Politics Daily editor-in-chief and ND alum reacts to sexual assault cases

Melinda Henneberger, a Notre Dame graduate, is Editor-in-Chief of PoliticsDaily.com and a columnist for the Catholic journal Commonweal. She previously served as Washington correspondent and Rome bureau chief for the New York Times. Henneberger recently criticized the university’s response to Lizzy Seeberg’s assault and suicide in several opinion pieces; see here, here, and here.

In the wake of a second Chicago Tribune story about another September 2010 sexual assault at Notre Dame, The Rover shares the following interview with Henneberger.

As Editor-in-Chief of Politics Daily, can you tell me briefly about its mission?

I’m not sure what the future holds after the merger of AOL, which owns Politics Daily, and the Huffington Post, whose founder will soon be in charge of all of our properties. But the outlet I founded almost two years ago is an online newspaper for the general interest reader dedicated to upholding old-school journalistic values and producing high quality, original work at low-cost, because we work virtually, without an office, and have no legacy costs. (In other words, we’re on a mission to save journalism and safeguard democracy, and I’m not kidding.) We have between 8 and 9 million readers a month – about 2.5 million of those from outside the AOL network, which is pretty phenomenal.

 What job have you liked the most since you graduated from ND?

I’ve had a lot of great jobs; covering Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana as a roving State Desk reporter for the Dallas Morning News was a reporter’s dream, and I spent 10 years at the New York Times, most of it in the Washington bureau, and then as Rome bureau chief. Politics Daily is my favorite, though; the opportunity to create from scratch something that means so much to me is amazing, and so is my team.

What did you like best about ND while you were here? What did you like least?

The three things I have always loved best about ND are its Catholic character, the high percentage of students who do service work while on campus, and of course the people. I really appreciated going straight from class to noon Mass with friends right before lunch most days without any self-consciousness; what a blessing.

What part of your experience at ND has been most valuable to you?

Probably my lifelong friendships with a couple of my professors. One was my writing teacher, Elizabeth Christman, who I wrote about in PD last year: see here. Another is Father John Dunne – though I hope I’m not getting him in any trouble by outing him as my friend!

What led you to the Seeberg case?

I was on vacation when the story broke, and just couldn’t stop thinking about Lizzy or comprehend the school’s reaction.

How do you think this story has generally been covered by the media?

I find it interesting that it’s ND that keeps emphasizing that the media got it wrong calling it a rape charge initially when no mainstream media outlet in this country ever reported it that way that I’m aware of. That just seemed like a red herring; why keep complaining about a handful of obscure accounts, which I never even saw, unless the true aim is to discredit anyone looking into this? ND’s official story is what kept changing, and it’s absurd that the claim was that they waited so late to interview the accused because it was a “he said-she said.” (If they hadn’t talked to him yet, how did they know that? Are cases in which the accused denies a crime not worth pursuing? What would our entire legal system look like if we followed that logic?)

Later, ND officials said they waited to interview the player because his friend and the friend’s girlfriend said it didn’t happen – only, this is the same friend who sent Lizzy a threatening text and no one else was in the room at the time of the alleged attack; if his insistence that his friend was in the right is really why they waited to interview the young man, when would they ever have reason to interview anyone? If their own account is accurate, that is one messed-up police department.

Fr. Jenkins has conceded that NDSP “could have acted more quickly.” If the accused had been interviewed promptly, would you still criticize what happened? In other words, is the initial delay the principal issue in this case?

No, I’m afraid I see other problems, too. I do not understand why Fr. Jenkins did not act like a priest and respond pastorally rather than legalistically – though I understand perfectly well about privacy concerns, I wanted less FERPA and more Jesus. And the argument that Fr. Jenkins couldn’t get involved since he was the court of last resort for disciplinary matters holds no water given that the only person who did speak to the Seebergs was both involved in the same disciplinary hearings and was a supervisor of the NDPD. As you pointed out in your piece, all he had to do was appoint someone to serve in his place. I also fail to understand the vigorous defense of the delays and the insistence that it would be breaking federal law to talk – right up until the moment they wanted to talk, when FERPA melted into irrelevance and we heard no more about this impediment.

