Olympic organizations and the FBI “fundamentally failed” to protect hundreds of young women from former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing young athletes for decades, according to a new congressional report.
Nassar was sentenced to 40–175 years in prison in Michigan after dozens of his victims, including Olympic medalists, confronted him in court and he was found guilty on multiple counts of sexual abuse and federal child pornography charges. At his sentencing in January 2018, 133 women and girls delivered harrowing, emotional, and powerful statements about the abuse they suffered.
After an 18-month investigation, which included interviews with more than a dozen athletes, the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection found that, from summer 2015 to September 2016, the Olympic organizations hid the extent of Nassar’s crimes from the public and athletic community “to the detriment of dozens of women and girls who were sexually abused during this period of concealment.”
“They turned a blind eye to the ongoing evil of this monster,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat and ranking member of the subcommittee, told reporters on a call. “He was enabled and emboldened by people in positions of trust who looked the other way.”
The 235-page report outlines how federal authorities, the US Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State University failed to stop Nassar, despite receiving a slew of warnings about his abuse that spanned years under the guise of performing what he said was a legitimate medical procedure. As a result, “hundreds of women and girls were sexually abused by Larry Nassar,” the report stated.
It wasn’t until 2015, after receiving multiple credible reports that Nassar abused US gymnasts McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Maggie Nichols, that the FBI started investigating the doctor. However, Nassar was still able to see patients for hundreds of days.
“The FBI failed to pursue a course of action that would have immediately protected victims in harm’s way. Instead, the FBI’s investigation dragged on and was shuffled between field offices,” the report states.
While there is no clear conclusion, the lawmakers determined that those in positions of power “prioritized their own reputation” over the health and safety of athletes and fostered an environment that made it difficult or confusing to report abuse by not having adequate policies and procedures in place to stop Nassar from preying on young women.
Furthermore, the report states that Nassar had “powerful allies” and had achieved a “cult-like status” in the US gymnastics community. Coaches favored the doctor because he rarely told athletes to rest, even when they were seriously injured, the lawmakers found.
Even after USA Gymnastics finally determined that Nassar had sexually abused gymnasts after investigating multiple reports in the summer of 2015, the organization allowed the doctor to “quietly step down” and “later retire via Facebook post without any indication of misconduct.”
What’s worse, the lawmakers wrote, is that USAG did not tell Michigan State, where Nassar was still employed, or any other member organizations, why the doctor was retiring. The report called that time the “most troubling period” of Nassar’s behavior, because, due to USAG’s silence, he was able to abuse “at least 40 more women and children.”
Steve Penny, USAG’s CEO at the time, also repeatedly reached out to FBI agents asking for help and advice on containing the Nassar situation, including requesting that the agency not disclose that it was USA Gymnastics that filed a complaint against its own doctor for abusing athletes.
Penny was arrested in October on federal charges of tampering with evidence in connection with a Texas investigation into Nassar. He has pleaded not guilty.
In their report, the lawmakers describe how the former USA Gymnastics leader instructed an employee to move documents, which included athlete medical waivers with Nassar’s name, from the Karolyi Ranch training center to the organization’s headquarters in Indiana. The subcommittee was never able to find those files.
“USA Gymnastics was rotten to the core,” Blumenthal said during his press call.
Li Li Leung, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, said in a statement Tuesday that the organization had not yet had a chance to review the report or the legislation that lawmakers introduced in response to their findings, but emphasized that officials “have already made numerous changes designed to prevent the opportunity for abuse to occur.”
“We have made it our top priority to become an athlete-centric organization that keeps athlete safety and well-being at the forefront of all that we do,” she said. “We admire the survivors’ courage and strength in sharing their stories, and our goal is to do everything we can to prevent the opportunity for it to happen again.”
Leung also said USA Gymnastics will enact “most of the recommendations made in an independent, investigative review of our safe sport policies and procedures.”
Michigan State, where Nassar worked and treated athletes for decades, also failed to properly investigate claims against the doctor. In January 2018, the state’s attorney general looked into the university’s handling of the sexual misconduct reports and found 13 instances, dating back to 1997, were young women told school officials about him. The college only formally investigated one claim.
MSU has contended that it did not know about Nassar’s misconduct until September 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published its bombshell investigation. A spokesperson said that, since then, “the university has invested time, financial resources and staff resources to make improvements in our patient care, sexual assault and relationship violence prevention and also responses to assault.”
During their press call, lawmakers said they are still waiting for answers from the FBI as to why the bureau “sat on evidence” of Nassar’s sexual misconduct even after USA Gymnastics reported the doctor on July 27, 2015.
The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General is still investigating the agency’s response.
Because of the investigation, members of Congress have introduced a bill aimed at better protecting young athletes who work closely with coaches at Olympic-related organizations, noting that Nassar “is hardly the only case of unchecked criminal behavior.” There have been “serious allegations” of abuse in USA swimming, figure skating, taekwondo, and other sports.
“Larry Nassar was not a lone wolf, he was not the only predator or monster out there,” Blumenthal said. “The list of others who have been convicted or prevented from accessing these athletes should be known across the country.”