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As Olympics begin, so should era of vigilance

APTOPIX Doctor-Sexual Assault-11
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Larry Nassar listens during his sentencing at Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Mich., Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. The former Michigan State University sports-medicine and USA Gymnastics doctor received 40 to 125 years for three first degree criminal sexual abuse charges related to assaults that occurred at Twistars, a gymnastics facility in Dimondale. Nassar has also been sentenced to 60 years in prison for three child pornography charges in federal court and between 40 to 175 years in Ingham County for seven counts of criminal sexual conduct. (Cory Morse /The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Sexual Assault Speaking Out
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Friday, February 9, 2018

The winter Olympics this year is set against the looming menace posed by one of the world’s most dangerous regimes — North Korea. Whether Pyongyang and the U.S. continue to trade threats of nuclear destruction is a challenge for politicians, diplomats and military strategists.

That’s one shadow cast across this Olympiad. The other transcends international conflict and boundaries, and stretches far beyond the world of elite athletes. That is the still-festering scandal of Lawrence Nassar, the U.S. gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused scores of young female gymnasts over two decades. In the past few weeks, more than 250 girls and women, many of them former Olympians or hopefuls, told their harrowing stories of abuse and betrayal. Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in that case.

Earlier this week, just days before Friday’s opening Olympics ceremony, a Michigan judge sentenced Nassar to another long stretch in prison — up to 125 years — on separate charges.

You won’t hear much if anything about these cases during the Winter Games. We understand. These are different games, different venues, a different time.

But we hope the millions of viewers, many of them youngsters (and their parents) who harbor their own Olympic dreams, heed the lessons of those gymnasts. The Nassar victims spoke about how they trusted Michigan State University to protect them. And its leaders failed. And how they trusted team coaches and trainers. Those authority figures, too, failed. And how they trusted their parents. And they, too, failed to suspect, to heed signs — failed to imagine that a trusted and famed doctor could be a monstrous predator.

The scandal’s tally — careers ruined, lives haunted — is immeasurable. Investigations continue, as do civil court cases. The legal fallout isn’t over, not even close.

But what we hope ends, now and forever, is the culture of disbelief, fear and silence that muzzled victims and discounted their claims. We wrote recently that a culture of vigilance must envelop all children. That means even suspicions of misconduct should set off a chain of responses. No dawdling. No second-guessing. This culture of vigilance elevates a sense of urgency to stop abusers.

Remember that word, urgency. In the Nassar case, the FBI investigated for more than a year but “followed a plodding pace” moving back and forth among agents in three cities, The New York Times reports. Evidence of wrongdoing mounted but the inquiry moved with “little evident urgency.” In the interim, at least 40 girls and women say that Nassar molested them. The implication: With more urgency from the FBI, many of those victims could have been spared.

Let these, the first Olympic Games in the #MeToo era, open a million conversations among children and parents and with other adults, be they troop leaders, coaches, counselors or clergy. Let these games deter predators who might believe they, too, can abuse young athletes — any young people — in the guise of treatment or leadership or authority because no one is watching.

Every parent, coach, trainer, is now on notice. If they hear something, if they suspect something, we hope they’ll say something. And follow up — with urgency.

Youngsters around the world eagerly watch the Olympics. They dream of performing on those slopes, on that ice, in those stadiums before ecstatic crowds. This is a time to celebrate the exploits of these amazing athletes, who have earned a turn in the spotlight. But also to remember that in the shadows, predators can lurk. Not just in the gym, but in every organization, club and after-school activity where children play and learn.

Stopping these predators isn’t just a team effort. It is every individual’s duty.

The Chicago Tribune

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