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Amid rape furor, consider due process

Chris Powell

Publication: The Day

Published October 29. 2013 4:00AM

Connecticut shouldn't be stampeded by the ritual and politically correct indignation being whipped up by complaints that rape accusations by seven students were mishandled by the University of Connecticut. The complaints, filed with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, should get simple due process of law - from the federal government, the university, state officials, and news organizations.

The implication of the indignation is that all accusations of sexual assault are valid and provable, when of course they are not. Some such accusations are completely false. Some, especially in the college environment, where raw passions collide with tender feelings, arise more from resentment and regret than from any violation of criminal law. And even the most truthful accusation against the most contemptible predator may be unable to disprove a lie.

UConn President Susan Herbst seems to have been too quick to insist that the university handled the seven cases properly. She couldn't really have known, since all the details of the complaint to the federal government have not been made public. But Herbst's offer to undertake a public review of the cases if the accusers consent to disclosure of their files confirmed the university's good intentions.

Of course if the accusers really want a public review, they can always bring suit in court against the people they accuse and against the university itself and let everything come out there. That would be much more comprehensive and illuminating than asking a federal agency to undertake what almost certainly will be a secret investigation. While some of the accusers bravely identified themselves when their complaint was announced, there is not yet such a lawsuit.

Most of if not all the sexual assault complaints may have been impugned from the start by the failure of the accusers to make them directly and promptly to the police. Timeliness is everything with physical evidence in rape cases, and delay inevitably raises suspicion that emotional developments are distorting events.

As some observers have suggested, maybe rape complaints on college campuses should be investigated by state police rather than college police, but that is hardly the problem when no complaints to police are made at all.

More importantly, it must be asked, as was quickly done by the General Assembly's Republican minority leaders, state Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield and Rep. Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk, why UConn handles sexual assault accusations through a student disciplinary system quite apart from police investigation and why such accusations are not just automatically forwarded to the police for them to handle exclusively.

For sexual assault is a crime, not a student disciplinary infraction, and the university is not part of the criminal-justice system and is hardly more competent to judge intimate relationships between students. Indeed, such administrative reviews seem like the work of a sort of Office of Broken Hearts, a mechanism by which aggrieved students can get the university to scold the worst cads without requiring the aggrieved to take full legal responsibility for their accusations, a mechanism for smoothing over cases that probably would not sustain criminal prosecution.

There's enough here for legislative committees to call an informational hearing about UConn's procedures and the procedures of all state universities for handling sexual assault complaints. But while Governor Malloy says he wants assurance from UConn that sexual assault victims are treated with "the utmost respect," will anyone in authority in Connecticut ever respect them enough - and respect the public enough - to stop patronizing them and instead start explaining the distinction between victims and accusers and the supremacy of due process of law?

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