Disclaimer: I am not an investigative journalist by trade nor am I an expert in this field. I am simply a dad raising four sons and a writer who covers Michigan State sports. I have been following the Larry Nassar case intently since the headlines first started in September 2016. I’ve interviewed primary sources, read/listened/watched all the news coverage, and witnessed multiple days of courtroom testimony in Mason – and I have tried to pass on what I’ve learned to Michigan State University for implementation going forward. I have no axes to grind nor feuds to feed. I simply want the community to be more educated after they read this than they were before they read this.
Six years ago, the Penn State community was grappling with the horrible sexual crimes of a pillar of their community, Jerry Sandusky, coming to light. As that was happening, nearly 500 miles to the west, the mid-Michigan community was being victimized by their own pillar of the community, Larry Nassar.
Unfortunately for Nassar’s victims, it would be several more years before the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor’s actions were exposed by the brave women who came forward and told their stories to the Indy Star. Part of the reason that it took so long for Nassar’s predatory behavior to come to light could be due to the fact that – for the most part – the lessons that should have been learned from the events that transpired in Happy Valley never in fact made their way into the mainstream.
The Freeh Report – which was touted by the Penn State Board of Trustees in the summer of 2012 as the definitive report into the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal – never mentioned “nice guy acquaintance offenders” nor “compliant victimization” nor did it include any in-depth explanation of how “nice guy offenders” get away with their crimes for so long – by “grooming” their victims, their victim’s families, and their victim’s communities. The media that covered the scandal didn’t really cover this angle either.
So, while the nation looked at Sandusky and saw a football scandal, another sexual predator (Nassar) was fooling other communities (USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, the mid-Michigan community) – and this time the sexual predator had nothing to do with football.
Had Louis Freeh and the Penn State community used the FBI’s research and implemented an honest discussion about “pillar of the community” offenders, perhaps those in mid-Michigan would have recognized Nassar’s behavior in 2012 and had critical discussions of his behavior. Perhaps Larry Nassar would have been apprehended earlier and many of these girls would not have continued to have been victimized.
It’s sad to acknowledge it but – as you read this – there is yet another sexual predator out there. Fooling yet another community. It might be your community. It might even be your child or your grandchild or your niece or nephew. And – as sad as it is to think about that – it’s true.
Those who reported and analyzed the Sandusky scandal should have shouted it loud and clear as a warning to anyone who would listen – this can happen where YOU are. Whether you are in a town that loves football, or a town with a proud gymnastics program, or an industrial town, or a rural town, or a small farming community, or a vibrant big city. It can happen to YOU.
That would have been a brutal conversation to have. It would not have been easy nor quick. But it might have helped educate enough people around the country so that others would have been able to identify “nice guy/gal offenders” in their community more quickly.
Just like Sandusky did to the Penn State community, Nassar hit the Michigan State community hard — and I’m just hoping to play a small part in making sure it doesn’t happen elsewhere.
Nice guy/gal offenders
Clearly, we all take steps to protect our children from strangers. We develop protections that will stop the predators from grabbing our child at the store or the park or the school. And, of course, that is wise to do. But, the fact is “stranger danger” crime is relatively rare. According to Jim Clemente – a member of the FBI/NYPD Sexual Exploitation of Children Task Force who was himself victimized as a teen by his basketball coach – the clear majority of child sexual victimization crimes are committed by people the children know. People we trust. People we hand our children over to, voluntarily. In fact, statistics show that in approximately 90% of cases, child sexual abuse victims are victimized by someone they know and trust.
The “nice guy/gal offender” grooms the community he or she lives and works in by doing nice things for the community. They hide in plain sight.
He might be the guy that runs a large, successful children’s charity. Or raises money for kids in need. Or foster cares 24 kids. Or adopts six kids.
Jerry Sandusky did all those things.
He might be the guy that teaches Sunday school. Or donates his time for charitable endeavors. Or takes his kids’ friends to fun places. Or provides healing for injuries. Or runs for the local school board. Or wears an Olympic Team insignia.
