Why The First Woman To Speak Out Against Nassar Got The Last Word At His Trial

by Lauren Holter
WXYZ-TV Detroit/YouTube

A shocking 156 women testified in court over the past few days about sexual abuse they allege happened at the hands of a former doctor for Team USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. Rachael Denhollander first accused Larry Nassar of sexual assault in 2016, setting in motion the case that ultimately put him behind bars for life. On Wednesday, she also was the final woman to testify against him before his sentencing, bringing her role in his downfall full circle.

It all began with an email to IndyStar. After seeing an article in the publication about an ongoing investigation into the way USA Gymnastics handled sexual assault complaints, Denhollander wrote IndyStar. "I was not molested by my coach, but I was molested by Dr. Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USAG," she said. "I was fifteen years old, and it was under the guise of medical treatment for my back." Before IndyStar interviewed her, Denhollander explained why she was coming forward. "My hope with a story would be that it would give a voice to others who have also been victims, and encourage them to come forward as well," she wrote.

The man Denhollander named was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison on Wednesday after pleading guilty to sexually abusing young girls last year. He was additionally sentenced to 60 years behind bars for federal child pornography charges in December, and faces a third sentencing for three more counts of criminal sexual conduct next week. "You do not deserve to walk outside a prison again," Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told Nassar on Wednesday.

After reaching out to IndyStar, Denhollander filed an official complaint against Nassar with the Michigan State University Police. She also filed a Title IX complaint with the university in August 2016. IndyStar’s story detailing Denhollander's allegations against Nassar, in addition to anonymous allegations from another woman, was published shortly afterward.

"You started the tidal wave," Aquilina told Denhollander at Nassar’s Wednesday hearing, calling her a "five-star general" in an army of survivors. "You made all of this happen. You made all of these voices matter. Your sister survivors and I thank you. You are the greatest person I've ever had in my courtroom."

When asking the judge to hand Nassar the maximum possible sentence for his crimes, Denhollander said that the overriding questions in the case should be: "How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?" In her 36-minute victim impact statement, she relayed that she wants “the horror expressed in this courtroom” to “be motivation for anyone and everyone, no matter the context, to take responsibility if they have erred in protecting a child, to understand the incredible failures that led to this week and to do it better the next time."

Her testimony concluded seven days of survivor impact statements, and the courtroom rose in a standing ovation the minute her speech ended. Denhollander doesn't think her journey ended in court Wednesday, though. "I knew what it would take to get here," she told IndyStar before the hearing. "I had kind of just presumed that when it was done, it would be done. And I'm not sure that's going to be case."

Aquilina repeatedly thanked the survivors, Denhollander included, who came forward to put Nassar behind bars. “It was my honor and privilege to hear these survivors. It’s my honor to sentence you," she told Nassar. She also demanded that a "massive investigation" be launched to determine how Nassar was able to remain a practicing doctor for decades. “Inaction is inaction. Silence is indifference. Justice requires a voice. And that’s what happened in this court," the circuit court judge said. "Justice requires more than what I can do on this bench."