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Christian university accused of systematically covering up rape by threatening the victims

A woman being attacked by a man
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An explosive report published by ProPublica indicates that the anti-LGBTQ evangelical Liberty University consistently discouraged rape victims from filing reports and blamed them for being attacked. Some rape victims said that they were even fined after reporting their attacks because they had to admit to drinking and spending time with the opposite sex, both of which are prohibited by the school’s code of conduct, “The Liberty Way.”

Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell, one of the most powerful Christian conservative activists of the 20th century, and it remains an extremely conservative campus guided by The Liberty Way, which embodies the school’s anti-sex ethos. The Liberty Way bans “sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman” as well as “statements… associated with LGBT states of mind.”

Related: Jerry Falwell Jr. resigns as head of Liberty University after details of 3-way relationship emerge

The Liberty Way also bans “being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex,” entering apartments or dorm rooms with members of the opposite sex, drinking alcohol, being present at a social gathering where others are drinking, listening to music with “anti-Christian” lyrics, violating curfew, and dancing. It requires students to “know and abide by common-sense guidelines to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

The report found that the school uses The Liberty Way to silence rape victims who often have to admit to violating some aspect of the strict code of conduct in order to tell their stories.

One rape survivor at Liberty named Elizabeth Axley talked to ProPublica. She said that she went to an off-campus party, drank, passed out, and woke up with a male student on her, covering her mouth.

She went to the nurse later that night, who documented numerous injuries consistent with an assault.

The next day, Axley decided to tell her residential assistant (RA) at Liberty, but the RA told her not to report the alleged rape because Axley technically violated The Liberty Way by being in an apartment with men and drinking.

The RA instead suggested that they pray.

“They were making it seem like I had done something wrong,” Axley recalled.

Under Title IX – the federal law that bans discrimination based on sex in education, the same law that the Biden administration said also bans anti-LGBTQ discrimination since it’s impossible to discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual orientation without taking sex assigned at birth into account – colleges that receive federal funds are required to investigate sexual assault.

So Axley decided to report the attack, and she had photos, text messages, witnesses, and other evidence to back her story up.

Instead of helping her, though, Axley said that the school official who took her complaint was less concerned about the man who allegedly raped her than she was with Axley’s drinking and attending a party. Axley said she felt “judged.”

Months later, she found out that Liberty University removed photos of her injuries from her file before they presented her case to those who would be deciding it, saying that the images were “explicit.”

“At that point, it honestly felt like they were trying to sabotage my case,” she said.

She was forced to sign a document saying that she acknowledged that she could be the one punished for violating The Liberty Way before a final decision was reached. Punishments for violating The Liberty Way include fines, community service, and expulsion.

In the end, she wasn’t punished, even though some former students have said that they were fined when they reported sexual assault on campus. A witness at the party Axley attended – a male friend who said that he saw Axley being mistreated – did get punished: he was kicked out of Liberty University for several violations, including drinking at that party.

The friend said that he talked to school officials voluntarily because he wanted to help Axley, but “they didn’t seem to care much about Lizzie” and he was “interrogated for what I had been doing at the party… like they were trying to find me guilty by association.”

Dozens of former students talked to ProPublica about how their rape complaints were mishandled, how they were threatened with punishments to get them to withdraw their complaints, or simply decided not to report because they were worried about being blamed for their attackers’ actions.

A former police officer at the school said that he remembered how administrators would tell him to back off cases involving sexual assault of women. The school would often suggest victims see Christian counselors and not advise them of their right to file a police report, which is required by the Clery Act, a federal law. One rape survivor said that a school counselor even had her sign a document promising not to file a police report.

Several students filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Liberty University, saying that The Liberty Way makes it “difficult or impossible” to report sexual assaults, even though Liberty has a legal responsibility to investigate and take action in such cases because sexual assault denies victims – particularly women – equal educational opportunities.

Axley, for example, started avoiding classes out of fear of running into the man who allegedly raped her, skipped meals, slept through the day, and had panic attacks due to the stress. She had trouble focusing, felt disconnected from the world, and even had an attempted suicide that landed her in the hospital.

After Falwell Sr. passed away, his son Jerry Falwell Jr. took over the university. His tenure was marked by constant scandals and his own inability to follow The Liberty Way, which the school says is intended “to encourage and instruct our students how to love God through a life of service to others.”

Falwell Jr. resigned after several sex scandals and being caught drinking several times, and he was replaced by the even more conservative Jerry Prevo.

Prevo spoke about the accusations that the school was systematically covering up sexual assault at a student prayer meeting.

“We want you to feel safe,” he said. “We don’t want any sexual harassment or sexual abuse.”

The man who allegedly sexually assaulted Axley denies the accusation. Liberty University officials aren’t commenting on the cases.

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