posts videos to Youtube about his scooter riding adventures under the handle The Vespa Idiot.

Lieflander in a recent “Vespa Idiot” video

He started a trip from Germany to Africa on his scooter last week, documenting his international journey to Casablanca online. This week he was in the South of France, according to his Youtube videos.

Christine Schintgen, interim president for Our Lady Seat of Wisdom and one of the school’s founders, declined to be interviewed for this story. Schintgen did agree to answer questions submitted via email. Her answers sought to distance the school from Lieflander.

“This was allegedly perpetrated on an alumna, but only after her time as a student at SWC was over. None of the alleged abuse is alleged to have happened while she was a student here. The alleged abuse was brought to our attention after the victim had ceased to be a student at OLSW. The victim did not bring forward any complaints or concerns to us during her time as a student, nor did anyone else,” Schintgen wrote.

Schintgen stated that the school never made any kind of statement about the allegations until the criminal charges were brought, two years after the school was made aware of the alleged abuse. 

“We are deeply saddened by this case and the damage it has done to the victim. However, there has been no claim that the abuse happened on campus, and no reason to believe that the College was negligent,” Schintgen wrote. 

Schintgen refused to address the alleged grooming that took place on campus when Sam was a student, and she deflected when asked why the school continued to employ Lieflander after the 2011 controversy over his touching students.

“In 2011 Uwe Lieflander resigned from his position with the Ottawa Catholic School Board rather than agree to abide by its policy prohibiting any physical contact between teachers and students. He argued that for certain subjects some contact was necessary, for example to correct posture while singing,” Schintgen wrote. “There was no suggestion that there had been a sexual element in the touch he employed or that he was guilty of sexual misconduct. After this controversy he continued to be employed by a number of schools and churches in the Toronto and Ottawa regions.”

Amanda Grady-Sexton, a domestic and sexual abuse survivors advocate in the United States, said an institution like a college should take clear steps when it learns about abuse.

“Best practice would be to report the abuse, notify and warn the college community, put the professor on leave pending an investigation conducted by an independent and external investigator, and to connect the survivor with on and off campus support and resources,” Grady-Sexton said. “It is also important to remind the community of the support in place for staff, students, and alumni. Notice to the community should be as detailed as possible, within HR guidelines, with updates as things change with the status of the case.”

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, according to Schintgen’s answers, did none of that. However, in a statement released on June 29, the college now claims, four years later, that it acted swiftly when it learned of Lieflander’s alleged abuse.

“When we learned of this case involving a former student, we acted swiftly, leading to the end of his employment with us,” the new statement reads.

In the statement, the college for the first time publicly encourages any student who may have experienced abuse perpetrated by Lieflander to come forward to the authorities. 

We have strong policies and procedures in place to handle allegations of harassment or abuse, and we communicate them clearly to all incoming members of the College community. We welcome complaints of sexual abuse and harassment, and want to promote a spirit of openness and comfort around disclosure of such incidents so that they can be dealt with in a thorough, just, and proactive manner. We also welcome scrutiny that holds us to a high standard in this regard,” the statement reads.

A former college staffer who pushed for years for the college to deal with the Lieflander accusations said the statement coming years later was “heartbreaking and scandalous.”

“When I became aware of the situation with Lieflander, I asked three different presidents at SWC to make an internal statement for the sake of providing an environment where victims could come forward. The response varied from silence, to threats and hostility,” the former staffer said. 

The statement comes weeks after Schintgen became aware of our forthcoming story, and four years after the alleged abuse was first disclosed. Sam was never contacted by the school ahead of the statement’s release, which came as a shock to her.

I am furious and appalled with their statement that lacks truth and does not reflect the reality of the situation and undermines the credibility of SWC. Their motto, which is Veritas Vos Liberabit, ‘the truth will set you free’ rings hollow and empty across from the statement they produced and without external accountability their internal credibility is corrupt,” Sam said in a statement she provided to us Wednesday night. “Even one person and their story has more value than the whole institution and they have forgotten the human value. Even one victim is too many. Shame on them.”

Women are not safe at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Sam said. 

The college did eventually give Sam $1,000 to help pay for therapy, though Schintgen denied to confirm that, saying the matter is confidential. Sam is currently cancer-free and back studying at a different college.

“I’m just kind of worn out. Life didn’t get easier,” she said.

