WENHAM, Mass. — Joggers weaved their way through a group of friends along the Gordon Woods trail on a sunny Friday afternoon. Behind them, a breeze rippled across the quiet surface of Gull Pond. On the beach, a tree log served as a makeshift bench.
It’s a spot where many students at Gordon College, a conservative Christian campus of approximately 1,700 students just north of Boston, go to relax. But for Isabella — who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear of backlash — it’s where her nightmare began.
It was the first semester of Isabella’s freshman year when Mischael Pierre Celestin invited her to hang out with him and another male student on the trails of Gordon Woods one night in October 2012, according to an internal sexual assault report obtained by ThinkProgress.
On the beach, she and Celestin traded swigs from his bottle of liquor. Celestin’s flirtations had already made her nervous, the report says. What she didn’t know was that he’d been expelled from another college almost a year earlier for alleged involvement in a sexual assault.
Before long, the report says, Isabella was drunk. What happened next is foggy, but Isabella told Gordon College police she is sure of one thing: Celestin raped her.
Choking back tears in an interview with ThinkProgress, Isabella recalled lying on the cement behind the dining hall afterward and feeling sore “down there.” Celestin and the other man yanked her up, walked her back to her dorm and “handed her off,” as Isabella characterizes it, to another female student.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, that woman said Isabella came to her room very briefly that night, drunk and claiming she’d been raped — a story the woman said she does not believe. “There’s no way they would have raped her, because she is a whore,” the woman said. “[Isabella’s] doing it for attention.”
A woman at Celestin’s home directed ThinkProgress reporters to his lawyer in a separate criminal case, who declined to comment on these allegations. Celestin did not respond to messages requesting comment.
However, the other man who was on the beach with Isabella and Celestin that night largely confirmed her story. Reached by phone, the man said Isabella and Celestin were both drunk on the beach that night, though he himself wasn’t drinking. Isabella performed oral sex on the man while Celestin had sex with her, the man said. Afterward, she was so drunk the man and Celestin had to carry her back to her dorm, where they gave her to a woman the man said he did not know.
“Pierre was smashed, and so was she,” the man told ThinkProgress. “That’s the only reason this happened.”
Initially, the man thought Isabella might be too drunk, he said in an interview. But, he insisted, she asked him to join in more than once.
“She wouldn’t leave me alone, so I gave her what she asked for,” he said.
Isabella reported the incidents to Gordon College police in January 2014, but she told them she was unsure whether she wanted to pursue the campus judicial process. That March, she sent an email to an administrator, documented in a confidential sexual assault report obtained by ThinkProgress, saying she couldn’t face retelling her story in front of a disciplinary panel. Instead, she gave up her scholarship at Gordon and transferred to a different school.
“I pray to God that the other females on this campus in the future do not have to go through what I went through,” Isabella wrote in the email. “Hopefully somebody else will speak up.”
After the email, Gordon quietly closed the case, according to the report. Two people named in the report said the school never contacted them, including the other man who was on the beach with Isabella and Celestin that night.
While Isabella’s story is shocking, she isn’t alone. Ten current and former Gordon students told ThinkProgress they were sexually assaulted at the school, in incidents involving nine alleged perpetrators. In two of the cases, alleged perpetrators continued attending classes even after multiple accusations of sexual assault. In another, administrators dismissed an alleged assault by one woman against another woman as just an alcohol violation. Meanwhile, victims lost their faith, left the school, and struggled with the emotional fallout.
“The best decision of my life was leaving that school,” Isabella said. “Worst decision of my life was going to that school.”
Gordon reopened its investigation into Isabella’s case in October 2016, citing “new information … that pertains to the incident report,” according to an email obtained by ThinkProgress. The university also offered to pay for eight counseling sessions, since Isabella is no longer a Gordon student and cannot use the on-campus counseling center.
On the same day, the university made an identical offer to Shayla Lopez, another former student who said Celestin assaulted her and reported the incidents to an administrator in late 2013 or early 2014, after the school reopened her case because of “new information we received,” according to an email to Lopez from an administrator.
