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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Judge Aquilina Will Help Victims Heal

February 2, 2018

Two things came to mind for me with the horrific news that an Ingham County judge sentenced former Dr. Larry Nassar to 175 years in prison for sex crimes after victims spoke following his dramatic trial.  More than 150 young women athletes, including Olympic medalists, delivered powerful rape-victim impact statements.

In addition to his role as the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, Nassar was fired after spending nearly two decades working as a Michigan State University professor and team doctor for athletes at my alma mater. Both the president and athletic director of Michigan State University resigned with, I suspect, more to follow as investigations continue.  Institutional systems often failed young, innocent girls who trusted the doctor and the institutions he represented. I also suspect more than the 150 victims giving victim statements are scarred for life.

Realizing that I serve on a small district library board, I immediately went to our trustee’s manual to review what policy system we have in place to deal with physical and mental abuse. We serve hundreds of patrons and employees. I would hope that anyone in a similar business and/or public governing and supervisory role would do take this opportunity to discuss the issues.  Beyond their “system,” anyone in authority needs to be asking themselves what lessons can be learned from this.  Apparently, the lessons presented earlier by Penn State University weren’t heeded following the conviction of their assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for child sex abuse in 2012.

When running our local daily newspaper and related companies, it became one of my main management concerns given the various issues that  ended up on my desk. It seemed like our labor attorney and I had a direct line.  Even though I’m partially retired today, I teach part-time and hold the same concerns. I will not meet alone with a student in my classroom with the door closed (because I have no office).  I conference with them on campus in the school cafeteria or library with many people nearby.

Like some of the victims who courageously spoke up following the trial or before, I was not understanding of what abuse really meant until I experienced it myself in 1973, during the early part of my working career. I understood that what I sometimes witnessed was not right, but I wasn’t clear on what to do back in the early 70’s. Understand, too, that public sex education in the 60’s had more to do with puberty and reproduction.  The rest was just not discussed.

I’d like to believe that what I personally witnessed and experienced in my early career couldn’t take place today.  But recent public revelations in corporate, government and other sectors tell us otherwise.  In my case, much like Matt Lauer, the newly-appointed publisher where I worked had a button installed underneath his office desk that, when pushed, allowed the door to close behind the person entering his office.  Often those leaving his office looked visibly shaken.  One time I accidentally walked into his office and saw him lying on top a partially clothed woman on his office couch.

That new publisher—my direct boss—had been transferred to take over operations and change its culture, as I read he had at other newspapers.  To those who worked for him he was blunt and abusive, often preying on younger women both within and outside the paper.  As one former employee at another paper recounted in a published account:

…he can be friendly and easy to talk to. When a person is on his good side, life is good. But that’s usually just a half-life.  When he turns on a person, his demeanor changes. His voice lowers. The color of his face changes to a ruddy sheen. His knuckles turn white as he tries to stabilize himself by holding onto his desk or whatever piece of furniture is convenient. 

Then, he explodes, sometimes jumping up and down, even stomping on layout sheets if he doesn’t like a headline or a photograph. After a few nice pleasantries, his face would turn red, his fist would bang his desktop and the verbal assaults.”

He had been plagued by bad press in some communities where he worked. Alternative publications routinely catalogued his drinking and womanizing. Books written by people with whom he worked chronicled what the local publications missed.  Few ever stood up to him for fear of losing their livelihood; they had families to support. He was the corporate hatchet man leaving behind many casualties as he was transferred from one newspaper to the next, then later performing the same role for other companies.

During my time at the newspaper, friends would tell me that was simply how things worked in the corporate world. I eventually left that company for a different opportunity even though I had been placed on a fast (management) track. Back then there were fewer laws, government overseers or systems in place to monitor and report abuse. Certainly, there was less education to increase awareness.

Sexual abuse, in particular, was hidden.  In my experience as a reporter covering northern Michigan schools and school boards, it was kept quiet.  Personnel-related meetings were held in private, and offending teachers or other employees would often leave the district with no detail. In small towns rumors would make the rounds, but never see print.  In Petoskey, one band director left suddenly and took a job in a school district in the thumb area. There, he was eventually arrested and found guilty for subjecting young students to the same acts he had while directing bands in other school districts.  Eventually, The Detroit Free Press broke the story on how a series of school boards had covered up sexual abuse within their local districts, often letting people go with no comment to future employers as to why.

In another case, I covered a northern Michigan daycare center discovered to have had a janitor abusing children as he was “helping” them in the bathroom.  Little information was made available to the public.

Today in a community near Petoskey, a man who owned a business catering to younger children and then served in public office remains free because a prosecutor dropped child molestation charges against him.  The parents of two young minors eventually decided that it was best to not let them testify since they lived in such a small town.  Their change of heart came after a weekly newspaper challenged the circuit court judge for closing his courtroom doors with no explanation. When challenged in another court, the judge was then forced to keep the trial open to the public. However, the charges were dropped because the prosecutor has lost his two key witnesses.

Several years later, that circuit judge lost his re-election bid because many citizens—particularly women—challenged his practice of sentencing mostly men to less than 365 days.  Sentencing them to less than a year allowed that judge to keep offenders under his jurisdiction at the county jail instead of losing them to distant Jackson State Prison. He thought his chances for successful prisoner rehabilitation were better at the county level than in state prison. However, the community didn’t buy it and voted him out of office.

Last week, Judge Aquilina’s decision to let any woman make rape-victim statements prior to sentencing Nassar was remarkable.  It empowered those 156 victims to share their often brutal statements with Nassar as they shared with the world what he had done.

“Leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things,” the New York Times reported Aquilina told one woman after she spoke against Nassar. 

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

February 1, 2018 · Filed under Winter



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