[R]achael Denhollander, a former gymnast and the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of molestation, addressed Vermont officials on Thursday at a conference on child sexual abuse at the Statehouse.
The event was held 10 years after the rape and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, a case that shocked the state and spurred the Legislature to pass Act 1, a landmark piece of legislation that overhauled Vermont’s system for responding to, and preventing, child abuse. The nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse Vermont convened the conference to review the state’s progress since the law’s passage and outline an agenda moving forward.
From the well of the House, Denhollander, now an attorney, told conference participants about her own struggle to come forward about Nassar’s abuse, and later to find justice for herself and other survivors. Denhollander was molested by Nassar in 2000 when she was a teenage gymnast in Michigan, and she went on the record with the Indianapolis Star 16 years later, after the paper reported on USA Gymnastics covering up allegations of abuse against coaches.
Denhollander’s story helped unleash an avalanche of accusations against Nassar. The former Olympic doctor was convicted on child pornography charges in 2017, and sex assault charges in 2018. His sentencing made national news when over 150 victims gave impact statements over a seven-day hearing.
But Denhollander also spoke about her struggle to make inroads with state lawmakers in Michigan, who resisted reforms, she said, because of the enormous influence of Michigan State University, Nassar’s former employer. And she warned Vermont’s legislators not to do the same.
“What you do here legislatively will not only affect survivors practically, but it will send a message to them," she said. "And it will send a message to the predators and enablers in your state. It will answer the question: Vermont, how much are your children worth?”
Conference attendees also heard from Cassandra Adams, Brooke Bennett’s mother. In a brief address, Adams spoke about her family’s life in the aftermath of her daughter’s murder by her uncle, Michael Jacques. Holidays had never returned to normal, Adams said. And it remained difficult to trust people.
“Part of me is gone,” she said. “It will never come back.”
And she called on policymakers to do everything they could to keep children safe.
“No one should lose their life by another human. Especially a 12-year-old little girl. I hope everyone in this room rededicates themselves to preventing such a tragedy from happening to another child,” she said.
Conference participants included representatives from the state’s social services, judiciary, schools and law enforcement. Working groups met in the afternoon to discuss prevention, best practices for investigations, offender intervention, advocacy, and court procedures.
Organizers said they expect to put a package of possible legislative changes before lawmakers once they’re done reviewing recommendations from the working groups.
Denhollander, for her part, highlighted the statute of limitations as a key problem for adjudicating child sexual abuse. Too often, survivors can’t process what’s happened to them – let alone decide to come forward – until it’s too late.
Auburn Watersong, the policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said significant legislative reforms took place on the subject in 2013 and 2017. Some of the most severe sex crimes, including aggravated sexual assault of a child, for example, no longer has a statute of limitations. And other sex crimes involving minors saw the statute of limitations extended to 40 years.
But the statute of limitations for civil actions is just six years.
“That’s definitely worth taking a look at,” she said.
Denhollander agreed the statute of limitations in civil cases is an important weak spot.
“There have to be incentives for individuals and institutions to report abuse and to adopt policies that make their organization a not safe place for predators. Predators know where they’re going to be safe,” she said. “And so removing the civil statute of limitations, even creating a retroactive window for survivors of abuse, to give them a window to justice, sends an incredibly powerful message that abuse will not be tolerated in your state.”
And organizers also emphasized that Vermont needed to invest more heavily in preventing abuse in the first place.
“We spend too much time, really, on the intervention side. We need to start preventing these things from even happening. And in order to do that, we need to secure some significant resources,” Watersong said.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.