In a statement, Gordon spokesperson Rick Sweeney said that a detailed list of questions submitted by ThinkProgress contained “several significant inaccuracies” and lacked “appropriate context.” However, he declined to answer any specific questions, citing federal privacy laws.
“The college is confident that, in each case, it responded to the information available at the time of any report or allegation in a thoughtful and compassionate manner, and respected the complainant’s wishes to the greatest extent possible,” Sweeney’s statement read, in part.
Secular universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have come under heavy fire for their handling of sexual assault in recent years. But religious schools that put a premium on sexual purity have unique challenges when they try to address rape on their campuses, according to Dianna Anderson, author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.
Those challenges have bubbled to the surface at some of the nation’s most well-known Christian schools, like Baylor University in Texas, Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and Liberty University in Virginia.
“Because Christians tend to frame rape as a loss of purity rather than a loss of individual agency, they struggle with handling sexual assault cases appropriately,” Anderson told ThinkProgress in a message.
One impediment to victims coming forward may be that they fear running afoul of the school policies themselves.
At Gordon, the student handbook forbids “drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice.” Its website promises “amnesty” for “tangential infractions of College policy, such as alcohol use or visiting hours” to students who report a sexual assault, and its sexual misconduct policy offers amnesty for “personal consumption of alcohol or drugs at or near the time of the incident.” But neither amnesty policy explicitly mentions premarital sex or same-sex relationships.
“A lot of people don’t even know there’s an amnesty policy,” said Abby Booth, a Gordon College senior and a member of the student-led advocacy group Fighting Against Sexual Trauma, or FAST.
A known offender bouncing from one school to another
Before enrolling at Gordon, Isabella’s alleged assailant, Mischael Celestin, attended Eastern Nazarene College, a Christian school in Quincy, Massachusetts. An incident report by the school’s campus security from early December 2011, obtained by ThinkProgress, records allegations Celestin was involved in a sexual assault on a female student in his dorm room in mid-November of that year. Celestin denied the allegations at the time, according to the document.
Two former faculty members discussed in that report — Eric Clark, the former director of Eastern Nazarene’s Center for Academic Success, and his wife Ashley Clark, a former visiting instructor at the school — spoke to ThinkProgress and explained that the victim is one of their relatives. They confirmed that the victim told them about the incident less than a month after it allegedly occurred.
The report also matches accounts by former Eastern Nazarene students Sidney Karr and Alexis Malloy, who told ThinkProgress the woman talked to each of them separately about the incident around the same time.
The woman did not respond to messages requesting comment. Current and former administrators at Eastern Nazarene declined to comment, citing federal privacy laws.
The incident report does not give a disposition for the case or mention what, if any, punishment Celestin received. But an internal email obtained by ThinkProgress shows Eastern Nazarene College expelled him and banned him from campus within days of the incident coming to light. A separate university document from late February 2015, also obtained by ThinkProgress, confirms that the school expelled Celestin and banned him from campus indefinitely. Neither the internal email nor the document list the reason for the expulsion.
“Hoes want attention,” Celestin wrote on his public Facebook page the same day Eastern Nazarene administrators announced his expulsion in an internal email. “Women want respect.”
By fall 2012, Celestin — the son of a Baptist minister — was attending Gordon College. Officials there would not say what they knew about the allegations against Celestin, but Eastern Nazarene does not record student disciplinary decisions on academic transcripts, according to Scott MacFarland, Eastern Nazarene’s executive director of marketing and communications. Colleges in Massachusetts do not have to include expulsions for sexual assault on student transcripts.
In January 2015, Eric Clark’s family attended a basketball game between the two rival teams on Gordon’s campus. Clark told ThinkProgress that he went to Gordon College police before the game to make sure Celestin didn’t cause them any trouble.
“I told him that [Celestin] had set up this sexual assault with my family member [at Eastern Nazarene College],” Clark said. “I didn’t sugar coat. [I told him t]hat’s why he was expelled.”
By early 2015, at least three people, including Eric Clark and Isabella, had spoken to Gordon staff or administrators about Celestin, who was still a student on campus at the time.
