Liberty University is being investigated by federal officials in the wake of a long list of claims that the school mishandled sexual assault allegations.
The investigation was prompted by a ProPublica report last year that revealed how the Christian institution in Lynchburg, Virginia, which was founded by now ousted president and evangelist Jerry Falwell, discouraged students who tried to report being sexually assaulted.
Some students were told they had broken Liberty’s moral code of conduct, ‘The Liberty Way’ and others were encouraged to pray instead of reporting their cases.
A lawsuit filed by 12 women last October amplified ongoing concerns, which accused the private school of a pattern of mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment, and fostering an unsafe campus environment.
Chelsea Andrews and Heather Wendel, who were originally known as ‘Jane Doe 7’ and ‘Jane Doe 13’ in the lawsuit, recently told Inside Edition that they were both raped and penalized or blamed for what happened by administrators when they tried to report it.
Last week, the most recent lawsuit was filed by an unnamed former Liberty University student who claimed she was raped by a fellow student, ProPublica reported.
She alleges that when she reported the assault, she was penalized by the school for violating ‘The Liberty Way,’ because she had been at a party where alcohol was consumed.
The former student claimed her report was mishandled and the university failed to put protective measures in place while her alleged rapist was allowed to remain on campus. Her attorney said she lived in fear, and she eventually left the school.
Following the initial lawsuit by the 12 women last fall, Virginia’s U.S. senators called for a federal investigation into how the university handles claims of sexual misconduct.
The investigation comes at a time when Liberty continues to deal with the fallout from the acrimonious split with longtime previous president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who left in 2020 amid a series of personal scandals.
Students who tried to make reports were told they violated the ‘Liberty Way,’ the school’s code that penalizes pre-marital sex. Chelsea Andrews and Heather Wendel, who were originally known as ‘Jane Doe 7’ and ‘Jane Doe 13’ in the lawsuit, recently told Inside Edition that they were both raped and penalized or blamed for what happened by administrators when they tried to report it
On Wednesday, the most recent lawsuit was filed by an unnamed former Liberty University student who claimed she was raped by a fellow Liberty student, ProPublica reported
Last year, Jerry Falwell Jr. stepped down as president of the university in the midst of a personal sex scandal
Liberty acknowledged the investigation in a statement released on Friday.
‘Liberty University welcomes the U.S. Department of Education’s review of our Clery Act compliance program,’ a spokesperson wrote in an email to ProPublica.
‘We have pledged our full cooperation and look forward to the opportunity to strengthen and enhance our program through this assessment process. We have also committed to work collaboratively with the Department to address any potential compliance gaps identified through the review.’
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said that he’s ‘glad the Department of Education is investigating Liberty’s handling of sexual assault.’
‘I hope the Department looks into it thoroughly. As I’ve said, any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong. Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously.’
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said he also welcomes the federal investigation.
‘I’m disturbed by the allegations against Liberty University of mishandled reports of sexual assault,’ including the recent complaint, Warner said in a statement.
‘For the last several months, I’ve been calling for accountability and action. I commend the Department of Education for launching an investigation into whether Liberty University violated its legal and moral obligation to protect victims of assault.’
Liberty University is being investigated by federal officials in the wake of a long list of claims that the school mishandled sexual assault allegations
Some students were told they had broken Liberty’s moral code of conduct, ‘ The Liberty Way’ and others were encouraged to pray instead of reporting their cases
Women who attended Liberty University and reported rapes or sexual assaults were punished for admitting they consumed alcohol and fraternized with the opposite sex, a report claims
Women who attended the university and reported rapes or sexual assaults were punished for admitting they consumed alcohol and fraternized with the opposite sex, according to ProPublica.
The ‘Liberty Way’ prohibits students from ‘being in any state of undress with a member of the opposite sex.’
‘The goal of The Liberty Way (Student Honor Code) is to encourage and instruct our students how to love God through a life of service to others,’ the code says.
‘The way we treat each other in our community is a direct reflection of our love of God.’
When it comes to pre-marital sex, the Liberty Way states: ‘Sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University.’
When speaking to Inside Edition, Andrews and Heather – ‘Jane Doe 7’ and ‘Jane Doe 13’ – said that they were both raped and penalized or blamed for what happened by administrators when they tried to report it.
Andrews recalled having one glass of wine at an off-campus house before she was assaulted and she feared that she would be held in violation of the Liberty Way for reporting it. ‘I thought, I’m gonna get in trouble. If I reported it, I was gonna get punished,’ she said.
Andrews continued: ‘The punishment for drinking was the equivalent of the punishment of raping somebody, consuming alcohol in their minds is equivalent to destroying someone’s life.’
