Thanks for Nothing, Father Ted

“I didn’t need to talk to the girl. I talked to the boys.”

-Father Theodore Hesburgh

Last summer, I picked up the new Andrea Dworkin essay collection Last Days at Hot Slit (2019) and was surprised to find my alma mater featured.

In a speech Dworkin gave in New York in 1975, titled “The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door,” she describes a gang-rape that happened at Notre Dame in 1974, offering it as one of many examples of how male-founded and male-controlled institutions (such as the university and the justice system) are ultimately loyal to male interests.

“The girl” Hesburgh referenced was an 18-year-old South Bend high school student who was gang raped by six Notre Dame football players in a men’s dormitory on campus.

According to a reporter, the girl had driven immediately to the hospital after this happened, and the police investigator and prosecutor believed her story. And yet, per Dworkin: “All of the male university authorities who investigated the alleged gang rape determined that the victim was a slut. This they did, all of them, by interviewing the accused rapists. . . The coach of the Notre Dame football team placed responsibility for the alleged gang rape on the worsening morals of women who watch soap operas.”

Hesburgh had given the aforementioned excuse to a reporter, Robert Sam Anson, when Anson asked why no one from the university had interviewed the victim during the internal investigation. The university’s official position, after interviewing the six “boys,” was that no rape had taken place. The perpetrators were disciplined not for rape, but for having had sex on campus, which was against the rules. (In fact, it was still against the rules when I was a student at ND from 2012-2016).

The takeaway, then, is that Hesburgh and other Notre Dame administrators believed a story that went like this: six Notre Dame football players had sex with the one 18-year-old high school girl in the same room in one night, and this activity was NOT sexual assault.

(Anson’s article was titled “The Championship Season” and recapped here.)

“Our characters are defamed, as a gender class, so that no individual woman has any credibility before the law or society at large. Our enemies — rapists and their defenders — not only go unpunished; they remain influential arbiters of morality . . . “

Andrea Dworkin

This story, comprising only 2 of the pages in Dworkin’s 400-page collection, lit me with fury. Nearly every day during my four years at Notre Dame, I walked through the student center and passed a prominently displayed picture of Fr. Hesburgh, in his priest’s collar, holding hands and singing with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. He is revered on campus, saint-like in the eyes of many for his courageous civil rights work. Perhaps that is why this barely-reported disregard of an 18-year-old rape victim came as such a blow.

Every ND student/visitor and/or South Bend resident knows this image well. It’s even been enshrined as a statue in downtown South Bend.

At the same time, that response was not surprising to me. This attitude of male-firstness remained alive and well at Notre Dame during my time there. We lived in gender-segregated dorms, and it was well-known that behavioral rules were much stricter in women’s dorms than in men’s. Guys could get away with throwing a raging party with booze and sex and loud music “as long as the door was closed”; girls could not. We girls had to venture into male-dominated spaces to be part of the weekend social scene — either that or watch Disney movies with our rector. As a result, to participate in the campus culture, we left our comfort zones. We were often in a vulnerable position because we were not in control of the spaces or the substances that made up the social scene; and moreover, because we knew the rules would likely be more strictly applied to us than they were to the boys.

“Gender relations” was a much-discussed a structural problem during my time there, and the subject of many an Observer “Viewpoint” column. The system was something we were frustrated by, but not something anyone believed they had the power to change. Allegedly, certain big donors would pull their funding if on-campus housing were ever to be integrated.

Academically and culturally, Hesburgh shaped Notre Dame into what it is today; everyone at the school believes that. He was president of the university for 35 years: from 1952 to 1987. While I was there, Hesburgh was in his last years, but still went to his office on the 14th floor of the Hesburgh library every day. He was mostly blind by then, but still lucid. I knew students who visited him and read him the newspaper. When he died during my junior year, Notre Dame held a massive memorial, with speakers including President Barack Obama. If Notre Dame Football is the House that Rockne built, then the University of Notre Dame is the House that Hesburgh built. And he built it on a foundation where men’s words were true and women’s words were irrelevant.

* * *

During my freshman orientation weekend at Notre Dame in August 2012, all of the women in my new dorm, Ryan Hall, were given a copy of a book called Thanking Father Ted. It’s a hefty book, 400+ pages, with a photo of Hesburgh on the cover. The book’s publisher, a 501(c)(3) called the Thanking Father Ted Foundation, defines their project as follows:

In May 2006, the ND Alumni Association asked a group of us alumnae in Chicago to plan the first ever event for alumnae only. We invited Fr. Ted to be the keynoter because if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have our degrees.

That was also the message I picked up after reading the introduction to the book, and skimming its contents. In essence: But for this man’s legendary generosity, you wouldn’t be here.

Eighteen years old and two days into college, this was the first time I’d heard anything like that. Education for women had been a reality in America for a long time. Both of my grandmothers have undergraduate degrees, and one has a master’s. My Catholic high school in Boise, Idaho had been coed since its founding. Rightly or wrongly – at the time, I did not think that an opportunity to go to college was anything other than my right. I was surprised and confused to receive this message to the contrary right after crossing the threshold.

Father Ted first “allowed” women to enroll at Notre Dame in the fall of 1972. Two years later, when an 18-year-old woman was gang-raped by six football players in an on-campus dorm, Father Ted overrode an internal investigator’s decision to expel the perpetrators out of “compassion.” When I was an undergrad, nearly 40 years later, a one-year academic suspension (and no legal action) was standard punishment for guilty perpetrators in campus sexual assault cases. Thanks, Father Ted!

Over the years, Notre Dame has to national attention again and again for its horrible record on sexual assault cases. The most well-known case was in 2011, when a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted a 19-year-old Saint Mary’s student named Lizzy Seeberg. She reported the assault to the campus police, but was warned by a friend of her attacker that “messing with Notre Dame Football” was “a bad idea.” Seeberg committed suicide 10 days later. (Read that story here and here.)

“Remember, rape is not committed by psychopaths or deviants from our social norms – rape is committed by exemplars of our social norms.”

Andrea Dworkin

Soon after Seeberg’s death, and during my time as a student, small groups of passionate student activists and administrators were at work to make the internal investigation process more just for women and sexual-assault survivors. Many of these women were themselves survivors of campus sexual assault. During my time at Notre Dame, I knew of many stories of rape on campus that happened while I was there, stories that did not gain national attention. In fact, we got a university-wide email every time a sexual assault was reported. These alert emails came with startling regularity.

The activists gained ground slowly, but met a lot of resistance along the way – from boys who gigglingly wrote things like “No means yes, yes means anal” on their dorm-room white boards, to administrators who still hesitated to dish out any penalty greater than a one-year suspension, even in the most heinous cases. (This meant that sexual assault victims, usually women, had to switch schools if they did not want to see their attacker on campus again a year later).

All told, reading Andrea Dworkin’s work in 2019 made me wonder whether, had Hesburgh had used his power and standing as a moral exemplar differently, gender inequality and sexual violence would not have been the prominent issues they were during my time at Notre Dame. Had Hesburgh talked to the girl back in 1974, Notre Dame — and perhaps more universities following in its stead — might have been a different, better, safer place.

4 thoughts on “Thanks for Nothing, Father Ted

  1. Well that’s a brutal quote – “I didn’t need to talk to the girl. I talked to the boys.” I loved your combination of Dworkin remarks, institutional hagiography at ND, and your own personal experience of the school. Your post, so beautifully written and argued, is another reminder that even the people who are held up as exemplars may fail dramatically in important moments and important ways. I fucking loved this essay.

    Liked by 1 person

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