Guest editorial: Breaking the silence of the lambs

Farmington Daily Times
Guest Editorial

The last time we marveled at U.S. Olympic star gymnast Aly Raisman, she was nearly flawless in her floor exercises in the 2016 all-around competition.

Her latest appearance, however, was even more impressive. In a Michigan courtroom, Raisman headlined a legion of former and current gymnasts who confronted Lawrence Nassar, the gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused scores of young female gymnasts over two decades.

“I didn’t think I would be here today,” Raisman said. “I was scared and nervous. It wasn’t until I started watching the impact statements from the other brave survivors that I realized I, too, needed to be here. Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force and you are nothing. The tables have turned, Larry. We are here, we have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.”

Raisman’s gutsy performance was matched by more than 150 other women who, day after day, testified to Nassar’s crimes and the terrible impact on their lives. The parade of victims bravely speaking out is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.

Nassar, a former osteopathic physician at Michigan State University, has pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for molesting young female gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment.

Before the current #MeToo era, it’s not hard to imagine how such flagrant abuse could continue year after year. Some of these young gymnasts didn’t dare speak out, for fear of derailing their careers. Some didn’t realize, at the age of 8 or 9 or 10, that what Nassar did wasn’t medical, it was criminal. And some did report Nassar’s behavior, only to be ignored, dismissed or threatened with retaliation.

Adults — who should have been protecting these girls — failed. Reports of the doctor’s misconduct reached at least 14 Michigan State University officials in the two decades before his arrest, The Detroit News reports. At least eight girls told athletic trainers, assistant coaches and other authorities. MSU President Lou Anna Simon was told in 2014, the paper says.

Finally, in 2016, The Indianapolis Star published an investigation into sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics, and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander became the first to file a criminal complaint against Nassar. “A monster was stopped ... after decades of being allowed to prey on women and little girls, and he wasn’t stopped by a single person who could have, and should have stopped him at least 20 years ago,” Denhollander told The Detroit News. “He was stopped by the victims, who had to fight through being silenced, being threatened, being mocked, by the officials at (Michigan State) who they appealed to for help. And now the very people who should have been protecting us all along ... have thumbed their nose at any semblance of accountability.”

The chairman and several board members of USA Gymnastics resigned on Monday. But the profound stain on that organization won’t be wiped away with those resignations and the sentencing of Nassar. Everyone who knew, everyone who dismissed the girls’ complaints, everyone who didn’t ask or didn’t tell, is complicit in this horror. Several Michigan lawmakers are demanding Simon’s resignation as MSU president.

A lesson for people in positions of authority: Accountability does indeed extend to the top of an organization. But all the way down the organization chart, it had better be everyone’s priority.

A lesson for parents: Teach girls and boys about inappropriate touching. And encourage them to tell you if an adult — any adult — does that to them.

A warning to would-be predators who rely on the silence of the lambs: Don’t. Because they’re not silent anymore.

— Chicago Tribune, Jan. 23