Why aren’t Nassar’s enablers going to prison, too?
A culture of denial allowed girls to be abused
It’s been three weeks since former U.S. gymnastics physician Larry Nassar was sentenced to likely die in prison after more than 150 young women said he had sexually assaulted them, and there are still some questions I can’t get out of my head.
Like, why is Nassar the only one sentenced to prison?
Why haven’t former Michigan State coach Kathie Klages and former U.S. coach John Geddert been prosecuted yet? Or any of the disgraced human neckties at Michigan State and the USA Gymnastics who enabled Nassar to continue his abuse over two decades?
Why are Bela and Marta Karolyi, the Romanian coaching couple revered for all the gold medals they helped produce for U.S. gymnastics, allowed to walk away after USA Gymnastics shut down its training program at Karolyi Ranch – the U.S. Olympic Committee-funded training facility where parents weren’t allowed, where Nassar was allowed to “work” on young girls unsupervised in a private room?
The ranch is no longer the legendary gym where Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug trained before they won gold. It’s now a crime scene that needs to be torched to the ground. Its owners should suffer more than just the death of their professional reputations for what happened to girls under their watch.
Be it financial chicanery, drug distribution or worse, we put accomplices to major crimes behind bars all the time. So why not the people who contributed to the theft of so many children’s souls, who either didn’t believe the detailed stories told by so many girls and women, or whose willful ignorance allowed the assaults to continue?
Why are they free, albeit living with their shame and professional ruin?
If it takes a village to raise a child, the one thing we’ve found at Penn State, Michigan State and beyond is it also takes a culture of denial to siphon their innocence and dignity.
“If we are really going to ever make a difference when it comes to child sexual abuse, we have to take enabling seriously,” Rachael Denhollander told me. “If we are ever going to genuinely deal with the problem, we have to go after the community that surrounds the predator — because they are the only people who have the ability to stop sexual assault. And if they fail to do that, there need to be real consequences.”
Denhollander is one of the main reasons Nassar was finally caught. In 2016, she filed a police report for the abuse she suffered at the hands of Nassar in 2000 and was the first to go public with her accusations of digital penetration, triggering more than 100 U.S. female gymnasts to reveal their own abuse by Nassar. She is currently working with state and federal legislators to update laws governing mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse, laws now woefully inept at holding an enabler accountable.
For example, under Michigan law, school and university administrators and teachers are required to alert law enforcement of suspected abuse. But coaches – both university and club coaches alike – are not named as mandatory reporters in the statute. Even for those who are covered by the law, not reporting suspected child abuse is only a misdemeanor in most states and the potential penalties often don’t include jail time. (California is among those states where not reporting a suspected pedophile can carry up to a year in prison.)
According to Nassar’s victims, who gave witness-impact testimonies before his sentencing, Michigan State coach Klages was told as early as 1997 of Nassar’s abuse. Two gymnasts told Outside the Lines they told Klages what was happening during their sessions with Nassar.
Klages reportedly told a teenage Larissa Boyce that she couldn’t believe that about Nassar because “that was somebody she trusted and knew for years.” The other gymnast remembered the gist of Klages’ response at the time: “It was more a sense of, ‘Who have you told so far?’ and, ‘Let’s not talk about this anymore.’ ”
Klages reportedly told others that Nassar’s digital penetration was a “legal medical procedure.”
Twenty years later, even after multiple women had come forward, Klages circulated a card during a team meeting last year asking the athletes to show support for her fired friend and co-worker.
Geddert played the bad cop to Nassar’s good cop. According to reporting by ESPN’s John Barr and Brian Murphy, he reportedly walked into the back room of his Twistars Gym in Lansing, Michigan, “while Nassar was digitally penetrating a young gymnast.”
“All I remember is him [Nassar] doing the treatment on me with his fingers in my vagina, massaging my back with a towel over my butt, and John walking in and making a joke that I guess my back really did hurt,” the victim recalled in court testimony.
“Part of what enabled this is John broke little girls’ spirits and bodies, and Larry was there to fix them,” she later told Outside the Lines.
If I was her father, I would have gone for Geddert the way Randall Margraves, three of whose daughters were abused, lunged at Nassar in court before court deputies stopped him from getting his hands on the pedophile.
