Student Threatened With Rape for Promoting Marriage at Providence College
Critics say the Title IX investigation now underway at the Catholic university is linked to the administration’s failures to make a clear stand for Catholic teaching.
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A Title IX investigation is now underway at the Dominican-run Providence College in Rhode Island after a Catholic student-employee received a rape threat for displaying a poster articulating the Church’s teaching about marriage.
The college’s administration has drawn fire for not clearly defending Catholic teaching and not promptly addressing the campus hostility that exploded against Michael Smalanskas, a senior and resident assistant at Providence, after he put up a poster display March 1 on his bulletin board in St. Joseph’s Hall.
Smalanskas’ saga began March 1, when he displayed a placard, entitled “Marriage: The Way God Intended It, One Man, One Woman.”
Smalanskas said he was required as an RA to post an informative poster every month and had a record of posting Church teaching. He said an earlier pro-life poster elicited little negative reaction, and he expected a similar response to his marriage poster — not a massive hostile response from fellow RAs and students, who mobbed his hall and tore it down.
At various points in the month, he said, campus security moved him to different locations because they no longer felt the situation was safe. On March 14, the hostility escalated to the point that campus security discovered a crudely drawn cartoon of him being sodomized by a male student in his hall’s bathroom.
Within a few hours, Smalanskas read an email sent at 6:40pm to all students by the Office of Residence Life. The message from Kristine Cyr Goodwin, the college’s vice president for student affairs, did not mention the rape threat against Smalanskas.
Instead, the letter had an admonition to “treat each other with respect at all times,” implied the Church’s teaching on marriage was taken out of context by his poster, and concluded with an invitation for students to join a March 21 “March Against Homophobia and Transphobia,” organized by a student club in response to Smalanskas’ poster.
“You have a student being threatened with rape and then you encourage students to go protest against him,” Smalanskas told the Register. “It’s pretty messed up.”
Smalanskas said that before the rape cartoon’s discovery, he and his faculty adviser, theology professor James Keating, met with Goodwin and the university’s vice president for mission and ministry, Dominican Father R. Gabriel Pivarnik, accompanied by the college’s legal counsel, Gail Dyer.
Smalanskas and Keating requested that the administration do “three simple things”: denounce the harassment being directed against Smalanskas, affirm the contents of the board were consistent with the college’s mission, and protect his freedom of speech and expression, as they had for other students. But the administrative officials declined, according to Smalanskas.
“I’m convinced this was at least partially preventable, if they had come out earlier and said, ‘Stop behaving this way or else you’ll be held accountable,’ and they didn’t,” he said.
Smalanskas told the Register that the Office of Public Safety has begun a Title IX investigation to find out who posted the cartoon in Smalanskas’ bathroom.
Title IX is an anti-sexual discrimination statute that applies to educational institutions that receive federal funds and requires them to address allegations of sexual violence against students.
Smalanskas, a double major in theology and philosophy who graduates in May, added the Title IX investigation will also examine the administration’s response to the risks to his safety and harassment from co-workers.
College Roiled by Debate
Keating told the Register that the administration’s unwillingness to condemn the hostility directed at Smalanskas and reaffirm the Church’s teaching from the outset allowed the situation to spiral out of control.
Keating, who has handled Title IX cases in the past, said the lackluster response to the threat of violence against Smalanskas was unexpected and a clear double standard. If the victim of the rape cartoon were instead a woman campaigning for “Dreamers” to have legal protections, Keating said the campus would have effectively shut down immediately.
“I did think they would react differently,” he said.
Dominican Father Brian Shanley, the president of Providence, issued two responses to the college community, dated March 19 and March 26.
Father Shanley’s first response did not mention the rape threat. It asked the campus to “explore our differences dialogically with mutual respect and charity” and address issues of marriage and sexuality “in the spirit of the disputed question.”
Only in the March 26 letter — in the midst of public scrutiny and 12 days after the discovery of the rape cartoon — did Father Shanley unequivocally condemn the sex-based violence threatened against Smalanskas as “odious and reprehensible” in a campuswide email. He said he was also “distressed by the way Michael Smalanskas has been vilified and ostracized by many of his peers.”
While the college president’s second communiqué forcefully denounced the hostility directed against Smalanskas and insisted that Providence College “always has, and always will, remain faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” it refrained from directly endorsing how the student-employee communicated the Church’s teachings on marriage. “While some might not agree with how he tried to express Church teaching, he is entitled to the same respect, charity and protection that is due any student,” Father Shanley wrote.
With regard to the rape cartoon, Father Shanley confirmed the police were notified, the Office of Public Safety is investigating, and invited people with information to come forward.
The university declined to comment to the Register, other than providing the president’s March 26 message. Spokesman Steven Maurano said in an email, “At this juncture, the incident is under investigation and the college will not comment while the investigation is ongoing.”
Keating said Smalanskas’ treatment is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the college’s failure to form students in a sound Catholic understanding of social diversity and inclusivity.
As he sees it, the administration instead frames Catholic teaching and a “welcoming, inclusive atmosphere” as being in opposition. Consequently, he said, “tribal [sexual-identity] politics” based on power dynamics, not objective moral norms, have been allowed to entrench themselves at Providence.
The most alarming aspect, Keating added, is many “decent” students are convinced that a difference of belief with their own opinions is an attack on their personal existence and that persons who do so, such as Smalanskas, should be punished by the college.
“The college is beholden to those students and not Catholic students like Michael,” he said.
Anthony Esolen — who left his tenured position at Providence College a year ago for a position at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, after becoming embroiled in a controversy following his delivering of a critique on modern notions of diversity — told the Register that many students are “very wounded people” who fall back on politics for guidance, which involves pitting groups against each other with “political hatreds and political fears.”
“They do not have a strong sense of where our dignity comes from,” he said.
Esolen, however, said Providence College is an institution with many strengths that can be saved if the “disgraceful” administration is replaced and rigorous vetting for hires reinstated. He said the theology department is “solid top to bottom” and that the young Dominican campus chaplains “are terrific.”
On March 19, the chaplains criticized the violent reaction to Smalanskas’ poster and affirmed Church teaching in an email to students. They stated that the Church teaches sexual complementarity is essential to marriage and also condemns homophobia as an offense against the dignity of the human person.
“Understanding the Church’s teaching is essential for moving forward in charity, and so we invite everyone to study this teaching,” they said.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence wrote a March 21 letter to Smalanskas, in which he said, “It is truly unfortunate that, in explaining our faith, you have received such a negative and even reprehensible response, particularly at a Catholic college, one that is publicly committed to professing Catholic and Dominican values.”
While Bishop Tobin emphatically confirmed that Father Shanley “continues to have my personal support,” he added that the college itself seemed at a “crossroads.”
Asked the bishop, “Will it continue to be P.C. — the Providence College we’ve come to know and love; or simply be p.c. — politically correct, the pathetic, ephemeral fashion that has, in recent years, taken such an ironclad grip on our culture?”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
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