Morgan McCaul: From victim to survivor
Morgan McCaul entered Michigan State’s medicine clinic at the age of 12. At the time, McCaul — now an LSA freshman at the University of Michigan — was an aspiring ballerina with tears in both hip flexors.
She went to East Lansing in search of world-renowned doctor Larry Nassar with hopes he could provide her with the help she needed to return to dance.
Nearly five years later, McCaul realized she had been sexually assaulted by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment. McCaul had seen Nassar as the physician she wanted to be. Instead, she was a victim of his abuse and manipulation.
“I was your little ‘goof’ and so I looked to you as a role model, hoping to volunteer at MSU Sports Medicine alongside you someday,” McCaul’s impact statement read. “Do you remember taking me out to lunch after I job-shadowed you at the Clinic? I still have our friendly Facebook messages. In my mind, you were my both my mentor and my friend.”
McCaul is small in stature, just like she was when she met Nassar. Yet that hasn’t stopped her from finding her voice. She is no longer a victim — instead, she is a survivor.
On Nov. 22, 2017, Nassar — who earned his undergraduate degree in kinesiology at the University — pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree sexual misconduct in Ingham County Circuit Court. A week later, he pleaded guilty to another three counts of first-degree sexual misconduct in Eaton County for treatments he administered at the Twistars Gymnastics Club in Dimondale.
McCaul was involved in both civil and criminal suits against Nassar. She was never involved in John Geddert’s Twistars Gymnastics Club or USA Gymnastics, something she is grateful for, as more information about misconduct within those organizations is uncovered.
“I feel really lucky that I was not in their care,” McCaul said. “I still feel passionately that those institutions need to be held accountable.”
As the date of Nassar’s sentencing hearing approached, McCaul and fellow survivors spent more and more time appealing to the press to ensure the sentencing received coverage. Since then, McCaul has been one of the leading voices in the press.
That means she hasn’t had the conventional first semester that most freshmen have. She has spent her first few months of college commuting between Ann Arbor and her home in Lake Odessa, attending class on the weekdays and legal meetings on the weekends.
McCaul and other survivors attended MSU Board of Trustees meetings throughout the fall, pressing them to take action. No one seemed to be listening, neither the trustees nor the media.
Sentencing began Jan. 16, originally intended to end Jan. 19, with 90 survivors slated to give impact statements. The Monday before the hearing, all 90 survivors regrouped before the trial.
“We were able to sit in a room and chat and see each other’s faces,” McCaul recalled. “It's really empowering.”
And then Judge Rosemarie Aquilina made a decision to allow all survivors a chance to speak and confront Nassar. As the hearing continued, the number of individuals delivering impact statements grew from 90 to 156. That didn’t even include statements from survivors’ family members and support systems.
McCaul delivered her impact statement Friday afternoon with her dance instructor by her side.
“This past year and a half has been, without a doubt, the most difficult and traumatic period of my life,” McCaul said in her statement.
During the first week of sentencing, an investigation from The Detroit News revealed MSU President Lou Anna Simon and 13 other MSU officials knew of the survivor reports and Title IX investigations into Nassar in 2014. State legislators, media outlets and students began to call for Simon’s resignation. McCaul’s impact statement echoed that sentiment.
“In the aftermath of Nassar’s crimes, calls have been renewed for MSU President, Lou Anna K. Simon, to resign,” McCaul said. “The fact that she has yet to do so is insulting to the hundreds of survivors like me — it is, in fact, 42 months, countless slanderous public statements by Jason Cody, calls from numerous Congressmen and women and one $150,000 slap-in-the-face of a raise too late.”
According to a 2016 lawsuit, one of the first survivors — an Olympic gymnast — stated Nassar sexually abused her in 1994, years before McCaul was even born.
“How many little girls could have been spared from this lifelong battle,” McCaul said, “if someone at the university had done the bare minimum and listened?”
