ZELINSKY: Truth in the Witt assault story

In part, Patrick Witt ’12 holds the power to clear his own name. So too, the woman who filed an informal complaint of sexual assault against him can help clarify some controversial issues while maintaining her privacy. She and Witt should illuminate some of these issues as only they can.

Currently, the Rhodes Trust refuses to comment on the status of Witt’s scholarship application as it stood before The Game. The Trust cites confidentiality concerns as the reason for its stance.

Without the Rhodes Trust’s account of events, the public is left with a journalistic version of the classic “he said, she said” scenario. The New York Times claims Witt lied about his interview; Witt denies the accusation, contending that his Rhodes application was never in serious jeopardy.

The discrepancy is easily resolved: Either Witt or the Times got the story wrong. The Rhodes Trust can resolve the dispute. And Witt can empower the organization to do so, by waiving his rights to confidentiality.

Witt should ask the Rhodes Trust to settle the matter about his application status, to benefit both himself and Yale. The longer he holds onto his privacy, the more his inaction raises suspicions. After all, if he is telling the truth, he loses nothing and gains much by turning to the Trust for confirmation of his version of events. Witt injected the organization into the debate by providing an alternative story about the scholarship; it’s time he let the Rhodes Trust participate fully in the discussion. (Unless he is lying, that is, in which case his current position neatly obfuscates reality).

In perpetuating this scandal, Witt also generates controversy for a football program that hardly needs more bad press. The team already lost its coach to a separate national humiliation involving lies and a past Rhodes interview. (Though how much Tom Williams had to do with Witt’s scandal remains to be seen.) And last year, Witt’s DKE fraternity brothers cast a pall on the gridiron and men in general when they forever attached the words “boorish” and “chanting” in Yale’s lexicon. The allegations against Witt reinforce a narrative of deceit and depravity that will further damage football’s weakened reputation on our campus.

The team took Witt in as a transfer student and made him the starting quarterback — his fellow teammates deserve much from him in return. Witt should authorize the Rhodes Trust to tell us who is correct, Witt or the Times, for his sake and for his team’s.

Now for the second actor in this story: The woman who filed the informal sexual assault complaint at the heart of this controversy and who Witt calls his on-again off-again girlfriend. She should waive some of her own privacy rights so Yale or another third party can release a names-redacted version of her charges against Witt. Such a document could preserve her anonymity while also clarifying the nature and severity of her claims.

Sexual assault has become a catch-all term that ranges from two drunken students making a mistake to violent rape. When the Times prints this nebulous term, many people assume the worst — they naturally think of extreme violence. And much of the public also assumes the man’s guilt, forcing the accused to exonerate himself. As much as strict confidentiality is intended to protect the anonymity of accusers and potential victims, it is also designed to protect those accused from undergoing character assassination in the popular press.

When the complainant in this case filed an informal complaint against Witt, she initiated a process that intentionally avoided determining his guilt or innocence. Witt contends that he wanted a formal hearing to clear his name, but Yale refused him that option because the female student never pressed formal charges. Now that the story is out, the public has judged him guilty of a crime that could fall anywhere from the nonexistent to the minor to the atrocious.

Witt’s accuser should cooperate with Yale or another third party to provide the context for her informal claim. This could be done in a manner that preserves her anonymity but also gives Witt a fair shot at explaining himself. I must admit this would be an emotionally difficult decision for the woman, one that I cannot even fathom. Even choosing to file the informal claim clearly required an immense fortitude. And Witt may be guilty of violent rape — in that case, perhaps he is getting his due. But if he is not, Witt’s accuser dooms him in the media battle, after having already stripped him of his formal due process at Yale.

Witt may be guilty of a variety of offenses — I have no information on the veracity of the Times’ accusation or those of the woman who filed the complaint. But I do know both Witt and the complainant can make this process less painful for our community.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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