This article is the first in a seven-part series, “One Year Later: Larry Nassar And The Women Who Made Us Listen,” that commemorates the seven days women stood in an East Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last year and read powerful impact statements to former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State trainer Larry Nassar.
One year ago, almost to the day, Morgan McCaul stood in a tiny courtroom in East Lansing, Michigan, ready to face down her abuser, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University trainer Larry Nassar. With her pixie-cut hair and tortoiseshell glasses, the diminutive 18-year-old University of Michigan student didn’t look especially formidable.
Then she started speaking.
“Every shred of admiration I had for you is gone,” McCaul told Nassar, the doctor she said she’d once respected and called a friend. “The man I thought I knew did not exist, only a selfish predator whose atrocities know no bounds.”
The beige courtroom, ordinarily unremarkable, hummed with energy that day as dozens of women waited their turn to read victim impact statements to the man who’d turned their lives upside down at some point in the past two decades. An army of more than 150 survivors had arrived for battle.
“Since reports of Larry Nassar’s misconduct to Michigan State faculty began in 1997, two years before I was even born, I can’t help but wonder,” McCaul continued. “How many little girls could have been spared from this lifelong battle if someone at the university had just done the bare minimum and listened?”
When McCaul finished, she stepped back from the podium, emotional but resolute, and stared down Nassar.
Nearly 365 days later, McCaul says it was this moment and that historic sentence hearing that changed her life forever.
Days before McCaul and her legion of self-proclaimed “sister survivors” confronted Nassar in court, I published a piece about the 140 women who had publicly accused Nassar of sexual abuse at the time. While their stories had commanded attention in the Lansing area (thanks to first-rate reporting from local media), they hadn’t yet garnered the international attention they would ultimately receive. It was frustrating, and disappointing, to see dozens of stories of serial abuse brushed aside by mainstream media.
Half a dozen survivors described a feeling of hopelessness before the sentencing, telling HuffPost last year that it seemed as if the country simply did not care about the abuse they experienced. Some attributed it to sexism. Others believed the lack of public attention was because most of Nassar’s victims were not Olympic gymnasts.
“We couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to this. We tried so hard and we couldn’t get people to care,” Sarah Klein, an attorney and one of the first known victims of Nassar, told HuffPost this year. “We knew that what Michigan State had done was wrong. We knew that what USAG had done was wrong, and we wanted so badly to tell our story, but we couldn’t get any traction.”
It was a sentence hearing, of all things, that finally made the country take notice. On Jan. 16, 2018, in a tiny Michigan courtroom, 169 women and family members began reading gut-wrenching victim impact statements to the once-famed sports medicine doctor.
I could just feel it in that room. Finally, we were taking our power back and the world was listening. Amanda Thomashow, MSU graduate and Nassar survivor
“I could just feel it in that room,” Nassar survivor and MSU graduate Amanda Thomashow told HuffPost. “Finally, we were taking our power back and the world was listening.”
It’s common for victims of a crime to be given the opportunity to read a statement. But this was different. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina took a unique and at times controversial approach, allowing every single person to speak ― which meant that instead of lasting a day or two, the hearing ran an entire week.
“I got to bring that little girl that I once was with me into court and up to that podium,” Klein told HuffPost. “And I got to speak for her.”
That week, and those women, forced the country to finally confront Nassar’s heinous abuse and the institutional complicity that enabled him for so long.
HuffPost spoke with almost all of the women we talked to for last year’s article, plus a few additional survivors: McCaul, Klein, Thomashow, Larissa Boyce, Christine Harrison and Jessica Smith. A year later, now that the public is finally listening, I wanted to know ― have MSU and USAG righted their wrongs?
“I find it really interesting how many people are still willing to put money and medals and institutional reputation ahead of survivors ― even under intense public scrutiny,” McCaul said.
All the women agreed: The country may finally be paying attention, but USA Gymnastics and Michigan State are not.
“I still fear that the institutions are not listening,” Harrison, an MSU graduate and former gymnast and soccer player, said. “Sexual assault survivors should never have to beg to be listened to or believed, and unfortunately I feel like that’s what we’ve had to do this past year.”
Time and again, MSU, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee have neglected to remedy decades of institutional failures, despite embarrassing resignations, criminal charges and even bankruptcy.
At MSU, former President Lou Anna K. Simon, former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages and former MSU dean of osteopathic medicine and Nassar’s former boss William Strampel have been charged with lying to the police, willful neglect of duty and, in the case of Strampel, sexual misconduct.
Even more distressing to many survivors, MSU interim President John Engler closed a $ 10 million healing fund in December originally set aside for counseling and other services for Nassar victims. The school redirected that money into an existing $ 500 million settlement divided between the 332 women who’d sued the school. This move left dozens of other accusers, who were not part of the lawsuit, unable to collect support funding for necessary counseling and other mental health services. (Last week, MSU’s board of trustees voted to establish a new fund, although board Chair Dianne Byrum said “the details are still to be worked out.”)
