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Alleged Nassar victim says society doesn't understand ramifications of sexual abuse

Rachael Denhollander

Today, seven women and girls are expected to testify against a doctor they say sexually abused them.

They are some of more than 100 women and girls who’ve alleged Dr. Larry Nassar abused them while they were in gymnastic programs at Michigan State University (MSU) or USA Gymnastics (USAG). Nassar was the team physician for both.

(To see how the allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar unfolded, click here.)

The first person to take the stand will be Rachael Denhollander.

Ahead of today's testimony, Denhollander said she feels relieved Nassar’s “ability to prey on women and children” is ending.

“But there’s also definitely a sense of pain,” she said. “It’s going to be a painful process.”

That pain is something Denhollander said society does not understand well.

"The unfortunate reality is that a pedophile is only going to be as prolific as the people around him allow him to be."

“And I think you see some of that lack of understanding coming out with the way USAG and MSU both handled claims of sexual assault against Larry Nassar from 1997 on,” she said.

Of those to testify today, Denhollander is the only one to reveal her name. The other six decided not to.

“I was convinced it was the only way to be able to put a stop to what he was doing,” Denhollander said. “When someone has the persona, and particularly the institutions behind him, with the level of power and authority that Larry Nassar had in MSU and USAG, the unfortunate reality is that an anonymous voice is not enough.”

That’s especially true as it seems MSU and USAG are not learning the lessons they need to prevent future instances of abuse from happening, she said.

“The unfortunate reality is that a pedophile is only going to be as prolific as the people around him allow him to be,” she said. “And the reason Nassar was able to continue preying on women and children for decades is because there was deliberate indifference to the claims of the children that were coming forward and saying, ‘Look, this is what he’s doing under the guise of medical treatment.’”

People talk about this “culture of abuse” all the time, Denhollander said. It's a buzzword. 

“But I don’t think a lot of people really understand what that means,” she said. “You know a ‘culture of abuse’ is not created by the predator himself. The culture of abuse is a societal response. It’s the way we handle disclosures of assault. It’s our understanding of the impact of sexual assault. It’s our understanding of what sexual assault really can even entail.”

She said society's perception of what sexual assault looks like is part of the problem.

“It’s not the man in the trench coat,” she said. “It’s not the white van with no windows. It’s your trusted physician. It’s your school principal. It’s the pillar in the community that has positioned himself to be in a position where no one is going to question, and where childhood victims are going to be silenced and disbelieved.”

“And that’s a pattern that we see repeated over and over and over again.”

To meet the six other women and girls testifying against Dr. Larry Nassar today, click here.

And, for Stateside’s full conversation with Rachael Denhollander, listen above.

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*This post was last updated on Friday, May 12.

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