Stop Sympathizing with a Child Molestor

This past week, Larry Nassar, the former sports doctor who molested more than 150 US gymnasts during his tenure with the national team, was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for his crimes. Nassar pleaded guilty and, during his sentencing hearing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed all of the survivors of Nassar’s atrocities to come speak before the court, and Nassar himself. Among those who spoke was two-time Olympian, Aly Raisman.

The judge in the case was unapologetic towards Nassar who plead with the court for mercy, claiming that his actions were purely “medical.” Judge Aquilina called his behavior, “precise, calculated, manipulative, devious, and despicable.” In sentencing Nassar she said, “It is my honor and privilege to sentence you. You do not deserve to walk outside a prison ever again.” She called Nassar’s sentence a “death warrant.”

Following the verdict, I have heard rhetoric surrounding Judge Aquilina’s statement which troubled me. People said that she was “too personal” in her statements and “unprofessional.” All over my Facebook news feed, I saw people posting about how they all agree that Nassar is a monster and deserved the sentence, but that judge was really out of line. Many described her statement as “harsh.” One TIME writer went as far as to say that she “undermined justice.”  TIME writer, Anne Gowen, says, “A judge who reframes the sentence she selects as a personal expression of disgust with the actions of the defendant and the defendant himself has changed the task she was assigned.”

This argument, however, only makes sense if Aquilina had been presiding over a trial to determine whether or not Nassar was guilty. There is no judicial bias at play if the defendant is already guilty. Nassar was a convicted and admitted child molestor, and Judge Aquilina had just listened to over a hundred survivors tell their harrowing tale of abuse at his hands. 

Just last summer, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that statements such as Judge Aquilina’s during sentencing did not qualify as judicial bias. They concluded that, in the case of the “People vs. Mitchell,” statements such as these were not trial bias, “but rather was an attempt by the trial court to impress on defendant . . . the serious nature of the consequences that his actions could have had, and of the impact of his actions on the victim.” Judge Aquilina was simply giving her opinion (which she is allowed to do during sentencing) and conveying to Nassar the depth of his crimes.

So, if what Judge Aquilina did was perfectly legal and within her job description, why are we talking about it and detracting from the actual impact of Nassar’s hearing? When I critically thought about who it was on my news feed, complaining about the judge’s actions, it was mostly men. This led me to some interesting studies that have been done on the gendered perception of professionalism. Despite the fact that women make up almost 50% of all law classes, there is still strikingly low representation for women in courts of law. Women make up 33% of all judges in district or circuit courts in the US. It is much harder for women to become judges than men. This is largely because women are perceived as having less of a professional commitment to the job.

Women in roles of power are often labeled as “over-emotional” (yes, all those period jokes are damaging). These ideas about women are damaging and largely the reason why they have trouble in professional work environments. Women are almost always held to a higher standard than their male counterparts (and we are paid less). What is apparent to me, is that Judge Aquilina, who was fully within the law, was being criticized because men needed something to criticize, and a strong woman was the perfect target. Maybe if people spent less time having sympathy for a child abuser and more time on listening to the words of the survivors, we would actually be able to make strides in the fight against sexual assault. This is the very rhetoric that allows people like Larry Nassar to get away with their crimes. Instead of focusing on Aquilina, focus on Nassar. Take all of the energy you used on that enraged Facebook status and do something to stop the abusers.

If you are someone who has criticized Judge Aquilina, the only thing I ask of you is to critically engage with your own thoughts. Ask yourself why you might have been socialized to think a certain way and do your research. I heard something once that stuck with me: your first thought is what society has conditioned you to think and your second thought defines who you are. Make your second thought count.