Opinion / Crossing the Line? Sexual Assault on Trial

Last month the world watched as one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in sporting history finally came to a dramatic end. Since 2016, former Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar has been publicly accused by over 150 women and girls of sexual assault. The use and abuse of his position that would allow him to come into close contact with so many of these young women turned stomachs the world over, including that of judge Rosalie Aquilina. The final hearing created further headlines, with Aquilina sentencing the disgraced doctor to a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 175 years in prison for his crimes. She emphatically addressed him following this announcement: ‘I just signed your death warrant’.

Aquilina used her courtroom more like an open forum, allowing these women to tell the world their stories of abuse and to give an honest account of Nassar’s perverse ‘special treatment’ within the gymnastics sphere. Despite claims against Nassar being made since 1998 and other claims dating back as far as 1992, his actions did not become public knowledge until 2016. A former gymnast, Rachel Denhollander, emailed the Indianapolis Star with information on how Nassar had treated her during training. The newspaper had published a report on the investigation into sexual abuse allegations within gymnastics and Denhollander took this opportunity to name and shame her abuser. Fast forward to present day and Aquilina demonstrated no mercy for Nassar, allowing 156 women to tell their stories in court.

Nassar’s actions were hidden under the guise of medical treatments given to hundreds of gymnasts over the two decades he worked for Michigan State University, where he was described as a ‘respected faculty member’. Denhollander explicitly questioned in court just how his behaviour could have been allowed to continue for such a long time and was damning of gymnastic institutions. With these abuses systemically covered up by the individuals and organisations in place to first and foremost care for these athletes and help them to progress, they have instead failed these individuals and allowed their professional careers to be marred by psychologically and physically-damaging actions. This should not be occurring in any capacity, but especially not within a sport that is so constantly wearing and exhausting in every possible way. With gymnastics being a sport that essentially trains its stars to ‘doubt their own feelings’, according to sports psychologist Joan Ryan, it is clear that Nassar was able to take advantage of the dramatic toll on young athletes in his care.

Aquilina allowing this amount of victim statements to be heard is unprecedented, but also entirely necessary in order to shine a light on the horrors going on behind closed doors. Among the 156 testimonies, several came from high-profile stars within American gymnastics, including Olympic gold- medallists Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. In her victim statement Raisman accused USA Gymnastics, the national governing body, of telling her ‘to be quiet’ when she first reported Nassar’s actions. Other testimonies revealed the fact that some Michigan State students are still being billed for the ‘treatments’ they received from Nassar, essentially being billed for the abuse at his hands. The more that was revealed within these statements, the harder it was for Nassar to refute his guilt.

Nassar eventually entered a guilty plea, having already received a sentence of 60 years’ imprisonment for child pornography in July last year. In November 2017, he pleaded guilty to several charges of first- degree sexual assault. In an attempt to aid his case, he wrote and sent a 6-page letter to judge Aquilina, itself becoming a particular example of victim blaming. He asserted that his treatments were in no way sexual, but strictly medical, but that his pornography charges had caused him to ‘[lose] all credibility’. He instead blamed the media for convincing his victims ‘that it was wrong and bad’. It is no wonder that Aquilina threw his letter away after quoting it in court, with his blatant disregard for the women baring their souls in front of him in such a public way. He even went as far as to write the words ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. It begs the question: how did he ever expect to gain Aquilina’s sympathy in a letter that belittles women in such a way?

Aquilina has deemed a feminist hero for her actions during the Nassar case, especially due to her choice to give so many women a voice in a case that would only normally rely on a handful of testimonies and statements. However, I would argue that she made known her deep emotional investment in the case. She powerfully conducted this case, but all too often the language she used was incredibly hyperbolic and emphatic. Addressing Denhollander and how she had sparked this incredible band of women to testify against their abuser, she called her ‘a five-star general’ leading ‘an army of survivors’, stating that she was ‘the greatest person I have ever had in my courtroom’.

Testifying against someone like Nassar is an incredibly tough act, that much is true, but as a judge, Aquilina perhaps oversteps the mark in her professional capacity. While Denhollander has done a remarkable thing in bringing these women together and bringing them to justice, this kind of comment is not expected of a judge. She further made an allusion to retributive punishment.

While she acknowledged that the American constitution does not allow for cruel punishment in these situations, she would have perhaps allowed ‘many people to do to him what he did to others’. This poses a question of morality – whilst there may be a desire for retribution upon hearing the nature of a case such as this, this should not be alluded to in capacity as a judge who resides over a case and makes the ultimate decision. This woman had the power to sentence a monster, and whilst I am happy she did, she should have been able to do this job without letting her emotions get the better of her.

Given her behaviour whilst residing over the case, and the amount of witnesses involved, does this set a precedent for future trials of this nature? With the #MeToo movement and constant news reports regarding alleged horrific abuse at the hands of high-profile men such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, this could perhaps become a new blueprint to follow in the conviction of those in similar positions to Nassar.

Nassar will never set foot outside a prison again, and despite my criticisms of Aquilina, she has been successful in dispensing with another evil blighting the world of sport.

[Originally written for Redbrick, online and in print]

Image credit: NBC News

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