Editorial: Judge gives voice to victims of predator doctor

  • Victims react and hug Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis after Larry Nassar was sentenced by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to 40 to 175 years in prison, during a sentencing hearing Jan. 24 in Lansing, Mich. Nassar has admitted sexually assaulting athletes when he was employed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. AP FILE PHOTO

Friday, February 02, 2018

For years, the girls and women who were victims of predator-disguised-as-doctor Larry Nassar were unheard, disbelieved or told they were just plain wrong to describe his “treatment” for what it really was — sexual molestation.

Finally, more than 150 of those women were heard — and believed — in the Lansing, Michigan, courtroom of Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during a week of extraordinary testimony in January when she invited anyone who had been a victim of Nassar to deliver an impact statement. After sentencing Nassar, 54, to serve 40 to 175 years in prison, the judge told those women: “You are no longer victims. You are survivors. You are very strong.”

Nassar admitted molesting athletes during medical treatment while he worked for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians. He preyed on girls and women by penetrating them with his ungloved fingers under the guise of treatment, sometimes with their parents in the room, using a sheet or his body as a shield. Nassar’s crimes occurred over at least 20 years, continuing until 2016, even after he was ordered by Michigan State — where he was an associate professor of osteopathic medicine — to have a chaperone in the room during certain exams.

The number of Nassar’s victims is unknown. “Larry, how many of us are there? Do you even know?” asked Clasina Syrboby as she delivered her impact statement. “You preyed on me, on us. You saw a way to take advantage of your position — the almighty and trusted gymnastics doctor. Shame on you, Larry. Shame on you.”

Prosecutor Angela Povilaitis described Nassar as “possibly the most prolific serial child sex abuser in history” who found competitive gymnastics the “perfect place” to prey on girls and young women who saw him as a “god” while he “perfected a built-in excuse and defense” as a doctor even though he was “performing hocus-pocus medicine.”

Nassar got away with his crimes for so long because Michigan State and USA Gymnastics — where he was the longtime team physician — failed to act appropriately on complaints about his behavior. It was only after Nassar’s sentencing that Michigan State’s president resigned, its athletic director retired, and the entire board of USA Gymnastics stepped down as requested by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

That does not make up for the years of turning a blind eye by the institutions that allowed Nassar to prey at will, in the same way that the Catholic Church enabled priests who molested children, and Pennsylvania State University did not stop an assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, from sexually abusing boys for at least 15 years.

John Manly, a lawyer who represents more than 100 victims of Nassar in civil lawsuits, said Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee “miserably failed children.” He added, “They had an opportunity, instead of being Penn State, to make them a beacon of how to handle this. It’s too late. You can’t fix it now.”

In their powerful impact statements, Nassar’s victims described what it’s like to live with the memories of being violated by a trusted adult. Gymnast McKayla Maroney, a gold and silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics, said, “Dr. Nassar was not a doctor. He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

Jordyn Wieber, one of Maroney’s U.S. Olympic teammates in 2012, said, “Even though I’m a victim, I do not and will not live my life as one. I’m an Olympian despite being abused. I worked hard and managed to achieve my goal. But I want everyone — especially the media — to know that despite my athletic achievements, I am one of over 140 women and survivors whose story is important.”

We commend Judge Aquilina for making her courtroom a safe space for these women to tell their stories. She said, “Your sister survivors and you are going through incomprehensible lengths, emotions and soul-searching to put your words together, to publicly stop (the) defendant, to publicly stop predators, to make people listen.”

The years of molestation and institutional failings cannot be erased, but at last these brave women’s voices have been heard.