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Saint Mary’s hosts screening and panel featuring HBO documentary ‘At the Heart of Gold’

| Monday, November 18, 2019

The Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) and Belles Athletics teamed up with non-profit The Army of Survivors to host a free screening of HBO’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” Sunday evening, followed by a panel and Q&A session. 

The film details the scandal and trial of Larry Nassar, the osteopathic physician of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team and at Michigan State University for over 30 years who sexually abused hundreds.

The panel that followed included Judge Rosemarie Aquilina as well as advocates and “Sister Survivors” of Nassar’s abuse, Grace French, Louise Harder and Melissa Hudecz. The event discussed sexual violence prevention, intervention and response. 

Aquilina sentenced Nassar to seven life sentences — 175 years of prison time.

“I think that we all have an obligation or responsibility to give voice to our victims in many ways,” Aquilina said.

She discussed the ways being a woman impacted how others perceived her work as a judge. 

“If I could have been a man, I firmly believe that I wouldn’t have been criticized, I would have been applauded when I took out Nassar with a couple of my comments, but because I’m a woman, I was ‘too harsh,‘” Aquilina said. “… [But] a man would not have listened to 169 victims … they wouldn’t have taken the time.”

Eighty-eight women were scheduled to come forward with their stories, but Aquilina allowed every person affected to testify, and by the end of the week over 156 women had spoken, the documentary said. According to the BAVO Facebook page, Aquilina has emerged as a symbol of hope for survivors of sexual abuse.

“We need to change the language. So ‘man up’ means that men are strong when they speak out against abuse, when they speak up for themselves, when they speak up for anybody that isn’t speaking up,” Aquilina said. “And when you use terms of ‘Oh, that woman has PMS,’ because she’s upset … you shouldn’t be doing that — we need to respect people. PMS, I think it stands for promote, mentor and support.”

One member of the audience asked the panelists for advice on how to keep working toward justice for sexual abuse victims.

“The longer the time passes where they don’t produce documents, where they don’t get answers, when they don’t continue the investigation, the American public forgets, and evidence can get destroyed,” Aquilina said in response. “… We want you to continue the conversation so that we don’t forget it, so that we do a meaningful change — because by stonewalling, by not answering this, America is quick to go on to the next issue.”

French said the best way to make a difference is for those who are not survivors to be advocates. 

“One of the biggest things I would say, for everybody is just to be loud about this issue if you have the energy,” French said. “One of the biggest things I’ve noticed as an advocate is that a lot of the times, it’s only survivors on this panel. And it’s exhausting to be a survivor and to be talking about this every day, or talking about this and trying to do something every day.” 

Harder said she agrees with French, and that survivors need the support of others listening, learning and standing up for them.

“[Those who] experience any sort of sexual violence or any sort of trauma, we’re stripped away of our power, and we’ve lost all control for at least a period of time,” Harder said. “… It goes back to believing the survivor, it goes back to listening, learning some of the grooming tactics that perpetrators use. It goes to standing up, [and] being an ally, because it is exhausting going to events and speaking up as a survivor, and standing up and being that voice — because we all have a voice and everyone’s story matters.” 

Hudecz said viewers can also make a difference by speaking out against the promotion of sexist and violent ideas in everyday culture.

“One … easy thing to do is to not tolerate behavior that promotes sexual assault, to stand up against it,” Hudecz said. “That is huge for survivors. That’s huge for changing the culture. When we’re just silent and let it happen around us, we’re still part of the problem.”

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