Sister Survivors and the importance of being believed

espnW Roundtable: What Sister Survivors say about not being believed (2:37)

Tisha Thompson moderates a discussion with Sister Survivors Grace French, Trinea Gonczar, Tiffany Thomas Lopez, Sterling Riethman and Amanda Thomashow about what to do when someone doesn't believe your story of being sexually assaulted. (2:37)

Amanda Thomashow was 24 and had dreams of becoming a doctor when she first saw Larry Nassar in his office at Michigan State in 2014. She was a student at the school, and was initially excited to receive treatment for a lingering hip injury from the man credited with helping so many legendary national team gymnasts whose faces adorned his walls. But that feeling didn't last long.

Moments later he sexually assaulted her.

Disgusted and horrified -- and thinking of all of the young girls from the posters with whom he routinely spent unsupervised time -- she reported him to school officials.

But no one believed her. After an investigation by Michigan State and the school's police, Nassar was cleared, and Thomashow says she was told she had "misunderstood" what had happened. Even her own partner at the time didn't believe her, instead questioning what Thomashow had done to provoke it.

She wasn't the first to come forward at the school; Tiffany Thomas Lopez, a former student and softball player at Michigan State, reported Nassar to three athletic trainers in 1998 -- claims that had also been dismissed. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be entrusted with high-profile assignments within USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. What happened next has been well documented -- Rachael Denhollander was the first to publicly share her story about Nassar in 2016, before hundreds of women came forward, many of whom spoke at his January 2018 sentencing hearing.

In hushed silence and often through tears, we watched on TV in our newsroom 10 months ago as 156 people, including women, girls and their parents, delivered victim-impact statements, day after day, recounting their experiences while looking at their abuser face on. After so many years of being silenced, we knew we needed to help share these stories and make their voices heard.

Their momentum didn't end in that Michigan courtroom. Instead, the "army of survivors" has continued to elevate the conversation beyond their own experiences, making changes for themselves and for society at large. Some have started foundations. Others are serving on public councils. Others are giving motivational speeches, or testifying in Congress for changes to the law. In doing so, they've inspired others to come forward and speak up. Their display of strength in numbers led the survivors to be honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS.

After the ESPYS, our goal was to facilitate ongoing, candid discussion among survivors, which we hope propels their stories and continues educating all of us about how to recognize abuse and support survivors when they come forward. So, as part of our continued coverage, we recently hosted a roundtable discussion with Thomashow, 29, Thomas Lopez, 38, Sterling Riethman, 25, Trinea Gonczar, 37 and Grace French, 23.

The full roundtable is scheduled to be released next week in conjunction with the annual espnW Women + Sports Summit, where Sister Survivors Jordyn Wieber and Sarah Klein are scheduled to speak. Given the national dialogue around the treatment of sexual assault victims, Thomashow's commentary on the way new claims and reports of assault are received is particularly poignant:

"There's a good chance that the first person you tell isn't going to believe you, but you just have to keep using your voice and telling your story, and know that at some point you're going to get to somebody who does believe you," she said during the roundtable. "You can't turn it on yourself and start questioning yourself. Because when you start questioning yourself, then you start losing yourself a little bit and you start giving your power back to the person who assaulted you."

On Thursday, all eyes will be on the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford -- the first of at least three women who have now stepped forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She will tell her story, which she says took place while the two were high school students more than 30 years ago.

As her testimony takes center stage in our national conversation and beyond across the globe, it's worth recalling the lessons we've learned from the experiences of the Sister Survivors, the survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church, victims of now-convicted comedian Bill Cosby and many others: Only 31 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. Those who choose not to report cite retaliation and a belief that the police wouldn't do anything to help, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Just 5.7 percent of reported rapes lead to an arrest, and 1.1 percent get referred to prosecutors, according to RAINN.

Too often, people who come forward are questioned, shamed and scrutinized, their lives torn apart, for speaking up. Sometimes, they are simply dismissed. Progress and justice are undeniably slow.

But with the #MeToo movement, Hollywood's "Time's Up" campaign and, especially, the Sister Survivors, this year it has finally felt as though the tide has been shifting, in the United States and beyond. There's much to be learned by continuing to listen to them. Their willingness to further the conversation has empowered other survivors to speak up with their own stories of sexual abuse, starting a movement that's much bigger than themselves.

With the Sister Survivors -- who are even stronger when working together -- leading the charge, it's possible to think we might be getting to a place where an accuser isn't instantly met with questions about what they did to provoke something that is in no way their fault. That we must instead shift the questions to why an abuser was able to abuse, rather than asking where someone went, what they wore, or what they drank.

No one believed Thomas Lopez or Thomashow at first, and hundreds of women and girls suffered as a result. That alone should be enough reason to listen when someone comes forward. Thomashow remembers vividly what it's like to be dismissed but hopes others will keep pushing forward, no matter how uphill the battle might seem.

"Keep persevering and keep telling your truth and using your voice and speaking about what happened to you," Thomashow said. "You have the control on what you do next. You just keep telling your story. Keep raising your voice. Keep speaking your truth. Somebody's going to believe you.

"It just takes one. And then, I mean, you can change the world."