You wrote that the university has adopted a “circle the wagons and blame the victim” approach. As you see it, how has the university blamed the victim?

Perhaps I should amend that, since the university sees itself as the victim. But a large number of the comments and commentary from the Notre Dame community on the subject of Ms. Seeberg do blame her outright.

You wrote that the Seebergs received a “veiled threat” on the basis of the Seeberg attorney’s assertion that “Notre Dame’s general counsel, Marianne Corr, had this message for them: ‘I hope the Seebergs know how bad this could get for them’ if they ever went public.'” This is a serious charge. Has Corr been asked to confirm or deny it?

I have not had the opportunity to ask her, and was told by the school’s spokesman that he would not and could not respond to any such specific questions.

Are you surprised by the relative silence of Notre Dame faculty as regards the Seeberg case? Of female faculty in particular?

I am more surprised by the silence of female students in particular; don’t they put themselves in Lizzy’s shoes?

As your December 27 piece notes, NDSP told the Seebergs they delayed the investigation because a “lot of underage drinking” happens during the first home football weekend. Pointing to Fr. Jenkins’ statement to the South Bend Tribune that “care is more important than speed,” you noted that NDSP’s explanation had “nothing to do with care being more important than speed.” Did you react similarly when the Chicago Tribune reported that in the second case, “Authorities waited [to investigate] because the department was stretched thin by the first home football game of the season”?

Yes, if you’re not investigating at all, then how are you exercising care? I covered police for a couple of years and never heard of a case where police thought it was a better idea to interview the accused later rather than sooner.

As you have noted, the Department of Education is now investigating the university’s response to both cases. How do you think this investigation could benefit the university?

By forcing them to take the issue seriously.

You suggested that the university cannot protect its reputation “without rethinking the way it handles such cases.” A February 22 editorial in the Chicago Tribune argues that the “university should turn complaints over immediately to the St. Joseph County Police Department for investigation instead of presenting its own findings to prosecutors.” Could this be a viable solution to the problems you’ve noted?

Certainly, because there is an inherent conflict of interest in having crimes investigated by police officers who are paid by the school, given that the school has a vested interest in protecting the brand.

Among colleges and universities in Indiana, Notre Dame ranks second only to Indiana University at Bloomington in the number of forced sexual assaults on campus.  Director of NDSP Phillip Johnson has confirmed this. What is your reaction to this statistic?

I want to know why that might be.

How do you think the university might have responded if either victim was a Notre Dame student?

We have no way of knowing.

Do you have any other comments you would like to add?

I’ve always thought so highly of Notre Dame — there’s no institution I’ve been prouder to be associated with over the years — that I think it is my responsibility as part of the community not to look the other way when it falls short. To me, “We are ND” is more than a football cheer; it means we are all part of its body in the same way all Catholics are the Church. What’s happened here is not right, not at all, and both the system that’s in place for investigating allegations and the mindset that we must be in the right because we are ND have to be reexamined, it seems to me, to keep this from happening again. (I’ve read a lot of comments to the effect that if I loved ND I would just keep walking, but that’s not how I see it — and that’s not how I love my church or my country, either, though if it doesn’t always feel like a hug, I get that.)

I too come from an ND family; my dad and both of his brothers went there. My husband and I have twins, a son and a daughter, who are 15 now, and we have talked about sexual assault a lot more than we might have as a result of my stories on Lizzy. As I said in one of my stories, all of us and all human institutions are flawed and make mistakes, but it’s the denial and refusal to learn that worry me most. The next time this happens, how long will they wait? Has this experience changed a single thing about how they respond? If yes, what? And if not, then that’s what’s damning.

Contact Gabby at gspeach19-at-gmail.com.