Dani Garavelli: Judge’s disgust at Nassar strikes a chord

Former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar arrives at court last week. Picture: AFP/Getty
Former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar arrives at court last week. Picture: AFP/Getty
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My moment of the week – indeed, of the year so far – was the withering look on Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s face as she tossed paedophile doctor Larry Nassar’s letter to the Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan, aside like the piece of self-serving garbage it was.

Her expression captured the disdain most women feel towards the apologists for male sexual entitlement who pipe up every time a new scandal breaks. I’d like to think that’s how I look when Liam Neeson calls the #Metoo campaign a witch-hunt or when Brendan O’Neill writes his regular takedown of “the infantilisation of women” pegged on Harvey Weinstein, the Presidents Club or the piece of toxic masculinity du jour.

If there is a hierarchy of victims, then the dozens of girls – one of them as young as six – sexually assaulted by Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor, over the course of his long career must be near the top. And if there were medals for snivelling self-exculpation, Nassar’s six-page exercise in victim-blaming would have guaranteed him a gold. Though he had pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct (and had committed many more) he cast himself as a martyr, a victim of a media hate campaign, rather than a man who preyed on the vulnerable. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” he wrote, to Aquilina’s patent disgust.

While cheered on by many, the judge has taken some criticism for her obvious partisanship at last week’s hearing. She took the unusual step of allowing every one of Nassar’s victims – more than 150 – to tell the court about the impact his abuse had on themselves and their families. She was solicitous about their welfare. And she described Nassar as “precise, calculative, manipulative, devious, despicable” before jailing him for up to 175 years.

For this, she has been accused of “crossing a line” and of an undignified whipping up of emotions. In truth, some of Aquilina’s comments were a bit too Old Testament for my tastes. Heinous though Nassar’s behaviour was, there is something unedifying about an agent of the law expressing an enthusiasm for revenge – especially when that revenge involves rape.

Overall, however, her championing of Nassar’s victims served to highlight much of what is wrong with the justice system on both sides of the Atlantic. For decades, judges have paraded their prejudices about women “asking for it” and let those prejudices influence their sentencing. In 2013, Judge Neil Peters allowed a paedophile to walk free from Snaresbrook Crown Court in London because the prosecution convinced him the 13-year-old victim was “predatory”. The same year, a judge in Montana gave a high school teacher a suspended sentence because the 14-year-old pupil he raped was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation as he was”. These biases intensify the stigma faced by girls/women and discourage them from coming forward.

In most sexual assault cases, the victims are at best ignored and at worst revictimised. Just look at John Worboys, the taxi driver serving a sentence for drugging and sexually assaulting female passengers. Most of his 100+ victims have been denied closure. Most saw no charges brought in relation to the crimes (with no reason given for the decision) and had no opportunity to tell the court of their experiences.

With Nassar too, the number of charges brought was limited, but Aquilina’s decision to give his victims a platform meant the scale of his offending and its impact were apparent to all. As a succession of women – including Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber – raised their voices you could sense the power shifting from God-like Nassar to the victims he had tried to break. By waiving their anonymity, by speaking so articulately, they took back the control Nassar had stolen from them.

It was a powerful phenomenon, but also a timely one. Coming so soon after Weinstein, it felt like part of a wider movement; a revolution. Unlike so many of her counterparts, Aquilina convinced those victims, and society at large, that the shame was never theirs.

Her handling of Nassar’s hearing was important for another reason too. Inexplicably, the case had – until then – flown slightly under the radar. Aquilina’s emotive rhetoric ensured it would make international headlines and that there would be consequences for the sporting authorities.

The culpability in this case doesn’t start and end with Nassar; he was only able to offend so prolifically because the culture within gymnastics in the US was winning at any cost and – having sold himself as essential to the team’s success – he became untouchable.

Exactly who knew what and when is still to be established, but what is already clear is that there were failures of leadership at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where he worked for more than 20 years. As with so many abuse cases involving high-profile figures, blind eyes were turned and allegations suppressed.

Newly emboldened, six-time Olympic medallist Raisman – who looked Nassar in the eye and told him “you are nothing” – is taking the lead in the fight to ensure that there are consequences.

Thanks partly to her, and publicity surrounding the case, there has been a purge of the USA Gymnastics board. The last remaining members resigned after the US Olympic Committee (USOC) threatened to start a decertification process. The Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon and its athletics director Mark Hollis have also quit. But, as Raisman points out, there are many more questions to be asked. The USOC has been taking credit for all the resignations, but is it blameless or could it have acted sooner? And why was the departing Simon given such a large package of perks?

Raisman is showing no signs of letting up. On Friday she wrote to the USOC demanding that a full independent investigation into USA Gymnastics be completed before the sport’s governing body is allowed to elect new leaders.

Maybe she would have found the confidence to do this anyway. But Aquilina set the tone and validated hers and others’ suffering. She pointed out only 310 out of every 1,000 assaults are reported to the police and rallied other victims to follow their lead. “Speak out like these survivors, become part of the army,” she said.

I am not sure all judges should follow Aquilina’s lead. Their role is to ensure justice is properly dispensed, not lead the charge for cultural change.

Yet, at this watershed moment, when the #Metoo and #Timesup campaigns are gathering momentum, what Aquilina did feels fitting and justified. How can it be wrong to try to rebalance the scales of justice when they have been weighted against the victims of male predators for so long?