I've spent a career prosecuting sexual assault crimes, and I don't know what more Elizabeth Seeberg could have done.
A freshman at St. Mary's, a sister school to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, she reported a sexual assault by a ND football player the day after the incident, and followed through with everything asked of her by law enforcement and supportive professionals. Ten days later she was dead, an apparent suicide.
It couldn't have been easy for Elizabeth, who went by Lizzy, to make that report. Reporting sexual assault is a remarkably difficult act. It is deeply emotional, terrifying for many reasons, unpredictable and often thankless. But Lizzy Seeberg did report an attack, quickly and comprehensively. Her courage in doing so is awe-inspiring.
For Lizzy in particular, it must have been daunting. A 19-year-old college freshman struggling with depression, she had just started studies again after a difficult first year. She arrived at St Mary's, an excellent, close-knit school in the heartland of Catholic education, with dreams of becoming a nurse. Coming from a strong Catholic background, this achievement must have been a hard-won joy indeed.
But it must have also made it infinitely more difficult for her come forward and report what she told police happened on the night of August 31. Being sexually assaulted (as Ms. Seeberg reported) by a football player at a place like Notre Dame -- where football is the very beating heart of the school -- is an act that would have silenced most. Few things would be more difficult to come to terms with than being attacked in a dorm room by a football player on one of the most venerated sports campuses in the world. The idea of telling anyone would be horrific. Lizzy was just settling into a new school, a new semester, and a new season of hope.
Regardless, she faced down her fears and took action. She told her friends and wrote down what she alleged happened that very night. She went to campus police the next day. Despite reasonable fears of the social repercussions she might face for reporting against a football player, she held her ground. Despite the discomfort of an invasive physical examination, she endured one. Despite the exhaustive work of counseling in order to recover from her attack, she entered that, too. She did everything that could possibly have been asked of her.
That's why I'm trying to understand why Notre Dame, the world-class institution where she reported being attacked, has reacted the way it has. Why, for instance, did ND campus police wait more than 10 weeks -- only after the Chicago Tribune began to demand answers -- to turn a file over to the St. Joseph's County District Attorney's Office, the prosecutorial authority that actually has a Special Victims Unit? And what's behind the school's refusal to release police records about this incident, even to Lizzy's parents? Police records are an exception to privacy laws that guard educational records.
Finally, and most disturbingly, I don't know why the man Lizzy reported against has played an entire season of football. While it's true that he is and should be considered innocent until proven otherwise, his privilege to play football isn't in any way related to his legal rights as a citizen. The fact is, a young woman reported swiftly and completely a serious crime to the proper authorities that control this man's ability to play football, and she followed through with evidence collection, counseling and cooperation. But ND has yet to even acknowledge her complaint, let alone bar him from playing at least until the investigation is completed. Coach Brian Kelly won't state whether he's even spoken to the accused player about the incident. He's stated he stresses respect for women in his program, that he's a father himself, and wants "the right kind of guys" on his team. Well, the player hasn't been benched in three months; from this we can fairly deduce that Coach Kelly supports him as someone worthy of wearing the uniform. If that's so, why won't he give his reasons?
Sadly, there's an ocean of ignorance out there regarding cases like Lizzy Seeberg's. Some are repeating over and over again the meaningless mantra that that we must all "Remember Duke Lacrosse." This is because of the persistent but fatuous myth that women regularly accuse men falsely of sexual assault, especially athletes. They're happy to extrapolate one example of a false accusation to every possible situation despite the mountain of evidence suggesting that women just like Lizzy endure sexual violence day in and day out, usually in numbed silence.
Even worse, some just don't think sexual assault is nearly as important as college athletics, and they'll sacrifice the vindication of a budding, brilliant life like hers in a flurry of nonsense that will trivialize her suffering and ruthlessly twist reality. They'll call it regret. They'll call it a misunderstanding. They'll call it anything but what it is. So even the prompt, thorough complaint Lizzy Seeberg made and the investigation she participated in until her death wasn't enough to bench a football player for a few games until some evidence came to light, one way or another.
Lizzy was well served by some, especially the rape crisis center known as St. Mary's Belles Against Violence (BAVO). A heroic staff member who went to check on her after she missed an appointment discovered her close to death and alerted emergency services. Lizzy remained a ND fan despite what she said happened to her, donning a school sweatshirt for their first game just days after she reported the attack. I only wish this great school would show her the same unending dedication.
I'm sorry I didn't know Lizzy Seeberg in this life. I would have been honored to work with her to see the case against her alleged attacker proven. I would have had much to go on, given the dedication she showed to pursuing justice and the courage she summoned to do what most of us wouldn't have dared. I thank her for that courage, and I wish her peace.