 

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EDIT July 1, 2:40 PM: A previous version of this article erroneously labelled the featured photo as the main academic building of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom college. It is actually St. Hedwig Church. We regret the error. The photo has been removed. 
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Comments are closed for this article. Anyone wishing to contact Damien or Simcha Fisher regarding this story may use the contact form on this page. 

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Image sources:
Concert rehearsal video
Lieflander and Fr. Marco
Vespa Idiot and Vespa Idiot

Dr. Peter V. Sampo and what he built

Dr. Peter V. Sampo, photo courtesy of Kathleen Kelly Marks

Dr. Peter Sampo has died. He was already white-haired when we met him in the 1980’s, when he had recently founded a new little Catholic liberal arts college in the woods in New Hampshire. It was one of four colleges he founded. Most often, you would see him smiling a broad, genial smile, or gravely, intently listening from under his heroic eyebrows; or else he was throwing his head back and laughing his characteristic Dr. Sampo laugh: HAH-hah-hahhhhh. He loved to sit in the cafeteria, lingering with his teachers and his students, talking and listening after meals until he would stand up, push back his chair, and say, “Well, time to get back to work.”

He founded four colleges, as I said. But it was more than that. Over and over again, he told us that the education he wanted to give us was not for now, but for twenty years from now. That was over twenty years ago, and I remember how we would roll our eyes at his repetition. 

And he did have his favorite set of ideas that he would roll out, time and time again, over and over, to class after class of the young people he taught. But he was right. He knew that most of us didn’t then understand or appreciate the richness that he was laying out for us, but he trusted that someday we would. And I do. The things I learned in the school he made are the best, most important things I know, and he did his best to found a school that fostered freedom so his students could learn, if they would. It wasn’t until I started looking around for colleges for my own children that I realized just what an unusual, extraordinary thing Dr. Sampo had built. 

He was a hearty, vigorous man, never at a loss for words, never abashed. So many of his students have beautiful stories of his generosity, his gentle kindness, his concern. Apparently he would cook linguine for the whole school; apparently, when he saw that a student in Rome didn’t have much to eat, he quietly gave him a wad of cash. I was not close to him, and I didn’t like everything I saw him do; but I saw him grow kinder and more gentle with age, less willing to overlook sorrow, more willing to stop and find out how he could help. He was willing to adapt and change, even as an old man. What an amazing thing: Willing to change, even as an old man. And tirelessly teaching, and building, and rebuilding.

The college I was at was always in flux, always struggling to make itself into something better, always in danger of collapsing into chaos. Sometimes the college relocated temporarily to a hotel; sometimes the whole student body went to live in Rome, because (the story goes) they couldn’t afford to maintain two campuses at once, and it was more important to be in Rome. Sometimes the campus was home to kittens who hadn’t yet gotten the message that it was a college now, and no longer a barn.

His students dressed well for class, out of respect for each other and for the rock solid curriculum his school offered; and the women’s dressy shoe heels would sink quietly into the soft ground, because the great books were there, but paving was still a plan for the future. I was only vaguely aware at the time what tremendous effort and single-mindedness it must have taken to keep building, to keep breaking new ground, to keep putting food on the table in fat years and in lean, and to keep starting over, tirelessly spreading a rich table of ideas for a new set of freshmen, year after year.

Once there was a morning meeting with the whole student body, and the director of student life announced a new plan for the amorphous dirt parking lot, which was haphazard and dangerous. In the new system, there would be a one-way traffic flow, designed to maximize space and minimize chaos. We were supposed to park head in, diagonally, along both sides of a central oblong. It was a good plan, and it would work, as long as everyone paid attention and did what they were supposed to do.

 

Dr. Sampo stood up and thanked the student life director for explaining everything and for making such a good plan. Then he said, “It’ll never work,” and he laughed his Dr. Sampo laugh, HAH-hah-hahhhhh.

Imagine knowing what people are like, and forging ahead anyway. Imagine knowing how likely it is that your plans will pan out, and still going through with it, because it is a good plan, and eventually it will be worth it. Maybe in twenty years.

He and Dr. Mumbach came to my house a few years ago so I could interview them for an article.  As he passed by the table I had amateurishly restored with leftover bathroom tiles, he rapped it with his knuckles and said, with wonder and delight, “You made this?” As if I had done something spectacular. Much as I wrack my brain, I can’t recall him ever boasting about anything he had made himself. 

