Nassar hid behind religion during decades of abuse

Larry Nassar

By Bill Dunn

“You talked about Catholicism with my mother while sexually violating me,” former gymnast Madeline Jones told Larry Nassar during her victim impact statement.

Jones was one of about 200 women to tell two state courts in Michigan their stories before Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University, was sentenced to concurrent terms of 40 to 175 years in prison. The total number of accusers is 265. A separate federal child pornography conviction adds 60 years to that total.

Nassar, 54, preyed for almost 20 years on the nation’s top gymnasts, including Olympians, while treating their injuries. Often their parents were in the room, but Nassar blocked their view of what was going on.

Another victim was a family friend who was 6 when he started molesting her in the home where he lived with his wife and three children. One of their daughters is autistic. His wife divorced him last July.

“In our early hearings, you brought your bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness,” victim Rachael Denhollander told him in court. The judge made him sit in the witness box so he had to face his victims during their statements.

Nassar was a catechist (lay teacher) for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish’s seventh-grade class and a eucharistic minister at St. John Church and Student Center in East Lansing, Mich. Although Annie Kitching, St. Thomas director of religious education, claimed Nassar was not affiliated with the parish “for a long time,” Michelle Danaj, another catechist, said she worked with him until September 2016.

“It seemed like a normal teaching experience,” Danaj said. “He knew a lot about the Catholic faith, he treated the students with respect.” The Diocese of Lansing said Nassar completed “Safe Environment” training to instruct parishioners working with children how to recognize and prevent child abuse.

Critics noted “institutional failures” by Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and medical accreditation agencies. In an editorial, the Free Press in Mankato, Minn., added the church to that list: “At the same time that Nassar’s victims took to [Judge Rosemarie] Aquilina’s courtroom, Pope Francis was heaping scorn on the victims of a Chilean bishop already convicted of abuse by the Vatican.”

Denhollander, who was 15 when Nassar started molesting her, said this in an interview with the Christian Post: “It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”

A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., passed both houses of Congress in late January. The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act requires amateur athletics governing bodies to report sex abuse allegations to law enforcement or a child welfare agency within 24 hours. It also extends the statute of limitations into adulthood for federal civil child abuse laws.

Barbara Blaine, the late founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, worked with Feinstein’s office on the legislation.

Kyle Stephens was 6 when Nassar first exposed his penis to her in his home’s furnace room. “He told me, ‘If you ever want to see it, all you have to do is ask.’” He masturbated, put his fingers in her vagina and rubbed his penis on her bare feet.

She told her parents, who didn’t believe her, Stephens said in her statement. “You convinced my parents that I was a liar.” Her father killed himself in 2016 as the allegations mounted.

“Little girls don’t stay little forever,” Stephens said to Nassar. “They grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”