A freshman at St. Mary's College committed suicide just nine days after reporting a sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player. Why isn't either school talking about the crime that may have led to her death?
According to Stacy St. Clair and Todd Lighty of the Chicago Tribune, 19-year-old Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg had struggled with depression and anxiety in the past, but a friend said she was "so excited and so enthusiastic about starting the year off right" at St. Mary's. Then, on Aug. 31, not long after classes started, she was allegedly attacked by a Notre Dame football player. St. Clair and Lighty write,
She reported it to Notre Dame police at 5 p.m. the following day. The department's Web site twice refers to a single alleged sex crime on Aug. 31, listing it once as a sexual battery and once as a sexual assault by an acquaintance. The documents provided no further description. A source said that her allegations did not describe penetration, but a sexual attack that ended when there was a knock on the door.
Why aren't the details clearer? In part because the Notre Dame police, rather than turning the case over to the St. Joseph County special victims unit, have chosen to handle it themselves — and they say they don't have to abide by the open records laws governing the rest of Indiana. They have not asked the county prosecutor to charge anyone, and the university wouldn't make officials available for comment. Instead, they made this vague statement:
Any time we are made aware of a student potentially violating university policies, we implement a process that is careful and thorough so that facts can be gathered, rumors and misinformation can be sorted out, and an informed decision can be made about what action to take — if action is warranted. We take our obligation seriously, we involve law enforcement officials as appropriate, and we act in accordance with the facts.
St. Mary's, for its part, appears to be passing the buck a bit — its president said in a letter to parents and students, "Although we do not know the cause of her death, we want to stop any potential rumors by stating that no crime occurred on our campus related to her death." A crime may have occurred off St. Mary's campus, but nobody's willing to talk about it.
One of the incredibly sad things about this story is that Seeberg reportedly "feared people would dislike her for accusing a Notre Dame athlete of a sex crime and that she would wear the incident 'like a scarlet letter' throughout her college career." And now both her school and Notre Dame are acting like her alleged assault is a matter to be hushed up, rather than addressed openly. Both are acting like the investigation and coverage of an assault are embarrassing to them, when the exact opposite should be true — institutions should be ashamed of themselves when they hide sexual violence, when they pretend it never happens, when they act like they are somehow above all that. Because that's what makes victims — and there will be victims, even (especially?) if you pretend there aren't — feel like they're wearing scarlet letters.