Shayla Lopez told ThinkProgress that Celestin sexually assaulted her twice while they were both students at Gordon — once in late September or early October 2012 and again in December 2013. Shortly after the second alleged assault, Lopez said that she reported both incidents to her dorm’s director, a Gordon staff member who agreed to pass on the report while keeping Lopez anonymous. Lopez didn’t get any updates after that.
It’s unclear whether the resident director passed Lopez’s report on to other school administrators or, if so, whether they took any action. The resident director did not return emails requesting comment.
“Nothing was done,” Lopez told ThinkProgress. “But I was kind of OK with that. … I didn’t want to have to deal with media people, the emotions and all that. I figured, all right, I just want to forget it and move on.”
Gordon senior Pauline — she asked only to be identified by her first name — told ThinkProgress that Celestin also tried to assault her in his on-campus apartment one night in January or February 2014 when they were drinking together with a friend, Marianthy Posadas-Nava. Thankfully, according to Pauline, Posadas-Nava opened the bedroom door just a few seconds into the attempted assault and Celestin let up.
In fall 2016, Pauline says she saw Celestin walking down a flight of stairs in Gordon’s science center after hearing about his arrest in a separate sexual assault case. “I was like, ‘Oh God, they’re going to let him run free until he’s in jail,’” she told ThinkProgress in an interview. “That’s when I went to report.” She reported the incident to school administrators and says the school has handled her case well — a big difference from what she says that she saw when her friend Posadas-Nava reported unrelated assaults.
“I had held Marianthy’s hand through a lot of her experiences at Gordon, so I actually had very low expectations of Gordon,” Pauline said. “So I was pleasantly surprised.”
Despite multiple complaints against him, Celestin attended Gordon until late August 2016, when Brockton, Massachusetts, police arrested him after he tried to meet a 15-year old girl he had been trying to talk into a friendship and had forcibly kissed, according to a police report. In his backpack, they found cognac and two condoms.
After the arrest, Jennifer Jukanovich, Gordon’s vice president for student life, tweeted that Celestin was “no longer a student” and “no longer allowed on campus.”
Prosecutors have charged Celestin with one count of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 and one count of accosting or annoying another person. His trial is set to begin in Brockton District Court on August 29.
A woman at Celestin’s home directed ThinkProgress reporters to his lawyer in the Brockton case, Marjorie P. Tynes. Reached by phone, Tynes said her client denies the allegations in the Brockton case. However, she declined to comment on the other allegations and said she would advise her client not to comment with a pending criminal case. Celestin did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Posadas-Nava’s case is another example of students reporting apparent serial perpetrators at Gordon, but whose allegations — and attackers — fell through the cracks, according to survivor accounts.
During Posadas-Nava’s freshman year at Gordon, a senior raped her after she stayed over with him one night in November 2013, Posadas-Nava said in a report she later filed with Gordon College police, a report she filed with Wenham police, and a complaint she filed with the U.S. Department of Education under Title IX, the law that mandates gender equality at schools that receive federal funds. After the alleged rape, according to the Wenham police report and interviews with Posadas-Nava, the man pressured her into a relationship during which she says they had consensual sex but the man also continued to coerce her into unwanted sex, as well.
The man Posadas-Nava says raped her declined to comment for this story.
In May 2014, Posadas-Nava reported the November 2013 incident and an alleged assault by the same man in December 2013 to Gordon College police, according to an internal document obtained by ThinkProgress. After another alleged rape in late June 2014, she went to Salem District Court and got a restraining order. At the court hearing, the man denied that Posadas-Nava ever told him to stop during the June incident, and the judge took no position on whether a crime occurred, according to a transcript of the hearing.
The man violated the restraining order in September 2014, Posadas-Nava told ThinkProgress, and school documents and internal emails obtained by ThinkProgress show Gordon police banned him from campus that month as a result. The man sent Posadas-Nava a Snapchat invite in mid-February 2015, violating the restraining order again, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Posadas-Nava pressed forward with the school’s disciplinary process. In her Title IX complaint, Posadas-Nava said administrators gave her conflicting information on how the process worked. She had to repeat her story multiple times, and the hearing panel met to decide her case just seven days after she agreed to pursue the case — not enough time, the Title IX complaint says, to fully investigate.
