Listening to Children by Angela Rieck

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HBO released a special on the Olympic Gymnastics and Michigan State child molestation scandal. Called “At the Heart of Gold”, it chronicles the triumph of these little girls over Dr. Larry Nassar, the Olympic team physician and Michigan State professor who pled guilty to child abuse. He is alleged to have abused 500 girls at Michigan State University, the local high school, gymnastic camps and programs, and friends.

What is tragic is that 17 brave girls reported this independently to Michigan State officials and were ignored, including one as early as 1997. This 15-year old victim refused to back down until the Michigan State gymnastics coach bullied and shamed her into doing so.  The coach then told Dr. Nassar, who shamed the athlete and continued to abuse her for another four years.

Michigan State has set aside $500 million to compensate the first 300 victims, since then another 150+ have come forward. The president of Michigan State resigned, by all reports an effective administrator who had more important things to do than to protect these girls.

As an adult and a mother, it is easy to get indignant and angry.  But what is lost is that pedophiles groom adults as well as they groom children.  So effectively, that in Dr. Nassar’s case, a 5-year old victim’s parents did not believe their own daughter when she confided to them about her abuse.  Her parents refused to pay for her therapy and demanded that she apologize to Dr. Nassar. Overcome with grief and depression after he was made aware of his mistake, her father committed suicide.  Even the FBI failed to act when the US Olympics finally got around to reporting abuse in 2015.

When I volunteered to be a Sunday school teacher at my Episcopal parish in NJ in the 1990s, I was required to take a two-day course on this topic.  I was annoyed, I had a big-time job, I was a mom, and I resented giving up two of my Saturdays to attend this course. But I ended up being grateful. I learned to recognize child and adult grooming behaviors.

Serial pedophiles like Dr. Nassar depend on our faith in our own judgement, they depend on our trusting nature.  Abusers are great guys, well liked, kind and in positions of authority. Adults can count on these men to help them out, to be a shoulder to cry on, to be that person that they can trust. And we believe that a “good person” would never do something like that.  These serial abusers manipulate our hubris, our false confidence in ourselves, they play us, just as well as they play our children.

In doing so, they make us suspicious of genuinely “good guys”.  They manipulate us into ignoring our children’s little voices. We know that children can exaggerate, manipulate, and even lie to get things they want.  A child’s world is different from ours; children are just beginning to put together the puzzle pieces to their life, we have found places for most of ours. So we learn to distrust children’s voices and set up systems to protect adults.  

One of the most frustrating experiences that I had on the Board of Education was our inability to bring tenure charges against a teacher who had allegedly made inappropriate comments to high school girls. We were appalled to learn that unless an adult directly witnessed the behavior (in our case a teacher overheard a conversation among teenagers), we could not bring a charge.  The legal system did not trust those small voices. (I am happy to report, however, that we were able to remove this teacher for things that he did to adults.)

As it should have, this travesty has brought down the Olympic gymnastics system which declared bankruptcy to protect itself from lawsuits. The head of the US Olympic committee resigned, and several Michigan State and Olympic authorities are facing charges of perjury and tampering with evidence.

Tough punishments against the enablers are critical. There need to be serious consequences for people in authority who refuse to listen to those little voices. But what we really need to do is to stop trusting only adult voices and learn how to listen and trust our children.  

Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.

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