Sunday Mornings with Rania: How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?

How much is a little girl worth? asked Rachael Denhollander in court. 

It's an incredibly complex question when you examine it amidst the overwhelming allegations that have come out against Larry Nassar, allegations that span decades and involve major institutions. It leaves one asking How on earth could this have taken place for so long and how could the abuse have thrived despite repeated outcries? 

The Criminal Beast

In one of the biggest sexual scandals in sports history, Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team osteopathic physician, was named in hundreds of lawsuits filed by athletes who allege he sexually abused them under the guise of giving medical treatment. Amongst the many who came forward are the USA Gymnastic national team members: Jamie Dantzscher, Jeanette Antolin, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Jordyn Wieber.

The first case against Nassar in 2016 stemmed from charges he sexually assaulted a 6-year-old girl from 1998-2005. Very shortly thereafter, he was indicted on federal child pornography charges when the FBI found more than 37,000 images and videos of child pornography in his home including a GoPro video of Nassar allegedly molesting girls in a swimming pool. On July 11, 2017, Nassar plead guilty to federal child pornography charges and was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

With the escalating allegations coming out against him, on Nov. 22, 2017, Nassar plead guilty to seven charges of first-degree sexual assault. One week later, he plead guilty to three additional charges of sexual assault. On Jan. 24, 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, set to run after Nassar serves the 60-year federal prison sentence for child pornography.

Through the course of this investigation, 150 victims came forward detailing Nassar's sexual assault as well as the "emotionally abusive environment" in which they suffered - girls involved with the gymnastic, softball, rowing and track and field programs.

But how, with the watching eye of parents, coaches, nurses and institutions like the United States Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and the Karolyi Ranch, did such abuse exist and thrive for so long?

Because they all turned a blind eye.

While USA Gymnastics fired Nassar in 2015 and Michigan State University reassigned and then fired Nassar in 2016, both have been accused of enabling Nassar's abuse and are named as defendants in civil lawsuits former gymnasts have filed against Nassar.

Former Michigan State University gymnastics coach Kathie Klages as well as president Lou Anna Simon have been forced to resign. That said, prior to their removal, what did they do with reports of abuse? Dismiss them. In fact, in 2016, when the investigations around Nassar began, Coach Klages allegedly asked her department to sign a card for him, to let him know they were thinking about him. 

Here's the Point:

Predators are trained - trained to groom, trained to abuse in plain sight and trained to cover it up. How can a 6-year-old or even a 16-year-old can stand up to that type of power and influence knowing that if she fails, the outcome for her might only be worse at her next doctors appointment? Truth is, she cannot. 

Gymnast Kyle Stephens reports that she told her parents at the age of 12 that she was being abused by Nassar and had been since she was 6 years old. Stephens' parents looked into it, of course, but Nassar was able to convince them she was lying. Stephens was forced to apologize.

"Larry Nassar wedged himself between myself and my family, and used his leverage as a family friend to pry us apart until we fractured," Stephens said at the hearing. 

In 2016, when the allegations truly came out, Stephens' father took his own life.

Add Their Power to Our Culture:

The truth is, until now, girls and young women were not seen as credible witnesses when it comes to sexual abuse. Nassar is a pedophile, a child abuser and, for many of these US Gymnastic Olympians, he is guilty of workplace sexual violence. And he got away with all of it.

This case highlights the critical importance of believing girls and women when they disclose. Historically, our first instinct is to assume the girls or women misunderstood or even "deserved" the attack, but in today's culture, the pendulum of belief is hopefully swinging in the other direction.

"The army you chose in the late '90s to silence me, to dismiss me and my attempt at speaking the truth, will not prevail over the army you created when violating us," said Tiffany Thomas Lopez, one of the victims at the hearing.

From #MeToo to #NeverAgain

So while celebrities and media have come on board and will embrace outcries, what will be your personal strategy? We must be talking, talking and talking again to the youth in our lives and encouraging them to disclose, disclose and disclose again until they are heard. We must be making sure our universities, athletic teams and places of work have strict sexual harassment policies and that those at the top have no qualms about enforcing them.

How much is a girl worth? It's an incredible question and the answer is - everything. Her safety is worth everything. Her words are worth everything and because she can no longer be hushed and silenced and dismissed, hopefully her stature and power will rise and she will feel that, walk that and use that. The #MeToo movement must become the #NeverAgain movement. I think this generation of girls will take us there. 

About the author

Executive Director of Crime Stoppers of Houston