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Sexual assault survivors find themselves under suspicion at BYU

May 16, 2016

Madeline MacDonald was a freshman at Brigham Young University when she was sexually assaulted.

The Seattle 19-year-old had met a man through the online dating site Tinder. He said he was Mormon, which put MacDonald at ease,  and she agreed to meet him for hot chocolate.  

They never made it to a cafe, though. Instead, the man drove her up into the mountains and molested her.

Campus officials opened a sexual assault investigation. But they also opened an inquiry to determine whether MacDonald had violated the private Mormon university’s Honor Code, which requires that student adhere to the school’s strict rules for proper behavior – no swearing, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol or premarital sex.

Suddenly, MacDonald said she felt like a suspect.

“At BYU, everybody feels like it’s so safe. It’s ‘the Lord’s school,’” she said. “To acknowledge that I’m telling the truth requires admitting it’s not that safe.”

MacDonald, now a junior, is among several women calling for greater protections for sexual assault victims at BYU — including amnesty from potential honor code violations. A growing number of women say such policies are discouraging reports of sexual assault because they place women in jeopardy of expulsion or other academic punitive measures.  

The outcry at BYU started after Madison “Madi” Barney, a 20-year-old sophomore, went to the Provo police to report that she’d been raped at an off-campus apartment in September. Her attorney said she was startled when she was suddenly called by school officials who threatened to forward her case to the Honor Code Office.

Nasiru Seidu, 39, the man charged with assaulting Barney, told police the sex was consensual and shared the police report with a Utah County sheriff’s deputy and former BYU track coach who then gave it to college officials, according to court records. The deputy and the accused rapist were charged with witness retaliation, but the charges were later dropped. Seidu has yet to stand trial for rape.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the school’s overriding concern is protecting students, especially victims: “When a student reports a sexual assault, the primary focus is on the victim’s safety and well-being … The victim of a sexual assault will never be referred to the Honor Code Office for being a victim of sexual assault.”

Still, Jenkins added, “sometimes in the course of an investigation, facts come to light that a victim has engaged in prior honor code violations.”

Tribune Newspapers does not typically name sexual assault victims, but MacDonald and others asked to be identified to draw attention to their cases.

Barney, who grew up in Indio, Calif., was told she could complete the semester but would be barred from enrolling in future classes “until the (honor code) issues are resolved.” She has since filed a federal complaint against the school alleging it failed to comply with Title IX, the federal law aimed at protecting people from sex discrimination at  schools and universities.

“BYU’s position is the honor code violations have nothing to do with the rape. But they were acquired from the report about the rape,” said Barney’s attorney, Liesel LeCates. “They’re putting the whole entire community at risk by deterring rape reporting.”

MacDonald said that when she first reported the alleged sexual assault, she was directed to the school’s Title IX office. But MacDonald said the Title IX coordinator seemed to doubt her story, and suggested that female students sometimes cry rape when they regret consensual sex.

Jenkins said the coordinator denied making such a statement to MacDonald, or to any other student.

BYU is one of the largest private universities in America with an enrollment of about 30,000. It also has campuses in Salt Lake City, Hawaii and Idaho, all church-owned with the same honor code. Other private or religious colleges have honor codes that include amnesty clauses that shield sexual assault victims from punishment.

Jenkins said BYU is now “looking at everything in regard to our own procedures.”

“It’s not the honor code that’s the problem, it’s the implementation of the honor code,” said LeCates, who is Mormon and attended BYU in Idaho.

Last month, after Barney and others spoke out at a campus rape awareness conference, supporters posted a petition online calling for an amnesty clause and gathered more than 113,000 signatures. Before graduation in April, dozens marched on campus to deliver the petition to BYU officials.

BYU President Kevin Worthen posted a video on YouTube last month discussing a study underway to improve how the school responds to sexual assault victims and “whether and how information is shared” by the Title IX and Honor Code offices.

Worthen said the school recognizes that students may be afraid to report assaults because of the honor code. “We want to minimize that,” he said.

Colleen Payne Dietz, 34, a former BYU student who was assaulted as a freshman, wants to see it offer sexual assault education and prevention training like other universities.

“There is a whole systemic problem at BYU that creates a rape culture,” said Payne Dietz, who now lives in Arizona. “There’s shame coming from every angle when it comes to sexual assault.”

Provo is a place where the honor code is written into off-campus housing contracts, apartments restrict where and when men can visit and young women’s first visit to a gynecologist is often for a “premarital exam.” Abstinence education often comes in the form of parables like the “chewed gum” or “licked cupcake.”

“They lick the cupcake and say, ‘Who wants it now?’” said Kate Kelly, 35, a BYU graduate and a lawyer.

Kelly, who met with other protesters at BYU this month to plan next steps, said she doesn’t trust the university to improve without continued pressure, and she doesn’t believe prevention should start at BYU.

“It has to start young, and it has to be ingrained in the culture,” she said.

When MacDonald told her Mormon bishop about her assault, she said he sat her down and asked her to compile a list of “what I could have done differently to avoid it.”

“He marketed it as, ‘I’m in charge of a bunch of girls and I want to tell them what to do to avoid being assaulted,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘You’re also in charge of a bunch of guys. Tell them not to rape women.’”

The Honor Code Office eventually cleared MacDonald. A computer science major, MacDonald chose to stay at BYU to finish her degree. She also started volunteering to help other victims.

“A lot of other survivors have been doing the same thing,” MacDonald said. “Just trying to reach out to girls so their experiences aren’t as bad or as lonely as ours.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


UPDATES:

May 16, 9:33 p.m.: This story was updated.

This article was first published at 3 a.m. May 15.

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