On January 24th, former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 45 to 175 years behind bars for multiple counts of sexual abuse. The sentence, which Judge Rosemarie Aquilina described to Nassar as “your death warrant,” followed seven days of victim impact statements from 156 girls and women who described how they were sexually abused by Nassar over several decades.
When I followed the case, I was deeply inspired by the “army of survivors” who courageously confronted their abuser. When Aquilina handed down Nassar’s sentence, complete with a scathing rebuke of his unforgivable behavior, I cheered because justice had finally been served.
In a country where the vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators don’t spend a day in prison, Nassar’s sentence is absolutely a victory.
But it’s also a reminder that, all too often, it requires dozens of accusers for anyone in a position of power to be held accountable for their crimes.
Kyle Stephens, the first woman to testify last week, is the daughter of Nassar’s former good friends and the only non-athlete to testify. She recounted in detail how Nassar began sexually abusing her when she was in kindergarten. When Stephens told her parents about the abuse — which continued for six years — they chose to believe Nassar. But they weren’t the only people to let her down.
In all 50 states, counselors are required to contact authorities if they suspect a child is being abused. Stephens’ counselors failed her, as did Child Protective Services. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people in positions of authority who willfully looked the other way as children were sexually abused for years. In addition to his roles with USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee, Nassar also served as the doctor for athletes at Michigan State University.
A criminal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct began in 2014. During this investigation, Nassar continued to “treat” patients at USA Gymnastics until 2015, and he wasn’t fired from Michigan State University until September 2016.
His long-overdue termination coincided with victims going public with their accusations, and this hardly seems like a coincidence.
After the coach of elite gymnast Maggie Nichols reported Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics in summer 2015, the organization waited three weeks to arrange an interview with Nichols and a private investigator. The organization failed to contact the FBI until later that summer when Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney also reported being sexually abused by Nassar. Nichols’ allegation on its own warranted an FBI investigation, but USA Gymnastics waited until more victims came forward, forcing their hand. During the investigation, Raisman said that she was told by USA Gymnastics officials to “be quiet” and keep the abuse under wraps.
When USA Gymnastics learned that Nichols, Raisman, and Maroney were reportedly being abused, they failed to notify both Michigan State University and the United States Olympic Committee. As a result, additional women were subjected to Nassar’s abuse. Apparently, the sexual abuse of three young women wasn’t deemed serious enough by USA Gymnastics to take any form of action that would protect future victims. Furthermore, it’s ludicrous to think that the organization’s officials were unaware that other gymnasts were being molested by Nassar on their watch.
Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who is now a lawyer and gymnastics coach, was the first Nassar victim to go public. In 2016, her account was published by The Indianapolis Star and ultimately inspired the “army of survivors” who brought Nassar to justice. Less than two weeks after the Denhollander article published, 16 women had come forward with allegations against Nassar. That number continued to grow rapidly and criminal charges were, at long last, filed.
The Larry Nassar case proves that it takes a village of victims in order for sexual abuse to be taken seriously — let alone prosecuted.
It seems highly unlikely that Nassar would have been prosecuted if dozens of victims hadn’t come forward. Based on what we learned during the victim impact statements, this sexual predator could have been stopped at least two decades ago when Kyle Stephens reported him to counselors and Child Protective Services. But in our culture, when just one woman comes forward and stands alone, the chances of legal action are depressingly slim.
Unfortunately, this is something far too many women can relate to. When we entertain the possibility of reporting a sexual assault, we’re hit with the disempowering realization that “it’s my word against his.”
It shouldn’t have taken an army of survivors to bring down Larry Nassar, but it’s not surprising that it did. And it exemplifies how authority figures and our entire justice system fail victims of sexual violence.
Stephens’ reports on their own should have been enough. If they had been taken seriously by counselors and Child Protective Services, Nassar would never have met the majority of his future victims. Denhollander’s account alone should have been enough, and the same goes for Nichols, Raisman, Maroney, and Nassar’s other victims.
The fact that it took more than 160 victims to put Nassar in prison shows just how much work we have ahead of us. This army of survivors deserves endless praise for their tireless pursuit of justice — but it shouldn’t require an army to put sexual predators on trial for their crimes. Although sexual predators tend to victimize more than one person during their lifetimes, their victims don’t share a psychic connection that allows them to form a force before reporting the crime. And, more importantly, they shouldn’t need to. Each and every allegation of sexual assault deserves to be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, regardless of whether the perpetrator has one victim or 100.