How one woman was asked to deal with an allegation of rape by herself
Content warning: This podcast discusses difficult topics, including sexual assault and suicide.
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Sophie: MeToo is happening for a reason, you know, which is not just, I mean, in a sense, not at all the sexual abuse, it’s about the people in power, you know, covering, covering that up.
And I think the kind of cold clinical reality of what it takes to cover up something like that.
I don’t think it had really hit me that people that I knew, you know, I would see someone walking around the college and that they could be so villainous. That they could be like the big, bad, evil people that, um, I’d been hearing about on the news.
Chris, narrating: This is a story about one student. And she is talking about her one case – a story of serious sexual assault.
And it takes place at one university. Cambridge University – a pretty unusual university as it happens.
It’s a collegiate university – where the student body is divided into one of 31 little colleges.
Her story, specifically, is about Queens’ College. One of those tiny institutions. It’s just a thousand or so students.
But her story – of a botched process that let her down – it could have happened almost anywhere.
The fact that it is at Cambridge, the fact that it happened at Queens’. It’s almost by-the-by.
This is one woman’s complaint of rape. But it’s a story shared by many others in a sector where institutions routinely fail to deal with these cases.
I’m Chris Cook, a reporter at Tortoise, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast.
This is that woman’s story, in her own words, as she went through this.
It’s 2018. It’s a warm spring evening. And a student, we’ll call her Sophie, was getting ready for a meeting – along with two other students.
They’re preparing to verbally relive the details of grim episodes that they’ve played out over and over in their minds. They’re going to relive them in front of a total stranger.
Sophie: I remember that the whole time my hands were shaking, so I was just so pumped up with adrenaline. And I had never… I’d never spoken about something that had happened to me like that in the way that I did in that meeting.
This was the first time that I had sat in front of someone and said, this happened to me. I think it was wrong and I think something should be done about it.
So for me, it was a massively, you know, it was a momentous thing and I was very scared and overwhelmed, but going into the meeting, I felt like, yeah, I definitely thought I was, I was doing the right thing.
Chris, narrating: The women, all students, had decided to walk into this room to share explicit allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual assault and rape – all concerning the same man, a fellow student.
Sophie: I mean, the decision for me completely turned on finding out that other people had had similar experiences with the same person, because initially, right up until the day before I went to speak to the college about what had happened, I didn’t know of this person having done anything similar to anyone else.
Chris, narrating: The person to whom they reveal these intimate details of abuse to was the head of welfare at their college.
Sophie recalls the worry in her mind about calling the man who assaulted her a rapist – about the impact this would have on him and how it might ruin his life.
Sophie: I distinctly remember before going into the meeting, the three of us were prepping for the meeting a little bit, and we were talking and we were saying things like, you know, are we really prepared to take somebody’s university career and potentially like end it, like, are we really ready to do that?
Chris, narrating: The person they were speaking to cut an unusual figure: A welfare adviser called Tim Harling.
He was, strictly speaking , the Reverend Tim Harling. He was Dean of Chapel, an Anglican clergyman.
But the women were assured by a friend that Harling was a nice man, with the best interests of students at heart. Students involved in welfare had referred the women to him.
He was perhaps more streetwise than the average minister: he had joined the college in 2013 after several years working as chaplain at HM Prison Peterborough.
He was a welfare adviser. This was a safe space.
Sophie: We three of us went, and I went first and I described in, you know, in as clinical detail as I could, what had happened, and not just the assault, but the manipulation afterwards…
I was very, very explicit about what had happened. And I don’t think that there’s any way that he could have misunderstood what we were talking about. I mean, we were very explicit, each of us in describing exactly what had happened. And in saying I didn’t… this was not consensual and I want something to be done about that.
Chris, narrating: The three women laid out their experiences. We asked each of them: could there be any doubt about the seriousness of what was being alleged?
All of them agreed: no. The range of allegations was clear.
Sophie: So while I was like, you know, I don’t want to be prejudice. Like, I guess you can be a reverend and, you know, advise young women about sexual assault.
Chris, narrating: Indeed, Sophie recalls her only real prior experience of Reverend Harling.
One that gave her some comfort.
Sophie: There was, um, a day when we had lots and lots of inaugural talks and Reverend Harling did one of those talks… it was the consent talk in his role as sexual assault and harassment adviser.
It was a very, very memorable speech because he gave a description of some, you know, nonconsensual sexual acts, and then said, if you do this, then you… Are a rapist.
With like a pause of just such excruciating length. So I definitely never, never forgot him. Um, from that.
Chris, narrating: This was a person that it made sense for her to be telling about how, a little time before, back when she was new to the college, she alleges she was raped by a man she knew – another student at the college.
Sophie: Like, all we’re doing is telling them the facts about what happened and it’s up to them to follow through with their own policies. And I just remember, really believing that we were going into this room and we were going to be listened to, and that the response would be swift.
People kept on saying right in the news and everything you’d hear all these stories about Harvey Weinstein and all of this sexual abuse and people always going on the news to say like: “Oh, it’s very wrong. Oh, we don’t like that.” And so I just thought like, oh great, everyone doesn’t like sexual assault.
