An Advocate for Survivors: RWU Alumna Plays Key Role in Gymnastics Doctor Abuse Trial
As victims confront Larry Nassar, Rebekah Snyder '16 supports 156 women in delivering their impact statements
LANSING, MICH. – One by one, the women stepped to the microphone in a Michigan courtroom.
One by one, they confronted Larry Nassar, the disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor convicted of sexually abusing young athletes under the guise of treatment.
“Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever,” Kyle Stephens told Nassar, who began abusing her when she was just 6 years old. “They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
Rachael Denhollander, the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse and the last to speak at his sentencing, asked: “How much is a little girl worth? How much priority should be placed on communicating that the fullest weight of the law will be used to protect another innocent child from the soul-shattering devastation that sexual assault brings? I submit to you that these children are worth everything. Worth every protection the law can offer. Worth the maximum sentence.”
A total of 156 women delivered searing, poignant victim impact statements before a judge sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years behind bars. Throughout the process, each of those women worked with and were supported by Rebekah Snyder – the victim advocate in the Michigan attorney general’s office, who graduated from Roger Williams University in 2016 with a master’s degree in forensic psychology.
“It was incredible to witness,” Snyder said in a phone interview.
In all, there were 265 victims, and Snyder worked with all who wanted to participate in the victim impact statement process. “It’s difficult and it’s grueling,” she said. “It takes an incredible amount of strength and bravery – to face the individual who assaulted you face-to-face. You are a couple of feet away.”
About 70 survivors opted to have someone read a statement on their behalf, and Snyder read 30 or so of those statements in court. For some survivors, she said, the assaults had happened 20 years ago: They knew they’d been assaulted. But no one had believed them. So they’d learned to live with it. And now they were being asked to give a public statement.
“In many ways, it was like ripping open a wound,” she said.
But some had been waiting for up to 20 years for just such a moment, Snyder said. “They were ready and energized to finally be able to be heard and to get up there,” she said. After delivering their statements, she said, “they would turn around and you could just see this weight lift off their shoulders.”
Some chose to submit statements anonymously, but in the end about 90 percent of the women chose to be identified. Many watched the livestream of other women delivering impact statements and decided they wanted the chance to tell the world their story, she said.
After hearing the impact statements, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina imposed a sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison on Nassar, who is 54. “I've just signed your death warrant,” the judge told him. “I find that you don't get it, that you're a danger, that you remain a danger.”
In combination with other cases, Nassar ended up receiving three sentences that would keep him locked up for at least 100 years.
“I think the one thing you take away from it is you hear the pain that was caused – you hear how these individuals were irreversibly damaged,” Snyder said. “A lot of them are still trying to heal, still working through that process, and it takes a long time. It’s hard not to agree with the sentences after you listen to that – for something of this magnitude.”
The crimes exacted a toll not only on the victims but also on their families, and the sentencing provided a measure of healing for many of them, Snyder said. “Many of the survivors were very young when this happened, and their parents hold a lot of guilt because they were the ones accompanying them or driving them to the appointment, and they feel like they should have known what was going on – which was impossible,” she said. “Many of the parents even took the opportunity to speak during the sentencing because they sought closure, as well.”
Snyder explained that Michigan law allows crime victims to deliver victim impact statements to the court, and she was hired in November 2017 specifically to work on the Nassar case as a victim advocate.
“This is the work I want to do now,” she said.
Snyder said her experiences at Roger Williams University prepared her well for that work.
After graduating from Albion College, in Michigan, she committed to RWU for graduate school. She had family in Walpole, Mass., and had vacationed on Cape Cod, but she had never visited the Bristol campus. “It was a leap of faith,” she said.
Snyder landed in the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards as a graduate assistant, working with Heidi Hartzell, Blair Schaeffer and Lisa Lyons. “I can tell you that was the single most important thing I was able to do at Roger Williams,” she said.
She said she learned how to listen to and have difficult conversations with students going through the disciplinary process. And she learned about “motivational interviewing,” active listening and asking probing questions in a class taught by RWU Psychology Professor Erin Tooley.
Eventually, she became involved in Title IX investigations, serving as an advocate for young women. She thought to herself: “This is something I could pursue. This is meaningful work.”
RWU Vice President for Student Life John J. King let her know about the university’s partnership with the Day One Sexual Assault and Trauma Center, in Providence, and she ended up getting an internship at Day One. “I started boots on the ground, handling victim advocacy in the community, responding in the middle of the night to hospitals to help sexual assault victims in Rhode Island – in Woonsocket, Newport, wherever the call was coming in,” she recalled.
While at RWU and Day One, she produced a resource guide for collegiate sexual assault survivors in Rhode Island. She went on to work as a sexual assault victim advocate at Bates College, in Maine, before joining the Michigan attorney general’s office.
So what’s next for her?
Snyder, 25, a Michigan native who now lives in Royal Oak, Mich., said she hopes to continue supporting crime victims, especially survivors of sexual violence. “They should always know they have someone on their side,” she said. “And I hope to be that comfort for them.”
She noted the #MeToo movement has catapulted the impact of sexual violence into the forefront of the national conversation.
“We have a long way to go in our culture, but we’ve made great strides in the last year with simply believing when someone discloses they have been abused of assaulted,” Snyder said. “This was a huge step because it’s incredibly important, especially for the individual who has been harmed, to seek further resources. If your best friend or family member doesn’t believe you were hurt, a survivor may think law enforcement never will either.”
She feels prepared to contribute.
“My time at RWU prepared me to continue in this role, to continue to support people in one of the most difficult times in their life – to have conversations that are incredibly difficult while providing kindness, support and compassion throughout,” Snyder said. “I don’t know exactly where these experiences will lead me in my career, but I will continue taking leaps of faith and putting myself in tough situations because I know I can handle it, thanks to my time at RWU.”