Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. And she was the last of more than 150 women and girls to confront him in court during Nassar’s sentencing hearing for criminal sexual conduct.
Here’s what Denhollander said to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and to Nassar shortly before Nassar was sentenced Wednesday:
I do want to thank you, first, Judge Aquilina, for giving all of us the chance to reclaim our voices. Our voices were taken from us for so long, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express that you have given us the chance to restore them.
There are two major purposes in our criminal justice system, your Honor: the pursuit of justice and the protection of the innocent. Neither of these purposes can be met if anything less than the maximum available sentence under the plea agreement is imposed upon Larry for his crimes. Not because the federal sentence he will already serve is lacking, but because the sentence rendered today will send a message across this country, a message to every victim and a message to every perpetrator.
I realize you have many factors to consider when you fashion your sentence, but I submit to you that the pre-eminent question in this case as you reach a decision about how best to satisfy the dual aims of this court is the same question that I asked Judge Neff to consider: How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?
Larry is a hardened and determined sexual predator. I know this first-hand. At age 15, when I suffered from chronic back pain, Larry sexually assaulted me repeatedly under the guise of medical treatment for nearly a year. He did this with my own mother in the room, carefully and perfectly obstructing her view so she would not know what he was doing. His ability to gain my trust and the trust of my parents, his grooming and carefully calculated brazen sexual assault was the result of deliberate, premeditated, intentional and methodological patterns of abuse – patterns that were rehearsed long before I walked through Larry’s exam room door and which continue to be perpetrated I believe on a daily basis for 16 more years, until I filed the police report.
Larry’s the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome, caring external persona as a deliberate means to insure a steady stream of children to assault. And while Larry is unlikely to live past his federal sentence, he is not the only predator out there and this sentence will send a message about how seriously abuse will be taken.
So, I ask, how much is a little girl worth? How much priority should be placed on communicating that the fullest weight of the law will be used to protect another innocent child from the soul shattering devastation that sexual assault brings? I submit to you that these children are worth everything. Worth every protection the law can offer. Worth the maximum sentence.
The second aim of this court and our criminal justice system is to pursue justice for the victims that have already been harmed. And this aim too can only be realized by imposing the maximum sentence under the plea agreement and in reaching this decision too, we also must answer the question, how much was a little girl worth? How much were these young women worth? This time however, the little girls in question are not potential victims. They are real women and children, real women and little girls who have names and faces and souls. Real women and children whose abuse and suffering was enjoyed for sexual fulfillment by the defendant.
I believe sometimes, your honor, that when we’re embroiled in a legal dispute the words of our legal system designed to categorize and classify and instruct can inadvertently sterilize the harsh realities of what has taken place. They can serve as a shield against the horror of what we are really discussing. And this must not ever happen. Because if the truth about what Larry has done must be realized to its fullest depth if justice is to ever be served.
And so for a moment, your honor, I, like every woman who’s come before you, want to take a moment to drop that shield. Larry meticulously groomed me for the purpose of exploiting me for his sexual gain. He penetrated me, he groped me, he fondled me. And then he whispered questions about how it felt.
He engaged in degrading and humiliating sex acts without my consent or permission. And Larry enjoyed it. Larry sought out and took pleasure in little girls and women being sexually injured and violated because he liked it. And as I and so many other women and little girls were being violated, Larry found sexual satisfaction in our suffering. As we were being sexually violated even as very young children, as young as 6 years old, Larry was sexually aroused by our humiliation and our pain. He asked us how it felt because he wanted to know. What was done to myself and these other women and little girls and the fact that our sexual violation was enjoyed by Larry matters. It demands justice and the sentence you impose today will send a message about how much these precious women and children are worth. You have seen our pictures, your honor – moments in time captured when they were young and vulnerable and violated.
I think of the young girl that I was and the little girls and young women all of these survivors were every day. I feel like I see them in the faces of my two precious daughters. When I watch my daughters’ eyes light up as they dance to The Nutcracker, I remember the little girl that I and all of these women used to be. The sparkle their eyes must have had as mine did before their innocence was taken. I watched my daughters love and trust unreservedly and I remember the long road that it has been to let myself love and be loved without fear. I think of the scars that still remain for all of us.
