Rachael Denhollander is a lawyer and advocate. She was the first gymnast to come forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar.
On TV, when victims go to the police, they are paired with a trauma-informed detective. Diligent police work brings charges, followed by a conviction and a jail sentence that gives everyone validation and closure. Survivors are supported; future abuse is prevented.
But the atrocities in the Justice Department inspector general’s report show the difficulties when coming forward in real life. Nassar was reported to the FBI in 2015 but continued to work as a physician at Michigan State University, a role that allowed him to continue to abuse women and girls until, more than a year later, the Indianapolis Star reported allegations from another survivor and me.
The IndyStar article spotlighted Nassar’s serial abuse and raised difficult questions about his access to young athletes like me. In 119 pages, the inspector general’s report provides clarity, laying bare not only the atrocities that survivors warned about for too long but also the failures of law enforcement: “fundamental errors,” violations of FBI policy, “misconduct.” Officials tasked with protecting others failed to do so. Those with authority to defend used their position for self-gain.
These pages reveal answers to the painful questions survivors are asked: Why didn’t you report? Why didn’t you come forward sooner? If what you reported was true, why hasn’t anything been done?
Seeing news articles with my name, photo and details of my abuse next to USA Gymnastics’ assertion that Nassar had long ago been reported to law enforcement remains gut-wrenching. I don’t have words for the depth of law enforcement’s betrayal of the survivors who reported, the girls who could have been saved, the abuse that could have been prevented and the position those betrayals put my family and me in — with no choice but to relinquish every shred of privacy to finally get the truth out.
Much of the time, allegations of sexual assault languish without documentation. The backlog of rape kits nationwide is just one example of the low priority our society puts on investigating and punishing sexual abuse. In this scandal, the initial FBI agents who received graphic details of Nassar’s abuse never opened a proper investigation. (A separate reporting of him to a local police department in 2004 never resulted in a real file being opened, either.) Often, survivors wait with their lives on hold to see what comes of the raw and painful details they’ve shared with detectives, only for months to go by without updates.
Sometimes sexual abuse isn’t investigated properly because of outright corruption — like the FBI agent, W. Jay Abbott, who the report reveals had wined and dined with Steve Penny, then president and chief executive of USA Gymnastics, and entertained a job offer Penny helped secure.
From the initial reports in 2015, it took six years to get officials to investigate and prove those facts. It took my choice to come forward and share painful details of my abuse. It took the voices of hundreds of survivors to end Nassar’s abuses.
Beyond my own pain are other haunting questions: If law enforcement could do this to Olympians, and hide the gross negligence and corruption for years amid an international news story with hundreds of victims, what is happening to lower-profile survivors? What about the girls and women who don’t have our network of support systems or resources?
Too many survivors are suffering beyond their initial trauma: from carelessness or corruption among authority figures, or lack of accountability, and a culture that continues to question victims.
When I reported Nassar’s sexual abuse to Andrea Munford, a special victims unit detective with Michigan State University Police, and Angela Povilaitis, then a Michigan assistant attorney general, I found myself dealing with dedicated professionals. Together, those women assembled evidence, built a case and secured a life sentence for Nassar in less time than the FBI had taken to do essentially nothing.
If there is a silver lining to the ugliness of the Justice Department’s report, it’s that it tells the truth about the realities that survivors faced in being believed and heard. Change happens through our collective efforts, and a great deal of change is still needed.