Voices of Sexual Assault Survivors Were Amplified by Judge Aquilina

Aquilina looks at Nassar during a victim’s impact statement. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Aquilina looks at Nassar during a survivor’s statement. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

For four days in mid-January, women filled a Michigan courtroom to testify in the hearing of Larry Nassar. An abuser first and doctor second, Nassar ruined the lives of 256 women gymnasts under his medical care, many of whom came forward in court to give testimonies. The testimonies were empowering and tragic. They also highlighted how the outcomes of sexual assault cases often depend on how the judges handle them. In this courtroom, survivors found a rare ally in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

For years, Nassar’s abuse of female gymnasts was hidden in plain sight. He was employed by the USA Gymnastics from 1986 to 2014 and by Michigan State University (MSU) from 1997 to 2016. Both institutions had employees who were aware of or had been clued into the sexual abuse he veiled as medical treatments. He caused the survivors to suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and self-harm, affecting them and their families for the rest of their lives.

Survivor Kyle Stephens was subject to Nassar’s abuse from age six to age twelve. As the daughter of a family friend, she was the only survivor to come forward during his hearing who wasn’t one of his patients. Her father took his own life in 2016—an event Stephens attributes to the self-loathing and shame he felt after he realized she had been telling him the truth about Nassar’s abuse for years.

But it isn’t uncommon for the public (or even family and friends) to disregard a survivor’s statement. Stephens’ story was only one of 256 told throughout the hearing. Unfortunately, this was one of the first few times the public has seen a sexual assault case of this caliber come to light. Why? A lot of it had to do with the judge.

Not all survivors have a Judge Aquilina on their side. She served as a “fierce advocate” for the survivors in the Nassar case. She gave them a voice, gave them room to talk about the impact his actions have on them as survivors. Judge Aquilina allowed the survivors to make him see their pain, to make the world understand that it isn’t just about one man’s career, but about the lives, health, and dignity of the survivors. Her support and care for their well-being stretched well-beyond the courtroom, with many in the public supporting the direction she was taking the hearing.

Although Judge Aquilina made the courtroom more empowering for survivors, it was only allowed because it was Nassar’s sentencing hearing. Not every survivor has this kind of platform available to them. College campuses like MSU are the subject of a conversation beyond Nassar’s case, one that increasingly seems to hinder the survivor’s voice.

For example, in 2015, CNN released The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses in America. The documentary found that eighty-eight percent of women don’t report campus rape and only two to eight percent of sexual assault claims are false (much less than people seem to believe whenever they discount a survivor’s experience).

The Hunting Ground also found that ninety-five percent of college presidents reported reacting appropriately to sexual assault cases, though the process varies widely from campus to campus. The most common is a disciplinary hearing composed of students and professors, most of whom have little training. They determine the fate of both the survivor and the accused; however, the fact that different schools have different policies leads to a skewed sense of what their “proper response” looks like.

Larissa Boyce was reportedly the first person to have told someone at MSU about Nassar’s abuse back in 1997, Nassar’s first year on the job; however, no action was taken, and MSU subsequently failed to act on reports about Nassar’s abuse from fourteen women—one of which reached then-University President Lou Anna K. Simon.

It isn’t surprising that the case didn’t move forward. MSU isn’t the only college to mishandle sexual assault cases—though it may be among the largest in terms of scale. There are many speculations about why college administrations mishandle assault cases, from lack of education to wanting to save face, and caring more about their prestige and appearance to the rest of society than about survivors on their campus.

Stanford University is on the more respectable end of that spectrum, having banned Brock Turner from campus as a student or otherwise after he was convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Turner was found guilty of three felony counts and sentenced to six months in prison, and released after three for “good behavior.” Judge Aaron Persky serving on Turner’s case was no Judge Aquilina. Where Aquilina was praised for her treatment of the survivors, Persky was criticized for his decision, with many demanding he be removed from the bench.

During Turner’s sentencing hearing, Persky listened as the survivor read a 12-page letter explaining in vivid detail how Turner traumatized her and affected her life. Unlike Judge Aquilina, Persky didn’t offer any words of encouragement or support to the survivor. Instead, he noted that Turner was young and didn’t have a criminal record. Persky was clearly more concerned with the abuser’s career than the survivor’s mental health.

Turner’s and Nassar’s cases have substantially different components. Turner was twenty while Nassar was fifty-four. Turner violated one woman while Nassar violated 256. Judge Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 175 years in prison while Judge Persky sentenced Turner to six months. But the response from our society is by far one of the largest contrasts, and it boils down the volume of survivors coming forward.

Society is often quick to jump on individual survivors and in turn accuse them of lying in an attempt to slander or hinder the abuser’s career. It would seem that, with the Nassar case, there’s a possible shift in the way society is handling sexual assault from even just two years ago.

Judges are starting to advocate for survivors, providing a platform and room for them to speak about the way they’re effected. But what if all that matters is that it wasn’t just one woman? How many more need to be hurt for the shift to have the necessary social impact?

K.S. Hufford is from the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate NY. She has previously been published in The Ithaca Times, Weathervane, and Joey and the Black Boots, and on the travel site GoStoweVT.  Like her hometown, she is small, but she loves to explore and finds strength in writing, friendship, and cats.