Smith, a dance teacher, scoffed at MSU’s incompetence in its attempts to course-correct after the Nassar scandal.
“I teach students as young as 2, and in my experience, 2-year-olds are better at taking responsibility than Michigan State University,” she said. “Children don’t necessarily understand what they’re doing, but they understand when their friend says ‘That hurts me.’”
Thomashow said that for MSU to improve, the school needs to listen to the team of experts and advocates it has on hand as part of the recently created Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup. The group consists of “rock star advocates,” Thomashow said, including Andrea Munford, the lead MSU Special Victims Unit detective who broke open the Nassar case in 2016.
“I know that they have it in them at MSU,” Thomashow said. “It’s just listening to the experts and actually having a trauma-informed, evidence-based approach to sexual assault prevention and response.”
Such a response would typically entail training officials on the importance of believing survivors and combating victim blaming. It would also include law enforcement training about how trauma works, and its effects on delayed reporting and memory loss. The university has not yet rolled out programs specifically addressing these issues.
Meanwhile, at USA Gymnastics, former president Steve Penny and former trainer Debbie Van Horn face criminal charges as well. Van Horn was indicted in June on allegations that she sexually assaulted a child while working at the infamous USAG training facility, the Karolyi Ranch in Walker County, Texas.
In one of the most glaring missteps, USAG appointed Mary Lee Tracy to the prestigious role of elite development coordinator, only to learn that she’d defended Nassar in December 2016, when more than 50 women had already accused him of serial sexual abuse. Days later, she resigned.
For its part, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the very organization tasked with righting the ship post-Nassar, has not been able to land on its feet. The organization announced in November that it planned to decertify USA Gymnastics, but USAG filed for bankruptcy ― a last-ditch effort to stabilize the flailing organization ― before the decertification could take place. As of this writing, USA Gymnastics is still up and running.
Last month, it was revealed that two USOC top officials deleted emails containing disturbing accusations against Nassar in 2015, and failed to report it. One of the officials was fired over the revelation; the other had stepped down some months before.
McCaul toggled between anger, frustration and flat-out exhaustion as she discussed the various institutional errors.
“If international attention is not enough to force institutional leaders to change their behavior, what is?” she said, adding that money repeatedly took precedence over girls’ lives.
If international attention is not enough to force institutional leaders to change their behavior, what is? Morgan McCaul, University of Michigan student and Nassar survivor
Reached for comment, representatives for USAG and Michigan State each expressed remorse for the survivors’ trauma while pointing to changes their respective institutions have made post-Nassar.
“One year ago, more than 150 courageous women made gymnastics, and all sports, safer by sharing their stories and the personal impact of Larry Nassar’s despicable crimes,” Kathryn Carson, chair of USA Gymnastics’ board of directors, told HuffPost. “We deeply regret the horrific acts that hurt so many of our athletes. We will never forget and are forever grateful for their bravery in coming forward.”
Carson said “a lot has changed” in the past year, citing turnover in USAG’s leadership and noting that the group has implemented safe sport policies and worked to create a culture of greater accountability.
“We know we have more work to do,” she said. “We are committed to taking the needed steps toward fostering a positive, encouraging and safe environment where all of our members are comfortable in speaking up and have the opportunity to thrive and follow their gymnastics dreams.”
Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for MSU, told HuffPost the university is “extraordinarily sorry” for all the harm Nassar’s crimes and the school’s own failures have caused.
“As we learn and move forward, the university continues to engage and invest in an intense reform and cultural change effort to ensure Michigan State University is a safe campus for students, faculty, staff and our community,” she said. “MSU has made many strides in addressing sexual misconduct situations, including implementing a new chaperone policy and strengthening mandatory reporting policies for all staff.”
Looking ahead, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for three different institutions that failed women equally. The cleanup promises to be complicated, as the organizations attempt to unlearn decades of bad behavior.
McCaul, like Thomashow, stressed the importance of prioritizing and centering survivors in Nassar’s wake.
“If the health and the well-being of the people that you hurt is at the forefront of your mind, I think that that will create an environment and create a mindset for actual progress,” she said.
And if the past year has proven anything, it’s that the sister survivors will stop at nothing to hold these organizations accountable. All of the women agreed that their fight isn’t over.
“It’s clear that that fame, money and attention is what’s motivating them,” Smith said of USA Gymnastics and MSU. “Let’s be clear, though, you can’t buy us off. There’s no amount of money, there’s no amount of fame or attention that can get us to stop.”
“One Year Later: Larry Nassar And The Women Who Made Us Listen” is a seven-part series that commemorates the seven days women stood in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s East Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last January and read powerful victim impact statements to former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State trainer Larry Nassar. Their words made history, forcing the country to finally listen and confront the abuse Nassar perpetrated. This series highlights the people who helped take Nassar down, as well as those he hurt for so long.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Illustration by Marly Gallardo for HuffPost