Liberty University allegedly tries to suppress sexual assault victims from going to the police and blocked comments about it on social media. Above are Chelsea Andrews (left) and Heather Wendel, two of the victims who have since been speaking out about their experiences
Wendel agreed and said: ‘I think 100% the Liberty Way has been weaponized against women on campus. Nothing is set up to help us. Everything is set up to make us not speak and to tell us that our experience is invalid.’
Another student, who declined to be named, told ProPublica that she reported being raped to school authorities and was allegedly fined $500 for drinking alcohol and ordered to attend counseling. She was reportedly also told her transcript wouldn’t be released until she paid the penalty.
Elizabeth Axley, another student, told ProPublica that she was raped during her freshman year at the school in 2017. During a Halloween party at an off-campus location, she drank eight shots of vodka as well as a couple of mixed drinks.
Axley said that she then remembers waking up with another student on top of her and his hand against her mouth. She then returned to the dorm and called the campus police department to report the incident.
After being driven to the local hospital, a nurse documented 15 bruises, welts, and lacerations on her arm, face, and torso. When she returned to the dorm on Sunday morning, Axley told her resident adviser what had happened.
According to Axley, the RA told her not to report it for fear that she would be punished for violating the student code of conduct. Instead, the RA said that Axley should pray.
‘I was really confused,’ Axley said. ‘They were making it seem like I had done something wrong … I didn’t want to get fined or punished, but I wasn’t going to let this keep me from reporting my assault.’
Axley then approached the school’s equity office, which is responsible for investigating claims of sexual discrimination.
Under Title IX, the civil rights law, schools that engage in sex discrimination would not be entitled to federal funding. Axley had photos of her bruises and text messages from friends who saw the alleged rapist being ‘all over you.’
‘He was just super handsy and he has his face all over you and stuff like that,’ a friend of Axley, Logan Pratt, texted her on the morning after the party.
According to Axley, the lead investigator at the equity office, Elysa Bucci, hardly took an interest in her claims.
Instead, Bucci questioned Axley about why she had gone to the party, what she had to drink, and how much she drank, according to ProPublica.
‘I immediately felt judged,’ Axley said.
Diane Stargel, a former student, alleged that she was raped by another student at a party off-campus in 2013. When she told a counselor what happened, the counselor informed her that she needed to sign a ‘victim notice’ that warned of possible penalties due to violations of the Liberty Way
It reportedly took five months for the university to inform Axley that it completed the investigation into her claims and, when she was handed her file, the photos that she took of her injuries were gone.
When Axley asked what happened to the photos, Bucci said the pictures were removed because they were too ‘explicit.’
‘I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,’ Axley said.
‘I had been relying on them all these months to take my evidence into account when considering my case, and it wasn’t even in my file.’
Several days later, Axley was informed by the university that she needed to sign a document acknowledging that she violated the code of conduct and could be subject to ‘possible disciplinary actions.’
At least two other students said they had to sign a similar document.
Pratt said he gave a statement to the Title IX office that supported Axley’s version of events.
But a few months later, Pratt said he was kicked out of the school for drinking and other Liberty Way violations.
Diane Stargel, a former student, alleged that she was raped by another student at a party off-campus in 2013.
When she told a counselor what happened, the counselor informed her that she needed to sign a ‘victim notice’ that warned of possible penalties due to violations of the Liberty Way.
Stargel decided not to go ahead with the complaint because she feared losing her scholarship if she was found to have violated the code of conduct.
‘I feel like Liberty bullied me into silence after what happened to me,’ said Stargel.
‘I’ve always regretted that I never got my day in court.
‘But at least now I can stand up and say, ‘Yeah, that happened to me’.’
Another former student, Amanda Stevens, reported to the school’s Title IX office that she was raped in April 2015.
Amanda Stevens allegedly reported to the school’s Title IX office that she was raped in April 2015. After filing her report, she was told she could be in violation of the Liberty Way for drinking alcohol, having premarital sex, and being alone with a man on campus
After filing her report, she was told she could be in violation of the Liberty Way for drinking alcohol, having premarital sex, and being alone with a man on campus.
The school conducted an investigation into Stevens’ claims. The investigation found that the alleged assailant was ‘not responsible.’
At least 10 other students told ProPublica that they decided not to report their rapes to school administrators because they feared they would be punished.
In October 2016, Adrianna Rice contacted the school’s Title IX office to report she had been raped by a fellow student.
