“You were never the problem, but you are so much the solution,” said Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman after she gave her heart-wrenching testimony at Larry Nassar’s sentencing. Aquilina allowed more than 150 women to speak their truth and reveal their scarring experiences with Nassar, who had abused his power as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and Michigan State University physician to molest young girls during treatments. She went on to directly tell Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant” after sentencing him to 40 to 175 years in prison. Many people have criticized Aquilina, accusing her of crossing a line by overtly showing support for the Nassar’s victims and harshly condemning Nassar. However, I believe Aquilina’s statements were not only acceptable, but also necessary, providing more hope to the gymnasts, as well as to the current #MeToo movement and Time’s Up initiative. By allowing the women to gain the closure they might need to heal and criticizing Nassar face to face, Aquilina set a precedent in the courtroom that demonstrates complete intolerance of sexual assault. This is especially important considering the outcome in many other high-profile sexual assault cases. In 2016, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious girl, to only six months in jail, worried about the effects prison might have on Turner’s psyche. In 2013, before sentencing former bishop Keith Vallejo for rape, Judge Thomas Low called Vallejo an “extraordinarily good man.” When judges show sympathy for men who have hurt women both physically and mentally, they send a message to other victims that their stories do not carry much weight and they are better off silent. By giving all Nassar’s victims a platform to speak and thanking them for their bravery, Judge Aquilina told victims everywhere that their voices matter and are welcome. Instead of silencing the victims, she silenced the perpetrator, throwing away Nassar’s letter expressing his difficulties listening to the women.
As an athlete myself, I understand why the girls trusted Nassar and how he made them feel as if he cared for them. Since the beginning of your sports career, you are told to listen to your coach and your trainers because they know what is best for you, they are professionals after all. During high school, in most cases, your parents aren’t present on away trips or tournaments or club practices, and when you reach college level athletics, you are living on your own for the first time. It is in these times that you develop a connection with your coaches and they become parental figures for some. I still consider my high school coach a second mom. And when your parents aren’t there to clean your cuts or ice your bruises, you rely on the medical trainers for comfort and security. However, when you are desperate to play, especially when Olympic spots are on the line, you tend to sacrifice other instincts that may have otherwise signaled to your brain that this treatment seems wrong. Many of the victims’ parents have expressed such agony and guilt for not believing their children at the time. Now, Judge Aquilina wants those children, who have grown into strong women, to know that “I’m an adult and I am listening.”
These young women had lost trust in their sport, their institutions, and authority in general, and this is why Aquilina’s support is so very critical. She listened to their accusations, believed them, and then took measures to ensure Nassar never touched another woman again. It was a seemingly simple process, yet it took USA Gymnastics and MSU about 30 years to do something about it. We need more judges like Aquilina to stand up for silenced victims of sexual assault when everyone else has left them behind.
Winnie Brandfield-Harvey is a sophomore from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.