Larry Nassar’s victims get ready to have their say

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Now, it’s the victims’ turns to speak.

Accusers of disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar are preparing to make statements in court in less than two months that will help determine how long he will be in prison.

Former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar expresses remorse in court after pleading guilty to seven sexual assault charges in Lansing  Wednesday.  Behind is attorney Shannon Smith.

Nassar’s sentencing, scheduled for Jan. 12 and Jan. 19 if needed, will come after he admitted for the first time that he sexually assaulted girls under the guise of medical treatment while working for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

Nine women were involved in the charges Nassar pleaded guilty to. His plea agreement stipulates that the Attorney General’s office will not further prosecute the reports of 125 women who contacted MSU police with allegations against Nassar. But it allows all of them to address the court at sentencing. The statements can be made verbally, in writing or through video or a live electronic feed.

Victims can also sit in a private room and watch if they don’t want to be in the same room as Nassar. They can also keep their identity anonymous, said Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty Wednesday to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County Circuit Court as many of his other victims stood in the courtroom and watched. Some victims were visibly emotional as Nassar admitted guilt and dabbed tears from their eyes.

“Today, we heard the truth from Larry,” said Rachael Denhollander, who told MSU and the Indianapolis Star her story about Nassar, paving the way for scores of other women to come forward with similar stories. “He committed sexual penetration on his victims and he is guilty of first-degree criminal sexual assault. Justice has begun.”

Others said that they were glad that Nassar admitted guilt rather than opting for a lengthy trial. Nassar is expected to plead guilty to three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Eaton County next week.

Madeleine Jones, an 18-year-old Farmington Hills resident who was among the victims in the Ingham County case, said that after suffering from abuse by Nassar, she felt empowered on Wednesday.

“I walked in the courtroom and felt a sense of solidarity,” Jones said. “We put him in jail together.”

It was a dramatic day Wednesday in Ingham County Court, which came months after six women and three minors testified for hours earlier this year about what Nassar did to them, and the aftermath in their lives.

While the nine women were involved in the charges that Nassar pleaded guilty to, it was a small part of the scandal. More than 140 others joined a civil lawsuit against Nassar, and 125 complained to MSU officials. Several Olympic gymnasts also claimed during television interviews or on social media that he assaulted him.

All said Nassar gained their trust when they were young gymnasts and then betrayed them. Most said he sexually abused them while treating them for injuries. In some cases, the treatments lasted up to 45 minutes. At times their parents were in the room while he was abusing them but the young women said he positioned himself so their parents couldn’t see what he was doing.

Nassar, who was allowed to speak in court Wednesday, took the opportunity to apologize for his behavior, which included digitally penetrating young girls without a glove, lubricant or consent.

“I think this is important, that what I’ve done today to help move the community forward and away from all the hurting,” Nassar said. “Let the healing start.

“For all those involved ... I’m so horribly sorry that this was like a match that turned into a forest fire out of control. I pray the rosary every day for forgiveness.”

He said he wanted the victims to heal.

“I have no animosity toward anyone,” Nassar said. “I just want healing. That’s the biggest thing. We need to move forward.”

Jessica Smith, a ballet dancer who was sexually assaulted by Nassar when she was 17, said afterward that she rolled her eyes during Nassar’s apology and didn’t find it comforting.

“I decide when I heal; he has no power over us as survivors,” said Smith, who started a Facebook page, Me Too MSU. “I am my own person; I have my own voice, and I will choose when I heal. If he had things to apologize for, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Nassar’s plea Wednesday and next week in Eaton County represent 10 counts involving nine women with a sentence range of 25-40 years in prison.

As part of the plea deal, Nassar agreed to a lifetime of electronic monitoring.

Judge Aquilina said she appreciated Nassar’s apology but noted it may take years for some of Nassar’s victims to find healing.

“You used your position of trust ... in the most vile way: to abuse children,” Aquilina said. “Now is the 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.”

But she added that she was proud of the victims for coming forward, for coming here to show they are not victims anymore.

“They are superheroes for all of America because this is an epidemic,” Aquilina said.