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Petition aims to shield sex abuse victims from punishment over Mormon college's 'honor code'

“They treated me in such an un-Christlike way, like I was some sinner,” a 20-year-old victim said. “There was no forgiveness and mercy.”

By
Doug G. Ware
Brigham Young University, located in Provo, Utah, pictured above, is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and requires students to sign and abide by an honor code which forbids premarital sexual activity, drug and alcohol use and provocative clothing. File Photo by Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock
Brigham Young University, located in Provo, Utah, pictured above, is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and requires students to sign and abide by an "honor code" which forbids premarital sexual activity, drug and alcohol use and provocative clothing. File Photo by Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock

PROVO, Utah, April 29 (UPI) -- A petition that seeks to protect victims of sexual assault from potential backlash at one of the most religious universities in the country is rapidly gaining support.

The call for change stems from recent claims by several Utah women who said they were punished by administrators at Brigham Young University after reporting a sexually assault. The reason, they say: The school's religious-inspired "honor code," which prohibits all students from engaging in sexual activity.

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The women claim they were punished by the school's honor code compliance office after they reported their abuse. In some cases, the victims were suspended, put on probation or expelled altogether for violating the code, one female student said.

"You are being suspended from Brigham Young University because of your violation of the Honor Code including continued illegal drug use and consensual sex, effective immediately," a letter to one of the victims from an associate dean said, according to a report in The New York Times.

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"They treated me in such an un-Christlike way, like I was some sinner," the 20-year-old recipient of the letter said. "There was no forgiveness and mercy."

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Many advocates have reacted angrily to the school's alleged handling of the victims, saying such action re-victimizes the women who've summed up the courage to report the crime in the first place. Mass protests have been staged in recent weeks to try and spur change.

The university, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said it is reviewing the policies of its honor code enforcement and Title IX office, which is the primary body that investigates reports of a sexual nature.

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The code -- which also bars bad language, drug and alcohol use, provocative dress and even beards for men -- has been the subject of controversy at the Provo, Utah, campus for decades.

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A petition was started and circulated among students after the issue began receiving international attention. The petition calls on the university to grant immunity to victims who come forward to report sex crimes. As of Friday afternoon, it had attracted more than 110,000 signatures.

"It's very easy for them to ignore us unless we do something quite public, which is a shame," the petition's author, Kelsey Bourgeois, told Provo's Daily Herald.

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"BYU is committed to look at everything under discussion right now and study all aspects of our own process," the school said in a statement. "Because we want to be as careful and thorough as possible, we do not have a definite timeline determined right now."

One victim has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights against the university.

"They need to take accountability. They need to say, 'Yeah, we screwed up, but we're going to fix it.'," she told CNN.

Officially, BYU says it does not hold honor code violations over victims' heads in cases of sex abuse -- but that position is refuted by several of the reported victims.

The aforementioned student, for example, claims that she filed a police report but did not tell the university about her case, fearing possible punishment. Still, she said, school administrators somehow got a hold of the police report.

"I felt so angry. I mean, here [the school] had an over-20-page police report with every little detail of the rape," she said. "I feel almost as violated by the school as I do by my rapist."

A school spokeswoman pointed out that victims of sex abuse can decline a Title IX investigation, but one victim told CNN that a Title IX officer threatened to report her to the honor code office if she didn't answer their questions. In fact, CNN's report says, BYU even won't let her register for future classes until she cooperates.

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"They like to say a victim of sexual assault will never be referred to the Honor Code office for being a victim of sexual assault," the victim said. "But they would've never known about these Honor Code allegations had I chosen not to report my rape. And I think that's what bothers me and makes me feel so betrayed."

The university, though, insists that the primary concern is always for the students who are victims of sex crimes.

"BYU has zero tolerance for students who commit sexual violence," the school said. "The university's overriding concern is always the safety and well-being of its students."

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