Larry Nassar, former doctor to young female athletes, will spend the rest of his life in prison. As she sentenced him to 40 to 175 years in jail, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said, “I just signed your death warrant.”
Nassar may have been the most successful serial abuser of young women in history. Judge Aquilina invited 156 women to testify in her courtroom about their assault by the hands of Nassar, beginning in 1992, 25 years ago. Over and over, he penetrated their vaginas with his fingers or his fist as part of his “therapy”. Some were younger than 10.
Nassar earned his medical degree from Michigan State University and worked there as a sports doctor. He became famous as the doctor for USA Gymnastics for nearly 20 years, which is in charge of the Olympic gymnastics team. His life of crime began to unravel when Nassar was first publicly accused in September 2016 by former gymnast Rachael Denhollander. But his sexual abuse had been reported to authorities many times long before that.
In 1997, Larissa Boyce reported what Nassar was doing to the MSU women’s gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, and another girl confirmed that she too had been “treated”. Both girls were shamed into silence. A women’s track coach was told in 1999. Athletic trainers were told in 2000. In 2004, clinical psychologist Dr. Gary Stollak was told. That same year, Brianne Randall, 17 years old, told the police in Meridian Township, near the Michigan State campus, that Nassar had touched her vagina and breasts. The police never told MSU.
MSU President Lou Anna Simon was told in 2014 that a police report had been filed against a sports doctor. She let her subordinates handle it and never saw the report. The subordinates included three other MSU doctors and the athletic trainer, as well as Dr. William Strampel, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, who decided Nassar’s actions were medically appropriate. At least 14 MSU employees were told about Nassar’s actions.
The only thing that stopped Nassar’s abuse was the public accusation by Rachael Denhollander last September. She was motivated by a story the month before in the “Indy Star” that USA Gymnastics had a long history of ignoring reports of sexual abuse by coaches.
How do serial abusers manage to continue their criminal activity? One reason is that making such accusations is deeply painful. It is difficult for a teenager to complain about the nature of their treatment by a doctor, especially if he is advertised as a “miracle worker”.
How do serial abusers manage to continue their criminal activity? One reason is that making such accusations is deeply painful. It is difficult for a teenager to complain about the nature of their treatment by a doctor, especially if he is advertised as a “miracle worker”. At a preliminary hearing, Shannon Smith, one of Nassar’s attorneys, asked Denhollander if she was coming forward for the money. Denhollander explained some of the cost of telling the truth. “My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated.”
The institutions who protect abusers circle the wagons against accusers. The vice chair of Michigan State’s board of trustees, Joel Ferguson, called victims’ lawyers “folks chasing ambulances” looking for a “payday”. A famous former prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was hired to by MSU investigate, and President Lou Anna Simon claimed in April that MSU was conducting a “thorough internal review”. In December, Fitzgerald exonerated the University by writing that nobody there knew what Nassar was doing. It turns out that Fitzgerald had been hired to defend the University against lawsuits. His team interviewed none of Nassar’s victims.
The lifelong sexual abusers who have made news were all protected by a cone of silence. Penn State administrators looked the other way when they heard about Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of boys. Reporting about Harvey Weinstein detailed the many people in Hollywood who knew about him and did nothing. Now a scandal has erupted in Germany about the star TV director Dieter Wedel, who was allowed to continue his predatory behavior by state-funded television channel Saarlaendischer Rundfunk, which knew about his abuse in the 1980s.
Denhollander wrote, “The first step toward changing the culture that led to this atrocity is to hold enablers of abuse accountable.” In Nassar’s case, the enablers are renowned institutions.
Some Americans apparently feel that men are under attack. I disagree – men who abuse women are under attack and it’s about time. But there may be a backlash from defenders of the male-dominated status quo, the patriarchal assumptions which allowed unpunished abuse to be so widespread. Trump was put into office because many white men and women feared that a world was crumbling where white male sexual dominance was a fundamental assumption. They didn’t care that he abused women and bragged about it; in fact, many supported him because he so openly violated new standards of correct behavior.
Eventually he too will get what he deserves.
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