In 2011, New Times wrote about Ave Maria University, a $500 million Catholic catastrophe in the middle of the Corkscrew Swamp. Lawsuits, scandals, and a federal investigation threatened to ruin the pious project just four years into billionaire pizza mogul Tom Monaghan's plans.
Two years later, one of Ave Maria's students is now stepping forward to tell his horror story of receiving harassment and death threats in the small town/school near Naples.
"Somebody needs to write about this place," Ross Hemminger says. "Somebody needs to write about the lives that they've destroyed."
"Mr. Hemminger clearly has an agenda, and his claims about his alleged treatment at Ave Maria University advances that agenda," the university said in a statement sent to Riptide. "Ave Maria University is proud of its warm and welcoming campus culture, and our growing enrollment is testimony to the fact that students who attend here are having an excellent experience."
Hemminger grew up in a blue-collar farming community in northwestern Ohio. He was six-foot-three and a devout Catholic. He was also openly gay.
"I had always been out of the closet, although I never really liked that term," he says. "It had never occurred to me that there were people out there who would hate me because of that."
He was in for a rude awakening at Ave Maria.
Hemminger was working at a bank in Ohio when he began receiving scholarship offers from the brand-new university. The financial aid offer was tempting enough to lure him to the middle of nowhere 1,000 miles south. "They are very aggressive about recruiting people because they have to be," he says.
He drove down with his mom and sister. The first sign that something was wrong, however, came when Hemminger was registering for classes in the library.
"The girl in front of me was seven or eight months pregnant," he recalls. "She introduced herself but then said, 'That's not my real name. I'm not telling anybody my real name because I'm giving the baby up for adoption.'
"She was in some program where, if you get pregnant, they'll give you a new identity," Hemminger says. "She told all friends she was studying in Europe for the semester. She was given a fake name and was living with a woman in the town.
"I just thought, That's insane! What that girl told me was insane!"
But that was only the beginning of Hemminger's problems.
During his two years at the school, Hemminger would experience homophobia, harassment, and death threats, he says.
Being gay immediately made Hemminger suspicious on the über-conservative campus. However, he truly became a target after giving an interview to a local news station. Asked by a Fox 4 reporter about local gadfly Marielena Stuart -- who had been expelled from school property -- Hemminger said the university should debate its critics rather than ban them from campus.
Shortly afterward, some of Hemminger's fellow students created what he calls a "hate group page" about him, labeling him a drama queen. He also began receiving nasty messages. The first one was taped to his door.
"You're gay and I think that's disgusting," it read. "I hope you burn in Hell."
Others were worse: They were death threats.
Hemminger says the school did not help. "The administration had no interest in protecting me," he claims. "All they wanted was for me to go back on Fox 4 and say all these great things about the school. I was like, 'Fuck you guys.'"
From there, the situation spiraled out of control. Hemminger claims his grades and fees were tampered with; a close professor-friend was warned that rumors would soon begin about their relationship unless he cut off contact; and a priest told him he deserved to be punished for being gay and "pro-death" (pro choice).
But instead of shutting up Hemminger, it outed him even further. He hung a rainbow flag in his window.
"The school turned me from being a good Catholic boy from northwestern Ohio to a full-fledged activist," he says. "I even went to Gay Pride Fest in Fort Myers."
The death threats got to him, however. After two years at Ave Maria, Hemminger decided to leave. He had interned for pro-gay marriage and pro-choice Republicans while in school and soon got a job working on campaigns in Virginia. He now lives in Boston and works for an NGO for gay Republicans.
Hemminger insists Ave Maria isn't all bad.
"There were people at the school who did a lot to protect me, particularly the professors
who took me under their wing and into their homes," he says. "True Catholicism is not what is going on in that place. True Catholicism is taking someone into your home to let them know that someone cares about them.
"But rather than practice love and forgiveness like the Catholic Church teaches, most people at Ave Maria practice fear and hate," he says. "The institution has made its name off of instilling fear and hate in people. There is no respect. They are not interested in intellectual discussion. They are only interested in [founder] Tom Monaghan's political beliefs."
Hemminger hopes it's not too late to help others in situations similar to his at Ave Maria.
"It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that there could be others out there like me, other victims," he says. "Somebody needs to write about this place. Somebody needs to write about the lives that they've destroyed.
"There were years that I would wake up panicked in the night, still thinking that I was there," he says. "It took years for me to get over the place."