A Catholic University graduate has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that her alma mater was “deliberately indifferent” to her report of being raped on campus during her freshman year. Erin Cavalier, 22, says the school mishandled its investigation of the case and impeded her work afterward as an advocate for sexual-assault survivors.
Cavalier, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree from the Vatican’s university in America, says the university blamed her for what happened in her dormitory room after she went on a drinking binge one night in December 2012.
Cavalier said she was raped by another student after she blacked out while drunk. The university concluded nearly 10 months after the incident that there was insufficient evidence to discipline the other student for sexual misconduct, finding that Cavalier was “not incapable of giving consent.” No criminal charges were filed.
The lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that Catholic violated the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX and seeks financial damages for “negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Catholic denies wrongdoing.
The Washington Post generally does not identify people who report they were victims of sexual violence unless they choose to be identified. Cavalier spoke publicly about her case in 2014, telling The Post about her battle to obtain a disciplinary hearing from the university on her case.
Catholic flip-flopped on that question, according to Cavalier, telling her at first that there was not enough evidence to hold a hearing, then reversing itself several months later. Cavalier contends that the hearing unfairly excluded key evidence substantiating her account that she was severely intoxicated at the time of the incident and therefore unable to consent.
She also contends that the university declined to enforce a “no-contact” order meant to ensure the other student kept his distance from her on the campus in Northeast Washington. “CUA did nothing to stop the traumatic confrontations,” her lawsuit alleges. In addition, she said, the university spurned her request to allow a screening on campus of “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary that explores the plight of college students who are victims of sexual assault, and took other steps to “limit her advocacy activities.”
Cavalier said in an interview Thursday that university officials have never acknowledged any missteps in their handling of a case that shadowed nearly her entire time as an undergraduate.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “This is awful.”
Catholic said in a statement that, out of respect for everyone involved, the school does not believe it is appropriate to publicly discuss specific details about the situation.
“The Catholic University of America remains confident that the facts will show that this case was investigated carefully in coordination with local law enforcement and that the university conducted an independent, thorough hearing,” the school said in the statement. “We take every allegation of sexual misconduct seriously, investigate each claim thoroughly and are committed to providing compassionate support for all students without exception. Our responsibility is and always has been to provide a safe and secure environment for all members of our community.”
Cavalier’s lawsuit does not identify the other student, referring to him as “John Doe” and as a football player. Efforts to reach him for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
The male student told Catholic’s investigators that he had consensual sex with Cavalier, and that she supplied a condom, according to a report attached to the lawsuit. Cavalier said that a toxicology report shows she was too drunk to give consent and that no evidence of a condom was preserved.
The lawsuit comes nearly three years after Cavalier filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Education Department. Federal officials opened a Title IX investigation in January 2014 into the university’s response to sexual violence.
That investigation continues, a department spokeswoman said Thursday. Catholic is one of 214 colleges and universities nationwide facing such scrutiny, part of the Obama administration’s efforts to address the long-
standing problem of sexual assault in college.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2015 found that 20 percent of young women who had attended college during a four-year period said they had been sexually assaulted.
The poll also found significant division over questions about consent, an issue at the heart of Cavalier’s case. Forty-six percent of current and recent students said it’s unclear whether sexual activity when both people have not given clear agreement is sexual assault. Forty-seven percent called that scenario sexual assault.
Cavalier, who lives in Marin County, Calif., said her years at Catholic were rewarding, on the whole. She majored in politics, minored in sociology and was active as an assistant lacrosse coach and an advocate for sexual assault awareness and prevention. But she said it was a “constant struggle” to deal with the aftermath of rape. In difficult moments, she would pull from her wallet a note written to steel herself. She still carries this message on a sheet of paper, folded in fourths.
“Even though I sometimes feel alone,” it reads, “I know I haven’t backed down and I can call on support when I need it.”