Larry Nassar did all those things.
They fooled everyone. Sandusky and Nassar were methodical – skilled in grooming – and tested the waters with “innocent” behavior that hid their true motives. They put up smoke screens. They always had answers at the ready if anyone questioned their intentions. They surfed along the edge with plausible deniability. And then they’d move on to the next victim if necessary.
Pillar of the community offenders are experts at getting away with their crimes. They groom their victims – “don’t worry, that’s a normal medical procedure” or “we were just goofing around, it won’t happen again” – and they groom their communities. They know that while people are vigilant and on the lookout for the “monster predator” those same people will look right past the nice guy who’s doing nice things in public for youth and their parents, all the while committing their crimes in private.
The worst part of it all? The victims look around and see how the community sees and treats the guy or gal who is doing these things to them. They see how their parents and friends and community leaders revere him or her. And they stay quiet. Can you blame them? Who’s going to believe them, after all? The last thing they need is to be called a liar, or risk embarrassment or shame.
“How dare you accuse such a good man of such horrible things?”
It was revealed in witness testimony — in an Ingham County court room earlier this year — that that question was actually asked of one of Nassar’s victims.
By her dad.
Here’s the thing. If someone you don’t know approaches you and asks to spend time with your child or says they want to take them on an overnight trip, or tries to give them gifts, what do you do? You quite logically say no and keep your child as far away as possible from that person. You would probably warn others as well.
But what if that person is a friend of yours? Someone you know? A trusted coach? A charity founder or volunteer? A youth worker? For the safety of our children, we need to also view that behavior as a red flag. You need to look deeper. Investigate further and really make sure. Ask questions. Protect your children.
Most importantly, make sure your child knows that even people we think are good people can do bad things. Make sure your child knows that they can talk to you about anything. Tell them that if something bad happens, you will love them regardless. No matter what it is, they can tell you about it. Tell them that you will support them. Make sure they truly understand that no matter what they do – or if someone does something to them – that won’t change the fact that they will always be loved and trusted. They will always be believed.
In order to truly protect our children, we need to empower them to protect themselves – they need to be comfortable talking to us about actions that make them feel uncomfortable. And often, that starts with us. Start these conversations sooner than you think you need to and get out in front of this. In an age-appropriate manner, of course.
Be aware. Be alert.
Any youth-serving organization is vulnerable to compliant child sexual victimization because this type of offender portrays himself as a wonderful human being in public while grooming, molesting and sexually abusing kids in private. In order to recognize acquaintance child molesting, we need to understand that just because somebody smiles to your face – and just because they appear to be a “good” person – just because they help children or appear to be kind and caring – that doesn’t mean that they aren’t also grooming them for an inappropriate sexual relationship at the same time.
Make sure your child knows that even perceived “good people” can try to do bad things to them. And that they need to talk to you about it if it ever happens. Or if something just doesn’t feel right. Create open dialogue with your children on this subject.
Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters – trust your instincts. Not only must we protect our kids from strangers, we also need to make sure to protect them amongst our friends, our family, our coaches, our camp directors, our doctors, our Sunday school teachers, and our youth group leaders. It’s a difficult topic, to be sure, but unless we talk about it, we are going to have more kids who are victimized.
Michigan State University and Penn State University have been linked together by two vilified names: Sandusky and Nassar. Two men who were high profile, trusted, and respected members of their community. These same men fooled their communities for decades while committing crimes against minors. What do we do now? Do we take the easy way out? Blame this person or that person? Blame people who were most likely fooled by these pillars of the community?
We would be unwise to do so.
A warning worth heeding: let’s not think so highly of ourselves that we convince ourselves that this would never have happened under our watch.
Let’s not assume we would have seen Sandusky or Nassar for what they actually were. Let’s not tell ourselves that we would not have fallen for it. That we would have seen the warning signs, as dimly lit as they might have been. Because, most likely, we wouldn’t have seen it. And if we did, we wouldn’t have recognized it for what it was.
