What would you do if you had a chance to protect young girls?
I’d like to think I’d be different, though I hope I never find out.
I think virtually everyone in this country likes to think they would be different, too.
Yet it seems, despite that desire and belief in our own good intentions, truly horrendous things continue to happen in this country that were made possible by the complicit silence or cover-up of people. People who at one point in their life thought to themselves, “if I was in that situation, I never would have let that happen.”
When we learn that a woman was the victim of domestic abuse, people often declare that they would never let themselves or their children stay in a situation like that. Others tell themselves that if they knew, or even suspected, that someone they knew was being abused, they would say something and ensure that the abuse stopped.
When many of us — particularly everyday Catholics like myself — learned of the systematic abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic Church, and the subsequent cover-up that protected the sexual predators who perpetrated the abuse, we were horrified. Not only by the abuse, but by the adults who knew that children were being victimized and did nothing, instead remaining silent and shuffling abusers to new locations where they could prey on others.
Confidently, we all told ourselves that if we were somehow in the Church hierarchy and learned of what was happening, we would have shouted from the tallest building, run to the police, and demanded justice for the victims and extreme punishment for the perpetrators.
I know I certainly said that to myself.
So, if we are all as different as we like to think of ourselves as, how does this type of thing continue to happen?
The latest stomach-turning example of this phenomenon is the systematic, decades-long abuse of young girls in the sport of gymnastics by their doctor, Larry Nassar.
And like all examples, the disgusting abuse this man inflicted on his victims is only the beginning of the appalling story. The people who knew or suspected, and not only did nothing, but conspired to stay silent and let this man continue to abuse girls is perhaps the most grave sin in the entire story.
Nassar’s abuse was so pervasive that it simply could not have occurred without a large-scale cover-up involving hundreds of people, and massive entities such as Michigan State University, the USA Gymnastics program and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The allegations against Nassar were first made publicly in September 2016, and since that time more than 140 women have come forward with their stories of how Nassar abused them.
This is a stunning list that includes some of the biggest names in the sport, including virtually the entire 2012 team. Horrifying stories have been told by McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, as well as so many others.
Raisman has emerged as the bravest and most admirable leader among the victims, and she isn’t pulling any punches about those who allowed the abuse to happen.
The U.S. Olympic Committee, for instance, has recently faced a number of resignations in the wake of Nassar’s trial, and all the details that have been learned about their complicity in the cover-up. This was rather clearly their attempt to make a concession to satisfy the outrage of the public, and then move on with their lives having put it all behind them.
Raisman was having none of it.
“If the board members had to go because they ‘have been focused on establishing that they did nothing wrong,’ then the USOC must see fault. So what was the fault? And why just those three board members?” she said.
A 2016 investigation by The Indianapolis Star showed that top executives at USA Gymnastics knew of allegations of sexual abuse, and routinely dismissed them while failing to alert the authorities.
Michigan State, the school where Nassar served as a faculty member, also knew and did nothing. The university faces, at last count, 144 lawsuits filed by former gymnasts, all of whom say that they were abused by Nassar and that Michigan State failed to protect them.
Repeatedly people heard rumors or were told abuse was happening, and did nothing, or did so little that they enabled the behavior to happen.
Are these people monsters? They certainly look like that now, and because of their complicit silence, hundreds of girls were abused.
How many of them thought that they would be different?
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.