In September 2016, Rachel Denhollander was the first woman to make a public allegation of sexual assault against former USA Gymnastics (USA Gymnastics) and Michigan State University (MSU) team doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar was accused of sexually abusing more than 140 children and young women. He was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison on seven counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree. He is already serving 60 years in prison on child pornography charges and awaits sentencing on three more counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree. 169 survivors and family members were allowed to give victim impact statements in court.
Denhollander made a powerful statement about the long and frustrating process of seeking an end to the abuse and justice to be served. In making a case for a long prison sentence, she asked the judge to consider “How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?”. She pled for the maximum sentence and the fullest weight of the law to be used to protect another innocent child from sexual assault. Children are worth every protection the law can offer.
She described Nassar as a hardened and determined sexual predator. She was sexually assaulted by him over a 16-year period under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar groomed her for the purpose of his sexual gain. He found satisfaction in the suffering of his victims, some girls as young as six years old. He gained the trust of their parent, sometimes performing sexual violation with a parent in the room.
What was particularly upsetting in her testimony was the ability of others to minimize, deny and fail to act on behalf of victims. Four other victims prior to her allegation had described his behavior and penetration and their belief that they had been assaulted, in detail, to three different athletic departments at MSU. It was reported to MSU’s head gymnastics coach, to a track coach and to multiple athletic trainers and supervisors years prior to Denhollander’s contact with Nassar. Some of the trainers and people in positions of authority had been told of the abuse and were silenced. USAG was burying reports of sexual assault instead of reporting them. This led to a culture of abuse against children without fear of being caught. The USAG allowed Nassar to “treat” these girls in their own beds without having a medical license in the state of Texas.
Denhollander is angry. MSU responded to allegations with press releases saying that there was no cover-up because no one who heard the reports of assaults believed that Nassar was committing abuse. They didn’t know, because no one believed. And because no one believed, victims were silenced, intimidated, repeatedly told it was medical treatment and forced to return to Nassar for continued assault. Authorities said the allegations of assault didn’t count because it wasn’t told to the right person. They imply that the right person is the one who has authority to fire the alleged perpetrator.
As a result of this case, The US Olympic Committee has ordered the entire USA Gymnastics board to resign by January 31. Two MSU officials have quit. MSU athletic director stepped down following reports that the school knew of the abuse claims but failed to take action. These bodies are required to examine their plans for combating abuse.
So, who has the duty to protect children? Who is the right person to file a report? What is the right way to handle sexual assault allegations?
I am a mental health professional who is mandated to report allegations of abuse to our state department of child welfare. But everyone has a duty to protect children. Everyone is morally and ethically mandated to protect vulnerable people by nature of being a responsible world citizen. It is never an easy task to place a call for fear of negative consequences. However, it is not your role to be judge and jury as to the validity of an allegation. You are only called upon to place the call. Once you place a call, a case worker will assess whether the allegation is reportable according to their guidelines. If so, a police report is made and an investigation is held. They will deem the allegation founded, or unfounded, and take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of the child.
Here’s the wrong way to handle an allegation. Don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. Don’t deny the allegation and assume that the victim is confused, making it up, or the allegation lacks proof. Don’t honor your own belief that bringing forth the allegation will cause further harm to the victim, and therefore hide the report. Don’t assign malicious intent to the victim, believing them to be wanting attention, or seeking financial gain. Don’t hide behind the idea that there is fault on both sides, and the victim must have wanted it or contributed to it on some level. And don’t assume that children are resilient and no long harm has been done. Victims will have lifetime scars.
“How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?” These are questions that you alone answer when you suspect or learn of abuse. Do your part in protecting children.