Fordham alum sues university through Adult Survivors Act over 2011 alleged rape

a Fordham sign behind protestors
A former Fordham University student filed a lawsuit Monday against the university for the second time over what he says was the university’s failure to protect him from a sexual abuser. Pictured, Fordham students protest the university’s handling of sexual assault at a December 2021 rally.
Photo Aliya Schneider

A Fordham University alumnus filed a lawsuit against the school on Monday, alleging that the institution failed to protect him from a sexual abuser more than a decade ago.

Francis “Frank” Austin, a former Fordham University Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) student, alleges that his sophomore year roommate Patrick Sweeney violently raped him in February 2011 in his Rose Hill dorm in the Fordham section of the Bronx after he reported numerous threats to the university that preceded the attack. Austin reported the alleged rape the following year to two different professors, who tried to prevent him from reporting the incident more broadly, according to the lawsuit. The same student then allegedly sexually assaulted Austin again in May 2012.

Austin, now 32, first sued the university in 2021, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out. Thanks to the New York State Adult Survivors Act (ASA), Austin has another chance to seek justice. The ASA, which was signed into law in May 2022, opened a year-long window to take civil action starting in November 2022 for adult victims of sexual crimes whose statutes of limitations have expired.

Austin, who graduated from Fordham in 2013, is being represented by attorneys Lesley Brovner and Mark Peters, of Manhattan-based law firm Peters Brovner LLP.

“Everyone talks about how great college can be, but my sophomore year was the worst year of my life,” Austin said on Monday, his voice quivering at a Zoom press conference.

Austin said the aftermath of the assaults “destroyed” his life, throwing him into a deep depression and causing him to have suicidal ideations. He has also suffered from anorexia, alcohol abuse, difficulties with relationships and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the lawsuit.

Francis Austin on Zoom
Francis Austin speaks on Zoom on Monday. Screenshot Aliya Schneider

Leading up to the alleged 2011 rape and subsequent sexual assault, Austin faced repeated threats of rape, assault and murder from Sweeney, who was moved out of his dorm the previous year for assaulting his freshman year roommate, according to the allegations in the lawsuit. Austin spoke up to Fordham employees on multiple occasions and requested to change rooms before Sweeney allegedly raped him, but his concerns went unaddressed, the lawsuit alleges.

“They turned a deaf ear to my warnings and left me to defend myself against a person that shared my room, that had a key to my own personal space,” Austin said. “What did they expect me to do? Where did they expect me to go?”

The university was made aware of violent threats Sweeney made against Austin through a dorm security guard, residential assistant and professor, according to the suit. The NROTC program even requested that the university assign Austin a new room, but the request was ignored, the suit alleges.

Austin also reported prior to the alleged rape that Sweeney, who was also an NROTC student, “physically attacked him, touched his body in unwanted and inappropriate ways and used his NROTC issued kbar as a weapon against him,” according to the suit.

The suit argues that the incidents “would have been prevented by any competently and ethically run university system.”

“Despite these increasingly urgent warnings about the grave danger Sweeney posed to Austin, Fordham failed, again and again, to act and did not assign Austin a new roommate,” the suit alleges. 

A young Francis Austin
A photo of Francis Austin while enrolled at Fordham University. Photo courtesy Actum LLC

On top of all the mental distress that has impacted Austin from his college years, the Fordham alumnus needed to undergo surgery to have scar tissue removed in 2016 after years of painful anal bleeding from the alleged 2011 rape, according to the lawsuit. The surgery was only partially successful, with the injury leaving lasting physical effects on him, according to the suit.

Austin’s former attempt to sue Fordham in 2021, which was focused on the university’s response to his report of the alleged rape, was dismissed on Sept 30, 2022 – less than two months before the Adult Survivors Act window began, court records show. The judge said that the three-year Title IX statute of limitations would have begun in 2012 or 2013, even though Austin argued that they should have started in 2020 because of new information he learned about Fordham’s potential liability, according to court records reviewed by the Bronx Times.

The latest case, brought under the ASA, focuses on the university’s alleged negligence prior to the sexual assaults, according to Austin’s legal team. The ASA allowed E. Jean Carroll to sue former President Donald Trump, who a jury found guilty of sexually abusing and defaming her. Model Sara Ziff also brought a suit against Harvey Weinstein, his associate Fabrizio Lombardo and Disney for negligence and abuse under the law.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a sponsor of the ASA, said the law was passed “exactly for survivors like Frank Austin” and said his case can inspire others to come forward before the window closes in November.

“What you’re doing is helping others to know that there is an opportunity for them to go to court as well,” said state Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, another sponsor of the act. “Each time a brave survivor shares their story, it helps encourage others.” 

Rosenthal said that Austin’s situation is “especially despicable” because he actually reported the attacks to the university, per the allegations in the suit.

The lawsuit is specifically against Fordham University and does not name Sweeney as a defendant. Austin’s lawyers said that to their knowledge, no criminal charges have been brought against Sweeney.

Fordham University spokesperson Bob Howe told the Bronx Times that the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Attempts to reach Sweeney through Fordham University, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. – which the 2021 lawsuit alleged Sweeney was serving as a commissioned officer for – were unsuccessful on Monday.

“This is an action against Fordham University to hold Fordham accountable for its negligence,” said Peters, one of Austin’s lawyers. “And we wanted to be able to focus on Fordham’s negligence and therefore we brought the case solely against Fordham.”

While Austin’s lawyers told reporters Monday that there wasn’t a specific monetary amount being requested in the complaint, the complaint does specify an amount determined at trial “in excess of $75,000,” which is the required amount for a federal civil suit.

people yelling and walking, a sign reads "Fordham Culture is r*pe culture"
A Fordham student carries a sign that says “Fordham culture is r*pe culture” at a December 2021 protest outside the Rose Hill campus. Photo Aliya Schneider

A group of Fordham students marched around campus to protest the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations in December 2021. Protestors told the Bronx Times that the main inspiration for their rally was the story of Julianna Czernyk, which was reported on exclusively by the Bronx Times. Czernyk, a former Fordham student, sued another former student who the university found wasn’t liable for allegedly raping her. But when the students were planning their rally, they discovered Austin’s suit.

His treatment and the lack of grace he was shown was not in following with the Jesuit tradition of care we were taught by this institution,” Ellen Sweeney, one of the organizers of the protest, who is not related to Patrick Sweeney, told the Bronx Times on Monday. “We held the rally to bring light to his and other cases that are unfortunately, all too common. It is my hope that the university administration takes this new case seriously and considers the hurt their defensiveness has caused.”

Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes