Nassar victims push changes to Michigan law

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — If her coach had reported the sexual abuse she first experienced in 1997, prolific child molester Larry Nassar might have been stopped from abusing hundreds of others over the next two decades, Larissa Boyce said Monday.

Boyce and other Nassar victims joined state lawmakers at the Michigan Capitol to support new bipartisan legislation that would require adults to report sexual abuse allegations and allow victims more time to file criminal charges or civil lawsuits against the individuals or institutions that harmed them.

Michigan Sen. Margaret OBrien, R-Portage, appeared Monday with Rachel DenHollander and other Larry Nassar victims at a press conference introducing sexual assault legislation.

As a 16-year-old participating in the Spartan youth gymnastics program, Boyce was treated and abused by Nassar, a Michigan State University sports doctor. She said she eventually told her coach, then-MSU head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages.

“Instead of being believed, I was questioned, I was embarrassed and I was humiliated by Kathie,” said Boyce on Monday, explaining that Nassar would continue to assault her for four more years.

“She did not notify the proper authorities or even my parents. Instead, she told the man who was abusing me that I went to her with my concerns, and this only enabled and empowered Nassar to keep abusing and feel like he was invincible.”

As The Detroit News reported in January, Klages was one of at least 14 MSU representatives who were warned about Nassar’s behavior over more than two decades. Klages has been mostly unseen since her retirement announcement last year. Her attorney couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Officials say they have identified at least 265 victims the former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor assaulted over that span under the guise of medical treatment.

The 10-bill package spearheaded by Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, would expand Michigan mandatory reporting laws to require university and youth sports coaches, along with trainers and volunteers, to report suspected abuse to authorities or face increased penalties.

It would also extend the statute of limitations for victims to pursue criminal charges against their assailants. Prosecutors could file second-degree charges at any time and file third-degree charges within 30 years — or the survivors’ 48th birthday — against someone identified by DNA evidence.

Sexual assault victims would also have up to 30 years to file civil lawsuits against the individuals or institutions that harmed them, and minors would have up to 30 years beyond their 18th birthday. Current law only allows suits by the victim’s 19th birthday or three years after the alleged abuse.

The proposed changes to the civil statute of limitations would provide retroactive address for assaults dating back to 1993 — “when Larry Nassar got his medical license,” O’Brien said.

Rachael Denhollander, whose public accusation against Nassar in September 2016 encouraged other victims to come forward, urged lawmakers to approve the package before they leave for summer break, arguing that Michigan children deserve the “greatest measure of protection” the law can offer.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set Tuesday afternoon to begin debating the bills.

“We have had enough in Michigan of political leaders who look the other way,” said Denhollander, a lawyer. “We have had enough of political leaders who care more about institutions and parties than little boys and little girls.”

Denhollander has known O’Brien since volunteering on a 2000 campaign and said she approached the senator last year about changing Michigan’s laws. She and fellow victim Sterling Riethman met lawmakers in December as they began crafting response legislation.

“As it stands today, Michigan’s statute of limitations is one of the most restrictive in the nation when it comes to survivors of childhood sexual abuse,” Riethman said Monday. “We find ourselves at the top of a list we don’t want to be on as we rank among the states leading the nation in providing protective environments for predators to thrive.”

Gold medal Olympics gymnast Jordyn Wieber, a DeWitt native and member of the “Fierce Five” team from 2012, offered support for what she described as a “sweeping” package of bills that would reform the state’s laws, as did fellow victims Lindsey Lemke and Amanda Thomashaw.

“The one person I relied upon to heal my injuries and treat my pain inflicted injuries on me far more devastating than the broken bones and torn muscles I suffered in the sport of gymnastics,” Wieber said.

“We also know that Larry Nassar would not and could not have succeeded in his diabolical mission without the acquiescence and neglect of major organizations,” she added, pointing to the USA Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and MSU.

The legislation would allow victims of childhood sexual assault to remain anonymous when bringing claims in the Michigan Court of Claims. And it would eliminate governmental immunity for persons or entities that have committed sexual assault or allowed sexual assault to occur.

Another proposal would allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of prior sexual assaults in cases against serial sexual predators, which is currently allowed only in cases involving minors. Other bills would create a new criminal charge and penalties for “aggravated” possession for large amounts of child pornography or material documenting certain “heinous” acts.

Nassar is serving a 60-year federal prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to possessing 37,000 images of child pornography. He was also sentenced to 40-175 years on seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County and 40-125 years on three counts in Eaton County.

The Senate package is the most substantive to date introduced in response to Nassar. The state House is also conducting an inquiry into MSU, and the Senate appropriations subcommittee on higher education is asking the state’s publicly funded universities to prove compliance with sexual assault prevention standards or risk state funding.

Some proposals are similar to measures introduced in past years that have languished in committee, but supporters hope the Nassar scandal will give their efforts new momentum.

“This legislation, this conversation, we are having here today gives survivors hope,” Riethman said. “It gives survivors life. It gives survivors access to our justice system, and it further restricts a community’s ability to enable the predators that live among us.”