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Lawsuit claims Liberty University mishandled sexual assault claims

One of the 12 plaintiffs claims she was 15 when she was sexually assaulted by Jesse Matthew, who later pleaded guilty to killing two college students

Twelve women filed a lawsuit against Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post)

Twelve women sued Liberty University on Tuesday, claiming they were victims of sexual assault or other sexual misconduct and that the university not only failed to help them but made the campus more dangerous through its policies.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York, alleges that the university policies violated the federal Title IX law prohibiting discrimination based on sex at schools that receive federal funding.

The anonymous plaintiffs described such things as a suicide attempt, an effort to hide from stalkers and photographic evidence removed from a report about assaults. One plaintiff recounted fighting off an alleged sexual attack while she attended a camp at Liberty as a minor in 2000.

Liberty University, a private school in Lynchburg, Va., has drawn national attention as a powerful center for evangelical and conservative Christians and, more recently, the high-profile resignation last year of its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., after a series of scandals.

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The allegations are “deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true,” university officials responded in a written statement Tuesday. The university has “invested mightily” in programs and staff to help victims of sexual assault, a nondiscrimination policy that includes an amnesty provision to encourage students to make reports without fear of disciplinary repercussions, and a process for resolving disputes, officials said.

“It would be heartbreaking if those efforts had the results claimed in this lawsuit,” the university statement continued. “We will immediately look into each of these claims to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true.” Because the claims were made anonymously and some date back many years, it will take time to sort through, officials noted.

In one case, the Liberty University Police Department told a 15-year-old girl she would be criminally charged with filing a false report, the complaint alleges. “The police then began an ‘investigation’ into her claim, which seemed to solely consist of a demand that she strip and submit to being photographed by the chief of police,” which she refused to do, according to the complaint. Police did not take her to the hospital but continued to “badger” her until she agreed to be photographed naked by a female debate coach, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff said she later learned her attacker was Jesse L. Matthew Jr., according to the complaint. Matthew was later accused of rape by another student at Liberty, the complaint said, and pleaded guilty in 2016 to the abduction and killing of Virginia college students Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington. He also was sentenced in a “brutal” sexual assault in Fairfax County.

Doug Ramseur, an attorney who has represented Matthew, wrote in an email, “On behalf of Mr. Matthew and his family, we have no comment on these allegations.”

Jesse Matthew pleads guilty in slayings of college students

The lawsuit alleges Liberty has intentionally created a campus where sexual assaults and rapes are more likely to occur than they would in the absence of the school’s policies. Some plaintiffs claimed they were urged not to file reports, or fined for honor code violations after reporting an alleged incident.

The school has a student honor code called the Liberty Way that prohibits sexual harassment, discrimination and assault. It also seeks to promote Christian values and safety through a series of rules prohibiting any sexual conduct between unmarried people. The honor code prohibits students from visiting alone with a student of the opposite sex at an off-campus apartment, for example, or intentionally attending an event where alcohol is served.

One plaintiff, described as an employee, alleged a supervisor showed up at her home at 2 a.m. and forced her to take a pill; she woke up with his hands on her neck and threatened to scream. The supervisor later stalked her, the complaint alleges, and she moved to another apartment in an effort to avoid him. She filed a complaint with the university but was informed the school had accepted his denial, according to the lawsuit.

Another plaintiff was warned that she could be disciplined for drinking if she reported being raped by another student, according to the complaint.

The 12 victims “in large measure became victims because of university policy, “the ‘Liberty Way,’ and the way it was weaponized,” said Jack Larkin, an attorney for the plaintiffs.