Local social entrepreneur launches website of impact statements from Nassar survivors

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– PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price

Muskegon resident Roger Rapoport and the organization he chairs, Heartland Independent Film Forum, launched a new website that posts the impact statements given by over 150 women who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of U.S.A. Gymnastics/Michigan State University’s Dr. Larry Nassar.

The website, inourownwords.us, is organized by the name or where that was not used the victim number, of each who testified. It makes the testimony searchable, and includes the responses of Ingham County Judge Rosemary Aquilina, who courageously allowed the testimony at the sentencing. (Nassar was sentenced to 100-185 years in prison.)

Present at the launch were four of the Nassar survivors who had given statements: Christina Baker Barba, Larissa Boyce, Trinea Gonczar, and Jessica “Jess” Smith, The four talked about how painful it was not to be believed, the discomfort of dredging up all the emotions, yet how healing all of it was for them in the long run.

“I really try to be a source of information, in order to help myself move forward,” said Smith, whose later answers to audience questions revealed deep thought, particularly about the consequences for childhood development. “I spent a long time convincing myself that I was OK, everything was OK.”

Gonczar, who also promoted Wayne County SAFE, the non-profit organization she is now part of which is working to be sure all of the rape kits in Detroit’s county are tested, and provides free services to those affected by assault, has had one of the worst times of it. For a long while, Gonczar remained a staunch defender of “Larry,” as most of the gymnasts and athletes called him. She continued to look up to him and trust that she had not been abused, until she suddenly was confronted with an inability to go to a male obstetrician. She fell apart.

Gonczar, like many others, really believed Nassar when he said that touching her inappropriately was part of her “treatment.” Since then, she has felt the guilt of not making the realization early enough, the guilt that had she not accepted Nassar’s version of the story she could have prevented others from suffering the abuse. In her victim impact statement she said she felt she was “ruined” by Nassar, though Judge Aquilina responded that she was not and needed to “shovel all o that on him.”

Gonczar started sobbing at the Nov. 8 event, and the other panelists comforted her. Many survivors have said that they share her guilt.

But one of the painful parts of the story is that not all of the victims failed to tell anyone. At least seven  (some say as many as 14) came forward, only to be hushed, disbelieved, and re-victimized.

In fact, that is the theme of the Michigan Public Radio-sponsored podcast, “Believed.” The co-creator of that podcast, MPR reporter Kate Wells, was first to speak at last Thursday’s launch, and it was clear that she felt a strong connection to the Nassar survivors. (Her co-creator is Lindsey Smith, who is from Grand Rapids, well-known for her award-winning coverage of the Flint Water Crisis.)

“Believed,” though painful, is worth listening to as a cautionary tale about how Larry Nassar could get away with abuse for approximately 25 years. You can find it at www.npr.org/podcasts/510326/believed. It makes clear that Nassar was very clever at admitting he had touched the girls, but convincingly portraying it as part of treatment.

The role of journalism was a subtext of the launch event. Rapoport, long a journalist himself, arranged to have a number of young journalists, including two from the Michigan Daily at U of M (Editor-in-Chief Alexa St. John and reporter/photographer Sophia Sherry), Editor-in-Chief Marie Weidmayer from MSU’s State News, and reporter Kim Kozlowski of the Detroit News, all of whom had written or edited stories about.

Everything considered, it is really the in-depth reporting of the Indianapolis Star, working with survivor Rachael Denhollander, which eventually brought Nassar down.

Rapoport, also a former editor of the Michigan Daily, is not the only one who recognizes the societal importance of journalism. Even the Michigan assistant attorney general who brought the case said it was thanks to IndyStar’s hard work.

Since then, the repercussions for Michigan State University have been painful. As many will recall, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon was ousted, accused of cynically turning a blind eye ro accusations and investigations, and of creating a culture that encouraged hiding the abuse. One of last Thursday’s panelists, Larissa Boyce, had told her head coach Kathie Klages about the abuse. Klages told her not to say anything to authorities and then shared what Boyce had said with Nassar; Klages was fired as well.

After former governor John Engler took over from Simon – a step many questioned – the university wound up settling with 233  accusers (with a reserve for possible future accusers) for $500 million.

The final speaker at the Ann Arbor launch was Natalie Rogers of Reclaim MSU. She said she and others had been appalled by the way the administration handled the Nassar case, and were driven to start an organization to
work for accountability and transparency. Staff, faculty, other students and alumni have joined the cause.

She spoke passionately about how she wa working toward a differnt future. One way she thought she could make that happen was by strongly endorsing, along with the State News, Muskegonite Brianna Scott in her run for MSU?Trustee, along with fellow Democrat Kelly Tebay. As of Nov. 8, both had won.

All of the speakers praised the inourownwords.us website and Rapoport’s efforts.

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