Once upon a time there were little girls who dreamed of becoming gymnasts. They dedicated themselves to their training and to being the best. They fought through injuries, setbacks, and pain. They sacrificed an average life for the shot at an extraordinary one. An elite few wore Olympic gold medals around their necks.
Instead of living happily ever after, many of these girls endured an ongoing nightmare at the hands of someone they trusted. Larry Nassar, the former sports doctor for Michigan State University and USA gymnastics, treated thousands of gymnasts during his tenure for various sports injuries.
He also sexually assaulted them under the guise of treatment.
What added insult to the girls’ injuries were the people and institutions in which they placed their trust. When girls gathered enough courage to report Nassar’s behavior, they expected compassion and advocacy. Coaches and university officials should have looked them in the eye and assured them they’d never be violated again. Instead, these girls met blowback. “[I’ve] known Nassar for years and couldn’t imagine him doing anything,” said now-retired MSU Gymnastics Coach Kathy Klages. Gymnasts testified they faced condemnation rather than compassion, with various coaches telling them Nassar, along with his accusers, would be in trouble if word of the alleged misconduct leaked out. University officials told gymnasts to shut up and put up. Both MSU and USA gymnastics prioritized power, success, and notoriety over protecting people.
One by one, the dominoes in this carefully orchestrated kingdom began to fall, and Larry Nassar found himself the subject of countless allegations and charges. On December 7, 2017, Nassar received a 60-year federal prison sentence for having more than 37,000 pictures of child porn on his computer. He faces additional sentencing next month in two Michigan counties on sexual misconduct charges. More than 100 women and girls have filed civil suits against the former doctor.
Nassar will spend the rest of his days inside a prison cell, and he deserves it. However, that is not the definition of justice. The ripple effects of this case are far reaching, as is evidenced by the victims’ recounting of initial abuse, coupled with the continued shaming from coaches and authorities who refused to protect them.
One victim spoke before MSU’s Board of Trustees, her voice shaking with anger and grief: “I can’t sleep, I don’t trust, and I have difficult time making friends. I even blame my parents for something they had absolutely no control over.”
Another victim’s voice cracked as she raked MSU officials over the coals: “Why is it that while I’m fighting for your campus that you’re off celebrating sports and financial gains?”
This ongoing story is part of my day job as a reporter who covers Michigan news for dozens of radio affiliates. I’ve cried countless times at my desk while editing sound bites. It’s impossible to listen to the victims and not grieve alongside them.
Larry Nassar represents only one miscarriage of justice. Sadly, there are many more deplorable people willing to rob children of their dignity. What’s more disgusting are people who refuse to be the safe refuge for those children crying out for help. MSU had the opportunity to stop Nassar as far back as 1998. They didn’t, and now hundreds of women will live with the consequences of that inaction for the rest of their lives.
Statistics tell us that sexual abuse has far-reaching ramifications. Many victims face attachment problems, trust issues, and difficulty navigating relationships. Some even repeat the cycle, abusing others down the line.
Sexual abuse victims often describe themselves as broken, but there’s One to whom they can hand the pieces. Jesus made it abundantly clear how much he treasured children: “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” (Mark 10:13-16)
Jesus always had time for children, and He did not tolerate adults who shooed them away. He sternly reprimanded anyone who would keep little ones from approaching their Savior. He knocked down the obstacles others tried to place in their path. No one should keep kids from a full, up-close relationship with Jesus. He did not mince words when He described such souls: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:6-7).
Millstones are reserved for a certain kind of sinner, and Jesus doesn’t want anyone messing with his kids. In a world of #MeToo proclamations, Christ followers must be the ones girls and boys can run to when others are abusing them. Jesus gives us the prescription to fight the epidemic:
- Let the children come to us. Jesus beckoned children to snuggle close to Him, a safe place from the scolding of others. Likewise, we must be a refuge for children with limited safe adults in their life. Who are the children, besides your own, in which you’ve been entrusted? It could be your child’s friends, the youth group at church, the sports team you coach, or the little ones you see dart between the pews on Sunday. Crying wolf never helps anyone, but we must pray for discernment about the people and institutions surrounding kids. If we see something weird, we speak up. If something seems a little “off” we work through those feelings while uncovering the facts. If a child confesses something troubling to us, we follow the appropriate steps to get them help, and justice.
- Do not hinder children. Jesus spoke in striking terms about those who cause children to stumble. Given the ramifications of an abuser’s actions, they certainly fit this description. We are not responsible for an abuser’s behavior, but we are responsible for our own. When we see something, do we say something? Do we send mixed messages telling our kids to stand up for themselves while brushing aside a family member’s handsy behavior because “that’s how they are”? Since most children and teens are learning how to advocate for themselves, we need to step in and fill the gap for them.
- Bless them. Build up a kid today. Pay them a compliment. Catch them being good. Be kind. Smile. Applaud them for a wise choice. The world has enough negativity to go around. Why should it come from us? Speak up and let the children in your life know how valued they are to you and to God.
- Protect yourself. Let’s not be naïve. In a world where a whisper of impropriety can undo someone’s career and damage their marriage, it’s important we protect ourselves. What precautions are you putting in place to ensure accusations never float your way?
In a world of hashtag theology, Christians must do more than simply wring our hands and proclaim abuse bad. We have a role in stopping it. Larry Nassar will eventually fade into the news archives only to have another pervert’s name splashed across the headlines. #MeToo will be gone with the wind like every cultural movement before it. What will not fade are Jesus’s commands to let the children come to Him. It’s our job to clear the path and let them make a run for it.