Last week, Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar was sentenced to 40–175 years in prison for many counts of criminal sexual assault. He abused young girls for years, using his role as a doctor as cover for molestation. Many of his victims were Olympic gymnasts. Nassar’s crimes are horrific, and represent a betrayal of the whole medical profession. He wronged not only his victims, but all of us who rely on the trustworthiness of doctors when we, and our children, are most vulnerable.
Unfortunately, I cannot join the many voices hailing the judge in this case as a champion of justice. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been praised for her personal and empathetic treatment of Nassar’s victims as these young women took the stand during an unusually long sentencing hearing. Judge Aquilina’s personalized words of comfort to the survivors at the end of the hearing were moving. But then she addressed some extremely disturbing words to Nassar himself. As a lawful representative of the U.S. government, she tiptoed up to saying that she wished she were free to sentence him to be raped in prison:
“Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls—these young women in their childhood—I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
This is vile. Nassar’s crimes cannot but inspire righteous anger, but fantasies of vicarious revenge via rape are born from wrath, not justice. Rape can never be a just punishment, and no officer can morally administer it.
Perhaps, of course, the judge imagined Nassar’s retribution would be administered by his fellow inmates. But wishing this is doubly wicked, since it also discounts the damage to the souls of the perpetrators—as if other imprisoned men are no more than wild animals to whom we throw further malefactors. This should be obvious, but it seems sadly necessary to rebuke the idea in a world where Americans largely ignore the awful ubiquity of sexual assault in prison, or else laugh it off.
We will not make our culture healthier or our children safer by treating the sexual assault of prisoners as normal, or funny, or just. And, more broadly, we can’t be satisfied granting human dignity to some people while casually dehumanizing others. Prisoners, even those who have done terrible things, are not “monsters” we can use (rhetorically or literally) like subhuman beasts. Wishing rape-as-punishment (even on rapists) is itself wicked and contributes to our broken prison system.
One of the women who testified at the sentencing hearing had a different message for Nassar, the man who abused her. She also spoke of the gravity of his crime and its consequences, but coupled that with a message of grace. Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander told Nassar, “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.” Her words are bracing, but she is offering Nassar a signpost toward salvation.
It’s easy and apparently popular to pretend imprisoned criminals are some separate class of being—animals or monsters, not people like us. But Christians do not have that luxury. Jesus could not be clearer about our duties to the imprisoned. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46), he tells the righteous, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; [...] I was in prison and you visited me.” And to the unrighteous, he says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, [...] in prison and you did not visit me.” For Catholics, these duties Christ tells us we owe “the least of these” are codified into the seven corporal works of mercy, including visiting the imprisoned. Those who would condemn their fellow man to a simulacrum of eternal separation from goodness should worry about facing the real thing themselves.
In college I took a class that involved weekly visits to a maximum security prison, where we studied Dante alongside inmates and helped these men write and perform short plays based on the Inferno. I wondered if the incarcerated men would see themselves as the damned souls Dante encounters. Instead, they identified with Dante, the pilgrim: They each chose a Virgil and a Beatrice, a guide and a goal. One man’s Virgil was a hip-hop artist, and his Beatrice was his twin daughters waiting for him in the outside world.
The horror of the Inferno is the way the damned have become defined by their crimes—their punishments are the revelation of what souls do to themselves in the absence of grace. It is perverse to wish for hell on earth. We should rejoice that God offers redemption to us and to our fellow men. Earthly prison is no one’s eternal destiny, and often not even a final destination in this life. Whatever their length of sentence, inmates are members of the human community. The men in our Dante class understood their journeys weren’t over yet, and they hoped once more to gaze upon the stars.
Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and culture critic who writes from New York.