One more story. When I was at Thomas More, every student did a “junior project” — an intensive, months-long focused study on a single important figure. You were supposed to learn everything worth knowing about the body of work, and then, when your hour had come, you would creep into the library and take a seat at the head of a long, polished table, where all the teachers were waiting. They would ask questions, and you were expected to give a cogent, well-researched answer.

My junior project was on the poet Richard Wilbur. Dr. Sampo, who focused on political science, let the literature professors direct the conversation, but he did insist on bringing up one of the few Wilbur poems I never liked, “For the New Railway Station in Rome.” 

He asked me a leading question about the poem, which I veered away from. Then he asked me to recite the final stanzas, which I could not do. Then he asked me to recite the final lines, which, with increasing misery, I also could not do. So he leaned forward and asked, gently but insistently, “Simcha, what does it say over the doors of heaven?” and I bleated out, “HOMO FECIT!” Then he sat back and laughed his Dr. Sampo laugh, HAH-hah-hahhhhh.

Homo fecit: Made by man. When most men would have rested on their laurels, Peter Sampo looked around to see whether he could start building again. He was a great man. No one can number the good things that could rightly bear the words: Peter Sampo made it. 

 

Are women safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part I

Christendom College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts school in Front Royal Virginia, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Christendom is praised as a safe haven where young students can focus on their studies, grow in their faith, and “breathe the Catholic air.” But several former and current students say the school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture actually facilitates sexual assault — and that the administration works harder to protect its reputation than it does to protect its students.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which publishes an authoritative annual guide to Catholic Colleges, says Christendom “makes a point to emphasize virtuous living, which translates to a faithful Catholic lifestyle and strong friendships. With this goal in mind, the College utilizes single-sex dormitories, visitation policies to promote chastity, planned weekly events as a way to proactively promote sobriety and counter any temptation toward a ‘drinking scene,’ and spiritual programs to foster students’ prayer lives and spirituality.”

Adele Smith, class of 2012, experienced some culture shock when she arrived at Christendom. Accustomed to a large, sociable, extended family, she knew Christendom would be conservative, but was bemused by the strict segregation of males and females. She describes the “open houses” that would take place in the dorms once a semester.

“The girls would get baked goods and candy, and the guys would come into the dorm and take a tour. It was very much like a museum, like an exhibit. It was the same with the guys’ open house, except they’d have TVs and video games. ‘This is how the native people on the men’s side of campus live!’ This is not how young people engage in a normal way. It felt like a human zoo.”

The school’s rigid rules governing male and female interaction weren’t just awkward, though. Smith claims they are dangerous.

Rigid student life rules drive students off campus

She says that the rules against romantic public displays of affection were so restrictive, it drove couples off campus. Because Christendom is in a rural, isolated spot with few restaurants, clubs, museums or theaters, going off campus generally means going into the woods or into a field.

“It’s just a natural human need to connect with someone you’re in a relationship with,” Smith said. “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. 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.”

That’s precisely what happened when Smith was raped by her then-boyfriend, a fellow Christendom student. The rape occurred on Friday, October 2, 2009, on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about thirty minutes away from the college campus. We contacted the young man and he has not yet responded, so we are not using his name at this time.

“He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith, who was then a sophomore, says she was so naive, she didn’t even know to use the word “rape” until many months later. She told her friends, “He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith had hurt her back in a car accident when she was a freshman. On the day of the rape, she re-injured her back while cleaning her room for Homecoming Weekend, and so her new boyfriend suggested that they have a low-key, relaxing date.

He didn’t have a license, so, at his suggestion, they borrowed a friend’s car and she drove them up to a scenic point overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. He told her her back might be more comfortable in the back seat, and they could put the laptop in the center console to listen to music.

“In retrospect, I can say, ‘You’re a dummy!’ But back then, I was nineteen. He was my friend, I knew him, I knew his sister, and it felt very natural sitting in the back,” Smith said.

He started kissing her. She had no objection, as they had kissed before. But when he started putting his hand inside her shirt, she told him “No,” and pushed his hand away. She said, “I’m not comfortable with that,” and he said, “Okay.”

“Then he tried it again, and I pushed his hand away, and said, ‘Please, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ Then he tried a third time,” she said.

