Larry Nassar assaults continued due to victim doubt

Photo courtesy of Flickr  USA Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman celebrate at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Biles, Douglas and Raisman have accused Nassar of sexual assault. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr

USA Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman celebrate at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Biles, Douglas and Raisman have accused Nassar of sexual assault. 

BY LILY REAVIS ’21

Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for decades of sexual assault, as well as 60 years for possession of child pornography, on Jan. 24. The ruling was long overdue. Because mandatory reporters and the institutions employing Nassar ignored abuse accusations and repeatedly delayed investigations, he was able to assault over 150 women and girls. According to NBC, eight different people accused Nassar of sexual assault between 1997 and 2015, but were discredited each time, despite mandatory reporting laws. The culture of doubting victims is the main reason many sexual assaults take place. 

At a gymnastics camp at Michigan State University (MSU) in 1997, 16-year-old Larissa Boyce and an anonymous 14-year-old told coach Kathie Klages that Nassar was sexually assaulting them, according to court files. Nassar worked at MSU as a team physician and assistant professor at the time, and he and Klages were good friends. Boyce said that Klages “interrogated” them about the accusation, and said that they misunderstood what Nassar had done. During his sentencing hearing, Boyce told Nassar “I apologized to you, I had been defeated.”  

In 2004, 12-year-old Kyle Stephens told her therapist that Larry Nassar had been sexually assaulting her for six years, according to court files. Stephens was the first person to ever accuse Nassar of misconduct, though previous assaults were uncovered during 2018 investigations. Instead of reporting the assault to law enforcement as mandatory reporting laws require, the therapist arranged a meeting between Stephens’ parents and Nassar, who were good family friends. Nassar denied any sexual action, and it was written off as a cry for attention. 

During her testimony, Stephens said, “To my father, someone who makes such heinous, false accusations is the worst type of person. His belief that I lied seeped into the foundation of our relationship.” She reported that she was repeatedly told by her father to apologize to Nassar. Before moving to college, Stephens told her father that she had not been lying about the abuse. She believes that her father’s guilt about doubting her led to his suicide in 2016. 

Ten years after Stephens’ initial accusation, MSU graduate Amanda Thomashow contacted Jeffrey Kovan, one of Nassar’s colleagues in the MSU sports medicine department, to report sexual assault during a treatment session with Nassar. The case was referred to Kristine Moore, who organized a meeting between her, Thomashow and an MSU police officer. Documents from the meeting that were used as evidence during Nassar’s sentencing trial show that Nassar vaginally penetrated Thomashow, though he claimed it was “medically necessary.” Moore decided that Nassar’s behavior was unprofessional and traumatic for Thomashow, but that it wasn’t sexual in nature. After turning over the MSU police report to prosecutors, charges were deemed unnecessary and Nassar returned to work. 

At the time of Thomashow’s accusation, Nassar was employed at MSU and acted as the USA Gymnastics Medical Coordinator. MSU failed to notify USA Gymnastics that Nassar was under investigation at any point. “Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure,” Thomashow said at the hearing.

There are several more stories of victims who spoke out against Nassar and were disregarded before his 2018 investigation. 

Maggie Nichols, a U.S. gymnast who reported Nassar’s assault in 2015 and sparked the subsequent monsoon of similar reports, wasn’t even believed by USA Gymnastics until teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney also stepped forward. 

Sexual assault by a person in a position of trust is incredibly common, and often continues because of the abuser’s credibility. In these cases, the victim is generally much younger and less reputable than the abuser, which discounts the validity of their accusations. As a result, the abuse is allowed to continue far past when the victim steps forward. In 2014, Dr. Myles Bradbury was sentenced to 22 years in prison for 25 sexual offenses on his patients. In 2015, celebrated foster father Bill Rathbone was convicted of 14 child sex abuse charges against his foster children. Just as in the Nassar case, these adults in positions of trust took advantage of their young victims by establishing power over them.

Victim doubt is an epidemic that has to be stopped. Not only does it contribute to a culture of victim blaming, it also spreads the idea that abuse only matters when it’s a random attack, which is far less common. Several of Nassar’s young victims spoke out to trusted adults decades ago, and their lack of response was nothing short of incompetent.  

For Larry Nassar’s victims, the trauma went far beyond the initial attack, as they were forced to pretend it never happened. The attitude held by countless coaches, parents and therapists that Nassar’s victims were making up the abuse is what allowed attacks to continue. If a single mandatory reporter would have done their job and reported Nassar when accusations were made about him, it could have prevented further decades of abuse. 

As Jordyn Wieber, a retired U.S. Olympic gymnast, said, “I thought that training for the Olympics would be the hardest thing I would ever have to do. But the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is process that I am a victim of Larry Nassar.”