Wall of Silence

The systemic conditions that enabled the abuse of 265 young gymnasts through their physician, Larry Nassar.

Emotions ran high in the Ingham County Circuit Court in Michigan State, USA as 156 women delivered their Victim Impact Statements detailing the sexual abuse they had suffered at the hands of doctor Larry Nassar. On 24 January 2018, Nassar was convicted to 40 to 175 years behind bars. And a month later, a further lawsuit culminated in an additional sentencing of up to 125 years in prison. After a quarter of a century of abuses, the perpetrator had finally been found guilty and put away for life.

The many years during which the abuse continued and the high number of victims in this case brings to mind the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children through members of the Catholic Church in the Boston archdiocese. The story was unveiled by an investigative reporter team at the Boston Globe in 2002 and their struggles in unraveling the case were later turned into the feature “Spotlight”. In the movie, it becomes apparent that their main obstacle was not the pedophile priests – many of whom openly admitted to the abuse – but a network of powerful people who were willing to go to great lengths to keep the offenses hidden. This sentiment is summarised, when, halfway through the movie, the lawyer representing the victims tells reporter Marty Baron:

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

As with Bernard Francis Law, the cardinal at the center of the Boston abuse scandal, Larry Nassar too operated within institutions where systemic conditions allowed loyal individuals to cover up and enable his abuse. The similar characteristics of these abusive systems – one implemented in the name of God, the other in the name of sport – show themselves in three specific aspects: The formation of separate, institutional silos in which the perpetrator can act simultaneously and without fear of reprisal; a uniform condemnation of the victims from within those institutions; and the almost non-existent legal consequences for the enablement of abuse.

Parallel Universes

The Institutional Silos Nassar Operated In

As a doctor, Nassar was notoriously available at any time and any place: he volunteered 20 hours a week at Great Lakes Gymnastics next to medical school, took patients at his home in Holt, Michigan and would – at the height of his career – treat the injured gymnasts at multiple schools, universities, and gymnastics clubs. He would arrange late appointments to accommodate parents’ schedules and was listed as the emergency contact at the Karolyi Ranch, a National Team Training Center run by USA Gymnastics.

An overview of Nassar’s career on a timeline, separated by institution and complemented by investigations instigated by these institutions, reveals at how many places Nassar managed to be present at once and how he continued to treat injured gymnasts despite being under investigation.

Places and Times in Nassar's Career

The overlapping continuity of Nassar's professional activities points to the void of information each organization operated in: Notwithstanding short geographical distances (most places listed above lie within a 100-mile radius), information about on-going investigations was not shared between organizations. Even within each institution, only selected individuals were fully informed about on-going inquiries into Nassar’s proceedings. In the case of Michigan State University, for example, the Dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. William Strampel, suspended Nassar during three months following an abuse report by one of the students. After the university’s own Title IX Office found Nassar innocent, Strampel welcomed Nassar back while a criminal investigation was still at large, simply reminding him of basic procedures when treating minors. Nassar’s direct supervisor, Dr. Douglas Dietzel, was not informed about this reminder and ultimately failed to enforce the guidelines.

A Wall of Silence

The People Who Enabled Nassar's Abuse and Their Methods

While 265 women have now filed lawsuits against Nassar, only a few had the courage to report him during the years of abuse. One reason for this low number of complaints was the high-pressure environment in which the young girls trained. In a sport in which the body of the athlete becomes a common property of the coaching team, borders between what is appropriate behavior and what is not can seem blurry, especially for children at a young age.

In addition to the competitive environment, individuals inside each organization covered up Nassar’s abuse in different ways: While some simply didn’t believe the young girls and thus failed to act upon their claims in any way, others went as far as to silence the victims or even cover for Nassar. In the case of silencing, the girls who did come forward were told that Nassar was a respected doctor and that his treatments must, therefore, be legitimate. Sometimes, they were intimidated by their parents and the parents, in turn, were threatened by high-ranking officials from the gymnastics world, such as Steve Penny, CEO of USA Gymnastics. The parents were told that speaking out would jeopardise all they and their daughters had worked for so hard. Larissa Boyce, a young gymnast who told her Coach Kathie Klages that Nassar was digitally penetrating her during her treatments, recounts in her Victim Impact Statement:

“I told Michigan State University back in 1997. Instead of being protected, I was humiliated, I was in trouble, and brainwashed into believing that I was the problem.”

Only a few went as far as to cover for Nassar's actions but those that did played a monumental role in driving the girls into the hands of their abuser. John Geddert, for example, was a coach who worked alongside Nassar at Geddert’s Twistars USA Gymnastics Club. Geddert implemented harsh training sessions in which he would drill the young gymnasts for hours on end, using the deprivation of food and water at times even physical violence as punishment. Nassar, on the other hand, took the role of an understanding doctor who would treat the injuries the gymnasts had sustained during their training with Geddert.

Nassar's Enablers

Land of the Free

Legal Obligations and Consequences for Enablers

The third similarity between the abusive systems of the Boston archdiocese and the US sports institutions involved in the case of Larry Nassar is that all enablers operated in a sphere in which there seemed to be no necessity to consider legal consequences for both actions and in-actions. Firstly, this sphere of protection is in parts due to a legal gray area regarding the requirement to report sexual abuse to law enforcement. In the USA, teachers are required by law to report sexual abuse, as are police and medical personnel. Coaches are only considered mandatory reporters in certain states and are not mentioned explicitly in Michigan State Law. Opinions are divided if, in the case of Michigan State, coaches fall under the category of teachers.

Secondly, the consequences of not reporting sexual abuse are minimal. The law on the failure to report again varies from state to state. Michigan State Law declares:

A mandatory reporter who knowingly fails to report as required is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by one or both of the following:

– Imprisonment for not more than 93 days

– A fine of not more than $500

While some of the enablers are currently under criminal investigation, others, such as USAG CEO Steve Penny, bent to public pressure and resigned. Upon his “early retirement”, he received a severance package of around $1 million. Others again have remained in their positions, some even moving up the career ladder to higher posts.

The Consequences for Nassar's Enablers


An Institution Is Held Accountable

The latest news in the Nassar case shows hope for both the recognition of institutional wrong-doing and the willingness to enforce consequences for these wrong-doings: In a historic settlement reached on May 16, 2018, Michigan State University agreed to pay $500 million to survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuse. John Manly, one of the lawyers presenting the 265 victims, said in a statement:

“It is the sincere hope of all of the survivors that the legacy of this settlement will be far-reaching institutional reform that will end the threat of sexual assault in sports, schools and throughout our society.”

If the laws on sexual abuse are being re-evaluated and hopefully re-written and the enforcement of these laws is taken seriously, it remains for society to recognise sexual abuse in general and – in cases like this – be wary of the components that create larger systems of abuse. The pursuit of an open knowledge society, in which information is readily available and willingly shared among individuals and institutions is one important factor that bars the emergence of systemic, abusive conditions. Lastly, it is every individual's responsibility to come to a reckoning with how we, as humans tend to react to news that is uncomfortable and does not fit our view of the world. If we achieve to hear everyone's voice, regardless of status or age, we reach a point where scandals like this one have truly become history.