They were in a confined space; the young man was around six feet tall, and Smith is five feet tall.

“If it was me vs. a kitten, the kitten would win,” Smith says.

“I can’t stop him, apparently.”

She had been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder after graduating high school, and her anxiety kicked in at this point. She said she realized she could not stop the man.

“He’s not stopping. I’ve told him three times not to. I can’t stop him, apparently,” she recalled thinking.

The young man then started unbuttoning her jeans, and she again told him “No.” He pulled her down so she was flat on the back seat.

“I had my arms pushed together, my elbows to my hands pushed together in front of my chest, trying to keep myself covered. He pushed my arms apart with his hands. My legs were tightly closed. He took his knee and pushed my legs open, pulled my shirt off, and pulled my jeans down. I felt him,” she said.

“Up until that point, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable,” she said. “But it took me a second to realize what was happening. I remember thinking, ‘Is that what I think it is? Is that what’s happening right now?'”

“Why are you making such a big deal of it?”

Smith does not remember getting dressed after the rape. She remembers standing outside the car, smoking a cigarette and shaking, and her boyfriend saying he didn’t know why she was making such a big deal out of it. So she drove them down the mountain and back to campus.

It took all of her strength not to drive off the mountain. She returned the car to her friend, went back to her dorm, sat down in the shower fully clothed, and cried.

Although Smith’s patron is Maria Goretti, the teenaged saint who was stabbed to death while resisting rape, Smith said the concept of rape was foreign to her. She didn’t want to accept that something so ugly had happened to her.

“When I tried to figure out what had happened, I would say, ‘He had sex with me, but I didn’t,’” she said.

Smith texted her boyfriend the next day, saying she didn’t want to see him again. He responded by calling her a bitch and a prude, and saying, “You know you liked it.” She blocked his number.

The victims always blame themselves.

Smith skipped many classes her sophomore year, unable to endure being in the same room with him. Her GPA slipped to 1.2.

It wasn’t until the beginning of her junior year that she heard the word “rape” applied to her ordeal. She was at a party hosted by her theology teacher, Eric Jenislawski, after a meeting of the Chester-Belloc Debate Society. Smith and her brother stayed long after midnight talking, and Jenislawski told her he knew something had happened to her. He said she noticed a change in her, and wanted her to know he was there to help her if she wanted to talk.

Smith told him what happened

“I’m so sorry you were raped,” Jenislawski said.

At first she didn’t want to allow that word, and grew defensive, blaming herself for the assault.

“When you’re Catholic you’re taught that your virginity is one of the best gifts you have, a gift you can give your husband,” Smith said. “I had been a virgin. I had been waiting for marriage. I was that fallen woman, and I didn’t want my parents to see me that way. That was not how my parents were, but sex assault is unique crime. The victims always blame themselves.”

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. An RA friend, Elizabeth Foeckler, also encouraged her to go to the administration.

“I had seen already something was wrong, something had happened,” Foeckler said.

The idea of reporting her rape scared Smith. The young man was charismatic, well-known, and well-liked on campus. When she told a few of her friends that something had happened between them, he began circulating the story that she had seduced him and then regretted it.

“Hit me.”

He then began approaching and provoking her on campus. One day, she was sitting and waiting for a friend to come out of his dorm, and the young man who had assaulted her came out. He sat beside her and began to make small talk, putting his hand on her leg. She felt frozen and could not reply. After what felt like hours, he left. She fled to her dorm and went to bed.

Another day, while other students played some sort of game on campus, the young man approached her and began to insist that she slap him across the face.

“He kept saying, ‘Hit me.’ He kept grabbing my hand and trying to make me slap him,” Smith said.

Smith thinks he might have been trying to make it appear that she was the one who assaulted him. He also told some students that she pulled a knife and forced him into sexual acts.

Smith’s grades continued to slide, and her mental and physical health suffered as students and even outsiders, people she didn’t know, would approach her in the dining hall to talk about the ordeal.

The chances of going to trial are very low.

In April of 2011, Smith decided to tell the police about the rape. Front Royal Police told her it was out of their jurisdiction, since it had happened in a national park. Discouraged, Smith hesitated, then eventually called law enforcement rangers and met with them at Shenandoah National Park.