One of the worst parts of this entire process was knowing as I began to realize what had happened to me how many other little girls had been left destroyed, too. I was barely 15 when Larry began to abuse me and as I lay on the table each time and try to reconcile what was happening with the man Larry was held out to be, there were three things I was very sure of. First, it was clear to me this was something Larry did regularly. Second, because this was something Larry did regularly, it was impossible that at least some women and girls had not described what was going on to officials at MSU and USAG. I was confident of this. And third, I was confident that because people at MSU and USAG had to be aware of what Larry was doing and had not stopped him, there could surely be no question about the legitimacy of his treatment. This must be medical treatment. The problem must be me.
And because I had friends who were physical therapists who practiced legitimate internal pelvic floor techniques, I also knew at 15 that to practice this you must have specialized training and certification. Surely anyone who had heard that Larry was penetrating little girls would have demanded to know where he got his training, and if there was any question he would’ve never been allowed near me.
And so, I lay still and on the first two points, I was right. It was something he did often. And others had described Larry’s treatment before. In fact, though I didn’t know it at the time, four girls and women had described in detail to three different athletic departments at MSU what he was doing and his penetration and their belief that they had been sexually assaulted. It was reported to Kathie Klages, MSU’s head gymnastics coach, to a track coach and to multiple athletic trainers and supervisors years before I walked into Larry’s door.
But I was wrong in my third belief. I was wrong that surely, if someone had been made aware of what Larry was doing they would report it and ensure it was legitimate before ever allowing him near another child. I did not know when I was 15 that in 1997, three years before I walked into Larry’s exam room that MSU’s head gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, had waved a report form in front of Larissa Boyce after being told by two separate gymnasts of what Larry was doing and told Larissa there would be consequences for her if she reported.
I did not know that Tiffany Thomas Lopez had reported the penetration and sexual assault to athletic trainer, Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, and to other athletic trainers and supervisors two years before I walked into Larry’s door.
I did not know that Christie Achenbach had reported the penetration and sexual assault to her track coach and her athletic trainers and had also been silenced a full year before I walked into Larry’s door. I did not know that Jennifer Bedford had also reported to Destiny Teachnor-Hauk and asked if she could file a report that Larry’s treatment made her feel uncomfortable and that she had also been silenced.
I believed the adults at MSU surrounding Larry would do the right thing if they were aware of what Larry was doing, and I was terribly wrong. And discovering that I could not only trust my abuser but I could not trust the people surrounding him has been devastating. It is part of the consequences of sexual assault, and it needs to be taken seriously.
I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, USAG was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches in a file cabinet instead of reporting them, creating a culture where predators like Larry and so many others in the organization up to the highest-level coaches were able to sexually abuse children, including our Olympians, without any fear of being caught.
I did not know that, contrary to my belief, the elite gymnasts whose pictures were plastered on Larry’s wall were far from protected. That USAG, rather than supervising Larry, was allowing him to treat these girls in their own beds without even having a medical license in Texas.
I did not know any of these things, and so as Larry was abusing me each time, I assured myself it must be fine because I thought I could trust the adults around me. My misplaced trust in my physician and my misplaced trust in the adults around me were wielded like a weapon, and it cost me dearly. And it follows me everywhere.
I would like to take a moment now to address both organizations whose failures led to my sexual assault because it is part of the consequences that I now carry. … MSU, we have been telling our stories for more than 18 months, and you have yet to answer a single question I have asked. Every time I repeat these facts about the number of women who reported to employees at MSU and were silenced, you respond the exact same way. You issue a press statement saying there is no cover-up because no one who heard the reports of assaults believed that Larry was committing abuse.
You play word games saying you didn’t know because no one believed. I know that. And the reason everyone who heard about Larry’s abuse did not believe it is because they did not listen. They did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 1999 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014. No one knew, according to your definition of know, because no one handle(d) the reports of abuse properly.
Victims were silenced, intimidated, repeatedly told it was medical treatment and even forced to go back for continued sexual assault. You have stated in a motion to dismiss our civil suit that, ironically, is being heard right now in court as I am speaking. That the reports that were given in 1997, ‘89, ;99 and 2000 to track coaches, head gymnastic coaches and athletic trainers and supervisors don’t, quote, count as notice because these teenagers didn’t report it to the right official. The 14-year-old didn’t go to the right person.