About a week after the alleged rape, Adrianna Rice and her mother traveled to the campus counseling office. Adrianna wrote on her intake form that it was an ’emergency’ and that she was experiencing ‘suicidal ideation.’
Another former student, Mary Kate McElroy, recalled to ProPublica that she told her track coaches she had been pressured by other students to have sex during her first year at the school and feared she would be penalized for breaking the Liberty Way
But the Rices were turned away because there weren’t any appointments available.
‘They referred me to other Christian counselors in the area,’ Adrianna Rice recalled.
The counseling center also referred her to Bucci’s office. Bucci emailed Rice a list of resources, but law enforcement was not on the list.
Federal law requires that students who report sexual violence be informed that they had the option of going to law enforcement.
‘I was never informed that filing a police report was even an option,’ said Adrianna Rice.
When she asked Bucci to open a formal investigation, Bucci allegedly told her not to speak to anyone about the case, including law enforcement.
‘I felt like a gag order had been placed on me after I had already experienced a trauma,’ Adrianna Rice said.
An investigation by the school found that Rice’s alleged rapist was not responsible even though she says she provided investigators with a text in which the alleged assailant is said to have admitted what he did.
When Rice appealed, she was asked by committee members ‘how and why I had put myself in a situation where this could have happened.’
Committee members asked her questions like ‘What definition of rape are you going off of?’ and ‘What is counted as valid evidence?’
The appeals committee decided to uphold the Title IX office’s original decision by a ‘preponderance of the evidence.’
Rice decided to take the case to police, but she says that the chief of the campus police discouraged her from pursuing the matter.
‘He told me all the details I had written down in my personal statement could be turned against me, and that a jury would likely kill my case,’ she said.
‘He essentially discouraged me from continuing.’
Another former student, Mary Kate McElroy, recalled to ProPublica that she told her track coaches she had been pressured by other students to have sex during her first year at the school.
McElroy said the men were several years older and much larger than she was, adding that she eventually said yes out of fear of ‘what they might do or say if I said no,’ and because she was afraid of being penalized for breaking the Liberty Way.
Title IX requires university officials to report any accusations of sexual violence to a designated Title IX coordinator.
Rebekah Ricksecker, one of the two coaches McElroy spoke to about the incidents, said she regrets not ‘pushing Mary Kate further’ for details about what had happened.
‘Had I thought it was assault, I would have filed a report,’ Ricksecker said. ‘At the time I assumed that her discomfort and embarrassment came from breaking the Liberty Way — now I think maybe there was more to it.’
In 2021, the student-led group Justice for Janes held a rally and prayed for change while the board of trustees met on campus
The school’s sexual assault scandal is not the first time the high-profile university came under fire in recent years.
In 2020, the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr, left his post after it was learned that his wife was having an affair with a pool boy, Giancarlo Granda, who was trying to extort the couple.
Also that year, a former Liberty University student who played in a band with Becki Falwell’s son came forward with claims she performed oral sex on him and pursued him on Facebook for months when he was 22.
Falwell, an attorney and real estate developer, had led Liberty University since the 2007 death of his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who also founded the Moral Majority, the political organization that made evangelical Christians a key force in the Republican party.
In early 2016, Falwell become one of the first conservative Christians to endorse Trump for the presidency, and defended him after Trump’s lewd remarks about women and sexual assault, captured in a 2005 Access Hollywood recording, became public late in the campaign.
Falwell stepped down as head of the university in August 2020, with a probe into his behavior launched.
Falwell stood down as president of Liberty University days after this photo of him emerged. He said he’d been attending a party on a yacht where the theme was the TV show Trailer Park Boys
Becki claimed that in 2017 Granda, pressured her into having sex in her daughter’s Caroline’s bed despite the affair having ended (Pictured: Becki, Jerry and Caroline in Aug. 2018)
Before the Granda scandal exploded, Falwell had already been on leave after he posted a photo on social media that sparked an uproar.
It showed Falwell on a yacht with a drink in his hand and his arm around a young woman, said to be his wife’s pregnant assistant, their pants unzipped and his underwear exposed.
Becki , the wife of Falwell Jr., revealed in a tell-all interview that she used to make sex tapes with her much younger pool boy ex-lover, Giancarlo Granda.
‘I had a big Canon camera. A couple of times I put it on the dresser and Giancarlo agreed to it,’ Becki, 54, told Vanity Fair, alleging her husband did not know she and Granda, 30, had filmed them.
Jerry’s time as president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, came to an end last year after Granda’s revelations about the years-long affair emerged.
Granda claimed that Jerry enjoyed watching him have sex with Becki after they first met in Miami in 2012, when Granda was 21. He even claimed that they formed a ‘throuple’ – a polyamorous couple who invite a third person to join their relationship.
