Column: Larry Nassar case shows courage of victims, shamefulness of enablers


By Shannon Ryan - Chicago Tribune



In waves of courage, woman after woman stood before a judge, their abuser and the nation to detail the torturous sexual abuse inflicted upon them for years by a former U.S. Olympic team physician.

Recounting their horrific stories at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing that began last week, they found a sliver of long-awaited justice and finally ensured their pain would be ignored no longer.

Nassar, a former osteopathic physician at Michigan State and a former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for molesting young female gymnasts as he feigned medical treatment. He already had been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges, and additional sentencing is expected to be delivered Tuesday.

Aly Raisman, captain of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams in 2012 and 2016, spoke during Friday’s victim-impact statements.

“All these brave women have power,” Raisman said, “and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve: A life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors.”

Make no mistake. If it had not been for this overwhelming army of victims demanding justice, Nassar’s vile crimes would have continued. If there’s a lesson parents can take from this it’s that predators can be found anywhere — and so can people willing to enable them.

According to a Detroit News report, at least 14 officials at Michigan State were aware of Nassar’s abuse in the two decades before his arrest in 2016 and did not intervene. At least five women said they told coaches, athletic trainers or other authority figures at Michigan State that Nassar inappropriately touched them. Still, nothing.

According to some victims, USA Gymnastics threatened them to remain quiet.

Rachael Denhollander was the first victim to file a criminal complaint against Nassar in 2016, shortly after the Indianapolis Star published an investigation into sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics.

“A monster was stopped last year, after decades of being allowed to prey on women and little girls, and he wasn’t stopped by a single person who could have, and should have stopped him at least 20 years ago,” Denhollander told the Detroit News. “He was stopped by the victims, who had to fight through being silenced, being threatened, being mocked, by the officials at (Michigan State) who they appealed to for help. And now the very people who should have been protecting us all along … have thumbed their nose at any semblance of accountability.”

The case only gained widespread national attention last week when the victims’ statements began. Even in this era of #MeToo, too few people have paid attention to these stories or directed their outrage at Michigan State the same way they have at other universities after heinous scandals.

According to a Media Matters report on Friday, the case received minimal attention on the three major cable news channels — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — which devoted a combined 19 minutes, 47 seconds of coverage to Nassar’s sentencing and the women’s statements.

Is this how little we think of women and female athletes? The same women we refer to every four years as “Olympic darlings”?

The spotlight pales in comparison to the long national dialogue about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty in 2012 of molesting boys on campus. Three university officials, including President Graham Spanier, were sentenced to prison for failing to report Sandusky to authorities.

That Michigan State officials with knowledge of the accusations against Nassar watched the Sandusky case unfold and still were not moved to contact authorities is unconscionable.

Pathetically and insultingly, it was not until Friday that Michigan State asked Michigan’s attorney general to investigate the school’s handling of complaints against Nassar. This, after decades of a culture of secrecy.

The board of trustees announced it would not remove President Lou Anna Simon, who according to the Detroit News was aware in 2014 that an unnamed doctor on staff was under a Title IX investigation. One board member walked back that support over the weekend as victims’ statements like Lemke’s demand more accountability.

Lindsey Lemke, a former Michigan State gymnastics captain who said she was assaulted by Nassar, was right to call Simon and others who allegedly could have stopped Nassar “cowards.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert also took a weak stance Friday, telling reporters he did not know enough about the case to comment. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo answered reporters’ questions about the case, expressing empathy for victims but also saying, “I hope the right person was convicted.” (Memo to Izzo: Nassar pleaded guilty. More than 100 women have spoken out about his abuse.)

It would be nice if the NCAA, Michigan State or USA Gymnastics could muster a fraction of the courage these victims have shown.

“All these brave women have a voice, and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve,” Raisman said in court, speaking directly to Nassar. “You do realize that this group of women you heartlessly abused over a long period of time are now a force. And you are nothing. The tables have turned. And now, Larry, it is your turn to listen to me.”

Let’s hope everyone is finally listening and willing to act.

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By Shannon Ryan

Chicago Tribune