Federal investigators found insufficient evidence to conclude that Catholic University violated a student’s civil rights after she reported in late 2012 that she had been raped on campus.
But the Education Department’s civil rights unit determined that the university failed to uphold the rights of the accused male student, in violation of the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX.
The report from the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, was quietly issued Oct. 31, culminating an investigation of nearly four years into an incident that involved two students, alcohol and a dispute over sexual consent. The case drew the Vatican’s university in America into the national debate over how schools handle reports of sexual violence.
Catholic said it was pleased with the outcome. “The findings reflect what we have consistently held: that the university responded promptly and equitably” to the woman’s allegations, the school said this week in a written statement.
The young man was not charged with any crime, and the university cleared him in 2013 of an allegation of sexual misconduct.
The young woman in the case, Erin Cavalier, who is now 23, went public with her account in a 2014 article in The Washington Post.
Catholic was one of dozens of colleges and universities named that year when the Obama administration disclosed a list of schools under federal investigation related to sexual violence and Title IX, a 1972 law that bans sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. This year, the Trump administration has declared a shift in federal guidance on Title IX, saying it wants to work more closely with colleges to ensure the due-process rights of all students — including the accused — are protected in sexual violence cases.
Cavalier said this week she was disappointed in the outcome of the federal investigation of Catholic. “The report was less than honest,” she said.
In a footnote, the federal report said a number of students interviewed by OCR raised concerns that the university’s department of public safety could be “insensitive and intimidating” when questioning victims. That echoed what Cavalier described as her own experience. The report said federal investigators encouraged the university to ensure that public safety officers were trained in how trauma can affect victims of sexual harassment or sexual violence.
“We are appreciative that the report included reference to the intentional and measurable steps we have taken to strengthen our resources for the prevention of and response to sexual harassment and assault,” Catholic said in its statement.
In Cavalier’s telling, she went on a drinking binge that night in December 2012, downing wine, tequila, vodka and beer within a short time, and becoming severely intoxicated before her encounter with the male student. She said a blood-alcohol analysis the next morning provided strong evidence that she was too incapacitated to consent to sex.
Cavalier contended that Catholic mishandled her case, overlooking key evidence about her level of intoxication and dragging out its review of the incident. She fought for several months to get a formal hearing into her claim that she had been raped.
Initially, university officials had decided that a hearing was unnecessary. Eventually, pressed by Cavalier to reconsider, they reversed that decision. The university board that reviewed the incident in October 2013 found no wrongdoing.
“OCR did not find that the delays affected the fairness of the process overall for the complainant,” the federal report said.
But the federal report faulted Catholic for reversing its initial decision not to hold a hearing. Federal investigators said the reversal deviated from the university’s written procedures at the time, which did not allow for an appeal. The civil rights office said the reversal appeared to have been driven by Catholic’s effort to be “responsive” to Cavalier’s concerns and “bring satisfactory closure for all parties.”
But in doing that, the civil rights office said, the university “subjected the accused to an inequitable process, in violation of Title IX.” The university later rewrote its procedures to allow for appeals.
The young man, who has not been publicly identified, could not be reached for comment.
Cavalier graduated from Catholic in May 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in politics. In October 2016, she sued the university in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging the school violated her Title IX rights and seeking financial damages for “negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” That suit, separate from her civil rights complaint, is still pending. Catholic has denied wrongdoing and is seeking to dismiss the suit.
Despite the legal battle, Cavalier has not severed ties with her alma mater. This year, she enrolled again at the 6,000-student university in Northeast Washington. She is now a graduate student seeking a master’s degree in business analysis. She is considering a career in project management consulting or marketing. “I would like to just be able to do what I set out and planned to do,” Cavalier said.