It definitely did contribute to me being able to go and speak to someone about it and say: “Hey, actually, this isn’t acceptable. Like you can’t just do whatever you want to me. And there’d be no consequences…”
Which is just the theme running throughout my whole story is just like, there’s never any consequences.
What he said was that what had happened in each of our cases was totally immoral, you know, wrong, and it should never happen. And it shouldn’t have happened in this college and it sickens me, but it’s not illegal. So you can’t go to the police.
And, and I remember being confused. I mean, I think that after that meeting, I was kind of saying, well, I think it is illegal.
Chris, narrating: The other two students in that room had a range of experiences, some graver than others.
But the patterns of behaviour they saw were consistent. And elements of their stories overlapped.
In Harling’s telling of this meeting he said he’d support them on making a complaint to the police or to the college but the three women all feel they were discouraged from doing so.
One of them later testified that Harling told them that they “should avoid College disciplinary action as the stress socially and mentally was too hard”.
And Harling would later admit that he did not tell them that they had the option of going to the central university with their complaint.
So what did Harling advise?
They say they were told that the most effective action would be some form of what one of them would call “vigilante justice”.
The thing that would most affect the man they had accused was “laughing at him”.
Harling and the College deny these parts of their account.
Sophie: So essentially he said to us, if you want to see something done … you need to do it yourselves. If you want to protect the people in college then you need to take this into your own hands, you need to go knock on doors, speak to your mutual friends and, you know, tell them exactly what you’ve told me. Like, recount this, you know, these events in gruesome detail and make sure that they understand, you know, what’s happened, what this guy is like.
It was, it was incredibly, incredibly difficult, especially because at that time, as I said earlier, I mean, I really hadn’t, in some senses, really hadn’t yet accepted parts of what happened.
Chris, narrating: So two of the three women, quite literally, went door-to-door in the college. They recounted to a string of their peers what they had been through. Because that is what they thought they had been asked to do.
Sophie: Having to recount those events over and over again for, for one is just fundamentally, really traumatizing and triggering, and it’s difficult to deal with it.
It’s so scary when you’re speaking to people, some of whom, a hundred per cent, I felt were closer to him than to me. And you’re speaking to people and it’s hard not knowing what people’s reactions will be and what they’re saying once you’ve left the room, you know? Um, and it created so many issues for me.
Just basically having to justify to people why they should care that this person raped you.
Chris, narrating: One other effect of that meeting was that despite similarities in the three women’s accounts of that man’s behaviour, the women were left with the impression that consequences would only result if other victims came forward.
Again, Harling disputes this part of the account.
Sophie: we were told if it sounds really, really bad, but like really we’re not hoping this will happen, but we can’t do anything until we find in until he does it to someone else, and we were told that the best that we could hope for was that Reverend Harling will have an informal chat with this person and try to communicate to him that what he’d done was wrong. Try to scare him basically with the… with the consequences, if he did it again,
I sent Reverend Harling an email saying I’ve spoken to someone who says that this person also assaulted her friend who’s also at the college, and nothing came with that email.
Chris: Sophie believed that the one thing Harling had done was to implement a no contact order.
A ruling that the person Sophie had accused of rape was not allowed to approach her.
Sophie explained her understanding of the arrangement she had requested to her peers– this is a text message she sent a friend at the time:
If he contacts me again he gets in shit with the dean. If he does it repeatedly then he will get kicked out of accommodation.
In truth, though, the college had not put in place any such order.
The man was never given the kind of warning that Sophie had expected.
Sophie: I came back to Queens after the summer and first day back bump into him. He just said, he said, hello to me. He was like, “Hey, how are you?”
I just stared at him. Like why are you speaking to me? I was in the bar with some friends and he came down, um, pulled up a chair next to me and sat down with us and kind of tried to join in the conversation.
So this guy went and spoke to him and said: look, it’s not really on for you to come and push her out.
I went to Reverend Harling asking for there to be some disciplinary action – and there was disciplinary action, but it was against the person that had protected me and the bar and spoken to this guy on my behalf and asked him not to bother me.
Chris, narrating: Just think about that.
The women had felt they were advised against pursuing a disciplinary action.
The only thing they felt Harling had offered was a no-contact order, which Sophie did want.
But that would turn out not to be real.
The college would explain that if Sophie had wanted this to be a disciplinary matter, she had approached the wrong member of staff. She should have gone to a dean.
In a statement to Tortoise, the college said:
“The welfare and disciplinary functions of the college are entirely separate and this is publicised in all of our documentation and is well known, and valued, by our students.”
Harling had said that if the man had contacted her, he could be punished.
But it would emerge that this man was not even told of a no-contact order. He was asked to give the women a wide berth, and that if he did, the matter would “go away”.
So Sophie decided to pursue a complaint against the man with the college.
But right before she was about to hand in the paperwork, she learned that he had submitted a bullying complaint against her at the university level.
So, six months after sitting in a room and describing one of the worst nights of her life, Sophie was under investigation herself for bullying the man who she says raped her.
