Nearly 100 victims are expected to speak during the four-day sentencing hearing against former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar. Ingham County (Michigan) Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is presiding over the hearing and thoroughly listening to each speaker's statement. For this, and for the respect and compassion she has shown to each and every courageous woman who has spoken, we thank her.
Dear Judge Aquilina,
Thank you for listening to the incredibly brave women who are sharing their horrific stories of sexual abuse, revealing detail after excruciating detail of the nightmares they endured as children or young teenagers. That can't be easy, but you've provided a safe and necessary space for them to speak and finally be heard.
Women are so frequently made to feel that no one will listen or that no one will take their claims seriously. You have shown the opposite in not only hearing them but also believing them. This sends an important message to so many other victims of similar crimes: Your voice matters.
Thank you for your compassion and powerful personal responses to those who have addressed the court. Your words should be used as a blueprint for anyone unsure of what to say to someone revealing a similar story:
"You are not broken. You are strong. You are the voice of so many people. ... You are not a victim any longer. Do not let it define you. Go out and do great things in the world."
"I want you to know that you matter. You have a name to me."
"You are worthy. All these people are here in support of you. You are a worthwhile human being. You need to feel worthy."
Thank you for giving each victim, and sometimes family members, all the time they need to share their stories. Although the sentences given to Larry Nassar for pleading guilty to criminal sexual conduct and child pornography charges will likely keep him in prison for the rest of his life, regardless of how many more speak up, you give everyone who wants to talk the chance. Many have waited years for this moment.
While victims address their abuser directly, seated just feet away from you, your presence provides a respite. If they ever feel overwhelmed or anxious, they're able to look at you -- a supportive face and a beacon of strength. That likely has allowed many of them to continue, knowing you are there listening to some of their most difficult memories and helping protect them from the monster that caused them.
But trauma doesn't disappear. It doesn't vanish or go away just because the source has been removed or punished. These women will probably think about what happened to them for the rest of their lives, but to know that their words in this hearing will have an impact in determining the punishment for their abuser -- and might prevent this from happening again -- can be therapeutic and provide some type of closure.
Women in situations such as these often question what they could have done differently to prevent abuse from happening, and they're so rarely reminded that they didn't do anything wrong. But you have made sure each and every person coming forward is reminded of exactly that. Thank you for making sure all these women know it's not their fault.
Many parents have expressed guilt about putting their daughters in this position and not realizing what was happening. You have tried to provide them some ease, assuring them that it's not their fault either. Despite a number of speakers demonstrating remorse, you have made sure that the blame stays squarely on the man who has pleaded guilty to the crimes.
Thank you for showing us all that there is still a place for humanity and emotions, even in the workplace. Women have been conditioned for decades to never show vulnerability, but you have managed to walk the fine line between authority and compassion in your work. You have kept order and stayed fair but also supported and encouraged these women throughout.
On Wednesday, the second day of sentencing, Chelsea Williams, a former gymnast who spoke anonymously in court the day before, came forward wanting to share her account publicly. She said she was inspired by the other victims to do so. You provided a space in which everyone feels that her story and her name matters.
So, thank you, Judge. We need more people like you.