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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Keyword: usa gymnastics

GymnasticsLast 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.

USA GymnasticsRecent coverage (see Indianapolis Star, Washington Post and National Public Radio) of child sexual abuse allegations within USA Gymnastics and their policy of systematically disregarding accusations from bystanders, during which time numerous young gymnasts were abused by multiple coaches over the course of decades, is a sobering reminder that institutions too often fail in their responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse. This investigation should motivate other youth-serving organizations to adopt and maintain best practices that can prevent the sexual abuse of children. Indeed, how organizations respond to the first allegation can set the stage for whether child sexual abuse is prevented or promoted.

This is a lesson that every organization should have learned after the 2012 Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. Yes, we know that it’s very hard for people to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse when the offender is someone who is well known and respected in their community, but failing to do so creates an environment that places children at risk. This is why it is essential for youth-serving organizations to implement and enforce best practices for protecting children.

For example, mandatory reporting policies require that if you’re employed by an organization that serves children, you have a duty to report any and all cases of suspected child sexual abuse to authorities. Since USA Gymnastics is considered a youth-serving organization, their policy that child sexual abuse allegations are dismissed as hearsay if reported by someone other than a victim or parent clearly violates this responsibility.  

Right now, most sex crime policies in the United States focus on punishing the perpetrators after the fact. But there is much more we could do to study and test programs and policies for preventing abuse in the first place. In the meantime, organizations must place the wellbeing of children above organizational prestige and adopt best practices that we know can help keep our children safe.