Niyo: Nassar victims’ powerful words shatter silence

John Niyo


Lansing — The numbers are mind-numbing. The stories leave you speechless.

But that is the point of all this. It is about more than justice, which is long overdue and won’t ever be enough for the girls and young women sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State and U.S. Olympics doctor who’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.

It is about more than catharsis, too, though only the survivors of Nassar’s decades of predatory behavior — a group that continues to grow in size and stature, with homegrown Olympic star Jordyn Wieber of DeWitt among those stepping forward Friday — can truly understand how necessary and important that might feel.

No, the hours upon hours of victim-impact statements made in Ingham County Circuit Court — Judge Rosemarie Aquilina announced Friday she’ll extend Nassar’s sentencing hearing through early next week to accommodate an expanding list of some 120 accusers — speak to something more than that.

They speak to power, shattering the silence and casting a light in the quiet darkness where the nightmares always start.

Now those in power must listen, as the #MeToo movement, at last, is kicking in doors in the world of sports. And as the focus begins to shift from those whose lives were tormented by Nassar, it’ll turn toward those whose actions — or inaction — allowed some of this to happen.

More: What MSU knew: 14 were warned of Nassar abuse

Nassar already is serving 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges, and Aquilina could hand down an additional sentence of up to 125 years after his guilty plea to seven first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges last November. So the 54-year-old’s fate is sealed, as dozens of his accusers reminded him this week, cowering as he was in the witness box in Aquilina’s third-floor courtroom wearing that dark-blue prison jumpsuit.

Others will certainly pay a price, too, judging by the civil lawsuits filed against USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and prominent Lansing-area coach John Geddert, as well as the mounting evidence that people in positions of authority — trainers, coaches and administrators — were slow to act and negligent in their responses to reports of Nassar’s abuse.

Motions to dismiss have been filed, and it’ll be hard to separate facts from emotion as those cases move forward. Everyone is scrambling for legal cover, and Friday’s developments included MSU’s “request” for an investigation by the state attorney general that victims have been demanding for months. But what can’t be easily dismissed is a feeling that there’s a reckoning coming, and if officials from those entities didn’t fully grasp that before this week, they’d better now.

Closed-door meeting

Barely an hour after Michigan State’s Board of Trustees emerged from a closed-door meeting and released a statement in support of university president Lou Anna Simon, 18-year-old Morgan McCaul, a ballet dancer who began seeing Nassar as a 12-year-old patient at MSU’s sports medicine clinic, gave her statement in open court.

“How many little girls,” she said, “could have been spared from this lifelong battle if someone from the university had done the bare minimum and just listened?”

Others followed and asked similar questions, from Alexis Alvarado, who said her abuse at the hands of Nassar began when she was 12 — “You are a coward for not showing your face,” she said of Simon — to Larissa Boyce, who first reported one of Nassar’s assaults to former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages more than 20 years ago, only to be humiliated instead of heard, she says.

“I told someone, I told an adult,” Boyce said, turning to look at Nassar. “I told MSU in 1997. And this MSU employee then fed me back to the wolf: you. To be devoured.”

Boyce said she’d asked Simon personally if she could be in the courtroom for her statement. She says Simon told her she didn’t think she could fit it in her schedule. (Simon briefly attended Wednesday’s hearing, but insisted she didn’t want to be a distraction and would continue watching the live stream instead.) Aware of the MSU trustees’ statement that acknowledged “the university has been perceived as tone deaf, unresponsive and insensitive to the victims,” Boyce responded bluntly, “Well, you are.”

More: MSU's Izzo has 'utmost faith, respect' for Simon

Friday’s hearing began with a searing rebuke of USA Gymnastics by its most decorated Olympic stars. Wieber, the Olympic gold medalist and former world champion, hadn’t yet added her name to the list of Nassar accusers. But shortly after entering the courtroom with her parents, Dave and Rita, and brother Ryan, she was the first to speak.

“I thought that training for the Olympics would be the hardest thing that I would ever have to do,” she began, her voice wavering. “But, in fact, the hardest thing I ever had to do is process that I am a victim of Larry Nassar.”

She went on to describe being “brainwashed” by the renowned doctor and the USAG officials who exalted him. Wieber described the behavior she now recognizes as Nassar’s grooming, beginning when she was 8. But she also went out of her way to remind those listening that her story is hardly unique, even if her achievements were.

“Our pain is all the same, and our stories are all important,” she said. “And now the people who are responsible need to accept responsibility for the pain they have caused me and the rest of the women who have been abused. Larry Nassar is accountable. USA Gymnastics is accountable. The U.S. Olympic Committee is accountable. My teammates and friends have been through enough, and now it’s time for change.”

Empty rhetoric

Later in the morning session, it was Aly Raisman’s turn. The fiery leader of the last two U.S. Olympic women’s teams, offered a blistering critique not only of Nassar — “You think this is hard for you? Imagine how all of us feel,” she said — but of her sport’s national governing body. She ripped the leadership that allowed former USAG president Steve Penny to resign with a reported $1 million severance package. She dismissed the talk of reform as empty rhetoric, even noting that while USAG announced Thursday it was terminating its lease at the famed Karolyi Ranch facility in Texas — the scene of many of Nassar’s crimes — Penny’s successor “neglected to mention” young athletes were training there that same day.

She also scolded USOC officials for their deafening silence, for not showing up here in Lansing this week. And then she got to the crux of the issue, calling for independent investigations and calling those who think sexual abuse is an isolated problem “delusional.”

“It’s clear now that if we leave it up to these organizations, history is likely to repeat itself,” Raisman said. “To know what changes are needed requires us to understand what exactly happened and why it has happened. ...

“If we are to believe in change, we must first understand the problem and everything that contributed to it. Now is not the time for false reassurances. We need an independent investigation of exactly what happened, what went wrong and how it can be avoided for the future. Only then can we know what changes are needed. Only then can we believe such changes are real.”

Until then, these impact statements provided a visceral reminder of the evil that lurks in silence. And if there were others who felt this was all too much, as Nassar complained in a six-page letter to Aquilina this week, well, they weren’t in the courtroom Friday, hearing the voices break or seeing the bodies shake as the tears came pouring out along with the stories of Nassar’s sinister behavior and the wreckage it left behind: Suicide attempts and self-injury, family estrangement and personal anxiety, depression and physical illness.

“Larry stole my childhood, my innocence, my virginity and my self-worth,” said Anya Gillengerten, 33, speaking of crimes that began when she was a teen, “before I’d even kissed a boy.”

“I hated myself — I still do” she added, describing at length the agony of her adulthood after explaining she was speaking out “for all the little girls in leotards.”

Katherine Gordon, another who spoke, echoed that sentiment, telling the judge, “We need this for our daughters, because even if I never trust again, maybe they will.”

And that’s why this was so important for Aquilina to do this, to allow them all to speak — young teenagers flanked by parents, adults finally getting the chance to address their childhood demons, sisters bonded by unbearable pain.

More than once this week, Aquilina has told accusers, “I don’t deserve thanks.” But one by one, they’ve all continued to do just that.

Kassie Powell, a former MSU track and field athlete, praised Aquilina Friday for “restoring us with a little bit of dignity.”

And for giving them a voice, she added. One that’s roaring now, defiant and determined.

“Come hell or high water,” said Amy Labadie, a former gymnast and MSU team manager who testified Friday morning, “we will find a way to take down every last one of you that could have stopped this monster.”