One of the country’s top evangelical universities is being sued by a dozen former students who claim that administrators made it ‘difficult or impossible’ to report sexual assault because the young women ran afoul of the honor code that bans drinking and pre-marital relations.
Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia-based Christian university co-founded by the late Jerry Falwell Sr, would penalize the young women who came forward by claiming they violated the ‘Liberty Way,’ according to the lawsuit.
News of the allegations against Liberty was first reported by ProPublica.
Last year, the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr, left his post after it was learned that his wife was having an affair with a pool boy, Giancarlo Granda, who was trying to extort the couple.
Also last year, a former Liberty University student who played in a band with Becki Falwell’s son came forward with claims she performed oral sex on him and pursued him on Facebook for months when he was 22.
Earlier this year, Liberty filed a lawsuit seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages from Jerry Falwell Jr.
The complaint, which was filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court, alleges Falwell crafted a ‘well-resourced exit strategy’ from his role as president and chancellor in the form of a lucrative 2019 employment agreement while withholding damaging information from the evangelical school about a personal scandal that would explode into public view the following year.
According to the ProPublica site, women who attended the university and reported rapes or sexual assaults were punished for admitting they consumed alcohol and fraternized with the opposite sex.
The ‘Liberty Way’ prohibits students from ‘being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex.’
‘The goal of The Liberty Way (Student Honor Code) is to encourage and instruct our students how to love God through a life of service to others,’ the code says.
‘The way we treat each other in our community is a direct reflection of our love of God.’
When it comes to pre-marital sex, the Liberty Way states: ‘Sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University.’
Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia-based Christian university co-founded by the late Jerry Falwell Sr, is being sued by a dozen former students who claim that administrators made it ‘difficult or impossible’ to report sexual assault because the young women ran afoul of the honor code that bans drinking and pre-marital relations
One student who reported being raped to school authorities was fined $500 for drinking alcohol and ordered to attend counseling. She was also told her transcript wouldn’t be released until she paid the penalty.
At least a dozen women told ProPublica that it was part of a pattern at the school, where rape victims were discouraged from reporting what happened to them.
Elizabeth Axley told ProPublica that she was raped during her freshman year at the school in 2017.
During a Halloween party at an off-campus location, she drank eight shots of vodka as well as a couple of mixed drinks.
Axley said that she then remembers waking up with another student on top of her and his hand against her mouth.
She then returned to the dorm and called the campus police department to report the incident.
After being driven to the local hospital, a nurse documented 15 bruises, welts, and lacerations on her arm, face, and torso.
After returning to the dorm on Sunday morning, Axley told her resident adviser what had happened.
According to Axley, the RA told her not to report it for fear that she would be punished for violating the student code of conduct.
Instead, the RA said that Axley should pray.
‘I was really confused,’ Axley said.
‘They were making it seem like I had done something wrong.’
She added: ‘I didn’t want to get fined or punished, but I wasn’t going to let this keep me from reporting my assault.’
Axley then approached the school’s equity office, which is responsible for investigating claims of sexual discirmination.
Under Title IX, the civil rights law, schools that engage in sex discrimimation would not be entitled to federal funding.
Axley had photos of her bruises and text messages from friends who saw the alleged rapist being ‘all over you.’
‘He was just super handsy and he has his face all over you and stuff like that,’ a friend of Axley, Logan Pratt, texted her on the morning after the party.
According to Axley, the lead investigator at the equity office, Elysa Bucci, hardly took an interest in her claims.
Last year, the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr (above), left his post after it was learned that his wife was having an affair with a pool boy, Giancarlo Granda, who was trying to extort the couple
Also last year, a former Liberty University student who played in a band with Becki Falwell’s son came forward with claims she performed oral sex on him and pursued him on Facebook for months when he was 22. Jerry and Becki Falwell are seen above in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2018
Instead, Bucci questioned Axley about why she had gone to the party, what she had to drink, and how much she drank, according to ProPublica.
‘I immediately felt judged,’ Axley said.
Bucci is now a Title IX investigator at Baylor University.
It took five months for the university to inform Axley that it completed the investigation into her claims.
During that time, Axley stopped going to class for fear she would run into her alleged assailant. As a result, her grades suffered.
Axley said her mental health started to deteriorate as well. She suffered full-blown panic attacks.
She was also sued by her alleged assailant, claiming that she defamed him by recounting the allegations to others. That lawsuit was settled.
The alleged assailant denies assaulting Axley.
When she was handed her file, the photos that she took of her injuries were gone.
When Axley asked what happened to the photos, Bucci said the pictures were removed because they were too ‘explicit.’
‘I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,’ Axley said.
‘I had been relying on them all these months to take my evidence into account when considering my case, and it wasn’t even in my file.’
Several days later, Axley was informed by the university that she needed to sign a document acknowledging that she violated the code of conduct and could be subject to ‘possible disciplinary actions.’
At least two other students said they had to sign a similar document.
Pratt said he gave a statement to the Title IX office that supported Axley’s version of events.
