Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

Nassar case: crumbs of comfort from an appalling betrayal of trust

Will the US gymnastics abuse scandal encourage other victims to come forward?

Larry Nassar, the former US Gymnastics team doctor, is escorted into the courtroom for his sentencing / Reuters
Larry Nassar, the former US Gymnastics team doctor, is escorted into the courtroom for his sentencing / Reuters

To the world, they were America’s sweethearts, somersaulting their way into the record books. Among them was Simone Biles, the first woman to win three world Olympic titles in a row. Yet behind closed doors, an evil force was allowed to operate in the US gymnastics team, unchecked and unhindered for nearly two decades. Concerns about team doctor Larry Nassar and his abuse of the girls and young women in his charge were first raised in 1997; those who complained were simply warned off and their reports went no further than their own abuser. When more women began coming forward, the response from gymnastics team officials was allegedly to pay for their silence. Olympic gold medallist McKayla Maroney was paid a reported $1.25 million in 2016 to keep quiet, even as more victims admitted they too were abused. A catalogue of shocking failures and cover-ups marked the Nassar case and in the end, those who turned a blind eye or failed to notice what was happening had to go. The entire board of the US gymnastics governing body resigned in the wake of Nassar’s sentencing after a week of searing statements made by his 156 victims; a tokenistic move at best as the US Olympics Committee would have stripped all its powers if they had not.

There are some who have complained that judge Rosemarie Aquilina was not impartial in her sentencing or comments to Nassar; others have questioned whether he should have been given quite such a long sentence. “I just signed your death warrant,” she told him as sentenced him to up to 175 years. Yet as any abuse victim will tell you, dealing with the impact of that abuse is a life sentence, for which there is no parole. Nassar carries the responsibility for shattering 156 innocent lives; so, too, do all those who knew what was going on and did nothing. The investigation will continue at his former workplace, Michigan State University, and extend to other sports officials, as well as look into allegations of sexual harassment in other sports. That cannot come soon enough. Nassar was in a respected profession and held a position of trust. He flouted that trust time and again – all under the nose of those who had a duty of care towards those girls. The case was the biggest of its kind in sporting history but the tragic truth is, it is unlikely to be the last of its kind. Predators exist everywhere and operate under the cover of positions of trust. The sooner that other victims, encouraged by the outcome of the Nassar case, come forward, the better.