They explained to her that a prosecutor would take her case, but that the chances of going to trial, much less of the young man being prosecuted, were very low.

Smith’s father consulted with a lawyer friend, who said that the best they could realistically hope for would be that the young man’s record would include an accusation of rape. If he was accused again in the future, the record would help support that accusation.

“But the job of the press would be to make me out a liar,” Smith said, noting that rape victims often find the trial to be more traumatizing than the actual event. “The idea of being torn apart in court by someone with a law degree, and it being in the paper, was too much for me to imagine. So I pinned all my hopes for justice on my Catholic, conservative college, to uphold moral principles.”

So she went to the then-dean, Jesse Dorman, and reported the rape and subsequent harassment. The school promised to conduct a “complete and careful investigation.”

In loco parentis

Next came many months of frustration for the Smith family. In a letter dated May 16, 2011, Scott Smith, her father, wrote to Timothy O’Donnell, the president of Christendom,

“Adele’s grades plummeted that first semester of her sophomore year. She sought psychological help from Dr. Patrick Divietri. She has nightmares about the incident. She developed Crohn’s disease, a disease exacerbated by severe stress. Adele has no ‘bad girl’ reputation on campus. Her subsequent behavior is entirely consistent with that of someone who has been traumatized and assaulted. She implored [her brother] Peter to continue to live in Front Royal and to visit the campus often because she felt so unsafe.”

Scott Smith states in his letter that he left messages for nearly a week before he was able to arrange to speak to the dean, and that the telephone conference was “disquieting.”

“We clearly received the impression that Mr. Dorman wasn’t going to do anything . . . Mr. Dorman showed no apparent interest in pursuing any sort of investigation,” Scott Smith wrote.

Dorman, who no longer works for Christendom, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Smith’s parents also drove the four hundred miles to meet with the dean, hoping to encourage him to take the charges against their daughter’s rapist seriously.

“Forgettable as most commencement addresses are, I remember yours clearly,” Scott Smith wrote to O’Donnell. “You spoke to the parents of the graduating students gathered there of the profound sense of responsibility you felt of acting in loco parentis for our children and your gratitude that we, as their parents, had entrusted our children to you . . .

“But here Christendom has done the opposite. It has sent the implicit message to women at Christendom that the such attacks ‘within the Christendom family’ will be tolerated, that the attacker will receive no punishment, that women who are attacked will have to endure the fear of retaliation, both on a physical level, and on the level of damage to their reputations.”

“So now my daughter must endure the presence of her attacker on the campus. Each day that goes by, she is reminded that nothing will happen to him. Each day she is persuaded that the college has no intention of supporting her.

A week later, in a letter dated May 23, 2011, President O’Donnell responded.

“Respectfully, I must disagree with your recollection . . . [in loco parentis] is not a phrase that I use with any frequency,” O’Donnell wrote toward the end of his letter to Scott Smith. “But more importantly, I think that you might be using the term more broadly than is appropriate in this matter. In speaking with our counsel, it is my understanding that under Virginia law, the doctrine of in loco parentis as applied to colleges and universities simply means that Christendom has a responsibility to provide a safe campus for its students. Christendom is very diligent in making sure that it provides a safe campus for the education of our students.”

Throughout the letter, O’Donnell refers to the young man by his last name, but refers to Adele Smith by her first name.

In the letter, O’Donnell tells Smith’s father that the school “understands the anguish” the Smith family is feeling as they wait for a judgment against the young man, and that the college will make “a complete and careful investigation of [Smith’s] allegations before rendering a decision that will impact both the life of the accused and the accuser.”

“After a prior incident”

Two months later, the school explained what the young man would be charged with: harassing Smith “after a prior incident.” The charges do not mention rape.

In the charge letter delivered to the young man on July 19, 2011, then-dean Jesse Dorman wrote:

“The intent of the Student Life Office is to support each student as he or she works to grow in virtue . . .

“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. Another student instructed you to leave her alone but you continued. After Adele did slap you, you allegedly said, ‘If you slapped me really hard and it really hurt, I wouldn’t want to kiss you.’ It is further alleged that on other occasions you went out of your way to volunteer with groups of friends that Adele had seduced you.

“Therefore, you are being charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct.”

A disciplinary conference was scheduled for July 28 of 2011. The school determined the young man was “responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

His punishment: He could not live on campus for one semester, and he could not contact Adele Smith.

