LANSING, MICH. - Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon appeared at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing Wednesday, slipping into the courtroom as the lunch break ended.
“You have to be horrified and extremely sorry that anybody’s lives have been affected profoundly by someone that I trusted, a lot of people trusted,” she said during a brief afternoon break in the court proceedings. “So what you’re hearing is a story of betrayal and broken trust with enormous ramifications. That is very, very painful (even) if I were not the president of Michigan State."
Simon sat in the back row, listening to statements from women and girls who wanted to be heard by Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina before she sentences Nassar on seven sexual assault charges on Friday. The former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor has been accused by more than 125 women and girls who reported him to police. More than 140 are part of civil lawsuits against Nassar, USAG, MSU and others.
“This is their stories and their lived experiences with their words, and I’m not going to challenge those words because it’s important for them to say their words today in their own way,” Simon told a media gaggle that surrounded her seeking comment during the break. “This is not the place for that conversation, and I won’t be engaged in that here."
MSU Trustee Melanie Foster also sat in the courtroom to hear statements, saying “I thought it was important to hear first-hand and to be part of the courtroom.”
Foster said the atmosphere reflected “a lot of empathy, a lot of pain.”
Simon answered a handful of questions about Nassar and MSU.
Asked what she would say to Nassar, Simon responded “I fired him the day I knew about it.”
One of those women was Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly say Nassar sexually assaulted her, who had filed a report with MSU’s Title IX office on Sept. 1, 2016. The first Indianapolis Star story detailing abuse allegations against Nassar was published on Sept. 12, 2016.
Four days later, two of Nassar’s bosses, William Strampel and Suresh Mukherji, sent him a letter saying that due, in part, to a new report of sexual assault and Nassar's failure to follow protocols put in place after a 2014 sexual assault complaint, the university was considering firing him. On Sept. 20, 2016, Strampel and Mukherji sent another letter to Nassar officially firing him.
Jason Cody, an MSU spokesman, said he was unable to clarify Simon’s comment about firing Nassar.
MSU had first investigated Nassar on a sexual assault complaint in 2014. MSU Police sought a warrant from the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to issue one. The university’s separate Title IX investigation found he had not violated policies. Police records indicate about a dozen women say Nassar abused them after the 2014 report, which has contributed to the anger of those who believe MSU did not do enough.
Simon said MSU has taken steps to improve accountability and and more steps will follow. “Some of it will occur in a setting that is in the rule of law, others will occur in other forums. Again, this is not the day to have that conversation.”
On what she felt hearing from women impacted by Nassar: “I’ve said all along that he’s a monster who broke our trust, and as I’ve said all along I’m really pleased with the role that the MSU Police had over these last few months in helping victims find justice. And the attorney general has done a great job and I appreciate his work as well.”On the level of trust afforded to Nassar on campus: “It’s a challenge of trust and how you go below that level of trust and you listen and hear. And, in the case of medical procedures, those are ones that, if you’re president, there’s a lot of space between you and what happens in a clinic as all the rules and regulations suggest. And so you trust.”
Simon also described Nassar as "someone who was extraordinarily trusted and had the potential to do so much good, and apparently in some cases did, but turned it into a horrific activity that did so much harm.”
The 54-year-old former physician likely will spend the rest of his life behind bars due to a a 60-year sentence handed down by a federal judge on child pornography charges last month.
The state charges in Ingham County are the first related to the 125 women and girls who reported Nassar for sexual assault and the proceeding has garnered national attention in no small part because statements from 101 women and girls are being made in person, by video or read into the record by family members or prosecutors. The hearing is scheduled to run two more days.
Last Friday the Michigan Attorney General’s Office had announced that Simon and MSU Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Breslin would attend the sentencing hearing on Tuesday. Later that day, an MSU spokesman said they had considered attending, but ultimately decided not to do so.
Breslin and Simon had monitored Tuesday’s proceedings, an MSU spokesman said.
Simon told the media crowded around her at the break that they reinforced her concerns about her presence disrupting the proceedings. When asked about her plans for the next two days of the hearing she said: “I’ve become disruptive enough and I don’t want to do that again.”
Simon and Foster both stayed until the judge adjourned the hearing for the day. Simon departed down a third floor stairwell, flanked by police.
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