THE RESIGNATION OF THE BOARD of USA Gymnastics this week was a necessary and overdue step in redressing the horrors unveiled in the case of Lawrence Nassar, the team doctor for that organization. Also resigning were the athletic director and the president of Michigan State University, where Nassar was team physician.
Nassar, it was revealed, sexually abused more than 150 girls and women under his care over the course of 20 years. The scores of women who testified at Nassar’s sentencing hearing in the court of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, including Olympic medalists Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber, chronicled a premeditated pattern of abuse by a sexual predator who assaulted his patients under the guise of medical treatment, backed by the authority of MSU, USA Gymnastics, and, by extension, the US Olympic Committee. Nassar, who pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct, was sentenced by Aquilina to 40-175 years in prison.
But the sentencing of Nassar should not end discussion of this case or its implications. Besides detailing Nassar’s crimes, the sentencing hearing revealed a systemic pattern of denial by his superiors that aided and abetted his crimes. An independent investigation needs to be conducted in order to determine who covered up Nassar’s activities and why.
Institutional denial has become as predictable a pattern in the era of #MeToo as the denials of the perpetrators themselves. And it’s understandable that in a society where “innocent until proven guilty” is an article of faith, we should be hesitant to condemn those who haven’t been convicted through due process. But all too often, when victims come forward, they are treated as “guilty until proven innocent,” as a 2012 study of the Los Angeles Police Department and sheriff’s department found. It’s also become apparent that, in a range of sexual misconduct — from verbal harassment in the workplace to actual physical assault — denial has become an ingrained pattern in our society, and the patterns of dealing, or not dealing, with such incidents is one of its symptoms.
In a piece reported by the Globe’s Malcolm Gay and Rebecca Ostriker, Fiona Allan, a British theater director, recalled a time when, as an intern for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, in 1997, after being groped by guest conductor Charles Dutoit in his dressing room, she was belatedly warned about his behavior. “They had a system in place,” Allan said. “And the system was called: Don’t go in there by yourself.” As for reporting the incident formally, she was not only nervous about being a troublemaker, but also, she said, “[T]hey’ve they’ve got a system for dealing with that, so what is saying anything going to do?” (Since the Globe reported the incident, the BSO has severed its relationship with Dutoit; in a separate action, the BSO has distanced itself from former BSO music director James Levine regarding allegations of sexual misconduct decades ago.)
In the Nassar case, however, the crimes were reported — again and again — and were, time after time, dismissed or ignored by officials at MSU and USGA. In riveting testimony, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander described experiences in which she, other victims, and their parents were told by trainers, coaches, and supervisors that the assaults were part of “treatment,” and, in at least one case, were threatened with “consequences” for reporting Nassar.
The Nassar case illustrates how deep-seated such institutional denial can be. Reports of widespread sexual misconduct have rocked Hollywood and arts organization as well as media outlets, the clergy, the halls of government, and other institutions and workplaces. Harper’s magazine, in separate reporting, has revealed extensive cases of sexual assault in the world of Olympic swimming.
The culture of disbelief runs so deep that Senator Mitch McConnell’s comment about accusations of rape against Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore — “I believe the women” — came as a watershed moment. In fact, it has been shown that the prevalence of false accusations is a myth. Far more prevalent than false accusations are instances of unreported assault. And it’s easy to see why such instances go unreported: Compounding the trauma of the initial assault, a girl or young woman has to undergo the trauma of being ignored or accused of lying — usually by the very people charged with protecting them.
A full investigation of the whys and wherefores of the Nassar case — not just of his crimes, but also of those to whom they were reported — could do much to dislodge the culture of disbelief. What’s more, every institution of importance in American life must examine its own complicity in enabling a culture of disbelieving victims. At USAG, the problem wasn’t only Larry Nassar. He could have been stopped in 1997, if anyone had listened.