Though the hearing extended beyond Friday, McCaul and many fellow survivors decided to stay until Nassar received his final sentence. McCaul will have missed nearly two weeks of school for the hearing, but supporting the women who continued to come forward was too important to her.
“Coming back I feel is really important because a lot of statements that have been given in the past few days reference the community of survivors and how people feel more comfortable sharing their story, and they only found their voice as a result of people that came before,” McCaul said. “So I want to be here and show them were still here for them I want to learn their names I want to give them a hug, show them that we are here for them.”
McCaul’s lawyers originally brought seven of the survivors together. The group went through mediation together and formed a lasting connection.
“But we really bonded in a way that was unanticipated,” McCaul said. “We knew that we would get along but we talk every day, we’ve gone out to dinner together, we’ve gone over to each other's houses. We speak every day. It kind of set the grounds like we need to start a community, we need the relief that we felt from meeting each other.”
One of the women McCaul spoke with was Jessica Smith, a survivor who created the #MeTooMSU Facebook group, a forum to share stories and raise awareness of the culture of abuse plaguing MSU’s campus.
McCaul demanded Aquilina deliver the strongest sentence.
“Judge Aquilina, I implore you to impose a sentence against this man which sends an unmistakable message to those who perpetrate heinous crimes against young people,” McCaul said. “Whether they molest and maim, or look the other way to protect their Green-and-White.”
Aquilina took note of the powerful community of women and girls she dubbed “sister survivors” she saw in her courtroom. Following the final impact statement from survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with accusations in 2016, Aquilina said, “You built an army of survivors, and you are the five-star general.”
No one knew what to expect going into the first day of sentencing. But McCaul had an idea of how emotional it would be.
“We had no way to prepare ourselves for what this was going to look like and that first day was so difficult, it was so cathartic, so intensely emotional that it was really hard to deal with,” McCaul said. “And I don’t think — and I mean media cover can only do so much, live stream can only do so much — but it is so different to watch it from a screen than to be in that room and feel that energy. And to be in a room with him. To see Larry after all of this is crazy. “
Eight days and 156 impact statements later, each as powerful as the one before, Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in state prison.
Before delivering her sentence, Aquilina reminded the room and all watching on the livestream, 1 in 10 children are abused before their 18th birthday, calling for change.
“Speak out like these survivors, become part of the army.”
The evening of the sentence, Simon tendered her resignation through a statement on MSU’s website.
“To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment,” Simon's statement read.
Many officials accused of having knowledge of Nassar pervasive misconduct remain in power. Joel Ferguson, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, stood by Simon, citing her impressive fundraising skills. Ferguson went on to assert there would be no NCAA investigation.
“To do what?” he said. “This is not Penn State. They were dealing with their football program. They’re smart enough to know they’re not competent to walk in here on this.”
When the interview went public, McCaul ran out of the courtroom in a fit of rage.
“They (MSU trustees and administration) are honestly just so disappointing,” McCaul said. “This situation — they have such an opportunity, especially with the precedent set at Penn State, to do the right thing and to handle this the correct way and they just have not. They have done everything wrong, they have said every wrong thing you can imagine. They have revictimized hundreds of women over and over and over and that wasn't even really being talked about before this sentencing.”
McCaul invited Ferguson to join her in court the next week, calling his comments “disgusting.”
The NCAA has launched an investigation into MSU’s handling of Nassar’s misconduct.
Though the sentence has been handed down, the fight is not over for McCaul and many other survivors. McCaul will continue to work to build a community of survivors and to hold institutions involved accountable. In the fall, McCaul made a post in the University of Michigan Class of 2021 Facebook group looking for anyone who shares her experience and needs support.
“If there are women at the University who have undergone this experience, who want someone to talk to, possibly want legal counsel or just want to talk about what they are going through,” McCaul said. “I am here, I want to create something for these women and girls.”
Though Nassar will be behind bars for the rest of his life, McCaul acknowledges there is still a culture of abuse that prevails at schools, universities and sports programs.
“This is certainly not exclusively a Michigan State University problem, this is just a situation where they got caught.”