When the hearing panel interviewed Posadas-Nava in late July 2014, her Title IX complaint says, its questions focused on her relationship with the man after the first time he allegedly raped her. “During my questioning, the focus seemed to be on my relationship with [the man] following the first assault,” the complaint said, “with very few questions addressing either of the assaults specifically.”
After interviewing the man and Posadas-Nava, the panel decided the November 2013 rape accusation was “inconclusive,” according to a second internal document obtained by ThinkProgress. That document does not mention the December 2013 or June 2014 incidents, and Posadas-Nava’s Title IX complaint says the school made no determination on them.
Terry Charek, Gordon’s dean of student care, told Posadas-Nava about the decision in his office that same day, she told ThinkProgress. At the time, she said, he recommended that she seek “discipleship,” or spiritual accountability, and said the panel worried the man might be addicted to sex.
That’s a common explanation for sexual misconduct in Evangelical communities, according to Dianna Anderson — whether it’s premarital sex or rape. “You’re either abstinent or you’re addicted to [sex],” says Anderson. That dichotomy “prevents them from having to confront the idea that a good Christian man might still have behaviors that are negative for women,” she explained.
Asked for comment, Charek directed ThinkProgress to Sweeney, Gordon’s spokesperson.
In December, Posadas-Nava decided to appeal the panel’s decision. Administrators determined the November 2013 incident “did not constitute sexual assault,” according to the second internal document. As before, the written decision does not address the incidents from December 2013 or June 2014.
“[T]he whole situation was hostile,” Posadas-Nava said. “I did not feel supported at all.”
Posadas-Nava told ThinkProgress that she approached a fellow student, Sarah, in May 2014 after realizing the man had been in a romantic relationship with both of them at the same time. Sarah confided in Posadas-Nava that the man assaulted her several times in January and February 2014, according to Posadas-Nava.
Sarah — who asked to be identified only by her first name — confirmed Posadas-Nava’s account of their conversations to ThinkProgress. Sarah wanted to date the man, she said, but didn’t want to have sex outside of a relationship.
“[T]he first time, he raped me, and it happened several more times,” Sarah said in an interview. “And I just gave up and kind of let him do it.”
Posadas-Nava mentioned Sarah’s allegations to an administrator in May 2014 — a detail recorded in Gordon’s sexual assault report on Posadas-Nava’s case. But after hearing from Posadas-Nava how the school handled her case, Sarah decided that August to go to police in Wenham, the town where Gordon is located, instead.
“I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because Gordon has this whole no sex policy,” Sarah told ThinkProgress. “I didn’t even tell my roommate about it because I was so ashamed and upset.”
When Sarah went to Wenham police in August 2014, an officer told her that he couldn’t make an arrest without physical evidence or allegations by more than one woman, she said — even though police records show Posadas-Nava had made allegations to Wenham police against the same man just a month earlier.
Wenham’s chief of police, Thomas Perkins, declined to comment on Sarah’s case, citing state privacy laws. Perkins said his department usually cannot share information with a school that both the alleged victim and perpetrator attend without the victim’s “specific request or express permission.”
“Each case is different, and our department’s response depends upon the facts and circumstances specific to any particular case,” Perkins told ThinkProgress in an email.
Sarah dropped out of Gordon College that fall. She filled out an official withdrawal form online in January 2015, she says, and listed a sexual assault on campus as her reason for leaving. “No one got back to me,” she told ThinkProgress, “like they didn’t care.”
Reached by phone, the man both Posadas-Nava and Sarah say raped them said his lawyer advised him not to comment.
These cases highlight a major obstacle facing universities as they battle campus sexual assault, according to Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center. While the science isn’t settled, multiple studies suggest that repeat offenders commit the vast majority of sexual assaults.
Still, schools are often reluctant to combine these cases in order to get serial predators off their campus, according to Bruno.
