Students and faculty alike gathered in the Innovative Technologies Center this past Tuesday to listen to Moira Penza, ‘05, give a powerful lecture about her success in dismantling the NXIVM sex cult. The lecture gave a behind-the-scenes look at the process of the trial, the evidence put forward and, ultimately, what led to the conviction of the individuals involved.
Penza, a graduate of Harpur College, had double-majored in English and history before she studied at Cornell Law School. She described her decision to attend Binghamton University as “one of the best decisions of [her] life.” Now, she works primarily on behalf of victims of sexual violence.
The time she first caught wind of NXIVM was in October 2017, when she found a New York Times article titled, “Inside a Secret Group Where Women are Branded.” She suspected that there was a great deal of crime and illegal activity involved, and thus began the investigation that would change her life.
The NXIVM cult was based outside Albany, NY, and led by Keith Raniere. A small, inner-circle of women was responsible for carrying out Raniere’s demands. Penza talked the audience through Raniere’s role in creating a secret organization, referred to as “DOS,” in which women were recruited into what was claimed to be a self-help, women empowerment organization, unaware that the vows they made to obey the other women involved actually vowing to women who Raniere controlled.
The group instituted such behavior by collecting collateral from the women, in which they were ordered to provide harmful confessions about themselves or family members that could be true or false, rights to financial assets, explicit images or videos — such as nude photographs — or anything else that, if released, could potentially ruin the life of the individual. This was done to prevent women from leaving the organization or revealing its existence to anyone outside of the group. The women were subject to branding, food and sleep deprivation, unpaid labor and, ultimately, sexual abuse.
Penza led the audience through the factors and evidence that went into the trial, what needed to be proven in order to convict Raniere and others and how they did so. Ultimately, Penza and her team were able to convict Raniere on all counts of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. Raniere was ultimately sentenced to 120 years in prison.
At the end of the presentation, Penza addressed the audience with the lessons she learned through handling such a case.
“When you have the privilege to act on something, you do so,” Penza said.
Rebecca Jacobson, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law, was fascinated by hearing the details of a real trial, as opposed to trials depicted through film and television shows.
“I’ve never, sadly never, had the chance to really hear what goes on in a real case, what is actually involved in these kinds of high-level, high-profile cases,” Jacobson said. “I’ve only ever had impressions through, you know, Law and Order SVU and such. So, when I got the opportunity to come and actually see someone give a really amazing breakdown of what they did in a very recent case, I was floored at how different my perceptions were from what they actually [do].”
The presentation was so impactful that it reinstated Jacobson’s interests and goals for the future.
“It was just very eye-opening, and that made me really interested in giving more energy and more time to be invested in this field when I was kind of wanting to change my major,” Jacobson said.
Amelia Thorp, educational director of the Thurgood Marshall Pre-Law Society and a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, discussed her inspiration for attending the lecture, which all started with The Vow — an HBO documentary depicting the experiences of those deeply involved in NXIVM.
“I had watched the documentary that HBO had put out like two years ago and it really interested me, especially from the aspect of coercion of women that was occurring,” Thorp said.
As a member of the Thurgood Marshall Pre-Law Society, Thorp was particularly interested in hearing Penza’s story, viewing the lecture as an inspiration for her future career goals.
“I just wanted to see how that happened, because [at] Thurgood Marshall we are social justice oriented. It’s nice to see in such a negative situation that there is some positive aspect to it because I think a lot of us in Thurgood Marshall want to go down career paths where we’re going to work with some pretty ugly cases,” Thorp said.
Faculty were also moved by Penza’s words. Harpur College Dean Celia Klin described the pride she feels when seeing such successful Harpur College alumni such as Penza, and how this serves as a constant reminder of her purpose at BU.
“I know it when I see the students who are currently here, I believe in what they are learning and that they are going to make a difference in the world, but then I see it all the time in our [alumni],” Klin said.
Ever since Klin stepped into the role about three years ago, she has had a great deal of interaction with Harpur College alumni. Seeing such wide success from graduates like Penza and other alumni across all fields is a source of inspiration for Klin.
“You know what’s really lovely when talking to alumni is that they talk so, not just fondly about their Harpur [College] years, but they understand with some time having passed how important it was,” Klin said. “You know even if they weren’t sure when they were here, what they wanted to do or where they were headed, when they get there they reflect and think, ‘Yeah. This began with my Harpur [College] years.’ And that’s a lovely feeling.”