What can we learn from the Larry Nassar case?

Rachael Denhollander, left, is introduced by Assistant Attorney General Angela Povaliatis, before she makes the final victim impact statement, during Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 in Lansing, Mich. The former sports doctor who admitted molesting some of the nation's top gymnasts for years was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison as the judge declared: "I just signed your death warrant." (Matthew Dae Smith/AP)

Larry Nassar, an osteopathic physician for the USA Gymnastics team, is sentenced to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse of his patients. His first reported abuse incident took place in 1998, but Larry was allowed to continue practicing under special supervision.

144 victim impact statements were heard during his recent trial just a few days ago. In their statements, girls described the trauma they underwent because of Nassar’s continuous abuse. This case became even more popular in the last few days after a very impactful victim statement by Aly Raisman. Her statement brings together the other testimonies made by other victims and presents them as a unified front whose voices and stories are pushing Nassar’s harsh sentence. Ms. Raisman spoke to the judge and directly to Nassar. She expressed her strength and her ability to overcome Nassar’s ongoing harassment.

While Nassar had been abusing his patients for around twenty years, he is only now being sentenced. In their statements, some abuse survivors came forward and tried to report the incidents to either USA gymnastics or the Michigan Police but were turned away. “At least five women said they told coaches, athletic trainers or other authority figures at Michigan State that Nassar inappropriately touched them. Still, nothing.” In her statement, Aly Raisman addressed this dismissal as an institutional flaw. Silencing the voices of women who are brave enough to come forward about a traumatic event invites dangers like Nassar to abuse more and more women.

The most important thing that this case has brought to the public’s attention is the powerful impact of stepping forward. While some survivors were dismissed by USA Gymnastics, many of the gymnasts remained to prevent putting their athletic career in jeopardy. Nassar took advantage of the girls’ ambition and continued to molest them, knowing full well they would not speak up because they wanted to stay on the Olympic team. Staying silent and not stepping forward is a form of validation to abusers; it makes them think that their abuse will be tolerated and incentivizes them to harass even more women.

In addition to coming forward about an abuser, it is important to challenge any organization that condones this behavior. In her statement, Raisman brought USA Gymnastics’ protection of Nassar to the attention of the judge and presented it as a central part of this tragedy. If the organization had intervened after the initial reports, they would have spared this abuse from over 100 girls. The state of Michigan also had a rightful duty to act upon the reports against Nassar that they chose to ignore. 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. Recently, the number of women that came forward about Nassar was too overwhelming for organizations to ignore, and their attempt to silence the women has now brought to the attention of the court during trial and their integrity was lost.

Silencing voices of women who are so courageous as to come forward and report sexual abuse is a big flaw in the criminal justice system and any organization that condones such behavior. By promoting silence, these organizations are validating horrific behavior and dissuading others victims from stepping forward. The survivors of Nassar’s abuse should be admired for their incredible strength, and this case should teach many of us the power of speaking up and the danger of silence. Spreading awareness about an abuser like Larry Nassar, even if it does not come in the form of a legal suit, makes others aware of a dangerous person and stops them from hurting others. Raisman mentions the importance of coming forward in her statement, “for by doing so, you will send a message to him and to other abusers that they cannot get away with their horrible crimes, that they will be exposed for the evil they are and they will be punished to the maximum extent of the law.”


Keren Blaunstein is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus.  She can be reached via email at keren.blaunstein@uconn.edu.