The Current

'He could have been stopped in 1997': Survivor of Larry Nassar's alleged sex abuse says victims were ignored

Dozens of women have been delivering victim impact statements at the trial of former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, but one woman says repeated opportunities to stop him were missed.
Rachael Denhollander says that Larry Nassar abused her while her mother was in the room. (Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

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Readers are warned that this story and audio contains some graphic sexual detail which some people may find disturbing.

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women, that return to destroy your world."

Those are the words of Kyle Stephens, one of the survivors of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the former doctor of the U.S. gymnastics team. 

She and dozens of other women were in a Michigan courthouse this week, to face Nassar and detail his alleged crimes.

Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to accuse Nassar publicly. She says the abuse could have been stopped in 1997 — years before she encountered him — but victims were ignored.

By the time Denhollander was sent to Nassar for treatment, four different women had raised concerns about him. They were all told that he was performing legitimate medical treatment.

"Each woman, each teenager, was sent back to Larry for continued abuse," Denhollader says, "And I walked through his door three years later."

Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal conduct and has already been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography. (Matthew Dae Smith/The Associated Press)

Parents were in the room

Denhollander was 15 when she first encountered Nassar in 2000.

"Larry would do this procedure, which he would tell us was like sports muscle massage," Denhollander tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"But what he would actually do is he would use his right hand to massage externally — that was the hand that our parents could see.

"For most of us, our parents or our mothers were actually in the room at the time, and he would position them at the head of the table, with his body between them so that they could not see what his left hand was doing.

"And then he would drape our lower torsos with a towel, or just hide it with the loose clothing that we were wearing. And with that hand he would penetrate us, he would penetrate me vaginally, anally, there would be genital stimulation."

"On my last visit, he also went up my shirt and did a breast massage by turning me away from where my mother was."

Victims were not believed

Denhollander also recounts the experience of a gymnast named Larissa Boyce, who was sent to Nassar for treatment in 1997. Denhollander says Boyce reported similar abuse to Kathie Klages, head coach of the Michigan State University gymnastics team at the time.

Simone Biles released a statement via Twitter saying that she was one of the athletes sexually abused by the former USA Gymnastics team doctor. (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

"Larissa went to Kathie and she described in graphic detail what Larry was doing," Denhollander says. "She told Kathie: 'He was fingering me like a boyfriend'."

"Kathie's response to her was to disbelieve that Larry would do anything like that."

Denhollander says Klages called in the other gymnasts, and questioned them in front of Boyce. One backed up Boyce's account, and said the same thing was happening to her.

Larry could have been stopped in 1997 when there was only a small handful of known victims. And instead we're sitting here in a courtroom with five days of victim impact statements.- Rachael Denhollander 

Klages allegedly sent the other gymnasts out of the room, and took out a report form.

"She held it up in front of Larissa and she said: 'I could sign this report form, but if you sign this it is going to have consequences for you and for Larry'," Denhollander says.

"And then she called Larry and she told Larry what Larissa had told her, and then she required Larissa to go back for continued treatment.

"Larissa ended up apologizing to Larry for misunderstanding what he was doing, and being subjected to repeated sexual assault."

Kathie Klages has since retired from the university and her attorney denies Klages was informed of Nasser's alleged sexual abuse of his patients.

Denhollander says that the people and organizations that turned a blind eye or kept Nassar in power have a responsibility to bear.

"Larry could have been stopped in 1997 when there was only a small handful of known victims," she says. "And instead we're sitting here in a courtroom with five days of victim impact statements, because Larry was allowed to abuse women and children for almost 30 years."

Simone Biles' statement

It could happen anywhere

"Gymnastics is a sport that demands perfection," says Kyle Shewfelt, a Canadian Olympic champion, and analyst for CBC Sports.

He tells Lynch that the sport tends to attract people who always want to improve and achieve greater things. It breeds a trusting, obedient relationship between athlete and gymnast.

"For someone like Larry Nassar, it was just the perfect storm, the perfect breeding ground," he says "where these young women were being pushed to their limits mentally, physically, emotionally."

"He saw that opportunity to come in and be the doctor that would bring them treats, and give them massages and make them feel good and let them vent out about their hard days."

There have been similar cases and allegations in Canada, but Shewfelt says this situation could arise anywhere in the world, and that education is key to combating it.

"We need to educate the athletes, we need to educate the clubs, we need to educate parents on what those behaviours are to look out for."

In Canada, he says organizations need to have a process through which concerns can be raised, but that ultimately the authorities need to be involved.

"If there is anybody out there who feels that they're in a situation where they're vulnerable," he says, "they need to go to the police."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Rosa Kim and Lara O'Brien.