Opinion | How Larry Nassar got away with it

Opinion | How Larry Nassar got away with it

When celebrated Olympic gymnast Simone Biles on Wednesday recounted to the U.S. Senate sexual abuse she suffered for years at the hands of former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, she emphasized that the problem went beyond a single predator. Biles blamed an “entire system” that helped Nassar get away with it, including adults charged with protecting her. This system, according to her testimony and that of her fellow Olympic champions and survivors, spanned the sporting world, educational institutions and law enforcement.

If we’re honest, however, it encompasses the entire society — reflecting a longstanding willful blindness to harm inflicted upon children by adults.

If we’re honest, however, it encompasses the entire society — reflecting a longstanding willful blindness to harm inflicted upon children by adults.

We have been failed and we deserve answers,” said Biles. One way to honor her statement is to ask the right questions.

Why is it so hard to face the truth about child sexual abuse? Why are predators regularly afforded protection while kids’ accusations are dismissed? Until we are able to confront the denial, fear and discrimination that work together to allow abuse to flourish in America, there will always be more Nassars.

Philosopher and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a critic of the injustices befalling children in American society, argues that prejudice against them, which she termed “childism,” is a problem comparable to racism, sexism and homophobia. In her view, such biases are rooted in a widespread expectation that children should serve the needs of the adults who care for them — a view that can all too easily translate into exploitation.

Young-Bruehl explains it was not possible to protect kids from abuse without first delving into adults’ conflicted attitudes toward childhood and understanding the motivations of those who deal with children. The psychoanalyst maintains that not enough attention is paid to the way children perceive abuse and how critical adult attitudes are to these perceptions.

Several of Young-Bruehl’s concerns play out in the terrible experiences of the U.S. gymnasts abused by Nassar. Over and over, the world-class but still very young athletes were told that their view of Nassar’s actions was wrong. He was the respected adult. They were the children and should accept the adult viewpoint.

The gymnasts’ testimony painted a disturbing picture of officials more focused on how their own reputations were burnished by these prize-winning athletes than on protecting and nurturing the growing human beings in their care. The girls’ perceptions were continually deemed inferior to those of adults — and their right to have crimes against them addressed was consistently violated.

The girls’ perceptions were continually deemed inferior to those of adults — and their right to have crimes against them addressed was consistently violated.

These biases seemingly carried through all the way up to the attitude of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, resulting in sexual abuse compounded by the emotional cruelty, humiliation and neglect inflicted by adults the gymnasts turned to for protection.

Gymnast McKayla Maroney said that FBI agents not only dismissed and minimized her complaints, but even falsified them. Fellow athlete Aly Raisman described similar treatment: “The agent diminished the significance of my abuse,” she told the Senate panel, “and made me feel my criminal case wasn’t worth pursuing.” Meanwhile, the famous and respected male doctor was allowed to continue his predation on an estimated 70 more child victims.

Such egregious dereliction of duty raises the question of whether sexism added to a toxic cauldron of prejudices that failed to stop the assault and harassment.

When it comes to child abuse, fear is enemy No. 1. Because child sexual predation is such a frightening subject, psychologist Nina Burrowes explains, we have trouble thinking about it clearly. To quell our fear, we focus on the “dangerous stranger” — the criminal lurking in alleyways, the creepy guy circling the playground. We might even conjure up demons, like the illusory Satan-worshipping pedophiles that caught the popular imagination in the “Satanic panic” of 1980s and still preoccupy QAnon conspiracy theorists today.

Focusing on this type of offender helps to give us a feeling of control — we believe we can do something about it. If we watch closely enough and instruct children not to talk to strangers, we imagine we’re solving the problem.

Actually, we may be doing the opposite.

Burrowes warns that focusing on the criminal-stranger creates a smokescreen that blinds us to the ways abuse typically occurs.

Burrowes warns that focusing on the criminal-stranger creates a smokescreen that blinds us to the ways abuse typically occurs. Skilled predators who wish to get away with their crimes, she notes, typically don’t attack children in public places with potential witnesses. Instead, they choose someone they know and have easy access to — preferably someone who trusts them.

This stealthy abuser avoids overtly alarming behavior, relying instead on subtly manipulating and confusing victims so that they don’t report crimes. Burrowes points out that many abusers don’t consider what they are doing to be abuse — rationalizing their actions to protect their self-image. If such a person jumped out of the bushes to snatch a child, they could hardly maintain a good opinion of themselves. Far better to push the boundaries of existing relationships, using tactics like grooming, or drugs and alcohol to lower their own and their victim’s inhibitions.

Nassar is just the kind of abuser Burrowes wants us to think clearly about: a normal-looking, highly respected person with easy access to kids, one practiced in cultivating their trust and expert in rationalizing and normalizing his abhorrent behavior.

What Nassar accomplished was actually far scarier than the fantasy of Satanic cult members performing bizarre rituals. For decades, he tortured and traumatized hundreds of children right under the noses of adults in positions of authority. As gymnast Raisman testified, “It was like serving innocent children up to a pedophile on a silver platter.

Thick webs of denial about child sexual abuse help make this possible. In the United States, the topic of child maltreatment, including hitting and battering, sexual assault, and mental cruelty inflicted by adults, didn’t even gain traction as a subject of serious academic study until the 1970s. Over the next decade, the pervasiveness of child abuse and society’s strong tendency to deny it gained attention when the work of Polish-Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller became available in English. Miller warned that when children are forced to repress their experiences of abuse, they grow up not only intensely suffering, but in danger of repeating unhealthy patterns. Denial becomes key mechanism of perpetuating harm.

Nassar is in prison, but the fact remains that sexual abuse of the most vulnerable Americans is more common than we would like to admit. Research indicates that one in five women in North America was sexually abused as a child.

The U.S. gymnasts’ stunning testimony blasts through our complacency and distorted thinking, alerting us to the urgent need to push past our culture’s fear and denial. The young women challenge us to recognize the rights of children and to see child sexual abuse for what it is: a deep, society-wide problem that can’t be blinkered away.

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