Like many of you, I’ve been following along with the gut-wrenching story of USA Olympics team doctor Larry Nassar and his abuse of hundreds of athletes over many years. It is mind-blowing. A story of a man that was able to assault and molest hundreds of athletes for years without being caught. Sometimes, with parents in the room who had no idea that what he was doing wasn’t a medical procedure.
I too watched the victim testimony at his trial. It was painful and heartbreaking to listen to these young women tell their story. They were broken by a man in a position of innate trust in our society; a doctor. Someone they trusted merely because of the position he held hurt them in ways from which they may never recover. It makes us rethink everything.
How do we parent now?
As a dad, it causes me to question who I trust to be around my kids. Especially, outside of my supervision. Can I trust doctors, coaches, church leaders, adult friends, teachers, family…?
This isn’t new in our society. There have been hundreds and thousands of stories of children abused by people close to them. In reality, 90% of abused children are abused at the hand of someone they know.
This story is different. This was a doctor that many of the families of these athletes grew to trust, explicitly. At times, the mom or dad of the athlete was IN THE ROOM when their child was assaulted under the guise of “treatment.” They didn’t think twice about what Nassar was doing. He was their doctor. The “treatment” even seemed to help some of the injuries the girls had been dealing with. So why question it?
These parents were NOT complicit. If they realized what was happening I’m convinced Nassar wouldn’t have made it out of that exam room alive (this dad would have taken care of things). However, they were clueless.
Perspective as one trusted by parents
I spent almost five years of my life as a student ministries director. I worked with hundreds of teens and tweens over the course of those five years. The ministry I lead saw roughly 100 students in attendance per week. A few hundred came through our doors throughout the course of a ministry year. I helped lead trips where we took dozens of students out of state to serve in both urban and rural areas. It terrified me on a daily basis.
Growing up in a family with lawyers you tend to learn to analyze and be skeptical of just about everything. You find the potential fault in everything and are always on high alert to how what you are doing or saying could be taken the wrong way. This grew deeper in me as I became a youth leader in 2010. I learned that no matter how pure someone’s actions might be, perception is everything. You always have to be aware of your surroundings. Who you are with and what others’ perception might be of your words and actions matters.
When I was a student in our church’s youth ministry I saw how girls responded when we hired a new young and charismatic male leader. Girls my age noticed him. I remember one time, he posted an away message on AOL Instant Messenger (remember AIM?) like “Quick shower, then off to work.” or something like that. We found out later that one female student found particular interest in the shower part of that comment. In his mind, it was a benign comment. Everyone showers, right? No big deal. However, perception is everything and one student took his seemingly innocent words and turned them into something else. Words matter as much as actions. Pretty sure he never posted about a shower again.
Over the years in student ministry, I had my own moments where I became fully aware of situations that could be taken the wrong way. My first year I had a female student that was a poker and a tickler. She was often trying to poke me in the side with her finger or tickle me. For a couple weeks I tried to avoid it. After a while, I had to have another female leader say something to her. Finally, I had to call her out and tell her that was not appropriate and she was not to do it again. I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t going to lose my job or end up on the news because someone saw her touching me and perceived it the wrong way.
No matter how innocent and well-intentioned a person is, we always have to be aware of how others might perceive our words and actions. Not everyone is a Larry Nassar, but in a world of instant and highly public accusations, it sometimes doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to have the right mindset and intentions. We have to go above and beyond to be sure other people’s perception of our mindset, intentions, and actions are accurate.
While I loved my students deeply, I was never one to be affectionate with them. Especially, in any remotely physical way. I didn’t even really feel comfortable with the classic Christian “side-hug”. I was just always nervous about perception. I loved my job and I never wanted to do anything that even through misperception could damage my ability to lead in the church and do it effectively.
We always tried to make sure that neither we or our adult volunteers were ever put in a position to where any allegations could be made, or worse yet, anything actually harmful could happen. We always did everything we could to make sure no adult was EVER alone with a student. Ever.
At times, we would have leaders question why we wouldn’t allow them to meet one on one with students that were in their small group or Sunday school class. The thought being, “Hey this is the church, everyone loves Jesus, right?” Didn’t matter, you follow the rules or you don’t lead teens. Period.
So what do we do now?
As a youth leader, it made me sad that we all had to be so aware of how every interaction we had with teens was being perceived. Even worse, as a parent, it’s unfortunate that we live in a world where we have to be skeptical of everyone our children come in contact with regardless of their position or how well we know them. It’s sad that we have to be skeptical when our kids are being examined by doctors. It’s unfortunate that we have to have conversations as parents about whether we’re going to let our kids go to sleepovers at friends’ homes. It’s awful that in all reality my kids will miss out on fun experiences because as parents we have to put their safety over their enjoyment of life.
I know there are tons of amazing and good people in this world that truly can be trusted. Sadly, just because their title is doctor, pastor, coach, friend, or family does not in itself make them “good.”