Rolling Stone backs away from its explosive U. Va. sexual assault story

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.

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“Our trust in her was misplaced,” the magazine’s editor, Will Dana, wrote in a signed apology.

The backpedaling dispirited advocates for rape victims who said they are concerned it could lead to a setback in efforts to combat sexual assaults both at U.Va. and college campuses elsewhere.

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 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.

That wasn’t enough for some.

“It is deeply troubling that Rolling Stone magazine is now publicly walking away from its central storyline in its bombshell report on the University of Virginia without correcting what errors its editors believe were made,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement.

The original story noted 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. In fact, U.Va. is one of 90 schools facing Title IX sexual-violence investigations from the Education Department, a list that includes four others in Virginia: the College of William and Mary; James Madison University; the University of Richmond; and Virginia Military Institute.

But U.Va was roiled by the article, whose main allegation was that too many people at the university put protecting the school’s image and their own reputations above seeking justice for sex crimes. The story 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 fraternity issued its own statement disputing the account of Jackie, who described being led upstairs by her date, who then allegedly orchestrated her gang-rape by seven men as he and another watched.

“No ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process,” the statement said. “This notion is vile, and we vehemently” dispute the claim. “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.”

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 spring.

Some advocates for sexual assault victims expressed concern that Rolling Stone’s backpedaling could discourage victims from coming forward. But college officials and state leaders said Friday’s developments would not stop ongoing efforts to prevent sexual assaults on campus.

Over the past two weeks, the college community “has been more focused than ever” on the issue, U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan said Friday in a statement.

“Today’s news must not alter this focus,” Sullivan said.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s spokeswoman, Rachel Thomas, said the governor has asked for an investigation while continuing to work with state and educational leaders “to ensure that Virginia’s college campuses are leaders in prevention, response, and awareness efforts.”

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.

Sullivan asked Charlottesville police to investigate the alleged gang rape. The police inquiry continued Friday.

A vigil organized by high school students in support of sexual-assault victims prior to Rolling Stone’s announcement took place as planned on the U.Va. campus Friday evening, with several dozen high school and college students in attendance.

One of them, first-year U.Va. student Maria DeHart, said criticism of the magazine’s article misses the point and “devalues the issue at hand.”

“The fact is, Jackie is not making this up,” she said.

Two fourth-year students on campus said they were disappointed with how Rolling Stone treated Jackie, and said discrepancies in her story don’t mean what she said happened is untrue.

“I believe Jackie, period,” said Greg Lewis, who added that he thinks U.Va. has an entrenched rape culture.

“At a certain point you have to say how many rapes is enough?” added Anna Boynton.

Some advocates expressed anger Friday that the magazine blamed the victim, rather than its own journalistic practices.

“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 an email 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.”


A previous version of this story quoted Greg Lewis referring to the victim as Jamie. Lewis used the name Jackie.


Frommer reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Greg Schreier in Atlanta contributed to this report.\

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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