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Notre Dame student senate discusses sexual assault

| Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Notre Dame’s student senate reckoned with the University’s handling of sexual misconduct Monday evening, discussing the the institution’s stance on Title IX revisions and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s honorary degree.

Student government director of gender relations and student body president-elect Elizabeth Boyle presented about the Trump administration’s proposed revisions to the federal law Title IX, which dictates how colleges handle accusations of sexual harassment and assault.

“These are some really important, really scary changes,” Boyle said.

Notre Dame issued a public comment to the Department of Education in response to the proposed Title IX revisions, expressing support for the changes. Notably, the University supported new regulations requiring mediation between victims and the alleged perpetrators, a practice that Boyle said is not trauma-informed.

“[Mediation is] really, really horrible for survivors to have to go through,” Boyle said. “Unfortunately, Notre Dame is already practicing this mediation process and was doing that before these changes even happened.”

Additionally, Notre Dame supported the Trump administration’s proposal to lower a colleges’ liability for investigating incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

Previously, colleges could be liable for mishandling a claim of sexual misconduct brought to any mandatory reporter, such as a professor or rector. Under the proposed new standards, however, colleges would only be responsible for handling claims brought to top administrative officials.

Lowering liability standards “is really, really harmful and further limits the people that survivors can trust and tell about their case,” Boyle said.

Finally, Boyle expressed concern regarding Notre Dame’s opposition to changes that would require colleges to provide students with a lawyer and help victims gather evidence.

Notre Dame is facing eight federal investigations for violating Title IX. The 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground” made Notre Dame notorious for its mishandling of sexual assault claims, Boyle said. These investigations parallel elements of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, which remains a major issue on Notre Dame’s campus.

Following Boyle’s presentation, senators shifted the discussion to the sexual abuse allegations brought against the former Cardinal and Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick faces multiple allegations of sexually abusing minors and currently holds an honorary degree from the University.

Senators voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling for University President Fr. John Jenkins to revoke McCarrick’s honorary Notre Dame law degree, which he was awarded in 2008.

Jenkins issued a statement in August saying that the University does not plan to revoke McCarrick’s honorary degree until the Vatican concludes its canonical trial. The University made a similar decision to wait for a civil court conviction before revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary degree in 2018.

But many student government leaders argued that this precedent should not prevent the University from taking immediate action in McCarrick’s case.

“What’s important to consider is that this is a very different case,” director of faith and service Aaron Benavides said. “Archbishop McCarrick was very closely tied to the University … and there really is no question in the [credibility of the] allegations against McCarrick.”

Many senators argued Catholic leadership has already taken enough action to prove McCarrick’s guilt. A review board of the New York Archdiocese called the accusations against McCarrick credible, and several other Catholic universities have already revoked honorary degrees from McCarrick.

Senators signaled their resolve on the issue of sexual assault with their swift and decisive move to condemn McCarrick.

Student body vice president Corey Gayheart said in an interview following the meeting that student government leaders will be looking into the issue of sexual assault more in the coming weeks and months.

“Please make sure that you’re dialed in and focused for the remainder of our term,” Gayheart urged senators. “I think we can get a lot of … really good things done if we stick to it and keep working hard.”

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