The release Wednesday of the Department of Justice’s investigation into how the FBI mishandled reports of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, and then outright lied about their failures, was shocking. It also was entirely predictable.
Shocking, because it revealed the absolute lack of care, even clear collusion, that allowed a known serial pedophile to sexually assault more than 100 victims when he could have been stopped nearly a year and a half earlier.
Predictable, because this is the story survivors everywhere have known for far too long – reports of rape and sexual assault are frequently mishandled and rarely prioritized.
The age-old question, “if you were really abused, why didn’t you report?” is easily answered by the facts laid bare Wednesday. Most of the time though, survivors aren’t part of a sisterhood that includes hundreds of voices who can speak to push for the truth.
Most of the time, journalists and skilled civil attorneys aren’t on-deck to dig relentlessly for transparency.
Most of the time, these realities stay hidden, known only to the victims who have suffered through them, and carried only by those who paid the price.
Wednesday’s report didn’t uncover new realities – it put a spotlight on what we already knew existed.
Still no consequences for betrayal
Reading the report is painful – the betrayal runs deep. But perhaps just as agonizing is the reality that despite knowing the truth (something most survivors never get), there are still no consequences for the bad actors who allowed more than 100 children to be sexually violated.
No consequences for failing to follow basic policy, for sharing drinks with USA Gymnastic's CEO and receiving a cushy job offer instead of stopping a known serial pedophile.
No repercussions for FBI agents who repeatedly lied about what they had, and hadn’t, done.
In this one instance, we’ve at least gotten to the truth, but we’re left asking: What happens next?
Law enforcement in our country holds all the power, but with little to no mechanism in place for accountability and meaningful reform. So after we finish reading the nearly 120-page report, we’re left with two questions: First, how do we find out about all the other times reports languish or get covered up?
Second, what do we do to effect real change?
And that is the point at which anger frequently dissipates, because the reality of reform is harder than we are prepared to confront. Emotion is easy to conjure up. Change? Not so much.
But until we become willing to ask the hard questions and listen to the even harder answers, the reality set out so clearly Wednesday will continue to be the reality survivors live in.
It’s long past time to ask why conviction rates for sexual assault are often so abysmally low – in 2019 for example, RAINN estimated that out of every 230 rapes reported to police, only five will result in conviction, with numbers for preceding years still hovering in that range.
To grapple with how we don’t prioritize, and therefore fund, sexual assault investigations. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested, with investigators not taking (or having the means to be able to take) the most basic steps to process physical evidence of sexual assault.
It means confronting the reality that we have nowhere near enough trained SVU investigators in the first place, and that truly bad actors in law enforcement are more common than we want to think.
It means grappling with the reality that sovereign immunity laws, initially designed to protect law enforcement officers who need to make split-second, life-saving decisions, function more often to create a complete bar to any form of accountability or justice when those in authority do truly horrible things, and cause truly horrible damage.
It's time for the hard conversations
The conversations we need to have won’t be easy, but if we value each other and our children enough, we will have them.
With every word of Wednesday’s report I remembered the day three years ago, that I took my daughter to an event with my Sister Survivors. Hair in pigtails, in her baby voice, my 3-year-old looked around the room and asked, “Who are they, mommy?” And I told her our story, in the simplest way.
But when she pointed to little girls in the group, children who were victimized long after the FBI could have saved them, and asked in shock, “Why are there children in there?” I could not answer her, because the answer was too painful.
I came home that day and in my grief, wrote a poem to those little girls – the ones I could not save – and to my daughters, “How Much is a Little Girl Worth?” that later became a children’s book. It is still the question we have to ask ourselves in the wake of what was revealed Wednesday. How much are our children worth?
Three years ago I penned:
“Worth changing laws, worth all the fight,
It was true then, it is true now. And it is long past time to start acting like it.
Rachael Denhollander, an attorney, author, speaker and advocate, was the first woman to speak publicly in 2016 against Larry Nassar and pursue criminal charges.