CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Rolling Stone cast doubt Friday on its story of a young woman who said she was gang-raped at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia, 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 focused on a woman it identified only as “Jackie,” using her case as an example of what it called a culture of sexual violence hiding in plain sight at U.Va.
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 article also said 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.
But the campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, was roiled by the article, which 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 main point of the article was that too many people at U.Va. put protecting the school’s image and their own reputations above seeking justice for sex crimes. And many reforms have been proposed since then, including a crackdown on underage drinking.
“Alcohol does not cause rape, but alcohol is often a tool of the predator,” University President Teresa Sullivan warned students this week.
Sullivan asked Charlottesville police to investigate the alleged gang rape. That probe continued Friday as authorities sought to maintain momentum for change despite questions about the story.
“Our purpose is to find the truth in any matter and that’s what we are looking for here,” Charlottesville Police said in an emailed statement. “These articles do not change our focus moving forward.”
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.
Prosecutor Michael Doucette, chairman of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ legislative committee, said police and prosecutors are equipped to support victims and give them the power to decide whether to press charges.
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.
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity issued its own statement refuting the account of Jackie, who described being led upstairs by her date, who then orchestrated her gang-rape by seven men as he and another watched.
According to the Rolling Stone article, the woman said she recognized one attacker as a classmate, who reluctantly sodomized her with a bottle as others egged him on, saying “don’t you want to be a brother?”
The article said Jackie had met her date while they worked at the U.Va. pool, and that she quit her job as a lifeguard there to avoid seeing him thereafter.
But the fraternity said none of its members worked at the university’s Aquatic and Fitness Center in 2012, that it had no social event during the weekend when the woman said the rape took place, and that it doesn’t hold pledging parties until the fall.
“No ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim,” the fraternity statement said. “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.”
Some advocates expressed anger Friday that the magazine blamed the victim, rather than its own journalistic practices — and that efforts to prevent sexual violence could get waylaid as a result.
“It’s an advocate’s job to believe and support, never to play investigator or adjudicator,” said 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.
Renda, who knows Jackie and also was interviewed for the Rolling Stone article, said “I didn’t and don’t question Jackie’s credibility because that is not my role. Rolling Stone played adjudicator, investigator and advocate — and did a slipshod job at that.”
Renda, a May graduate who said she was raped her freshman year at the school, added in a statement that as a result of this, “Jackie suffers, the young men in Phi Kappa Psi suffered, and survivors everywhere can unfairly be called into question.
“We still have to build a culture of support and reporting so that justice can be done right and survivors can find healing. Rolling Stone has run roughshod over years of advocacy, over fairness and justice, and ultimately, over Jackie.”
Even before Friday’s apology, some students said they found it hard to believe Jackie’s characterization of the response of her friends, whom she said discouraged her from reporting the crime. “She’s gonna be the girl who cried `rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again,” one friend said, according to the story.
“That was unbelievable,” Devon Navon, a first-year student from Los Angeles, said last week. “Anyone I’ve met wouldn’t do that.”
“I couldn’t comprehend that behavior,” said Grant Fowler, a second-year student from Burke, Virginia. “No one I know would do that. I couldn’t understand how you could care so little about a person you call a friend.”
Fowler said he found the story to be an exaggerated portrayal of the campus.
“The student body is not the Greek scene,” he said last week. “The student body is supportive of victims. The student body is not as harsh as portrayed by the article.”
Frommer reported from Washington and Greg Schreier contributed from Atlanta.
(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)