Truly, if you don’t know what to look for, how do you know when you see it?
Protect our children
But that can change. We can become a community that doesn’t allow “nice guy/gal offenders” to operate. We CAN root them out. The DefendAChild.org website gives us seven things we can do to protect our children:
- Learn the facts – 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th The median age for reported sexual abuse is 9 years old. People who abuse children go out of their way to look and act just like everyone else.
- Minimize opportunity – If you eliminate or reduce one-adult/one-child situations, you’ll dramatically lower the risk of sexual abuse for children. Choose group situations when possible. Insist that youth-serving organizations train their staff to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
- Talk about it – Start early and talk often. Use everyday opportunities to talk about sexual abuse. Be proactive. If a child seems uncomfortable, or resistant to being with a particular adult, ask why. Children often keep abuse a secret, but barriers can be broken down by talking openly about it. Children may tell “parts” of what happened or pretend it happened to someone else to gauge adult reaction. Children will often “shut down” and refuse to tell more if you respond emotionally or negatively.
- Stay alert – Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common but should be carefully investigated if they occur. Physical problems such as chronic stomach pain or headaches may occur. Emotional or behavioral signals are more common. Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can be a red flag. Be aware that in some children there are no signs whatsoever.
- Make a plan — If a child breaks an arm or runs a high fever, you know to stay calm and where to seek help because you’ve mentally prepared yourself. Reacting to child sexual abuse is the same. Your reactions have a powerful influence on vulnerable children. Very few reported incidents are false. Believe the child and make sure the child knows it.
- Act on suspicions – By acting on suspicions of child sexual abuse, you will save not only one child, but perhaps countless others. Many of those who sexually abuse children have multiple victims. You may be faced with a situation where you suspect abuse but don’t have any proof. Suspicions are scary, but trust your instincts. Have the courage to report the suspected abuse. Call Darkness to Light’s helpline, 1-866-FOR-LIGHT, or the Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.
- Get involved – Volunteer and financially support organizations that fight the tragedy of child sexual abuse. Ask that schools and organizations in your community have child sexual abuse prevention policies, and help with their creation. Ask other adults to do the same.
If child sexual abuse is part of your history, please speak up and break the cycle of silence. By doing so, you will begin the healing process for yourself and you will help protect other children from the suffering. As DefendAChild.org says: there are 39 million survivors of child sexual abuse in America; let the healing and the prevention begin today.
In order for us as a community to best help the victims – and to encourage other victims to be willing to come forward when their time is right – it is very important to read these excerpts from Jim Clemente’s SIC Report and Education Guide and take them to heart:
“As a career federal investigator, former prosecutor and former child sex crimes expert for the FBI, an expert witness in the field of child sexual victimization, and as a survivor of child sexual victimization myself, I can attest that one of the worst things professionals, the media, and the public can do in the aftermath of the discovery of nice-guy offenders… is to perpetuate the myth that his victims must have been frightened, threatened, or physically forced into sexual behavior with him. This practice, though well-meaning, hurts those children who became compliant in their victimization because this type of offender actually takes the opposite approach and treats them well, is kind to them, pays attention to them, shows them affection, makes them feel special, and/or gives them gifts.
Another hurtful practice is talking about how horrendous, horrific, or life-changing these crimes were to the victims. The more we amplify what happened to the victims with emotional rhetoric, the more they and other victims in the general public feel damaged by what they have endured. They feel a sense of futility about ever being whole again. They feel the obstacles to leading happy and healthy lives are insurmountable. And most unfortunately, as a result of both of these practices, they and other victims are less likely to come forward.
I hope that those victimized by Sandusky and other offenders will be encouraged by this opportunity for open dialogue and discussion to come forward into an environment that is both more understanding and supportive of their plight, as well as helpful and restorative to their futures, so they can heal, find justice, and go on with their lives. I stand as a living example that being victimized does not mean you are less of a person, or your life is ruined. With the help and support of family, friends, the community and mental health professionals, children who are victimized can and do grow up to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.”