On Wednesday, November 28th, the Minnesota Student Association and The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education hosted a Q & A session with Rosemarie Aquilina. Aquilina, a Michigan circuit court judge, achieved national recognition for presiding over the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse trial involving Larry Nassar. More than 250 young women and one young man accused Nassar of molesting them, and the former physician eventually pleaded guilty to ten counts of sexual assault.
Before Aquilina took the stage, a young woman (whose name has been intentionally omitted) gave an introduction, praising Aquilina as “the woman who silenced the man who silenced so many.” The former NCAA gymnast revealed that she too is a survivor of Larry Nassar. Starting at age 12 and continuing for six years, she saw Nassar three to four times a week. When police created their official report, they estimated that the young woman had been assaulted 684 times.
That’s roughly the equivalent of being assaulted every day for 23 months straight.
When Judge Aquilina came out, the moderator began by asking about her background. After getting her degree, she opened up a lobbying firm and a law firm, but both became so busy and successful that she had to drop the lobbying firm. Upon realizing that many people simply needed legal advice but couldn’t cover the expenses, she started a radio show called “Ask the Family Lawyer” that became syndicated.
When Aquilina later decided to become a judge, she started in sobriety court, then moved to the circuit and district courts. She still occasionally teaches at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University, and she has written two books, with promises of more to come.
When asked what prompted her to allow all of Nassar’s victims to address him in court, Aquilina explained that she treats all cases the same; she’s always allowed every victim and both sides to speak. Seeing as Nassar initially only pled guilty to seven counts of sexual assault, that would have meant only seven victims should speak, but Aquilina said it was very important to her to hear all victims.
Regarding child abuse and safety, Aquilina had plenty of ideas about what needs to change going forward. The Nassar case blew up because of the heightened media presence, but Aquilina wants the media to be present at every case, since people deserve to know what is going on in their communities.
How do we change the culture? To start, Aquilina said judges need to be trained differently. The public perceives judges as “punishers,” but she considers herself a rehabilitator, and she wants other judges to take this reform-oriented approach.
The burden doesn’t just rest on judges; everyone needs to be taught differently. Aquilina wants doctors to be trained to recognize signs of sexual abuse. Kids need to be taught that they indeed have the power to say “No” and to govern their own bodies, and they need to be taught which parts of their anatomy are acceptable for others to touch. Police cannot keep leaving critical information out of their reports, and rape kits need to have a mandatory timeline for testing so that they don’t sit on a shelf for years.
In the end, Aquilina’s experience with the Nassar case didn’t change her, but it made her want to get out and speak. She says “the fire has already started burning,” but we need to keep feeding that flame by talking about these issues more. Most importantly, Aquilina says we need to stop asking questions that hint at victim-shaming. It’s time to start listening, and start believing.