But a few months later, Pratt said he was kicked out of the school for drinking and other Liberty Way violations.
Diane Stargel, a former student, alleged that she was raped by another student at a party off-campus in 2013.
When she told a counselor what happened, the counselor informed her that she needed to sign a ‘victim notice’ that warned of possible penalties due to violations of the Liberty Way.
Stargel decided not to go ahead with the complaint because she feared losing her scholarship if she was found to have violated the code of conduct.
‘I feel like Liberty bullied me into silence after what happened to me,’ said Stargel.
‘I’ve always regretted that I never got my day in court.
‘But at least now I can stand up and say, “Yeah, that happened to me”.’
Another former student, Amanda Stevens, reported to the school’s Title IX office that she was raped in April 2015.
After filing her report, she was told she could be in violation of the Liberty Way for drinking alcohol, having premarital sex, and being alone with a man on campus.
‘I remember thinking, “What? Are you kidding me?”‘ said Stevens.
‘”I could get in trouble for coming forward and reporting?”‘
The school conducted an investigation into Stevens’ claims. The investigation found that the alleged assailant was ‘not responsible.’
At least 10 other students told ProPublica that they decided not to report their rapes to school administrators because they feared they would be punished.
‘I knew I would face the blame for putting myself in that situation,’ said Chelsea Andrews, a former LU student.
Andrews said she was assaulted by a Liberty graduate student.
In October 2016, Adrianna Rice contacted the school’s Title IX office to report she had been raped by a fellow student.
Rice and another student drove off campus to a local nature trail when the rape occurred, according to ProPublica.
‘I don’t think I’m OK,’ Adrianna Rice told her mother, Kristine Rice.
‘I had sex with a guy and I didn’t want to.’
‘I asked her, “Did you want that?” And she started sobbing and said, “No”,’ Kristine Rice said.
‘And I said, “Honey, that sounds like rape”.’
About a week after the alleged rape, Adrianna Rice and her mother traveled to the campus counseling office. Adrianna wrote on her intake form that it was an ‘emergency’ and that she was experiencing ‘suicidal ideation.’
But the Rices were turned away because there weren’t any appointments available.
‘They referred me to other Christian counselors in the area,’ Adrianna Rice recalled.
The counseling center also referred her to Bucci’s office. Bucci emailed Rice a list of resources, but law enforcement was not on the list.
Federal law requires that students who report sexual violence be informed that they had the option of going to law enforcement.
‘I was never informed that filing a police report was even an option,’ said Adrianna Rice.
When she asked Bucci to open a formal investigation, Bucci allegedly told her not to speak to anyone about the case, including law enforcement.
‘I felt like a gag order had been placed on me after I had already experienced a trauma,’ Adrianna Rice said.
An investigation by the school found that Rice’s alleged rapist was not responsible even though she says she provided investigators with a text in which the alleged assailant is said to have admitted what he did.
When Rice appealed, she was asked by committee members ‘how and why I had put myself in a situation where this could have happened.’
Committee members asked her questions like ‘What definition of rape are you going off of?’ and ‘What is counted as valid evidence?’
The appeals committee decided to uphold the Title IX office’s original decision by a ‘preponderance of the evidence.’
Rice decided to take the case to police, but she says that the chief of the campus police discouraged her from pursuing the matter.
‘He told me all the details I had written down in my personal statement could be turned against me, and that a jury would likely kill my case,’ she said.
‘He essentially discouraged me from continuing.’
When ProPublica sought comment from the university about the claims, the school declined to comment.
Scott Lamb, a former LU spokesperson, said he was fired this year by the school after urging administrators to issue a statement saying they would ‘get to the bottom’ of the allegations in the lawsuit
Scott Lamb, Liberty’s senior vice president of communications, urged his bosses to release a statement expressing empathy with victims and a desire to get to the bottom of the claims.
‘The emails from ProPublica were definitely ignored,’ said Lamb.
Lamb said he and another colleague tried to get administrators to take the issue seriously.
‘We said, “Listen, the optics of this are killing us. Is there anything we can message — something? A message about empathy? Or that we’re at least working to get to the bottom of this?”
‘And then it dawned on us: They’re not working to get to the bottom of this.’
Lamb added: ‘Concerns about sexual assault would go up the chain and then die.’
He called is a ‘conspiracy of silence.’
In a May 7 email, Lamb wrote to administrators: ‘There seems to be the notion that there are many (not few) skeletons in LU’s closet when it comes to “mishandling sexual assault allegations.”
‘Culturally, this seems to be a pattern: 1 person makes an accusation about Bill Cosby/Harvey Weinstein/Matt Lauer etc…. And overnight there are a dozen people who say the same thing. True, LU is not Bill Cosby…But I’m talking about the Court of Public Opinion.
‘And I fear that we are about to enter into a season of being found guilty in that court.’
Lamb said he received no response.
As news of the lawsuits began to gain more traction on social media, the university decided that it would disable comments on its official Instagram and Facebook accounts.
When Lamb objected to the policy, he says he was fired.