CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Advocates for sexual-assault victims say Rolling Stone’s backpedaling from an explosive account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia doesn’t change the fact that rape is a problem on college campuses and must be confronted — even as some expressed concern that the magazine’s apology could discourage victims from coming forward.
Students, state government and education leaders, meanwhile, pledged to continue ongoing efforts to adequately respond to — and prevent — sexual assaults on campus.
Rolling Stone cast doubt on its story Friday of a gang rape by a woman it identified only as “Jackie,” saying it has since learned of “discrepancies” in her account.
“Our trust in her was misplaced,” the magazine’s editor, Will Dana, wrote in a signed apology.
The lengthy article published last month used Jackie’s case as an example of what it called a culture of sexual violence hiding in plain sight at U.Va.
Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security On Campus, said groups who work in the area will be concerned about a “chilling effect” Rolling Stone’s apology could have on sexual-assault victims reporting the crimes.
But she said the magazine’s announcement Friday “doesn’t change the facts: Sexual assault on campus is drastically underreported and false reports are incredibly rare.”
Emily Renda, U.Va.’s project coordinator for sexual misconduct, policy and prevention, and a member of the governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence, said she didn’t question Jackie’s credibility because that wasn’t her role. Renda knows Jackie and also was interviewed for the Rolling Stone article.
“Rolling Stone played adjudicator, investigator and advocate — and did a slipshod job at that,” added Renda, a May graduate who said she was raped her freshman year at the school. “As a result Jackie suffers, the young men in Phi Kappa Psi suffered, and survivors everywhere can unfairly be called into question.”
Karen Chase, an English professor at U.Va. and Jackie’s faculty adviser, said that she doesn’t believe Jackie would knowingly say something that wasn’t true.
“Jackie is a lovely person who never sought and who thoroughly disdains publicity or sensation,” Chase said. “She spoke in good faith, and she deserves respect.”
She added that regardless of whether there were incorrect details in the student’s account, “We don’t need Jackie’s story to substantiate the problem of rape on this, or any other campus.”
Victoria Olwell, one of the organizers of a protest rally on campus after the magazine story came out, said that it was Rolling Stone’s credibility that was damaged.
“Actually, campus activists have been disputing one aspect of the story all along,” which was the magazine’s “depiction of them as quiescent,” she said. “I think that we’ve seen in the last two weeks how effective we can be in mobilizing students, staff, faculty, and the administration to prevent sexual assault and penalize it more severely.”
Rolling Stone said that because Jackie’s story was sensitive, the magazine honored her request not to contact the men who she claimed organized and participated in the attack. That prompted criticism from other news organizations.
“We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” the magazine’s statement said. “We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”
The statement Rolling Stone posted on its website said discrepancies in the woman’s account became apparent “in the face of new information,” but provided no details about what facts might be in question.
That wasn’t enough for some.
“It is deeply troubling that Rolling Stone magazine is now publicly walking away from its central storyline in its bombshell report on the University of Virginia without correcting what errors its editors believe were made,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement.
The original story noted that a dangerous mix of alcohol, date-rape drugs and forced sex at fraternity parties is by no means unique to any one U.S. university. In fact, U.Va. is one of 90 schools facing Title IX sexual-violence investigations from the Education Department, a list that includes four others in Virginia: the College of William and Mary; James Madison University; the University of Richmond; and Virginia Military Institute.
But U.Va was roiled by the article, whose main allegation was that too many people at the university put protecting the school’s image and their own reputations above seeking justice for sex crimes. The story prompted protests, classroom debates, formal investigations and a suspension of fraternity activities.
Phi Kappa Psi, where the gang rape allegedly occurred on Sept. 28, 2012, was attacked after the article was published, with cinderblocks thrown through the fraternity house’s windows.
The fraternity issued its own statement disputing the account of Jackie, who described being led upstairs by her date, who then allegedly orchestrated her gang-rape by seven men as he and another watched.
“No ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process,” the statement said. “This notion is vile, and we vehemently” dispute the claim. “We continue to be shocked by the allegations and saddened by this story. We have no knowledge of these alleged acts being committed at our house or by our members. Anyone who commits any form of sexual assault, wherever or whenever, should be identified and brought to justice.”
College officials and state leaders said Friday’s developments would not stop ongoing efforts to respond to — and prevent — sexual assaults on campus.
Over the past two weeks, the college community “has been more focused than ever” on the issue, U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan said Friday in a statement.
“Today’s news must not alter this focus,” Sullivan said.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s spokeswoman, Rachel Thomas, said the governor has asked for an investigation while continuing to work with state and educational leaders “to ensure that Virginia’s college campuses are leaders in prevention, response, and awareness efforts.”
Some state lawmakers proposed legislation requiring university officials to report sex assault allegations to the criminal justice system, rather than try to handle cases themselves. Another proposed requiring campus police to report assaults to local prosecutors within 48 hours.
Sullivan asked Charlottesville police to investigate the alleged gang rape. The police inquiry continued Friday.
A vigil organized by high school students in support of sexual-assault victims prior to Rolling Stone’s announcement took place as planned on the U.Va. campus Friday evening, with several dozen high school and college students in attendance.
Frommer reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Greg Schreier in Atlanta contributed to this report.