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22 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 9:59am

The Larry Nassar abuse case shows why people believe conspiracy theories

For two decades authorities missed multiple opportunities to stop Nassar – failure which seems to go beyond simple incompetence.

By Megan Nolan

When we use the word ­“conspiracy” we tend to mean a certain type of outlandish and laughable false story that foolish people convince ­themselves, and others, is true. Such people repeat theories like these because they help them to make sense of the world in some way, or because they are simply more fun to believe in than reality; I’m talking about the “Elvis is not dead”, “shape-shifting reptiles” and “the Earth is actually flat” kinds of conspiracy theories.

But it is useful to some in positions of power if the general public associates the word “conspiracy” with these ridiculous, absurd fantasies. There are, however, real conspiracies –  and plenty of them – within official institutions, such as law enforcement bodies and governments. These have nothing to do with the supernatural or with silliness.

The case of Larry Nassar is a perfect example of a conspiracy among people whose collective power enabled them to suppress a reality of child abuse, action which defies understanding. Nassar is a convicted paedophile and a former physician who used his role as the team doctor of the US women’s national gymnastics team to abuse an astonishing number of girls over a long period. Between 2017 and 2018, Nassar was convicted of a slew of offences including possession of child pornography and multiple sexual assaults on minors, accruing what will be in effect a life sentence.

Many of us will recall the devastating, hypnotic scenes from 2018 of some of Nassar’s victims (there are more than 150) delivering their impact statements at one of his trials. I remember it well: the sight of Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, calm and powerful even within her obvious fury, looking directly at her abuser while she spoke. There are some victims of sexual offences that dream about scenarios such as this one: a defined stage upon which the roles of the powerful and the silenced are reversed, where the truth is spoken for all to hear, and shame can be attached to its rightful owner.

This scenario has, for me, nothing to do with prison sentences, and everything to do with a dire need for the reality of an assault to be confirmed. Perpetrators can be so skilled at skewing or deliberately disassembling the truth in the aftermath of sexual trauma. I envied the simple – but usually impossible – act of stating in a public forum what took place, without being undermined. It is difficult for most people, whether they have suffered abuse and trauma or not, to be vulnerable enough to look another person in the eye and say: “You hurt me.”

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The statements were remarkable not only because the victims could bear to be in the same room as Nassar, but also because they could say exactly how hurt they were, in front of him; not in the hope of eliciting sympathy from Nassar himself, but to convey their reality.

It was true, as many in the media said afterwards, that witnessing these women use their voices collectively was moving. But we should be careful not to reduce the case to a simple tale of victims versus one assailant. In the easy version of this story, there was an evil man who used his skills to secure himself a position of total authority over children. There was no stopping this monstrous but, apparently, mild family man – until the women, his once young victims, found their voice, until they summoned all their courage and were finally able to break the silence.

This is a compelling story; it might even be what the public would prefer to hear. But it isn’t true, because the silence surrounding the abuse was, in fact, broken decades before Nassar was finally convicted. Nassar was reported for sexual abuse as early as the 1990s: to authorities at Michigan State University, the police and fellow gymnastics professionals. Multiple opportunities to stop Nassar were missed; the FBI began investigating him in 2015 but the inquiry moved slowly, and Nassar continued to abuse new victims for a year while the FBI mishandled complaints. A truly incomprehensible level of failure was in place for a long time.

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I say “mishandled”, I say “failure”, but the level of negligence was so extreme that it is difficult to understand how it could be simple incompetence. This was not just a case of one rogue agent at fault. The testimonies made by the victims of Nassar to the US Senate on 15 September give some insight into the scale of the FBI’s neglect. Victims were systematically ignored and their abuse minimised, and direct statements were falsified. If this is how some of the most high-profile young athletes in the US, victims of one of the biggest child abuse scandals in sporting history, were treated, how is one to imagine the FBI treats other allegations of sexual abuse?

I can’t stop wondering: what reasons could the FBI have had not to stop Larry Nassar? The motivations of others that have been investigated in connection with the case are clearer. Steve Penny, the former president of USA Gymnastics, is accused of tampering with evidence in the Nassar case. It is also alleged that Penny, concerned about the organisation’s image, sought to cultivate a close relationship with two of the FBI officers assigned to the case. Penny is reported to have discussed the availability of a senior role with the US Olympic Committee with one of the agents.

When we read about allegations such as these, it’s not surprising that conspiracy theories are perennially popular. After all, some of them are real. People with enormous power do conspire against the well-being of others. They do so in favour of maintaining the status quo, which rewards them: the powerful, the authoritative. Those who take what they want from the world and don’t expect ever to pay for it.

[See also: Athletes like Simone Biles are not weak – they are pioneers for a new understanding of mental illness]

This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play