Sophie: The person that had sexually abused me was accusing me of bullying him.
And after that meeting I went on to find out that it had been supported by the college by Reverend Harling.
I don’t of course personally think that what I did was bullying, but anything that could have been construed in that way, I was advised to do by Reverend Harling. And so to find out that he had been involved in advising this guy to complain against me for bullying.
I burst into tears in the meeting and was just like sobbing, basically hiding behind like this paperwork. So I could cry, which was like, yeah, I hadn’t cried in front of anyone for any part of this.
Chris: Harling’s position is that he was offering support to this man, as he would to any student.
But the core reason for this bullying allegation against Sophie was the fact that she had spoken to other people about his conduct – the action she felt she was advised to take by Harling.
Sophie: I actually want to cry right now, even thinking about it because like I just felt, so it’s really difficult to put into words how profound it was because, I mean, there was a sense of betrayal, like I trusted you, and you put yourself in a position where your job is to protect people in who have been assaulted.
You know, this is like, you, you must have volunteered for this. Like, this is what you wanted to do. And yet you induce people to come and talk to you about things that are so, you know, they make you so vulnerable. Like you encourage women to come and make themselves vulnerable at your feet, just to then turn around then and use that vulnerability against them.
Yeah. I’d just lie there and like ask like why are you trying to kill me
Because it just it sincerely like… because I had gone into it in such good faith, like, I’ve been so honest, not just about that, but about all the traumatic things that happened to me in order to assist them with going about the business of delivering justice. And instead of doing that it just felt like they had gone through everything that I’d said picked out all my weaknesses, and then were trying to use them in order to make me disappear.
Like I just felt like your goal here is to make this go away. And if that means me dropping out of uni here, if that means me killing myself, like that’s what you want to happen.
That’s when I was told that my complaint against this person that I had accused of assaulting me couldn’t go ahead at the college level. So I was told essentially there’s like a hierarchy: it’s police, university, college.
And you know, if there’s a police investigation that takes precedence over anything within the university, if there’s a university investigation that takes precedence over a college investigation. So I was basically told, like, you’ve been outgunned on this one, like he’s gone through this higher disciplinary process, therefore if you want to make a complaint, you’ll have to make it to the university too. So again, I think it’s just an attempt to avoid liability from the college.
I was saying, you know that I’m about to make a complaint. And then you swoop in and get him to complain in such a way that I couldn’t possibly make a complaint to college about him. It felt, it felt calculated. Like if you knew that it was coming and then encouraged him to do something, to prevent it from happening.
The university’s disciplinary procedure, it simulates a real court. The standard of evidence is beyond reasonable doubt. You have, you know, he will have a university appointed lawyer that’s gonna grill you… and the standard evidence is the same as an actual trial.
So I’m really no better off going to the university and complaining. Then I would be going to the police and complaining.
But I was told it’s going to be so, so awful. There’s absolutely no way you’ll be able to, to go through that and continue studying. So you need to take the year out.
I heard back from the university first, I think it was like 5 January or something. It was really frustrating ‘cause I just intermitted and then I get a call being like, “Oh, by the way, the university’s concluded you aren’t a bully”.
His complaint was that I had got him uninvited to a party. No, no, literally that was his complaint against me. That was, that was the bullying.
Chris, narrating: Two of the women raised a complaint about Harling’s handling of their case
Harling himself disputes large parts of their story – particularly that he advised the women to take matters into their own hands.
These processes did find that Harling admitted that despite being a welfare adviser who gave talks on sexual consent, he was not aware of Cambridge’s anti-abuse campaign.
That admission, they found “implies incompetence and failure in an important welfare issue.”
In their reply to us, the college claimed that “allegations of inappropriate or incomplete advice” against Harling had been “investigated and dismissed”.
The college’s view continues to be that Harling’s account of that critical meeting should be trusted over the three womens’.
A meeting at which, it emerged, Harling had taken no notes.
The college told Tortoise that they did not accept the three women’s account of the meeting.
But Sophie was paid a five-figure sum in compensation by the college for what she endured.
The college also told Tortoise that: “Students are supported when considering whether to make a formal complaint to the police, College disciplinary authorities or University authorities.”
The women, they said, retained the option of starting a disciplinary action – something that, after all of this, none of them trust.
At Queens’, as elsewhere, there is a sense among would-be complainants that the institution’s instincts for self-preservation will always come first.
This was the story of one woman.
A story of one case, one college, one university.
But these sorts of mishandled complaints happen everywhere.
Official statistics show that students are more likely to be sexually assaulted than the population at large.
Polls and consultations of students, though, show there’s little confidence in the ability of institutions to deal with concerns or complaints.
Right now, the university regulator for England, the Office for Students, or OFS, says there’s a lack of consistent and effective systems, policies and procedures across the sector.
The head of the OFS says that “students continue to report worrying cases that have not been properly addressed by their university or college.”
Higher education institutions really struggle to work out how to respond to sexual misconduct.
This story was reported by me, Chris Cook and by Ella Hill.
It was produced by Joanna Humphreys, with sound design by James Rapson
The editor was Ceri Thomas