You have stated that no reports of sexual assault count as notice unless it is reported to a person who is capable of firing the alleged perpetrator. This entirely contradicts the letter that president Simon sent all 11,000 MSU employees in 2012 reminding them that MSU policy requires them to report any suspected child abuse and any allegations of sexual assault against someone at MSU. So, MSU, which is it? Do your employees have a duty to protect children or not?
It has been 18 months, and I am still asking the same questions hoping that the little girls that come after me will have adults that they can trust. And I’ve been getting the same answer for a year, and so I am asking point-blank again, when Kathie Klages humiliated Larissa Boyce and the second gymnast, greatly compounding the trauma of their sexual assault, and waved the report form in front of her telling her there would be consequences if she reported.
Is this the right way or the wrong way to handle sexual assault allegations on MSU campus? When Tiffany Thomas Lopez reported her abuse to athletic trainers and supervisors and the trainers used the emotional pain tiffany was in after her father’s death to convince her it would be too exhausting and painful to bother filing a report, was it the right way or the wrong way to handle a report of sexual assault on MSU campus?
When Christie Achenbach reported the sexual assault to her track coach and athletic trainers and was also silenced, was it the right way or the wrong way to handle the report of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
When Kyle Stevens parents reported Larry’s sexual abuse of their daughter to a MSU psychiatrist and he brought Larry in to talk into her parents instead of reporting as he was mandated to do by law, was it the right way or the wrong way to handle a report of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
When Amanda Thomashow reported to the Title IX office and Larry could hand pick the four colleagues to be interviewed to determine whether his treatment was legitimate, was that the right way or the wrong way to investigate a claim of sexual assault on MSU’s campus?
And after all this, when I came forward in 2016, I brought an entire file of evidence with me. I made a police report and a Title IX report, and I brought with me to those reports my medical records showing that Larry had never tried pelvic floor techniques. I brought medical records from a nurse practitioner documenting my graphic disclosure of abuse way back in 2004. I had my journals showing the mental anguish I had been in since the assault. A catalog of national and international medical articles showing what real pelvic floor treatment looks like. I brought a letter from a neighboring district attorney vouching for my character and truthfulness and urging detectives to take my case seriously.
I brought a cover letter going point by point through Michigan law and case law explaining how every element of first-degree criminal sexual assault was met and could be proven.
I brought a witness I had disclosed it to in 2004. I brought evidence of two more women unconnected to me who were also claiming sexual assault. And I have the names of three pelvic floor experts willing to speak on my behalf. And the MSPD. handled it beautifully, but MSU officials were a different story, because the response of Dean William Strampel was to send an email to Larry that day and tell him, quote, good luck, I am on your side. And when my video testimony to the Indy Star came out, graphically describing the abuse that Larry perpetrated disclosing horrific details to the world that no one was ever supposed to know that I had never told anyone, even my own husband, until that point, Dean Strampel forwarded that video testimony to the MSU provost, and he locked it.
He called it the cherry on the cake of his day. President Simon and board of trustees, is this the right way to handle disclosures of abuse on MSU’s campus? When Brooke Lemmen, one of the doctors Larry was allowed to hand pick to clear himself in 2014, was interviewed for my investigation, she said I hadn’t really been penetrated – I only thought I had because quote, when I am a 15-year-old girl I think everything between my legs is my vagina. I only thought Larry had put his fingers in me for up to 40 minutes at a time for a full year. I was just confused. Sounds eerily familiar to what Amanda Thomashow was told in 2014 that she, quote, didn’t understand the nuanced differences between sexual assault and a medical exam.
It sounds eerily familiar to what every single woman was told all the way back to 1997. We were all wrong. We were all just confused. Board of trustees, is this the right way to handle disclosures of sexual assault on MSU’s campus? And if that were not bad enough, when I finally joined the civil suit five months later, after waiting for almost half a year for MSU to do the right thing, the vice president of the board of trustees, Joel Ferguson, went on television and gave a press interview in which he claimed those of us who have filed lawsuits were ambulance chasers who were looking for a payday.
