When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar to a minimum of 40 years, she brought an end to a marathon trial that saw statements from more than 150 girls and women. But the pain doesn’t end. The damage is done.
I watched the painful testimony from women whose promising young lives had been changed forever — many fully destroyed — not only because they had been victimized by a monster, but also because the monster had gone unchecked. For decades.
Only a day before Nassar was sentenced, I received a letter from a woman I’ve known for years. She is a fine person — both my constituent and neighbor — an observant Jew, who raised her children in our sacred traditions. But her small son fell victim to a pedophile. She was writing to update me on a story I have followed for years: “My son is now living out of state,” she writes. “He’s happily married, thank G-d, but I don’t think he’ll ever recover from his childhood experience. He’s afraid to have children, even though he has a wonderful wife who wants children very much.”
A religious man, happily married, afraid to have children. Because of the abuse he endured as a child.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Larry Nassar case. Nassar operated under the guise of respectability, which gave him a smokescreen with not only the institutions he was affiliated with, but also with parents. One victim of Nasser’s, whose father committed suicide, explained how her father never forgave himself for allowing Nassar to abuse his own daughter. I’ve heard similar stories from parents who came to me many years later. They didn’t realize, when approached with complaints, that ignoring or mitigating their child’s cry for help was akin to putting a second knife in the child’s back.
Another lesson from the Nasser case: Pedophiles do not stop at one victim. When they finally commit their first heinous crime — and get away with it — approaching the next victim becomes that much easier. In Nasser’s case, more than 150 people gave testimony to crimes that stretched back 20 years. Some of these crimes were reported as early as 1997, but no one believed them. Had only one early victim been believed, hundreds of lives could have been saved.
When I first met community members who had been abused as children, they weren’t necessarily seeking justice. They were often just looking for someone to talk with — someone who would listen and take them seriously. The first question I’d ask was, if something happened to them at age 8 or 9 or 10 or 12 — why had they waited so long to speak up? It was a question I learned to stop asking.
They waited, I learned, because it is hard enough for a healthy adult to process the ramifications of child abuse — especially when the abuser is a trusted grown-up. It takes years, and sometimes decades, to gain enough distance to even begin seeking help. I’ve seen first-hand the difference between those who reported their abuse early — and were believed — and those who waited. The earlier things are dealt with, the better. Otherwise, damage compounds. As Elie Wiesel wisely pointed out, silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
With the #TimesUp movement gaining momentum, stories of sex abuse are surfacing in a way we’ve never seen before. But when the media begins focusing on the next topic de jour, the problem will remain. Unless we make changes and remain vigilant. Because this is a problem that impacts everyone; a disease that is found in every community.
Let us not miss this vital opportunity to address abuse before it claims more lives.