Last week after days of emotional testimony by victims, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Dr. Larry Nassar, the doctor who assaulted at least 150 girls while working as a doctor for USA Gymnastics, to 40 to 175 years in prison. On February 5, a Michigan judge sentenced Nassar to an additional 40 to 125 year sentence, which brought the criminal proceedings against Nassar to a close. Nassar’s previous sentence is a 60 year federal term for child pornograghy crimes.
What makes this case and other similar cases deeply upsetting is how many victims Nassar harmed while acting in the role of a trusted adult and caretaker. Many victims tried to come forward over the years, but their allegations were not believed.
In the United States, 25 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys are sexually abused before they turn 18. It’s incredible then that with a staggering number of victims, it often takes a critical mass—and time—before we’re willing to acknowledge that people we admire or trust are capable of sexually abusing children. People who abuse children often appear to be regular, normal folks, and we often don’t recognize that child sexual abuse is occurring because it is committed by people we know.
What can we do to make sure there are fewer victims and abusers? We desperately need to change the way we think about and react to child sexual abuse in our country. Thee days of waiting until abuse is detected is untenable.
We must demand that organizations that serve our youth implement effective prevention programs and policies like limiting one-on-one adult-child situations, requiring the presence of a second adult during physical exams of children and placing windows in interior doors to make one-on-one situations easier to observe and interrupt. But most importantly, more government support is needed to develop, test and disseminate effective prevention strategies.
We can no longer wait until victims come forward in droves before we act against child abuse, and we can no longer look at this issue solely through the lens of law enforcement. Yes, Dr. Nassar clearly deserves to be punished as a necessary part of a comprehensive approach to child sexual abuse, but it cannot be the only approach.
This blog post also appears as part of our Psychology Today column, Prevention Now.