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St. Catherine University has cut ties with an event organizer, Heartland Inc., after protesters accused both the school and the company’s owners of being insensitive to rape survivors.

On Monday, student demonstrators denounced what they called a “toxic rape culture” at the St. Paul campus, where 97 percent of the undergraduates are women.

About two dozen protesters marched on the main gate with signs saying “Rape culture is here” and “We will not be silenced.” They demanded, among other things, that the school distance itself from Heartland and its founders, Craig and Patricia Neal, whose son is in prison for rape.

Initially, the university released a brief statement expressing compassion for all sides in the Neal case. But after an outcry from students, Sister Andrea Lee, the president of the Catholic university, issued another statement vowing “unwavering support for victims of sexual violence,” and announcing that “we have discontinued our association with Heartland.”

The Neals, who have held annual workshops at the college since 2012, say they “are saddened by the decision from St. Catherine.” In a written statement, they said: “As longtime nonviolence advocates, we abhor and condemn all criminal violence, including that perpetrated by our son.”

The furor began on June 10, when Heartland held a seminar on women in leadership at St. Catherine.

That morning, a woman named Sarah Super led a small group of protesters on the edge of campus, drawing attention to the rape case involving the Neals’ son, Alec. Super, 27, has publicly identified herself as the woman raped at knife point by Neal, who pleaded guilty last year and is serving a 12-year-prison term.

Super said the protest was inspired in part by the recent public uproar over the Brock Turner sexual assault case at Stanford University. The case drew headlines after Turner’s victim released an impassioned statement opposing his family’s attempts to win him leniency.

“Turner’s family rallied around Brock in ways that are pretty similar to my perpetrator’s family,” said Super. She criticized, in particular, a letter-writing campaign attesting to Alec Neal’s character before his sentencing. Her goal, she said, was to show how that affects victims. “Brock Turner’s case lit the flame for the conversation.”

The Neals, though, say they never attempted to minimize their son’s crime. “We are heartbroken over the suffering Sarah has experienced,” they wrote. “There wasn’t a single letter that suggested Alec shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions or that expressed anything but compassion and concern for Sarah.”

Two protests, two statements

In response to Super’s June 10 protest, at least one other organization, called Pollen, has announced it is cutting ties with Heartland. On its website, the nonprofit posted a “public apology” for co-sponsoring the St. Catherine event, adding: “We stand with Sarah Super.”

The university, meanwhile, posted a statement on its website June 10 saying: “Our St. Catherine values of compassion and mercy must extend first, of course, to the victim and her family, but also to the family of the offender and even to the offender himself.”

That statement “sparked the second protest,” said Halimat Alawode, a 20-year-old St. Catherine student who helped organize Monday’s demonstration. “It felt like they were giving more compassion to the rapist, in all honesty,” she said, calling the response “tone deaf.”

Students promptly organized the protest for Monday afternoon and created a Facebook page, “End Rape Culture at St. Catherine University,” to promote it.

After the protest, Lee apologized for the initial statement. “Standing in solidarity with victims of sexual assault always has been and always will be an unequivocal commitment of our University,” she wrote June 13. “In light of recent events, we have discontinued our association with Heartland.”

University officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But Lee issued a statement saying, “St. Catherine University does not support rape culture. Through programming and dialogue, the St. Kate’s community continually works to promote and sustain a safe and inclusive environment.”

In defense of Heartland

Heartland’s supporters, meanwhile, have leapt to the Neals’ defense. Jina Penn-Tracy, a Minneapolis investment adviser who has attended their workshops, wrote on Facebook: “I am very sorry for what Sarah suffered, but as a multiple rape survivor, I object to the families of offenders being targeted for attack and boycott … This is not justice, but vendetta.”

In an interview, Penn-Tracy, 48, said she understands Super’s anger, “but attacking their business, trying to drive them out of business, is an aggression, and I don’t think it’s going to bring healing.”

Patricia Weaver Francisco, a Hamline University professor who has written a memoir of her own rape and recovery, said it’s unfair to compare the Neals to the Stanford case, where the perpetrator’s family seemed dismissive of the crime. In his most controversial remark, Turner’s father stated that jail time would be a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

The Neals, by contrast, are “deeply thoughtful and caring people” who were “devastated for Sarah,” said Francisco. “I’ve literally never heard them say a thing about Sarah that is anything other than concern.”

At St. Catherine, students say the protest has had an impact. In addition to cutting off ties with Heartland, Lee agreed to create a task force to address larger concerns, according to Alawode.

Super said she, too, was pleased with Lee’s response. “She made a really wonderful initiative to meet with me and express her support,” she said. “I thought that was a wonderful step in the right direction.”

Super says she has no plans to continue to protest Heartland. “Absolutely not, no no no,” she said. “I don’t want anything to be done out of anger or vengeance.”

Maura Lerner • 612-673-738