What Is Justice for Lizzy Seeberg?
Step away from the Trayvon case for a moment and take a look at what’s going on at Notre Dame. Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman, reported to campus police that a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted her in her dorm room. She first told her therapist shortly after it allegedly happened, then filed a written statement to the ND police the next day. They never charged the football player. From the National Catholic Reporter:
All their lives, women Lizzy’s age have been taught to report unwanted touching. But after she did, the same friend of the player who’d left her alone with him sent her a series of text messages that scared her as much as the player himself had. “Don’t do anything you would regret,” he wrote. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” Over the next 10 days, Lizzy became convinced he was right about that. The player wasn’t hard to find on the practice field each afternoon, so what were investigators waiting for? It crushed Lizzy, said her therapist in Chicago, Dr. Heather Hale, that reporting a crime somehow made her a traitor to the school she’d grown up revering. But she also couldn’t get past the idea that failing to follow through legally would make her party to any harm that came to other women on campus, either from the same man or others emboldened by her silence.”
Lizzy wanted it to be better for the next woman. But one subsequent case, never reported until now, involved another young woman who decided that you really don’t mess with Notre Dame football. A year ago February, a female Notre Dame student who said another football player had raped her at an off-campus party told the friend who drove her to the hospital afterward that it was with Lizzy in mind that she decided against filing a complaint, that friend said.
But Notre Dame officials have painted and passed around a different picture of the dead 19-year-old. Sotto voce, they portray the player as wrongly accused by an aggressive young woman who lied to get back at him for sexually rejecting her the first moment they were ever alone together.
The player’s lawyer, Notre Dame alumnus Joe Power, isn’t whispering. He shouted in my ear about the “complete phony lie” designed to slander an exemplary young gentleman. His client, who has never been named or made to miss a football practice, had a reputation as a young man with a temper among some parents at his high school, and was suspended from high school over allegations of misbehavior.
Lizzy, whose parents signed waivers to make extensive information available, with no preconditions and nothing off-limits, has no such record. An anxiety disorder made Lizzy shun rather than seek attention, and she had no history of making up anything.
Nobody can ask Lizzy Seeberg anything. She killed herself 10 days after the alleged sexual assault. The reporter of this story, Melinda Henneberger, published it in the nation’s leading liberal Catholic newspaper, was told this by the football player’s lawyer:
“You should be writing for the John Birch Society, or the Ku Klux Klan,” the lawyer continued, presumably because the player is black. “If you were in To Kill a Mockingbird, you’d be on the side of the Klan,” out to destroy a black man falsely accused by a white woman. “And if you slander this innocent young man,” he thundered, “you will pay!”
What would justice for Lizzy Seeberg look like? I don’t really know; I’m asking. To what extent does your opinion depend on the templates you have in your head that help you explain the world to yourself? Templates about race, sex, religion, loyalty, sports, and tribalism, I mean.
I think about how completely outraged I was last year over the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State. How volcanically disgusted I was at how Penn State students rioted in anger over the way the university treated Joe Paterno. How frustrated I was over the culture of denial at Penn State that appears to have allowed Sandusky to sexually prey on boys for years. With some distance from that time, I think about all the emotions that case brought forth from within me — emotions that had to do with what I regard as the worst trauma I’ve ever gone through — and how it became virtually impossible for me to consider that any of the major figures from that case might not be guilty. That red-headed coach in particular, Mike McQueary. I was ready to be judge, jury, and executioner on that guy, and I couldn’t see how anybody could see this matter differently. Wasn’t the truth obvious? If you doubted it, I was emotionally certain that you were blinded by your loyalty to Penn State.
That was wrong of me. McQueary may eventually be proven in court to be guilty of some criminal charge, or may be at least shown to have been a man of no moral integrity. But I didn’t know that at the time, and I still do not know that. The truth was, I judged McQueary guilty because the facts, as presented in the grand jury report, did not reflect at all well on him, and — more importantly — the facts fit a template that I carried in my head about how institutions allow children to be sexually abused to protect their public image and the powerful, well-connected people within the leadership of those institutions. Obviously, this was a big lesson I took from my experience of the Catholic abuse scandal, and it was a lesson I took from the two adult chaperones who walked out of a hotel room when I was 14, and a group of boys were trying to take my pants off to humiliate me in front of their girlfriends. Me begging the adults for help. Them stepping over me and leaving the room rather than confront the cool kids. That was my template. It’s why I reacted so strongly to the Catholic scandal that I could no longer say I believed in my Catholic faith. It cut too deep. It’s also why I would not be able to serve on a jury in a child sexual abuse case. I am, I think, incapable of being impartial in these matters, despite my best efforts. I feel so strongly about this stuff that even when I think I’m being impartial, I’m not. I didn’t see clearly how much emotion affected my judgment about Mike McQueary until after enough time had passed to let the emotions die down. I am absolutely certain that the same dynamic is at work in the Trayvon Martin case.
So, again: what would justice look like for Lizzy Seeberg? What makes you think that?