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Ex-American University chaplain sued for sexual assault by former student

Lawsuit alleges that University, church failed to investigate

Editor’s note: This story contains references to sexual assault and suicide.

Former American University chaplain Mark Schaefer sexually assaulted a student while working in a volunteer role at AU and wasn’t investigated or penalized by the University or the United Methodist Church, a student alleged in a lawsuit filed on April 28. 

Lindsey Bell-Kerr, a 2005 graduate, was sexually assaulted by Mark Schaefer in 2002 and 2003, according to Bell-Kerr’s complaint. At the time of the alleged assault, Schaefer served as the University’s United Methodist Chaplain, a volunteer position. He later served as the professional University Chaplain from 2016 until his abrupt and unexplained departure from AU in 2019.

Bell-Kerr is suing AU, Schaefer and the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church for $10 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages in D.C. Superior Court. 

She has accused all three parties of counts of assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty. AU and the Church are also accused of negligent employment. 

“Managing agents of Defendants AU and the Methodist Conference had actual knowledge of Defendant Schaefer’s misconduct by January 2003 (at the latest); however, rather than terminate him, Defendants AU and the Methodist Conference participated in, authorized, and/or approved the ongoing abuse by continuing to afford Defendant Schaefer a position of power and religious authority over American University students, permitting the abuse to continue without intervention or remedy,” the lawsuit states.

Schaefer and his lawyers denied any allegations of sexual assault in a July court filing responding to Bell-Kerr’s lawsuit. They defined the connection between the two as a “brief, consensual relationship.” 

AU does not prohibit consensual relationships between adults, a University spokesperson told The Eagle. 

“However, consensual relationships between employees and students must comply with the University’s relevant conflict of interest and other policies,” the spokesperson said. “The University requires employees to disclose a potential conflict of interest and the University will take steps to address it.”

Schaefer’s lawyer Peggy Bennett declined to comment on the litigation in detail. 

“Mr. Schaefer adamantly denies all allegations of wrongdoing and we will vigorously contest them and ensure all of his rights are protected,” Bennett wrote in an email to The Eagle.

Schaefer’s lawyers argued in their filing that the court should dismiss the lawsuit because the alleged events occurred so long ago that “memories have faded and evidence has been lost,” a violation of Schaefer’s due process rights.

“Ms. Bell-Kerr’s decision to sleep on her rights has undoubtedly damaged Mr. Schaefer's ability to defend himself,” the motion read. 

The University filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on July 1, writing that it did not employ Schaefer in 2002 or 2003 and thus was not responsible for his alleged actions. 

Schaefer was a volunteer chaplain during those years, according to the University’s motion to dismiss. He was officially hired for the first time by AU in 2006 when he became an adjunct professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

The motion claims that Bell-Kerr told the University in 2019 that her relationship with Schaefer was consensual. 

The main goals of the lawsuit are accountability and prevention of future opportunities for abuse, Amy Griggs, Bell-Kerr’s lawyer, told The Eagle.

“It’s important to speak up and empower survivors to speak up with those goals of accountability and prevention,” Griggs said. “If we can accomplish that, then we will be at least satisfied that hopefully, we can see some improvements made, some safety measures put into place to stop the potential for abuse like what happened to my client.”

Schaefer’s Departure from AU

When Schaefer left the University in July of 2019, neither he nor the University provided an explanation. 

At the time, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw told The Eagle, “these are personal matters that I am not in a position to speak to,” and Schaefer did not respond to a request for comment. 

The University sent a letter to Bell-Kerr in 2019 about Schaefer’s conduct, according to her original court filing.

“Schaefer was expected to set and maintain emotional and physical boundaries with you, as someone who he was providing pastoral counseling,” the letter read, according to Bell-Kerr’s lawsuit. “His conduct demonstrates poor judgment, is highly inappropriate and unethical, and constitutes unprofessional and serious misconduct. As such, we have taken appropriate personnel action in accordance with our other policies.” 

A University spokesperson would not confirm whether a letter was sent to Bell-Kerr in 2019 or specify the nature of Schaefer’s departure from AU. 

Around the same time in 2019, Bell-Kerr filed a complaint against Schaefer with the church, which resulted in the signage of a “just resolution” between Bell-Kerr, Schaefer and a church Bishop, according to the church’s motion to dismiss the case.

A “just resolution” in the Methodist Church functions as an out-of-court settlement with which all parties involved can be satisfied. According to the church’s website, “a just resolution agreed to by all parties shall be a final disposition of the related complaint.”

Lawyers for Bell-Kerr and the church declined to provide any details about the contents of the 2019 resolution.

Bell-Kerr’s Allegations 

Bell-Kerr and Schaefer developed a mentor-student relationship in 2002 after she sought religious counseling upon arriving at the University as a freshman, according to her original filing. 

Over the following months, Schaefer allegedly groomed Bell-Kerr with special attention and gradually increased both physical contact and the frequency of one-on-one interactions. 

Two other students eventually learned of Schaefer’s contact with Bell-Kerr and reported it to the United Methodist District Superintendent, Rev. E. Allen Stewart. The students were only identified in the lawsuit by their initials and relation to the church: “D.D.” was the student president of the campus ministry and “S.T.” was the student campus ministry vice president at the time. 

Stewart allegedly arranged a meeting with the pair in January 2003, during which he told them to “keep the situation ‘local’” in order to protect Schaefer’s career, according to Bell-Kerr’s lawsuit.  

Stewart initially agreed to speak with The Eagle for this story but ultimately could not be reached for comment. 

“The Conference lacks sufficient knowledge or information to admit or deny the allegations made in Complaint ¶ 44,” the church responded in a court filing to the allegation of Stewart’s meeting. 

Schaefer’s unwanted contact intermittently continued into the spring of 2003, Bell-Kerr’s second semester of freshman year. During this time, her emotional and mental health declined rapidly, culminating in a suicide attempt in July 2003, the lawsuit said. 

“Defendant Schaefer’s pattern of grooming, abuse, and forced sexual acts violated Plaintiffs personal dignity and inflicted upon her severe pain and mental anguish, physical injury, fright, shame, mortification, nervousness, humiliation, indignity, insult, and embarrassment, directly causing her to attempt suicide,” the lawsuit states.  

The first hearing for the case is scheduled for August 6. Bell-Kerr has requested a trial by jury.  

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As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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