At the 2018 Women of the Year Summit, a group of women who helped take down former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar—accused of years of sexual abuse—came together on stage to discuss the extensive challenges they faced, before the trial and after his sentencing. As Glamour executive editor Wendy Naugle, who moderated the conversation, said in her introduction, “They’ve changed the way we talk about sexual assault and abuse in this country.”
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of assault, joined Andrea Munford, the detective who led the investigation, and Angela Povilaitis, the assistant Attorney General who led the prosecution. These women reflect but a fraction of the army that came together to bring justice against Nassar: More than 140 people came forward to file civil lawsuits against the disgraced doctor, including Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, alleging sexual abuse under the guise of treatment for injuries. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over the case, came up after Denhollander, Munford, and Povilaitis left the stage. (Because Nassar has asked permission to repeal his sentencing, Judge Aquilina cannot speak to Denhollander, Munford, or the survivors, hence why they appeared separately.)
After hearing over 150 statements ranging two decades, Judge Aquilina sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years in prison. The response to the ruling was instantly huge, which surprised her at the time: “After it was over, I took a break and went and did four probation violations. I had no idea that the world was exploding,” the judge told Glamour in her WOTY profile. “I just did what I always do.”
In the panel titled The Collective Power of the Sister Army, Denhollander, Munford, and Povilaitis discussed how they banded together, prepared for a historic trial, and support survivors of sexual abuse. Then, Judge Aquilina spoke about why she allowed survivors to speak out in the courtroom. Below, the biggest moments of the panel.
On the culture of silencing survivors.
“I felt sick to my stomach when I made that phone call,” Denhollander remembered of when she first came forward. “I lost ten pounds in a week after giving the first interview.” By the time she came forward, she explained, she had experienced first-hand how survivors of sexual abuse were treated because of her church. Denhollander knew it would be important to come forward with a group, as opposed to a singular, anonymous voice.
“When you’re surrounded by the details, all of the time, it’s incredibly difficult,” Denhollander continued. “But what I was really the most afraid of was the investigation and the prosecutor I would get—I knew I could do everything in my power to move that case forward, but if I didn’t have an investigator and a prosecutor with the integrity and the skill to do what needed to be done there was nothing I could do.”
“When I met her I remember thinking she was so powerful and yet so nervous at the same time,” Munford said. “I had to do a lot of ensuring that I believed her, that I’d take this case [seriously], and that I wasn’t going to brush it aside no matter who it was.”
On why we must believe survivors.
Believing survivors of sexual assault is at the center of Povilaitis’s approach to prosecution of these cases: “A victim’s involvement in the criminal justice system shouldn’t create more trauma,” she told the audience. It’s important, she explained, “that we don’t blame them for their assault. That we allow them to have choices in their participation.” This thinking was essential to the plea agreement her team put together that allowed the survivors to give the victim impact statement during the Nassar trial. “It means the victim is a participant and that they have legitimate choices,” she added.
Povilaitis asked the audience: “If your friend came forward, how would you think about it? Start by believing and supporting that victim with their choices… These cases for decades have been treated with some skepticism. When a woman comes forward, she must have some motive to lie, or something to gain—and, quite frankly, as we’ve seen in the last few months with Dr. Ford’s testimony, there’s so much to lose by coming forward with your story—and no guarantees.”
On the paradigm shifts that need to happen to protect survivors.
Denhollander believes that the first step to encouraging survivors come forward with their stories is making them feel protected when they do. “As a survivor, it’s an incredible healing process to get to the point of verbalizing—when you spoke those words, it makes your assault real,” she shared. However, their experiences aren’t normally treated with care. “When you are in the middle of it, you’re hearing those lies—’you should’ve known better’—so loudly in your head, it’s safer to stay silent. Ultimately, that means the perpetrator keeps getting away.”
Munford also noted it’s important to be aware of how we react to someone’s story of a sexual assault: “A lot of people, they want to distance themselves from that—[they’ll think,] ‘That wouldn’t happen to me. So that victim must’ve done something wrong to have that happen, because I would’ve done something different. I would be safe. I would get out of that situation.’ I think we all need to be aware when we’re doing that, because every time somebody says, ‘she did something wrong’ or ‘she did something to deserve it,’ a survivor of sexual abuse, domestic violence, harassment hears that and it silences them. They think, ‘Well, now I’m not going to tell anybody because that’s the reaction I’m going to get.’”
Judge Aquilina about why she let survivors speak in her courtroom—and why it’s important that they did.
“I don’t see my role as [that of] a punisher—I really look at my role as one of rehabilitation for the safety and healing of any victim,” she said. “I’ve been a judge for fourteen years, and I’ve always let everybody speak. And that is because I know it’s so healing. When you look at the victims, they’re not the only [ones]: Their families, husbands, communities are all victims. It’s the people’s court. They have a right to speak.”
“I have found, throughout my fourteen years of being a judge, that allowing victims the safe place for the defendant to say, ‘You hurt me, I’m mad, and it’s not just me, it’s my husband and my kids…’ the healing begins,” Judge Aquilina continued. “And defendants need to hear that what they did was wrong and the effect [it had.] And that has an effect on defendants—most of them, not Larry Nassar, but most of them get out of prison. If we’ve treated them right, and if we’ve also listened to them, they change in a good way; if we make them angry, we shut them down or shut them out, the same way the sister survivors were shut down and shut up… they come back out and they do worse crimes. So I try to treat the courtroom as a community and give everybody a voice.”
“I would’ve listened to a 1,000 girls if that’s what it took,” she added.
Judge Aquilina on the ripple effect of the Nassar trial.
In response to accusations of judicial impartiality, she recalled hearing from some of her peers who disagreed with allowing so many testimonies in court—but those, she said, “were few and numbered”: “There are always going to be naysayers—I don’t listen to naysayers, I never will and never have. Most of the judges said, ‘I watched you, and I’m going to rethink what I do in the courtroom…because I saw the transformation.’ That’s not just from my community—it’s from around the world.”
“What’s happened now is people come to court… They’ve watched the videos of the Nassar case,” she said. “They use that as the model. They come to my courtroom and tell me what happened. If they’re afraid, they bring their grandmother, they bring their friend… It’s clear to me that that’s what happened. The ripple effect is ongoing… It’s been an incredible feeling that this tragedy has turned into something so valuable.”
Find out more about Glamour‘s 2018 Women of the Year here.