“What they’ve unintentionally done is brought over that idea [from the criminal system] that you can’t have multiple victims testifying against one person, because of the bias that it could create,” she told ThinkProgress in an email. “But they’re two totally separate systems. So of course you can.”
In 2014, the Obama White House issued guidance to colleges and universities on how to handle campus sexual assault under Title IX. That guidance gave greater detail on how to implement a 2011 letter from the Department of Education to colleges and universities on their legal obligations in student sexual assault cases.
Gordon has made strides to address sexual assault since then, spokesman Rick Sweeney said. Those efforts, led by Gordon’s Title IX coordinator, Nancy Anderson, and its vice president for student life, Jennifer Jukanovich, included revising its procedures for assault cases and requiring online training for students, faculty, and staff on how to respond to reports of sexual assault.
Allowing serial abusers to stay
Even after the reforms, however, some students still say Gordon should do more. After a long night of studying together in early May 2015, a fellow student assaulted 22-year-old Gordon senior Rachel Lehmann, according to reports she later filed with police in Wenham and with Gordon, both obtained by ThinkProgress.
The man kissed and groped Lehmann, both reports say, pulling her on top of him into a parked car despite her insistence that she didn’t want a physical relationship.
“I was trying to come up with creative new ways to frame my dissent,” she told ThinkProgress in an interview. When Lehmann curled up in a ball and started talking about her mom, she said, the man finally relented.
The man drove Lehmann back to campus and told her not to tell anyone, she said — especially their mutual friends. Then he asked her if he was a good kisser.
After studying abroad the following school year, Lehmann contacted Gordon police about the assault in early May 2016. Gordon College police called an officer from the Wenham police department who is a certified sexual assault investigator to take down Lehmann’s initial report, according to the report that officer filed. Another Gordon police officer followed up with Lehmann the same day to make a Title IX report for the college.
Lehmann decided not to pursue an internal school investigation because she believed the man would graduate soon, according to an email obtained by ThinkProgress. When he appeared back on campus as a student in February 2017, however, Lehmann contacted a Gordon administrator to re-open the case.
In an interview, the man denied these allegations.
Six other women came forward to Gordon administrators in February and March 2017 to accuse the same man of sexual assault or harassment, according to another internal university document obtained by ThinkProgress. In late March 2017, Gordon’s Title IX panel found that the man “violated Gordon’s sexual misconduct policy in the past and poses a threat to women on Gordon’s campus in the future,” that document says.
Some of these women had previously reported the incidents to faculty members, according to Lehmann. During a February 2017 meeting with Nancy Anderson, Gordon’s Title IX coordinator, Lehmann asked why these faculty hadn’t reported the incidents. Anderson told her the school only began training faculty on Title IX within the past year to year-and-a-half, Lehmann told ThinkProgress. The faculty involved may not have felt the reports they heard rose to the level of “sexual misconduct,” Anderson reportedly said, or they may not have known they’re suppose to report incidents of rape and sexual assault.
In an email to faculty and staff in mid September 2015, obtained by ThinkProgress, Anderson told employees they have a legal obligation to report “sexual harassment and sexual misconduct” against students. “Under Title IX, you, as a Gordon employee, are expected to play an active role,” Anderson said in the email.
Instead of expelling the man after the Title IX panel found that he posed a threat, Charek required him to move off campus in early April and barred him from campus except during class times, according to an email from Nancy Anderson to Lehmann obtained by ThinkProgress. The school also barred him from contacting any of the seven women who came forward.
“These consequences are in line with precedent,” Charek said in a separate email to Lehmann in mid-April 2017, explaining that the man wasn’t suspended or expelled because the Title IX panel found him guilty of sexual assault, not rape.
Two weeks later, Nancy Anderson emailed Lehmann to let her know the man was being suspended for two years, during which he would also be banned from campus entirely. Gordon would reassess the man’s suspension at the end of the two years, Anderson said in the email.
The suspension was triggered by an incident unrelated to the charges of sexual assault and sexual harassment, according to Gordon spokesperson Rick Sweeney.