Smith and her family were floored. There was no mention of her accusation of rape, either in the charge letter or in the sanction letter. The entire passage describing his offense is as follows:

“Specifically, you admitted: to placing your hand on Adele Smith’s knee, attempting to provoke her to slap you and or to kiss you to deal with her frustrations with you, and finally for telling some students around campus that she had seduced you. You did emphasize at length with regards to the first two incidents that they were not done maliciously and you found them to be normal interactions. As I informed you at the meeting, I do not find these interactions with Adele to be acceptable, appropriate, or in keeping with our Code of Student Conduct. Therefore I found you responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

What does the handbook say?

The school apparently based its response on two facts: First, there was, in 2011, no clause in the student handbook prohibiting sexual assault. Amanda Graf, the current Director of Student Affairs at Christendom, confirms that student handbook did not include a policy against sexual assault until 2013, two years after Smith reported her rape.

Second, the rape occurred off campus; and so the school considered itself helpless to respond to it.

“[T]he 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,” O’Donnell wrote in his 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.”

When you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.

Students are, however, punished for coming back to campus drunk, even if the drinking took place off campus — for instance, at “The River,” a popular drinking spot where even professors are known to visit and socialize. “The River” and the drinking that occurs there is an open secret that the administration is aware of.

“I always find it interesting they always try to punish students for drinking off campus, if you come back to campus drunk,” Smith said. “I say, if you rape off campus, when you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.”

Smith says that the administration cracked down on professors hosting off-campus parties, because they involved drinking. The message delivered was clear, according to Smith.

“We care if you drink off campus, but not if you rape off campus,” she said.

Sanctions

Although the school imposed sanctions on the young man, he was taken under the wing of one of its founders and professors, William Marshner, and he lived in Marshner’s house for the semester he was barred from living on campus. Marshner has since left Christendom.

After the sanctions were imposed, Smith and the young man still had classes together, including core classes that were required for all students.

“It was up to me to avoid him,” she said. “I would go down the road to the convenience store, and he’d be sitting outside, and I couldn’t walk in. I would go to the only cafe in town, and he’d be sitting outside. I would turn around and drive right back. All his body language was hostile and arrogant.”

Her focus and concentration were gone.  Her grades continued to be low for the rest of her junior year.

“It was my story.”

Then, one day during her senior year, her friend texted her that Marshner was talking about her in his moral theology class, using thinly veiled language.

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 said. “It was my story. Everyone knew.”

Smith complained to the school, and she says they gave Marshner “a slap on the wrist.”

Smith considered leaving the college, and looked into other schools. Her parents, brother, and friends encouraged her to transfer.

“But the stubborn Irish in me determined if I left, he would win. He’s taken enough from me; he’s not gonna take this.”

But he did take it away from her, she says.

“I can’t get into grad school with my GPA. It’s hard to explain why my GPA is so poor.”

It takes a long time to change the handbook.

The young man left Christendom in Smith’s senior year. His absence helped her reclaim some of her focus. But in that year, 2012, a year after she reported her rape, the school still had not added a policy against sexual assault to their student handbook.

“There was nothing to stop this from happening again,” Smith said.

Smith says the school claimed it “takes a long time” to implement changes in school policy.

“No, it takes opening a word document and writing it up: ‘Don’t rape people.’ If there’s a single member on your board who has an issue with that, they shouldn’t be on that board,” Smith said.

Smith continued to call the school after graduation to see if they had changed the policy. In 2013, after Smith had graduated from the school, she again downloaded the student handbook and was aghast to see there was still no language forbidding sexual assault by students. It wasn’t until August of that year  that the language was added to the handbook.

The student handbook now includes a sexual assault policy.

Christendom College does not receive federal funding, and so is not subject to Title IX regulations, which would legally require it to respond to and remedy hostile educational environments. This also means there is no publicly available data about sexual assaults or other crimes taking place on campus, as is required of Title IX schools.

***

This story was researched and reported by Damien and Simcha Fisher.

 This is the end of part I. Part II can be found here. Below are pdfs of the four letters referenced above.
***
Image credits:
christendom sign: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Statue By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
regina coeli hall By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352616
student center By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352611
front royal clock  Clevergrrl via FLickr
church By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
men’s dorm By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
seal By Niall ODonnell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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