Rachael Denhollander, first woman to accuse Larry Nassar, receives standing ovation in courtroom

Rachael Denhollander, who was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, was the 156th and final survivor to speak during his sentencing hearing. (AP)
Rachael Denhollander, who was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, was the 156th and final survivor to speak during his sentencing hearing. (AP)

Rachael Denhollander, the first of Larry Nassar’s victims to publicly accuse him of sexual abuse, received a standing ovation in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom on Wednesday, an acknowledgement of her bravery and sacrifice, which led to an avalanche of women coming forward to also accuse Nassar of abusing them.

While courtrooms are generally supposed to be reaction-free places, Judge Aquilina did not stop the applause for Denhollander.

Denhollander was the final survivor to give a victim impact statement; in all, 156 women or their family members stepped forward to give statements.

Denhollander was 15-years-old when Nassar abused her in 2000, at Michigan State’s sports medicine clinic. After reading an Indianapolis Star story in August 2016 detailing USA Gymnastics’ practice of turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of athletes in its program, Denhollander decided to step forward, speaking to the Star and Michigan State University police.

She let the paper use her name and photo for a story. Soon, other women stepped forward, at first anonymously, but then they also allowed themselves to be named.

And over the last week, scores of them stood before Nassar to speak their truth, many of them saying they found the courage to do so by seeing others step forward.

Sadly though not surprisingly, Denhollander paid a price for her bravery.

“My sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me,” she said.

She had turned her diary over to police to be included as evidence and to ensure that the case against Nassar would proceed, and even during the preliminary hearing, Shannon Smith, one of Nassar’s attorney’s, asked Denhollander if she was only coming forward to collect money.

“I did it because it was right,” she said. “No matter the cost, it was right.”

After her statement – she spoke for around 30 minutes – Judge Aquilina told Denhollander, “You started the tidal wave. You made all of this happen. You made all of these voices matter. Your sister survivors and I thank you. You are the bravest person person I have ever had in my courtroom.”

Denhollander unloaded during her statement, with critical words for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, among others, those who enabled Nassar and allowed his abuse to continue unchecked for years.

Here is part of her statement, which can be read in full here:

“I realize you have many factors to consider when you fashion your sentence, but I submit to you that the pre-eminent question in this case as you reach a decision about how best to satisfy the dual aims of this court is the same question that I asked Judge Neff to consider: How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?

“Larry is a hardened and determined sexual predator. I know this first-hand. At age 15, when I suffered from chronic back pain, Larry sexually assaulted me repeatedly under the guise of medical treatment for nearly a year. He did this with my own mother in the room, carefully and perfectly obstructing her view so she would not know what he was doing. His ability to gain my trust and the trust of my parents, his grooming and carefully calculated brazen sexual assault was the result of deliberate, premeditated, intentional and methodological patterns of abuse — patterns that were rehearsed long before I walked through Larry’s exam room door and which continue to be perpetrated I believe on a daily basis for 16 more years, until I filed the police report.

“Larry’s the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome, caring external persona as a deliberate means to insure a steady stream of children to assault. And while Larry is unlikely to live past his federal sentence, he is not the only predator out there and this sentence will send a message about how seriously abuse will be taken.

“So, I ask, how much is a little girl worth? How much priority should be placed on communicating that the fullest weight of the law will be used to protect another innocent child from the soul shattering devastation that sexual assault brings? I submit to you that these children are worth everything. Worth every protection the law can offer. Worth the maximum sentence.”