One by one, the young women will step up in court, just feet away from their abuser. And they will deliver the message that so many have repeated.
On Tuesday, the victims of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, will speak out in a Michigan court as part of his criminal sentencing. Nassar pleaded guilty in November to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct and admitted that he used his position as a trusted medical professional to sexually abuse young girls.
But the victim impact statements won’t end Tuesday. Several days have been set aside to hear from up to 125 victims or their parents. The Michigan Department of Attorney General spokesperson expects 88 individuals to give victim impact statements in what is likely to be a remarkable reckoning for the largest sexual abuse scandal in the history of sports.
The victim impact statements are expected to be emotional, heartfelt and gut-wrenching tales of the abuse and its lasting effects. But for many victims, the statements may also be cathartic, said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“You go through all these months of keeping a secret, and then the investigation, and waiting on the court proceedings. That whole system is not at all a victim-centered experience or a system that is sensitive to the emotional toll on victims,” Houser said. “This is … the one opportunity you get to speak your piece in your own words, unedited, and say the truth about the full picture of how these things impacted your life.”
The basic facts of Nassar’s case serve as an extremely disturbing example of what sparked the #MeToo movement. Scores of women say they were abused by a respected man – and then pressured into silence by powerful institutions.
Nassar was the team doctor for USA Gymnastics through four Olympic Games, treating hopeful young gymnasts and gold medal winners alike. As the national governing body of gymnastics in America, USA Gymnastics is responsible for selecting the national team and training young, promising athletes.
Nassar also worked at Michigan State University from 1997 to 2016 as an associate professor, and he served as the gymnastics and women’s crew team physician. Under the guise of providing medically necessary treatment, Nassar instead abused many of his patients. He admitted in court to putting his finger into the vagina of patients in cases going back as far as 1998 – including girls under the age of 13.
His victims include several of the most famous and successful Olympic athletes in America. Three members of the “Fierce Five” team of gymnasts that won gold at the 2012 Olympics – Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney – have said Nassar abused them.
“It seemed whenever and wherever this man could find the chance, I was ‘treated,’” Maroney wrote on Twitter in October. “It happened in London before my team and I won the gold medal, and it happened before I won my silver.”
Nassar spoke in court in November, saying he wanted “healing.”
“For all those involved, I’m so horribly sorry that this was like a match that turned into a forest fire out of control,” he said.
“I have no animosity toward anyone. I just want healing. … We need to move forward in a sense of growth and healing and I pray (for) that.”
In response, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina criticized Nassar and praised the women who came forward. “You used that position of trust that you had in the most vile way to abuse children,” she said. “I agree that now is a time of healing, but it may take them a lifetime of healing while you spend your lifetime behind bars thinking about what you did in taking away their childhood.”
Allegations of a cover-up
Raisman, who said she was first treated by Nassar when she was 15, is one of many victims who have expressed anger at USA Gymnastics, saying the organization enabled Nassar and silenced victims.
“If you did not believe that I & others were abused than (sic) why pressure & manipulate us?” she wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “WE WERE MOLESTED BY A MONSTER U ENABLED 2 THRIVE FOR DECADES. You are 100% responsible. It was mandatory to get ‘treatment’ by Nassar.”
Attorney John Manly, who represents 107 victims in civil lawsuits, has argued that Nassar was supported in his abuse by three institutions: USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee and Michigan State University.
Each of those “miserably failed” to protect the children under their care, he said late last year. Manly also accused USA Gymnastics of a “brazen attempt” at a cover-up. The organization has dismissed that claim.
Last week, star collegiate gymnast Maggie Nichols said that she and a coach reported Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics officials in 2015.
In its response, USA Gymnastics cited Nichols’ “bravery” and said it reported Nassar to the FBI in July 2015 and to a different FBI office in April 2016.
The group said information from Nichols and another athlete “was important, but did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred.” Following an interview with a third athlete, information from all three young women was given to the FBI, it said.
USA Gymnastics contacted the FBI after an interview with the third athlete in July 2015, the organization said. “We are sorry that any athlete has been harmed during her or his gymnastics career. USA Gymnastics is focused every day on creating a culture of empowerment that encourages our athletes to speak up about abuse and other difficult topics,” the statement said.
USA Gymnastics also denied Manly’s assertion that the organization tried to keep the investigation secret ahead of the Olympics.
“Contrary to reported accusations, USA Gymnastics never attempted to hide Nassar’s misconduct,” the group said. “The suggestion by plaintiff’s counsel … that USA Gymnastics tried to silence athletes or keep the investigation secret to avoid headlines before the Rio Olympics and to protect Los Angeles’ Olympic bid is entirely baseless,” the group said in a statement.
USA Gymnastics did not inform Michigan State University, which continued to employ Nassar, of the allegations, Manly said. It wasn’t until August 2016 that Michigan State University Police took a report of alleged assault and opened an investigation into Nassar, the school said.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the lead attorney for Michigan State University in these cases, defended MSU in a letter to the Michigan attorney general.
“The evidence will show that no MSU official believed that Nassar committed sexual abuse prior to newspaper reports in the summer of 2016,” he wrote, according to the university.
US Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Jones said, “We were first made aware of the possibility that a USA Gymnastics physician had sexually abused USA Gymnastics athletes in the summer of 2015 when we were informed by USA Gymnastics.
“At that time USA Gymnastics indicated that they were in the process of contacting the appropriate law enforcement agencies. We are heartbroken that this abuse occurred, proud of the brave victims that have come forward and grateful that our criminal justice system has ensured that Nasser will never be able to harm another young woman.
“We are hopeful that with the US Center for SafeSport’s continued education and prevention efforts, as well as their investigative and adjudicative authority, we will help ensure that tragedies like this will never happen again.”
No matter the sentence, Nassar will serve the rest of his life in prison. In a federal court case, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison in December after he pleaded guilty to receiving child pornography in 2004, possessing child pornography from 2003 to 2016 and destroying evidence in 2016 as he was under investigation, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan.