Since the #MeToo movement began a few years ago, we’ve become more culturally comfortable talking about stories of sexual abuse, and this is a good thing. While some have swung in a direction of insisting that we “believe all women” without investigating their claims, other institutions seem to be stuck in a prehistoric era of dismissing all women. Tragically, these include organizations with purportedly "higher" moral standards that should include protecting and defending young women the most—religious colleges.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed against Liberty University, which has been most recently in the news following its former leader, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s fall from grace. The lawsuit describes harrowing details of how the Christian university allegedly mishandled at least a dozen accusations of sexual assault. Twelve women, all of them listed as Jane Does, are bringing forward claims of misconduct.

The multiple alleged incidents tend to follow a pattern: women were afraid to report their abuse—or were told their allegations were not credible—because the incidents would have violated Liberty University’s honor code, called “the Liberty Way.” 

The cases took one of two directions: either the girl or woman was sexually abused and hid details from investigators out of fear she would be blamed for drinking or having premarital (even if nonconsensual) sex, which violates the "Liberty Way"; or she was sexually abused, took steps to report the incident, and was told that she did something wrong or that the incident should be hidden away.

For instance, according to WSET, the local ABC News affiliate, “Jane Doe 3 alleges that she told her dorm’s resident assistant that a fellow student raped her after a party. The RA told her she would ‘suffer penalties for drinking under the Liberty Way,’ she recalled.”

Another plaintiff claims that after being drugged and raped by her boyfriend in 2013, “she was confronted by Liberty for drinking and fined $500.”

One of the women says that when she was 15 years old attending a Liberty University camp, she was sexually assaulted by Jesse Matthew, Jr., who was later convicted of two murders.

The incident with Matthew occurred in 2000, at which time the university allegedly made the girl and her attacker ride to the police station in the same vehicle, and the school police department “interrogated [Jane] Doe 12 for hours, asking her to write two separate statements, and then accused her of fabricating her story when minor details were not identical,” according to WSET.

When the teenager told her friends about the incident, several of them “acknowledged that they had been approached for sex by a man similar to Doe 12’s description of Matthews, but had not reported the solicitation because of concerns that they would be expelled because their clothing had been too revealing,” according to the suit.

Jane Doe 11, who claims the university only agreed to expel her abusive ex-boyfriend if she dropped her Title IX case against him in 2019, says she did not report to the Title IX investigator that he raped her because she was afraid of getting punished for violating the school’s honor code.

Jane Doe 1, who was an employee in 2013, said her supervisor kissed her without her consent. When she reported the incident, the university’s human resources department allegedly dismissed the claims, saying the supervisor was “a man of God” whom Doe 1 was “attempting to smear.”

In the case of Jane Doe 10, the lawsuit says, “after Doe 10’s rape, her roommates reported Doe 10 to the student conduct office. Although Doe 10 attempted to make clear that she was the victim of a rape, LU’s student conduct office gave her no opportunity to do so and instead forced her to sit with her rapist and apologize to her roommates for her violation of the Liberty Way.”

Textbook examples of blaming women for rape

Mishandling sex-abuse cases and scandal-hushing clearly aren't just problems for Christian universities. Any organization without strong accountability networks has incentive to pretend incidents that could bring them bad PR never happened. But these stories, if true, are a devastating reflection on what can happen if a religious organization becomes too trapped in moral legalism and sexist thinking that holds women to stricter standards than men. 

But for Christian universities that require all students to sign a strict honor code, the hypocrisy is particularly glaring. Rarely in these stories are men punished, either for violating the honor code by drinking or engaging in sexual activity, much less for exhibiting abusive and criminal behavior. 

Some might take this as an occasion to criticize Liberty for having a strict honor code to begin with, but it's fair to say that discouraging youth drinking or late-night cavorting was probably instituted as an earnest attempt to minimize sexual exploitation from happening, which the college drinking and hookup culture can be fertile ground for. The problem isn't as much the standards laid out in the Liberty honor code, as much as their unfair enforcement of those standards—shaming and penalizing women for small infractions, while overlooking men's far graver infractions. Rather than punishing men for abusing women, it appears the school punished women for being abused by men.

This is why much of the #MeToo movement, in giving women a platform to speak out, has been beneficial. And why, if an investigation verifies the credibility of these claims, all 12 Jane Does deserve to win their suit.

Despite the reported decades of enabled abuse at the school, the victims still hope their lawsuit may do some good. “Nothing can fix the countless ways my experience with Liberty has caused physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual damage. This lawsuit gives me and other victims the opportunity to regain a sense of justice,” Jane Doe 2 said. “I feel heard for the first time in 15 years.”

Schools that claim a higher standard of ethics have even more responsibility to ensure that their rules are applied fairly, which is what makes Liberty’s seeming sexism and double standards all the more depressing. If anything good comes out of this new story, we can only hope that the school will finally take its own policies seriously and hold abusers accountable—and that other institutions responsible for safeguarding the young people in their charge will take note.