“Given the privacy issues involved, just as we could not discuss the details of the sexual misconduct complaint, we similarly cannot discuss the details of the unrelated subsequent issue, but it is not of the same nature at all,” Sweeney told ThinkProgress by email.
Reached by phone, the man said he was not suspended for sexual assault or harassment, though he would not give the specific cause.
The man also denied Lehmann’s and the six other women’s allegations and said he is appealing the school’s decision in those cases. “If someone felt uncomfortable, that’s one thing,” he told ThinkProgress. “But to say I’m some sort of predator — that’s kind of unfortunate, kind of sad.”
LGBTQ ban a ‘problematic dynamic’ for assault survivors
Gordon enjoyed a long reputation as one of the more moderate Evangelical universities in the country. That changed in 2014, when its president, D. Michael Lindsay, signed a letter with 13 other Christian leaders asking the Obama administration to add a religious exemption to an executive order that barred federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ employees.
The letter set off a wave of protests on Gordon’s campus that spurred the administration to crack down on dissent, according to students, alumni, and an administrator who spoke with ThinkProgress.
“[T]echnically homosexual behavior was not allowed,” said a faculty member who spoke with ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity. “But it was not enforced, we had students who were out, and we all kind of assumed it would go away over time. Instead, [Lindsay] doubled down on it. So it was pretty tragic for the whole school.”
Gordon’s stance on LGBTQ relationships can make it especially hard to report assaults by a member of the same sex, according to Paul Miller, a Gordon alumnus and co-founder of the LGBTQ advocacy group ONE Gordon.
“[T]he ban on homosexual practice creates a problematic dynamic,” Miller told ThinkProgress in an email.
Jessica Mahan found herself at the intersection of these policies after her female roommate, who was also a close friend, sexually assaulted her after they had been drinking at a friend’s home in mid-March 2013.
The roommate turned herself in to the dorm’s resident director — a Gordon staff member — after the alleged assault, according to both women. The former resident director did not return multiple requests for comment.
“Following the assault, I was grief-stricken and deeply remorseful, and I wanted to reach out to Residence Life to work with them in addressing the issue because I trusted them,” the roommate told ThinkProgress in an email. “I knew that I was in the wrong in this situation, and I told my [residence director] that I wanted to have my actions addressed, and to figure out a way to get me and Jess the support and guidance we each needed.”
Gordon denied the roommate’s request to change rooms because there were only five weeks left in the academic year, she told Think Progress. When she stayed with friends instead, she says the school threatened to discipline her if she didn’t return to her room.
Mahan says she was never sure when her roommate — now also her assailant — would be in their room or staying with a friend, and Mahan’s mental health declined sharply. Administrators told the roommate to suggest that Mahan seek counseling, both women said, but the school never reached out to Mahan directly.
“In their eyes, it was only an alcohol violation, and nothing more — and that was the last I heard of it,” the roommate said.
Mahan published a blog post about her experience in early May 2014. Before it went up, she sent Charek an email asking whether the post was accurate. In his response, obtained by ThinkProgress, Charek said none of the initial information his office received about the case pointed to sexual assault. But he also acknowledged that “the question of assault would certainly have come up” if the incident involved a woman and a man.
“Clearly, we should have had a conversation with you to get the full details instead of dismissing you through a third party to get some counseling,” Charek wrote. “As I write that it sounds awful………ugh.”
Charek referred requests for comment by ThinkProgress to a Gordon spokesperson, who declined to comment on specific allegations.
Like many of the women interviewed for this story, Mahan no longer attends church. She’s disillusioned with both Gordon and the larger Christian community. The Evangelical emphasis on community and forgiveness makes it difficult to talk openly about assault, according to Mahan.
“Forgiveness means ‘shut up and don’t address it,’” she told ThinkProgress. “This is a personal, not systemic, problem. And we aren’t going to admit it’s a systemic problem, because then there’s something wrong with our community instead of something wrong with you.”
Do you have information about sexual assault at Gordon College, Eastern Nazarene College, or another university? Contact reporter Cristina T. Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact reporter Joshua Eaton at email@example.com or via Signal at 202–684–1030.
Intern Ellen Cranley transcribed interviews for this report.