In fact, I know that at least one other high ranking MSU official has specifically called me out by name and said I’m in it for the money. This has never been contradicted, retracted or refuted. MSU, you need to realize that you are greatly compounding the damage done to these abuse victims by the way you are responding. This, what it took to get here, what we had to go through for our voices to be heard because of the responses of the adults in authority, has greatly compounded the damage we suffer. And it matters.
We have waited 18 months to be told no, this is not how we handle this on MSU’s campus. But instead everyone has doubled down on the claim that nothing was done wrong and the only conclusion that can be reached is that no one truly sees anything wrong with any of this. And that is terrifying. And it leaves me terrified for the little girls of the future, who we are here to protect. And because of this willful ignorance, victim silencing and mishandling of sexual assault reports against Larry in ‘97, ‘98 and ‘99, I walked through Larry’s door in 2000 and never walked out the same.
Not long after I stopped seeing Larry I transitioned from athlete to coach. And every day that I nurture those baby gymnasts, I wondered if any of them would find their way into his exam room.
When one of my little girls was finally referred to him, I took a chance and I spoke up and I was kindly cautioned for my own sake to remain silent. My little baby gymnast was sent to Larry before I even knew a decision had been made to do so. Her family moved away almost immediately thereafter and I wept for that little girl and I prayed to god that she was under the age range that Larry preferred. She was 7. But when I filed my police report, Kyle Stevens came forward and she was 6 –a year younger than my little girl. And I cried in my kitchen, and I don’t know yet if that little girl walked out the same that she walked in.
I transitioned from coaching to working in public policy, and I fought fear every time I had to commute or work close quarters with my male colleagues. I dreaded working on current event or legislation on sexual assault because I knew the memories that would come with it., I still watched gymnastics, but I looked away whenever the cameras panned to the sidelines in case Larry would be there.
I wondered almost daily if there was ever a chance my voice would be heard. I began law school was I was 19. And I wrapped up in blankets every time I studied torts or crimes related to sexual assault and I hoped my face wouldn’t betray me in classroom discussions.
I researched internal pelvic floor procedures and I tried to find out what had happened to me. and I watched for any sign that I would ever be believed.
I met my future husband and I told him what I never wanted to tell anyone and I wondered if he would walk away and he didn’t. But I couldn’t even hold his hand or look up at him because closeness wasn’t safe and trust wasn’t safe. We got married, and my 25th birthday came and went and I sat up for nights before, believing my ability to file a police report would end on that birthday. I didn’t know the statute of limitations had been lifted.
I woke up the morning I turned 25, and instead of feeling joy at a milestone I only felt hopelessness and grief because I thought my chance to stop this man was over. I thought daily about all the little women and girls walking in his office and I wondered if it would ever, ever end.
I became a mother three times over, and the fear that hung over each birth knowing I would be vulnerable in a medical setting cast a horrific shadow over what should have been an occasion of pure joy.
And I watched for a chance to be believed and I waited. I held my first born and then my two daughters and each time I did,
Larry, I remember the day you brought Carolyn into your office so that I could hold her. You knew how much I loved children and you used your own daughter to manipulate.
Me and every time I held my babies, I prayed to god you would leave your abuse in the exam room and not take it home to the little girl born with black hair just like her daddy. And then the Indy Star story came out about the rampant cover-up at USAG and I knew this was the chance and I wrote them immediately.
But because of what Larry did, the cost of making it end has been incredibly high. And the effects of Larry’s abuse has been redoubled in the effort that I took to stop him.
Choosing to live those moments over and over, daily, releasing every shred of privacy that I had, living with the reality that not only didn’t I get to choose what you did, but now I didn’t get to choose who knew about it.
Even my status as a sexual assault victim has impacted or did impact my ability to advocate for sexual assault victims because once it became known that I too had experienced sexual assault, people close to me used it as an excuse to brush off my concerns when I advocated for others who had been abused, saying I was just obsessed because of what I had gone through, that I was imposing my own experience upon other institutions who had massive failures and much worse.
My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated. And far worse, it was impacted because when I came out, my sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me.
Often by those who should have been the first to support and help, and I couldn’t even do what I loved best, which was to reach out to others. I was subjected to lies and attacks on my character including very publicly by attorney Shannon Smith when I testified under oath.