Geddert didn’t just cover for Nassar. he helped another enabler, granting Klages sanctuary at her old workplace, Twistars, after Michigan State forced her to resign. Only local media reporting her presence at Twistars led to her leaving the gym again.
In 2012, Geddert was the coach of the Fierce Five – the U.S. women who won all-around gold at the London Olympics. Today, four of the Fierce Five are not just gold medalists – they courageously came out as adult survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuse, the same guy who spent all that time unsupervised with children in Geddert’s gym.
We could go into how Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, an athletic training supervisor still employed at Michigan State, let down Tiffany Thomas Lopez, a softball player on full scholarship who told her story about Nassar to several individuals and eventually left school, she was so traumatized by the experience.
The fact that many of Nassar’s victims could compartmentalize their abuse and still manage to represent and win for their clubs, universities and their country is surreal.
Jordyn Wieber, one of the Fierce Five, spoke of how Nassar had wormed his way into her world, becoming a person she could trust because he listened to her, and brought her and her teammates coffee and food to competitions when the coaches were worried sick about their gymnasts’ weights. “I didn’t know these were all grooming techniques … And the worst part is I had no idea he was sexually abusing me.”
“To this day,” she lamented, “I still don’t know how he could have been allowed to do this for so long.”
I do. He had help. Psychologist Ann Salters, in her numerous interviews with pedophiles, concludes that most had been reported on an average of seven times by children they had abused before those reports were finally taken seriously.
“You can’t imagine how many times people in a separate community surround and shield the predator,” Denhollander said. “And often when the actual victim speaks out, they lose their own community because the people around them don’t believe them.”
This isn’t about witch hunts, tracking down every person who knew, socialized or worked with a deranged soul like Nassar or Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach who will die in prison for being convicted of molesting 10 boys in 2011. It’s about protecting the next child whose story of abuse is minimized or dismissed by the adult they trusted to protect them. It’s about making the people who fed the monster suffer the consequences. It’s about their culpability in crossing a threshold that sends them, too, to prison.
Their indifference, whether borne out of warped loyalty to a friend, professional security or just plain bureaucracy, should be punished with a prison sentence.
In her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, psychologist Judith Herman tries to describe the mindset of enablers, why they stay quiet: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator,” she writes. “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
Anyone might empathize with someone who finds out a family member, friend or co-worker they’ve known for years is a child molester. It’s what happens after that initial shock that matters.
In the case of Nassar, so many who knew him didn’t care or didn’t believe young girls were being sexually abused. Klages knew of at least two cases before Denhollander and most of the other girls or women were abused by Nassar.
Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, gave a compelling monologue about the case, concluding with the notion that enablers should receive a part of the perpetrator’s sentence. “Like commission,” he said. “They give you 10 percent for doing a good job … If [an enabler] knows he can go to prison, you would be fighting to tell people what happened. ‘I don’t want 10 percent of 175 years.’
“It’s not the people who don’t know that worry me,” Noah said. “It’s the people who do know and do nothing. The people who get told … the head of the university is like, ‘Look, I mean, maybe we could have been better, a few red flags were raised.’ No, you were told. A red flag is when you’re at the beach and they go, ‘Maybe there’s a shark in the water.’ That’s a red flag. This is the shark going, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ ”
Do overzealous parents, who would die happy if only their child was in primetime on NBC, culpable? Maybe, especially the ones who dropped off their little girls at Nassar’s house or his place of work after hours. Their respect for the white coat, the omnipotent U.S. team physician, was so great it superseded basic logic that usually forbids naked children to be examined alone by adult men.
But mostly this is about going after the cowards and those in denial, who could have prevented so many others from being hurt. Eighteen-year-old Kaylee Lorincz, first abused by Nassar shortly after her 13th birthday, spoke for so many during her victim-impact statement:
“Larry, if you haven’t listened to one thing I’ve said, you need to look at me and listen,” she said in the courtroom. “I only hope that when you get a chance to speak you tell us who knew what and when they knew it. Did Dean Strampel [William Strampel, former dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine] know? Did Brooke Lemmen [an MSU doctor who took patient records from the school at Nassar’s request] know? How much did Kathie Klages know? Did [former MSU athletic director] Mark Hollis ever talk to you about your treatments? … And lastly, did John Geddert know you were stealing the innocence of little girls in the back room of his gym? If you truly want us to heal, you will do this for us.”