Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What UVA Can Learn From the Church

As a pastor who was both a graduate of UVA and who lived for three years in a fraternity house, the last few weeks have been...interesting.

The Rolling Stone article and the horrific story of sexual assault it contained were hard to read.

When I attended Mr. Jefferson's University, one of the many primary reasons I joined my fraternity was that it was an outlier.  It was a wild place, to be sure.  But it was also a fellowship where groupthink was actively mocked, and where women were respected.  They were our friends, to the point that one of the regular house-meeting arguments was how/whether to formally acknowledge women as part of our community.

I also knew, 25 years ago, that there were fraternity houses that my female friends needed to stay away from.  Where if you were inebriated and a woman, you were taking a risk.

That remains the case today, which in and of itself is difficult.

Beyond the culture of misogyny, part of the problem, as I see it, is that the University completely misunderstands its role in dealing with sexual assault.  It's a misunderstanding that...after ten years in ordained ministry...I know quite well.  It has also afflicted faith communities, to catastrophic effect.

That misunderstanding is simple.

When an adult or a minor has an act of violence committed against them in a faith community, the response of that community is often to try to deal with it internally.  This is "our problem," or so the thinking goes.  And so internal systems and structures and processes are put into place to deal with it on an institutional level, to minimize organizational liability.  Committees are put into place.  There are task forces, and protocols, and trainings.

In so far as those things reduce the probability of violence, they're well and good.  If they help reinforce a culture that supports victims of violence and overcomes dysfunctional, assaultive norms of behavior, excellent.

Where the danger lies is in imagining...from the silo of your thinking as a steward of an institution...that you have any meaningful jurisdiction over acts of criminal violence once they have been committed.

If a child is violated by an adult in a church, it isn't a church issue.  It's a felony.  If a congregant is raped by another congregant...or their is not a church issue.  It's a felony.  It is a criminal act of violence.

Churches have learned, the hard way, that usurping jurisdiction leads only to disaster.

It destroys the integrity of the institution, and can stand in the way of stopping predators from assaulting others.  Teaching an ethic that fundamentally refutes violence is the task of the church.  But prosecuting such acts?  Holding the perpetrators accountable? That is not the job of the church.  That is the job of the state.

The administration of my alma mater seems to be operating under much the same category error, with equally disastrous results.  University administrators are in no position to either investigate or prosecute criminal acts, and in this particular instance, the results are disastrous.  The Rolling Stone article establishes allegations of an act of systematic, predatory, calculated violence.  

Not a drunken attack, where an intoxicated man forces himself on a woman.  That is rape, absolutely, and a crime.  But what is described goes further.  The story details a sober, calculated, ritualistic gang rape, part of a pledging ritual.  What is described is sociopathy, a level of predation that is both calculated and monstrous.  Such a story must be verified, supported with evidence, and prosecuted.  And it was not.

The most significant challenge I have in reading this article is that the young woman in question was not immediately supported in bringing criminal charges.  Instead, she was catastrophically misled by "friends" who counseled her not to immediately seek help, and given too wide a suite of options by the University, including the option of having the attack adjudicated by a board comprised of students and faculty. For a ritual gang rape. The idea that administrators would have the capacity to deal with an assault of this nature is absurd.

Just as the church has learned that it cannot deal with sexual crimes internally, so too UVA needs to recognize that its role in such an attack is to immediately support the victim as they pursue justice.  The best way to do so is to build supports for those who have been subjected to violence, but also to recognize that as an educational institution, it has neither the capacity, competence, or jurisdiction to adjudicate violent crime.

[edited 04.18.15]

And now, this seems doubly true.  The allegations in the Rolling Stone article have, over the last few months, been completely discredited.  The individual in question fabricated most of the story out of whole cloth, and may or may not have been assaulted.  It was a fantasy, or a delusion, a story with no ground in reality.

The alleged victim implicated a fraternity that was not responsible.  She lied about her friends, whose egregious behavior, as reported, had so offended me.

In crimes of violence, evidence is key.  What is not relevant is what people say on #twitter, or what people circulate with #hashtags about what they believe to be true from the comfort of their laptop.

What matters is not what an accuser asserts about their victimhood.  What matters is reality.