RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Twelve women filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Liberty University, accusing the Christian institution of a pattern of mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment, and fostering an unsafe campus environment.
The federal lawsuit filed in New York made various claims under Title IX, the federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education.
The lawsuit alleged that Liberty’s strict honor code makes it “difficult or impossible” for students to report sexual violence. It said the university had a “tacit policy” of weighting investigations in favor of accused male students, and it said the university retaliated against women who did make such reports.
“Liberty University has intentionally created a campus environment where sexual assaults and rapes are foreseeably more likely to occur than they would in the absence of Liberty’s policies,” the lawsuit said.
The Lynchburg, Virginia, university said in a statement that the allegations were “deeply troubling.”
“We will immediately look into each of these claims to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true,” the statement said.
The women all filed suit anonymously and are identified as Jane Doe 1-12, now living in states across the country. Their allegations span over two decades.
One of the plaintiffs, Jane Doe 2, said in the lawsuit that after she was raped by three men on campus in February 2005, the university failed to undertake a Title IX investigation or to make changes she requested to improve the safety of the tunnel where she was attacked.
Plaintiff Jane Doe 12 alleged that when she was attending a summer camp at Liberty in 2000 as a 15-year-old she was attacked and groped by a man she later learned was Jesse Matthew. Matthew is serving multiple life sentences for the abduction and killing of two college students, 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington and 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.
The lawsuit said Jane Doe 12 fought off Matthew as he attempted to strangle her, and that police were summoned and apprehended Matthew.
The woman described undergoing an “hours-long interrogation,” during which she said police accused her of fabricating her story and at least one officer asked Matthew, a football player, for an autograph. According to the lawsuit, police refused to take her to a hospital and instead insisted on taking “comprehensive” photos of her naked body as part of an ostensible investigation.
The lawsuit said that to the best of the woman's knowledge, no charges were ever brought against Matthew - who it notes was accused of rape by another Liberty student - as a result of her report.
Doug Ramseur, an attorney who represented Matthew, wrote in an email Tuesday that “on behalf of Mr. Matthew and his family, we have no comment on these allegations.”
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit describe being raped or sexually harassed and having their cases mishandled or effectively ignored. One woman alleged pregnancy discrimination.
The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified judgment in an amount to be determined at a jury trial.
The lawsuit comes at a time when Liberty is continuing to deal with the fallout from last year's acrimonious split with longtime previous president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who left amid a series of personal scandals. Liberty is involved in ongoing litigation with him, and an outside investigation of his tenure by a forensic accounting firm is underway.