I was being attacked for wanting fame and attention, for making up a story to try to get money. Your honor, since these attacks were made on my character very publicly on public record, I would like to take an opportunity briefly now to correct them. … Out of the two women in question that day, Ms. Smith and I, who were attempting to communicate through either questions or answers, I would like to note that only one of us was taking pictures of the courtroom on her cell phone. Only one of us posed for the press and said, quote, I feel like I should say cheese. And out of the two of us, only one of us was making money off her court appearance that day. I don’t feel the need to say anything else. I think I’ve communicated completely.
… The cost, emotional and physical, to see this through has been greater than many would ever know. And Larry, I don’t need to tell you what the cost of your abuse has been to me because you got to read my journals, every word of them. Because those had to go into evidence to make this happen.
I want you to understand why I made this choice knowing full well what it was going to cost to get here and with very little hope of ever succeeding. I did it because it was right. No matter the cost, it was right. And the farthest I can run from what you have become is to daily choose what is right instead of what I want.
You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.
In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.
Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says, my argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?
Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.
When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love. Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity you for it. You could have had everything you pretended to be. Every woman who stood up here truly loved you as an innocent child, real genuine love for you, and it did not satisfy.
I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing, and I pity you for it.
I have been there for young gymnasts and helped them transform from awkward little girls to graceful, beautiful, confident athletes and taken joy in their success because I wanted what was best for them. And this is a joy you have cut yourself off from forever because your desire to help was nothing more than a facade for your desire to harm.
I have lived the deep satisfaction of wrapping my small children up in my arms and making them feel safe and secure because I was safe, and this is a rich joy beyond what I can express, and you have cut yourself off from it, because you were not safe. And I pity you for that.
In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.
And this is also why in many ways, your honor, the worst part of this process was each name, each number who came forward to the police with each Jane Doe, I saw my little girls and the little girls that were. The little girls who walked into Larry’s office that I could not save because no one wanted to listen. And while that is not my guilt, it is pain I still carry and pain I share with them.
I cried for them, and with every tear that fell I wondered who is going to find these little girls, who is going to tell them how much they are worth, how valuable they are, how deserving of justice and protection?
Who is going to tell these little girls that what was done to them matters? That they are seen and valued, that they are not alone and they are not unprotected? And I could not do that ,but we are here now and today that message can be sent with the sentence you hand down you can communicate to all these little girls and to every predator to every little girl or young woman who is watching how much a little girl is worth.
I am asking that we leave this courtroom we leave knowing that when Larry was sexually aroused and gratified by our violation, when he enjoyed our suffering and took pleasure in our abuse, that it was evil and wrong.
I ask that you hand down a sentence that tells us that what was done to us matters, that we are known, we are worth everything, worth the greatest protection the law can offer, the greatest measure of justice available.
And to everyone who is watching, I ask that same question, how much is a little girl worth? Larry said in court that he hoped education and learning would happen from this tragedy, and I share that hope, and this is what we need to learn.
Look around the courtroom, remember what you have witnessed these past seven days. This is what it looks like when someone chooses to put their selfish desires above the safety and love for those around them and let it be a warning to us all and moving forward as a society, This is what it looks like when the adults in authority do not respond properly to disclosures of sexual assault.
This is what it looks like when institutions create a culture where a predator can flourish unafraid and unabated and this is what it looks like when people in authority refuse to listen, put friendships in front of the truth, fail to create or enforce proper policy and fail to hold enablers accountable.
This is what it looks like. It looks like a courtroom full of survivors who carry deep wounds. Women and girls who have banded together to fight for themselves because no one else would do it. Women and girls who carry scars that will never fully heal but who have made the choice to place the guilt and shame on the only person to whom it belongs, the abuser. But may the horror expressed in this courtroom over the last seven days be motivation for anyone and everyone no matter the context to take responsibility if they have failed in protecting a child, to understand the incredible failures that led to this week and to do it better the next time.
Judge Aquilina, I plead with you as you deliberate the sentence to give Larry, send a message that these victims are worth everything. In order to meet both the goals of this court. I plead with you to impose the maximum sentence under the plea agreement because everything is what these survivors are worth. Thank you.
CORRECTION: A previous version of Rachael Denhollander’s victim impact statement in the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case misspelled the name of Amanda Thomashow.