She never won a world championship or competed in the Olympics, but Rachael Denhollander may be the most important gymnast of the last two decades.
In 2016, Rachael Denhollander sent an email to the Indianapolis Star saying she had been sexually abused by a doctor who treated her and other former athletes in the U.S. gymnastics program.
That email prompted a newspaper investigation that, in turn, led police to charge the doctor, Larry Nassar, with sexual assaulting 10 different girls. But there were far more victims, and over a week in late January, more than 100 women and teenagers gave victim impact statements before a judge who had just condemned Nassar to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Over the last two years, the public also learned that people in positions of authority repeatedly failed to take action when told about the abuse. Brave women and girls came forward before Denhollander had, only for their complaints and concerns to be ignored or brushed aside.
The scandal is one of the largest in U.S. sports history. But while the scale is almost unimaginable, the actual crime is sadly not.
In recent months, there have been an avalanche of revelations of misdeeds by men in positions of power. It has happened in Hollywood and Indianapolis and Toronto and New York.
But let’s face it: That’s the tip of the iceberg. Only a fool would suggest it’s not happening here too.
So what’s a small newspaper to do to find out what lurks unseen?
To start, we’ve asked all major public bodies in Abbotsford toabout how they police sexual misconduct, and will seek to find out how many investigations or incidents have taken place in recent years.
However, Canada’s strict privacy legislation and much-less-powerful freedom of information rules mean those requests are unlikely to turn up many specifics. Canadian public and private organizations routinely lean on privacy rules to avoid answering even general questions or releasing the identities or information about serious misdeeds.
That’s an issue because some of that information is crucial to prevent future misconduct by men with a history of such behaviour. Too often, men who are dealt with “internally” end up moving to other organizations where they have less oversight and where the people may be unaware of the new guy’s proclivities.
To advance this story, we need to hear from victims ready to step forward and share their stories, whether anonymously or not. Witnesses to such behaviour are also helpful. Your voice, email or note may not be the one thing that allows us to tell a story, but it may help corroborate someone else’s story.
Here at The News, we’ve already heard stories in recent months about men in positions of authority acting inappropriately towards much younger women. We are pursuing those stories and others, but that’s a process that will take time. For legal and ethical reasons, and to protect a victim, any story about specific sexual misconduct allegations must leave readers with little doubt about what happened. Given that, a story about specific incidents, individuals or organizations demands corroborating evidence or witnesses.
Finding that evidence takes time. It also requires people to come forward and say what they know. Hence this column.
Over the ensuing months, we can’t promise to write about everything we hear. But we will listen.
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