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Survivors Take Center Stage
As the first of the more than 150 survivors came forward to make their statements in the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor, the Joyful Heart staff was meeting with another survivor advocate from the sports world: Bridie Farrell, a nationally recognized speed skater and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a teammate. Farrell is the leader of NY Loves Kids—an organization working to change the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases in New York. In her journey for justice, she too experienced the isolation and silencing of an institution that looks the other way, allowing perpetrators to evade responsibility and to continue abusing others.
USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University are accused of covering for Nassar for more than 20 years, sweeping the allegations under the rug even after athletes had come forward with stories of abuse. They join a growing list of institutions, from churches to colleges and universities to schools and numerous other athletic organizations, that failed to respond and protect people who are sexually abused. To end sexual violence forever, we must continue to call out the institutions and systems that allow these crimes to go unaddressed—and these voices to go unheard.
Many institutional and social hurdles keep survivors from disclosing their experiences. Survivors are too often belittled, shamed, or disbelieved, whether by public figures, officials like coaches and doctors, or by their own friends and family. Some may fear retaliation for speaking out. Time and again, we hear from survivors that the responses they are met with have an impact on their healing and on the decision whether to report and participate in the criminal justice process. The responses survivors are met with matter.
Bearing witness to a survivor’s story is an incredibly powerful act. Listening to a survivor share their experience is an important part of helping them feel seen, heard, and believed. In the courtroom, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina received every single account of Nassar’s abuse and its impact on each survivor with compassion. She validated the survivors’ experiences, thanked them for their courage, and acknowledged the power of their voices.
After having carried the weight of what was done to them alone, these survivors were met within the embrace of a community of fellow survivors and an outpouring of encouragement from the public. The voices of these women—both the elite athletes whose names are well known and those who aren’t—likely struck a chord in other survivors. Millions of women and men in the United States have been sexually abused before age 18. The 1 in 4 women and the 1 in every 6 men who are survivors of sexual violence should never have to feel alone again.
While justice may be long overdue, the proceedings in the case indicate this is yet another extraordinary moment in a groundbreaking time for sexual assault survivors. The outpouring of public encouragement is a dramatic shift in the way survivors are received in our society. It’s a pivotal moment in the movement to end sexual violence and abuse—one where the most resounding takeaway is survivors’ resilience. It is a sign of the transformation we have hoped for, imagined, and worked toward.
A little over a year ago, a judge questioned aloud how a prison sentence might affect the perpetrator, Stanford student Brock Turner—instead of expressing concern for the impact of the sexual assault on the survivor. But Turner’s case wasn’t an isolated instance of a single judge making excuses, or a perpetrator evading accountability, or of justice denied. The criminal justice system has historically treated survivors with disdain and disrespect.
Aquilina’s comments to Nassar stand in stark contrast to those we have heard in cases where excuses were made for the defendant. Addressing Nassar directy, she said: “Your decision to assault was precise, calculated, manipulative, devious, despicable.”
At the sentencing, Judge Aquilina apologized to the athletes who spoke up for what they had endured, calling them superheroes and role models. “Leave your pain here,” she told one woman, “and go out and do your magnificent things.”
Each of us has the potential to help create a community of belief and acceptance. A community of support and non-judgment. We stand in solidarity with every survivor—those who disclose and those who cannot or will not. We look forward to, and continue to work for, a future where every survivor is treated with such compassion and every perpetrator is held accountable.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or child abuse, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. We also encourage you to learn how to support the survivors in your life.