Jerry denied that – but did admit to Vanity Fair that he’d once walked in on Becki and Granda in bed, and claimed to have been ‘traumatized’ by the sight of another man having sex with his spouse.
The Falwells met Giancarlo Granda, pictured in 2020, in 2012 when he was a 21 year-old pool boy. Jerry denies claims he enjoyed watching his wife have sex with the younger man – but has now claimed he once walked in on them together, and was ‘traumatized’ by what he saw
Granda however, alleged that Jerry often enjoyed watching him have sex with his wife, an accusation the fallen televangelist denies. Although, Jerry did recently admit to having walked in on the pair.
‘It was traumatizing,’ he said, recalling how he caught them together in a Miami hotel room in autumn of 2013.
Granda also accused the Falwells of ‘grooming him’ and alleged the three of them were a ‘throuple’ – an assertion the married couple has denied. Furthermore, Granda insists that Jerry watched him and Becki the first time they had intercourse, which occurred in March 2012.
They entered into a business agreement which saw the Falwells support Granda’s hospitality venture. Asked by Vanity Fair why they’d continued to bankroll to the tune of $1.8 million it long after the personal relationship had allegedly soured, Jerry claimed it had been too good a business opportunity to miss.
Jerry, one of the most influential right-wing Christian leaders in the United States, went public about his wife’s infidelity in 2020.
The Falwells were also big supporters of President Trump, and were credited with helping drive important support among Evangelical Christians
He said the couple had chosen to make the affair public as he alleged the pool boy had been blackmailing them for years about keeping the secret.
The Falwells met Granda at the Fontainebleau hotel pool in Miami Beach in March 2012 and were reportedly so impressed with him that they invested in a gay hostel that he and their son ran as managers.
Granda and Becki’s affair allegedly began shortly afterwards and ended in 2014. Becki told the magazine she called things off because Granda had started a serious relationship with a girlfriend.
Jerry claims Granda then devised an extortion plot and demanded $2million to keep the affair secret.
When he took the affair public two years ago, Jerry claimed that the ‘threatening behavior’ left him with ‘trauma’ and had greatly affected him as he tried to run Liberty University.
‘It was like living on a roller coaster,’ Jerry said at the time. ‘While completely dedicating ourselves to Liberty, we were also suffering in silence during our personal time together, while simultaneously trying to manage and deal with this increasingly threatening behavior, which only worsened over time.
‘We were doing our best to respectfully unravel this ‘fatal attraction’ type situation to protect our family and the university.’
He claimed the relationship began when at a time when he was dedicating too much time to the university after being appointed its president following the death of his father in 2007. He said he was not not spending enough time with Becki during that period in his life.
Jerry agreed to step down from his role as Liberty University president in late August 2020, shortly after the affair had come public.
He had been on indefinite leave since August 7 amid a furor over an Instagram picture that showed him with his pants unzipped, drink in hand, and arm around a woman.
Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., right, and his wife, Becki, pictured in 2018
Jerry Falwell Jr. participates in a town hall meeting on the opioid crisis as part of first lady Melania the first lady’s ‘Be Best’ initiative at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in 2019
In wake of the photo, and other sordid reports about his sex life, Jerry agreed to resign. His father, Jerry Falwell Sr. had founded the university.
Jerry Sr, who died in 2003 aged 73, reportedly only became a pastor because of his wife, Macel, who was a devout Baptist. Jerry said his father adopted ‘militant stands against drinking and homosexuality’ to prove to Macel that he could be a ‘conservative Christian’. He also realized there was money to be made in preaching.
‘My dad became a Christian because his mom pushed him in that direction,’ Jerry Jr said. ‘My mother was the only reason my dad became puritanical. He became a different person to build a church and a school.’
Jerry Jr said his dad’s firebrand image was only for show, and that he was much calmer and more relaxed in private.
Dr. Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University, was a Christian pastor and televangelist
The two men grew apart during Jerry’s youth, but became close again in the mid-1990s when Jerry helped save Liberty University from bankruptcy by offering distance learning, with cash pouring in to its coffers as a result.
Jerry Jr and Becki have both been now banned from its campus in the wake of the scandals which led to Jerry’s departure, even though Jerry Sr is buried on its grounds.
Jerry also faced widespread condemnation after tweeting his opposition to mask mandates using a photo of a mask showing a person in KKK robes next to another person wearing blackface.
The former university leader was also one of the first evangelical Christian leaders to endorse former President Donald Trump, who appeared on the campus twice before his 2016 election victory.