What’s the story?
After 156 women stepped forward to report crimes of abuse, a former doctor to the US Olympic gymnastic team has been jailed for 175 years. But questions remain about why it took so long for him to be stopped – and for justice to be served.
Larry Nassar has been found guilty of truly horrific crimes. Over the course of two decades as a trusted doctor to child and teenage gymnasts, Nassar committed hundreds of acts of sexual abuse on victims as young as six. As medical co-ordinator to USA Gymnastics from 1997 to 2014, he was responsible for treating hundreds of female athletes, but in many cases the encounters would not bring healing, but abuse.
In a high-profile case that received daily media coverage from around the world, a group of 156 women assembled to give evidence against the disgraced medic. Many of them were former Olympic gymnasts, treated and abused by Nassar since early childhood. One victim told of abuse spanning ten years as she progressed through the ranks of the USA Gymnastics programme.
When given his chance to speak, Nassar told a packed courtroom “There are no words to describe the depth and breadth of how sorry I am for what has occurred”, but Judge Rosemarie Aquilina rejected any sense that this was a truly repentant apology, saying that he has not “owned” his actions.
The US Olympic Committee is now taking steps to try to ensure that such crimes can never be committed within their institution again. As a result, the entire board of USA Gymnastics has resigned, and the organisation must now fully co-operate with an independent investigation into the scandal, which will focus on whether anyone knew about, ignored and/or co-operated with Nassar.
This remains the lingering question, even after Nassar was sentenced to “40 to 175” years in prison. Is it possible that he could have truly acted alone, for so long, and without anyone else even becoming suspicious? Were his acts, unthinkably, even covered up? The questions will – and must – continue to be asked long after the dust has settled on the case.
What have others been saying?
The BBC News website features the stories of some of Nassar’s 156 victims. Warning: the stories contain some graphic detail.
One of the victims, Rachael Denhollander, reportedly implored Nassar to repent and accept Jesus, during her testimony at the trial.
Bryan Armen Graham wrote in the Guardian about how after Nassar’s conviction the real work now begins to both ensure light is shed in every corner of the case, and to prevent any such acts from taking place again in the world of sport.
#1 – SAFEGUARDING
While Nassar is an unusually depraved individual, there’s no doubt that part of the context that allowed him to flourish for so long is a culture that does not always believe female victims, or educate men and women to understand the appropriate boundaries of consent and sexual behaviour. As the recent #MeToo (and then #ChurchToo) campaign proved, sexual abuse and harassment are more rife and widespread than many imagined. Churches must be at the forefront of addressing this profound injustice, and in ensuring that they are safe spaces, not another place where abuse can flourish. In Matthew 18 v6, Jesus reserves some of his harshest words for those who would seek to abuse or harm children: “If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble [this has been translated as ‘sin’, but a better direct translation is ‘be harmed’], it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Part of our Christ-like commitment to loving one another, and to speaking up for the rights of the oppressed, is to ensure that our churches are truly safe, and that we actively look to protect those who others might seek to harm.
#2 – REPENTANCE
One of the most striking elements of the Nassar case is the apparent lack of repentance or guilt over his crimes. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina rejected his attempted apology, saying “You have not owned yet what you did.” The Christian message, even to (as the old hymn puts it) “the vilest offender who truly believes” is one of forgiveness and redemption for absolutely anyone. That comes at a cost though, and the cost is true contrition and repentance. 1 John 1 v9 says “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That is not a free pass to every sinner however: acts of repentance and seeking forgiveness – from both God and human victims – are vital.
Points for prayer
Pray for Nassar’s victims, that the judgement will enable them to move on with their lives, and that they will feel that justice has been done.
Pray for families, processing Nassar’s actions against their loved ones, and perhaps dealing with feelings of guilt for not having intervened.
Pray for Larry Nassar, that he would repent of his actions, and seek the forgiveness of his victims.
Pray for those rebuilding the structures of American sport to ensure greater safety, that they would have wisdom and discernment in creating a safe system which protects all athletes, especially the most vulnerable.
Pray for those continuing to investigate Nassar’s actions, and the possible collusion of others, that “nothing would remain hidden”, and that true justice would be served on all who are culpable.
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor of Youthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.