KU Leuven keeps on professor despite knowing about student rape

KU Leuven keeps on professor despite knowing about student rape
A paper reading 'stilte' (silence) in the library of the KU Leuven university. Credit: Belga/ Eric Lalmand

The Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) was aware of the fact that a professor of pedagogy raped a student in July 2016, but covered this incident up without intervening, instead allowing the lecturer to remain in his position.

Following a string of complaints regarding the complacency of universities in Belgium when it comes to responding to reports of sexual harassment, including against KU Leuven, it has once again been revealed the university failed to effectively respond to transgressive behaviour by university staff.

As reported on Friday, the professor had asked one of his students to join him for a congress in Barcelona, Spain, promising that she could give a speech there, which turned out to be untrue. On the last day, the professor took the student to a room of a B&B that he had booked for one night and raped her. He has now been sentenced to 54 months in prison.

Unpunished actions

The student told a confidant within the university about the incident, and the facts were then reported to both the dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences and the university's central ombuds service in November.

However, even after an official complaint from the student in 2018, the professor — described as a sexual predator who had "committed shocking and reprehensible acts during the trial — stayed on for months and was allowed to finish the academic year, Het Nieuwsblad reports. No disciplinary procedure or internal investigation followed the reports.

Students during a rally against sexual misconduct earlier this year at the VUB. Credit: Lauren Walker/ The Brussels Times

Various sources told the Flemish daily that the professor had been accused of sexual misconduct in the past, and it was known within the university that the professor had been "too familiar" with his female students before, repeatedly forcing himself into a position of power over the women.

Later, the parents of the student who was raped in 2016 went to the university, which triggered the Federal Judicial Police to take on the case, but even then, the professor continued to lecture. Finally, he was suspended in September 2018.

The university responded to the claims, telling Belga News Agency that the judicial authorities requested it not take action in case it would jeopardise the criminal investigation.

Gradual improvements

In February this year, the Leuven-based university already made headlines when it became the latest among Belgian institutions to receive criticism for its failure to tackle sexual misconduct by staff members.

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In the weeks preceding this report, several students and staff members of universities in Brussels (VUB) and Ghent (UGent) came forward with testimonies of professors or doctorate students behaving inappropriately, with all victims claiming the universities failed to respond to the incidents.

Universities have since been working on improving the system to respond to such incidents, by better informing victims of the progress of their complaints, to launching a concrete plan and communication plan to create greater awareness of sexual misconduct and support victims.

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