February 2, 2018 / 3:32 PM / 21 days ago

Once reluctant, Nassar victims lead each other out of shadows

CHARLOTTE, Mich./NEW YORK (Reuters) - For years, Bailey Lorencen kept a dark secret - USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abused her when she was a middle-school gymnast.

Even after reporting him to authorities, the gymnast, now 23 years old, remained hesitant to share her story with the world and was known only as “Victim B” in court documents. The tough questions she endured from Nassar’s lawyers at a preliminary hearing, before he pleaded guilty to molestation, only strengthened her reluctance.

But as she watched scores of other victims speaking out at Nassar’s sentencing last month, she realized she wanted to add her voice, and her name, to the chorus.

“I was not even going to write a statement, but after seeing other girls do it, I decided I needed to,” she told Reuters on Wednesday in Charlotte, Michigan, where Nassar’s victims are testifying at a second sentencing hearing.

“I could see as they walked away from the podium, a weight lifted from their shoulders,” she said.

Lorencen’s experience shows how the Nassar case, coming amid an ongoing national debate over sexual misconduct and the “#MeToo” movement, will likely help convince more abuse victims to come forward as their stories are viewed as credible, according to several experts in sexual trauma.

On Jan. 24, Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, following an extraordinary hearing in Lansing, Michigan, in which more than 150 Nassar victims delivered emotionally wrenching statements about his actions.

Prosecutors initially told the court that 88 victims would speak, but as the statements began, more and more women came forward.

A similar dynamic appears to be unfolding in Charlotte.

Two of Lorencen’s friends from their days as teenage gymnasts, Annie Labrie and Madison Bonofiglio, were among several women who stepped out of the shadow of anonymity on Wednesday to confront Nassar in court.

“I was so certain I didn’t want to do it, that it would open old wounds that I didn’t want to face,” Labrie, 23, told Reuters on Wednesday shortly after she spoke in court, where she had previously been known only as “Victim C” in documents.

“But I realized it’s a little bit rare for women to have a voice in situations like this and for victims to have a voice,” she said.

Labrie said the three friends had never discussed their shared stories of abuse when they were teens, though she said they implied they found Nassar uncomfortable.

FILE PHOTO: Former gymnast Annie Labrie is hugged by Asst. Michigan Attorney General Angela M. Povilaitis after Labrie read her victim impact statement during a sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault, in the Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Michigan, U.S., January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

“We told each other without really telling each other,” she said.

BELIEVING SURVIVORS

Many abuse survivors are wary of speaking out, often because they justifiably fear their accounts will be met with skepticism, victims’ advocates say.

“We have this long history of doubting the stories of accusers,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University who recently published a research paper documenting what she calls the “credibility discount.”

In the Nassar case, many victims have accused USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where Nassar also worked, of sweeping complaints about his behavior under the rug for years.

On Thursday, a local police department in Michigan apologized to one victim for declining to bring charges against Nassar in 2004 after she complained of abuse.

“One of the things that the '#MeToo’ movement seems to be doing is changing that credibility calculus,” Tuerkheimer said.

Sexual assault hotlines have already seen an uptick in calls in recent months, after a slew of scandals involving powerful men from Hollywood to Washington, she said.

Jennifer Long, whose non-profit AEquitas advises prosecutors on sexual violence, said she hoped the Nassar case would emphasize the need for law enforcement and the justice system to improve its handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

“This has to be a moment of encouragement, where victims’ voices are being heard and these crimes are being pulled from the shadows,” she said.

Often victims first tell family members, whose response can sometimes dictate whether the allegations proceed further, according to experts.

One of Nassar’s victims, Kyle Stephens, a family friend of the doctor, told her parents at age 12 that he had abused her. In emotional testimony at his hearing, Stephens said they did not believe her and that she believed her father’s suicide last year was partly due to his guilt over their skepticism.

It was Stephens’ testimony, more than anyone else‘s, that convinced Lorencen she should speak publicly at his sentencing.

“I thought, if she can do this, any of us could do it,” Lorencen said.

The day before her appearance, Lorencen was having breakfast with her father and sister when she turned to them and said: “Let’s do it.”

Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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