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.
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.
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.