When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina handed down her sentence on Larry Nassar last week, she spoke to and of him as a kind of monster we rarely see. She was wrong.
I know this because I remember Penn State, where an assistant football coach named Jerry Sandusky worked his way through boy after boy across year after year.
I know this because I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Boy Scouts of America decades ago.
And I know this from the extensive time that I once spent studying and even interviewing men who, like Nassar, were serial child molesters, except that none of them had the lofty title – “Dr.” – that he did.
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No, they had loftier ones.
The honorific “Rev.” came before their written names. People addressed them as “Father.” They were Roman Catholic priests.
In researching and publishing a book about them, I learned a great deal about child sexual abuse – enough to recognize that as horrifying as Nassar’s violation of young female athletes was, he and his crime spree weren’t anomalous. They snugly fit a pattern. And taking full and proper note of that is the best way – the only way – to protect children from the other Nassars out there.
These predators may not choose, as he audaciously did, to stalk gymnasiums and home in on future Olympic medalists. They may not use his particular cover and cast pitiless self-gratification as a healing touch. His case has harrowing details all its own, and that’s why so many people have responded to and discussed it as a singular and singularly shocking tale. Can you believe?
Oh, I can very much believe, because its outline and ingredients are completely familiar. Here we have an adult whose professional energies were largely devoted to children – and who was thus considered to have a special concern for, insight into and way with them. We have a figure of authority and expertise who seemed to be, and sometimes was, actually helping kids, so that their inclination – along with the reflexes of their parents and of their abuser’s colleagues – was to defer to him, trust him and give him the benefit of the doubt.
We have someone agile at cloaking impermissible physical contact in a banal or benevolent guise. And we had, around this individual, an institution so invested in its own reputation and unwilling to be distracted from its wider mission that it ignored clues, minimized accusations, hushed up accusers or did all of the above as the number of victims multiplied.
In Nassar’s case there were two primary institutions, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. Both behaved unconscionably. In the cases of the scores of priests whom I investigated, it was the Roman Catholic Church: its individual congregations, its dioceses, all the way up to the Vatican. The Boy Scouts organization was deemed so irresponsible that in 2010, a jury ordered it to pay $18.5 million to a former Scout who had been abused in the 1980s. Athletic officials at Penn State, including legendary head football coach Joe Paterno, disregarded warnings about Sandusky. In the short term, taking action is infinitely more uncomfortable and harder than simply wishing it all away.
It’s interesting that Sandusky’s name wasn’t more prevalent over the past week, as the attention to Nassar’s story and the efforts to wring some meaning from it intensified. The parallels are striking and instructive. Although Sandusky’s victims were boys, he, like Nassar, constructed his professional life so that he had steady access to children and appeared to be an altruist in their midst. He started a foster home, which evolved into a nonprofit group for troubled youth so large and well regarded that it received one of President George H.W. Bush’s “Points of Light” awards.
“Children constantly surrounded Sandusky, so much so that they became part of his persona,” Joe Posnanski wrote in his book “Paterno.” That same description applies to Nassar. It also applies to many of the abusive priests who went undetected and unpunished before the Catholic Church finally owned up to its failures and instituted necessary reforms.
Nassar had girls stretched out and pliant on his examining table. Sandusky roughhoused, wrestled and showered with boys in the name of sports. Nassar’s victims and their parents were awe-struck by his ties to Olympic athletes, his floor passes to elite competitions, the mementos on his office walls. Sandusky’s victims were dazzled by his position smack in the middle of all of those football stars and all of that football glory.
In an article about Sandusky in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell observed that he “built a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar, fully integrated grooming operation, outsourcing to child-care professionals the task of locating vulnerable children.” Change “child-care professionals” to gymnastics coaches and Gladwell could have been analyzing Nassar.
Grooming. Such a chilling word. Such an apt one. Abusers introduce themselves as instructors and allies. They can lift your score. They can improve your grades. They can provide the guidance that you lack or the fun that you’re missing. Bit by bit, they ask for bigger chunks of your time and suggest increasingly private encounters. The pace of the journey varies, but not its arc or its destination.
And they concoct justifications for what they’re doing, trying to persuade their victims of its righteousness as they simultaneously persuade themselves. Nassar’s so-called medical treatments exemplified this, as did the actions of many priests. I recall one who told a boy that the touching was part of his confession and his purification. I recall another who told a girl that she’d been assigned the task of helping him, a professed celibate, to better understand human sexuality so that he could minister more effectively to his flock.
Many abusive priests invoked the permission of God. Nassar cited the demands of science.
An overwhelming majority of adults who treat, teach, coach and counsel children are nothing like these men. To distrust all of them would be a terrible mistake and grievous disservice, both to them and to the kids who stand to benefit mightily from their attention.
But to find easy reassurance in the station that an adult possesses, the privileges that he bestows and the cause that he serves would be a greater mistake still.
The reckoning last week in that Michigan courtroom – where survivors of Nassar’s abuse emerged from silence and isolation to confront him and the world with the damage that he had done – wasn’t like anything I’d previously witnessed. But Nassar? There were similar monsters before him. And there will be similar monsters after.