Advocates for sexual assault victims at Liberty University announced Thursday that the school’s president, Jerry Prevo, agreed to ask the evangelical Christian institution’s board of trustees Friday to approve an independent investigation into the school’s handling of assault cases.
The announcement — which initially stated the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, campus pastor, had promised the investigation — came at a Lynchburg, Virginia, news conference ahead of a planned Thursday evening “rally/prayer event” on the school’s campus.
Mr. Prevo assured students at a convocation earlier this week that Liberty would address concerns openly and thoroughly.
“I can tell you this, we’re not going to try to cover up anything, we’re going to look back, have that investigated. And also, if we’ve done wrong, we’re going to correct that wrong the best we can. I’m not here to cover up,” he told students.
Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University English professor who left the school last year is part of the group calling for reforms at the school. Liberty, she said at the press conference, would “cease to be God’s University when the interests of the institution are put before the stewardship of souls.”
Attorney and former gymnast Rachel Denhollander, who was the first assault victim of Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar to come forward, also spoke. Though not a Liberty alumna, Ms. Denhollander, a popular evangelical author and speaker, has been active in supporting the “Jane Doe” students who’ve reported sexual abuse at the school.
“What is taking place today is not an attempt at dismantling this institution, but rather is coming with the hope that this institution will stay true to its core values,” Ms. Denhollander said.
The Thursday news conference, streamed online via Facebook and broadcast live by at least one local television station in the central Virginia city, was billed as a prelude to the on-campus event promised by organizers of “Save71,” a group of Liberty students and alumni, and “Justice for Janes,” a group that says it supports the 22 plaintiffs involved in a class-action suit against the university.
In advance of the event, there had been some question whether Liberty, which considers its campus private property and has restricted access to other activists such as the evangelical group Soulforce, would permit an on-campus demonstration. The school previously said no application for an on-campus event had been made or approved.
On Thursday afternoon, the school released a letter for prospective rally participants that said in part, “We sincerely welcome your intercession for our community, and there are places where you can meet adjacent to the campus that do not require approval from Liberty University.”
The school added, “Just let us know where you would like to go and it would be our sincere pleasure to provide you also with some refreshment to enjoy while you meet there.”
Video from the Save71 Facebook page indicated a gathering did take place. Mr. Prevo was seen speaking with a local ABC TV affiliate at the event.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Rev. Jonathan Falwell merely relayed information from Liberty University president Jerry Prevo about the proposed independent investigation. A statement at the Save71 group’s news conference omitted Mr. Prevo’s involvement. This story also now includes Rev. Falwell’s title, campus pastor.