Students at all-girls school protest ‘rape culture’ on campus

Students at the 96.6 percent female St. Catherine University (SCU) protested twice within a week against a rape culture they say is present at their Catholic-affiliated Minnesota school.

The controversy began on June 10, The Star Tribune reports, when students held a demonstration against rape culture during a women’s leadership conference on campus, demanding that SCU cut ties with Heartland Circle, the training company running the conference.

The son of Heartland Circle’s owners was jailed last year for raping the protest leader, and students took issue with his parents organizing a letter writing campaign in his support during the trial, making comparisons between him and a swimmer at Stanford University who was also recently convicted of rape, and whose parents similarly defended him.

In response to the protest, the university released a statement expressing support for concerned students, but one sentence near the end of the message would prove controversial, triggering a second round of protests.

“Our St. Catherine values of compassion and mercy must extend first, of course, to the victim and her family, but also to the family of the offender and even to the offender himself,” the sentence reads.

Some students took issue with the clause “and even to the offender himself,” believing the university was dismissive of the problem of rape in general.

The protesters built a Facebook event page and issued a mission statement, calling for the university to cut ties with Heartland Circle and form a joint student/staff task force to fight rape culture on campus. A second protest was also planned for 5:00 p.m. on Monday.

University president Sister Andrea Lee released a message around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, just ahead of the second protest, attempting to clarify the school’s meaning, saying the reference to Christian virtues of compassion and mercy in the first statement may have been misinterpreted by students as acceptance of the rapist’s actions.

“I regret—and I take personal responsibility for this—that our statement was interpreted in a way we did not intend, leading some to conclude that St. Catherine, in any way, condones or excuses the actions of a rapist,” she offered, adding, “We do not. I do not.”

Lee also promised that the university administration would be responsive to the needs of students, emphatically declaring the school’s “unequivocal commitment” to stand in solidarity with victims of sexual assault.

“Of this I am sure, St. Catherine University will never abandon its commitment to create safe and inclusive environments for all,” she wrote. “Most importantly, our students deserve and will have a safe and embracing home during their years of study, as well as the opportunity to engage with University leaders, now and in the future, about what matters most to our community.”

Protesters responded to the apology on Facebook at 5:00 p.m. by announcing the immediate start of their second protest and posting an official reply to Lee’s letter.

“On Friday, June 10th a group of survivors held a protest on St. Catherine’s [sic] University property in response to the fact that the University has a working relationship with an organization that has publicly rallied around a local rapist and supported him and therefor [sic] this organization, run by the rapist[‘]s family, has actively worked to silence and invalidate the survivor,” the group’s statement began.

The protesters then outlined their belief that working with Heartland Circle is incompatible with the values of SCU.

“While it is a great first step to have suspended their relationship with Heartland Circles, we do not believe it is appropriate for SCU to be working with them at this time,” the protesters wrote. “As we embark on this difficult journey of fighting rape culture at SCU we need to be very conscious of the kind[s] of organizations we are bringing into our space, and the actions of Heartland Circle over the past year do not match the goals we have to end rape culture.”

Students and alumni posted images from the June 13 protest on the Facebook page.

One video shows about three dozen protesters linking arms and shouting “What do we want? End rape culture. When do we want it? Now!” A radio program run by SCU students also posted a recording of the chant on Tumblr.

Protesters held homemade signs with messages like “Rape Culture Is Here,” “Stop Raping Us!” and “St. Kate’s Can Do Better.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @RiersonNC

This post has been amended since its initial publication.