(After this essay was submitted to THCB the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on March 28th titled, “Protecting Young Athletes From Sexual Abuse.” USA Gymnastics refused to appear and provide testimony likely, in part, because USA Gymnastics’ President, Steve Penny, was forced to resign on March 16th. The issue was framed by Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley as a “heinous crime,” no health care or public health expert testified and the hearing and was reported in sports pages of the The New York Times and The Washington Post.)
If you do not read the sports page you may have missed the news that this past November, December and February Dr. Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State physician, was charged with numerous counts of criminal sexual misconduct and for possessing 37,000 child pornography images and videos of him sexually molesting girls. Beyond these charges, there are at present another 80 and counting related police complaints and several related civil lawsuits filed against Nassar. 1 Before he retired in September 2015, Nassar served on the USA Gymnastics National Team’s medical staff for 29 years and before he was fired last October, he also worked as a physician at Michigan State where for two decades he treated, among others, members of the university’s women’s basketball, crew, field hockey, figure skating, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming and track and field teams. Dr. Nassar was also associated with a Lansing-area girls’ gymnastic club and a high school.
In one significant respect Nassar’s case is strikingly similar to: Former US House Speaker Denis Hastert’s 2016 conviction for violating federal banking laws stemming from molesting high school boys dating back to the 1960s (see my THCB June 4, 2016 essay concerning Hastert); strikingly similar to USA Swimming Coach Rick Curl’s 2013 conviction for molesting a teenage girl dating back to the 1980s; similar to Jerry Sandusky’s 2012 conviction on 45 counts of sexual abuse dating back to 1994; similar to abuses committed by the BBC’s Stuart Hall and Jerry Sevile also dating back to the 1960s; to the numerous New York City Horace Mann School and abuse cases at over 65 private New England schools dating back to the 1970s; and, similar to the countless Catholic priest pedophilia cases dating back at least 70 years. What all these cases have in common is that fact that during the hundreds of years thousands of children were being molested, with rare exception no one that was aware bothered to report the perpetrator or make them known publicly.
It appears complaints against Nassar were first reported to Michigan State officials without consequence as far back as 1994. In courtroom testimony this past February, a victim stated that in 1998, or when the woman was six, Dr. Nassar began seven years of escalating sexual abuse. Not coincidentally, three days before this testimony, Kathie Klagas, the Michigan State head gymnastic coach, retired immediately after a woman came forward to accuse her of having ignored her complaints about Nassar. USA Gymnastics (an Indianapolis headquartered organization that, much like, for example, USA Swimming, was created by the 1978 Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act) alleges the organization first became aware of complaints against Nassar in June 2015. Despite the fact that all states require all allegations of child sexual abuse be reported immediately (for example, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled a high school principal violated the state’s “immediate” reporting rule by waiting four hours to report an alleged student rape), USA Gymnastics waited five weeks before contacting the FBI because USA Gymnastics chose first to investigate the matter itself. After learning of the allegations against Nassar, the FBI, in turn, waited nine months before it began its’ investigation.
USA Gymnastics has an established history of child sexual abuse. As The Washington Post recently reported, as early as 1999 USA Gymnastics CEO, Bob Colarossi, was sufficiently concerned to write to the US Olympic Committee (USOC) urging the USOC to adopt child sexual abuse prevention measures. His efforts were unsuccessful. As The Indianapolis Star reported last August, USA Gymnastics repeatedly failed to respond to sexual abuse allegations. As USA Gymnastics’ President Steven Penny believed there was no duty to report if you are a third party. The organization chose instead to keep files on more than 50 coaches suspected of sexually abusing children. The IndyStar reported, for example, as early as 2011 USA Gymnastics was made aware of 2010 national Women’s Coach of the Year Marvin Sharp’s practice of taking nude portraits of girl gymnasts as young as five at his photo study 15 miles from USA Gymnastics headquarters. Shortly before being charged, Sharp killed himself in 2015. USA Gymnastics was aware of James Bell’s behavior for five years before he was arrested for molestation. The organization knew for eight years of complaints concerning William McCabe, including one by a gym owner who stated McCabe “should be locked up” “before someone is raped,” before he pled guilty in 2006. It appears the organization learned of allegations against Nassar after a coach overheard a US national team member discuss with another gymnast abuses by Nassar while at Bela and Marti Karolyi’s gymnastic training facility, or ranch, in Texas. The Karolyi’s, along with USA Gymnastics and related others, are named in at least one civil suit filed last September where the plaintiff, a former gymnast (named Jane Doe in the complaint), alleges among other things, the Karolyi’s and other defendants actively concealed Nassar’s sexual abuse for years. 2
All this is all too familiar. This past November, after a five-year investigation the US Department of Education, acting under the 1990 Cleary Act, fined Penn State $2.4 million for failing to report campus crimes and to take measures to adequately protect its students. 3 For example, the Department found Penn State’s police department concealed a 1998 report concerning Sandusky molesting an 11-year-old boy in the team shower by failing to record the matter in the police department’s crime log. (Mike McQuery who witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a locker room shower in 2001 that he made known to Joe Paterno, the Athletic Director and the university’s vice president, testified this past fall in a defamation and retaliation case in which he was rewarded over $12 million, that Penn State coaches Greg Schiano and Tom Bradley were aware for years that Sandusky was raping boys.) 4
In the Rick Curl, USA Swimming case, after Curl was hired by the University of Maryland as a swimming and diving coach in the mid-1980s, the university became aware he had, before becoming an employee, admitted in writing to molesting a teenage female swimmer. Though the university forced Curl to resign in 1988, the university concluded the school had no duty to report Curl to the police. Curl went on to coach for another 25 years at a prominent Maryland swim club. There have been numerous other similar instances of long-delayed revelations of sexual abuse by USA Swimming coaches. So many instances that Tim Joyce, who has done extensive research and reporting on sexual abuse within USA Swimming, was forced to conclude in 2014 that the problem was so endemic it was analogous to, he said, the “global problem of sexual predators in the Catholic Church.” 5
As for the Catholic Church, in protest over Pope Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (created in 2014) inaction, Marie Collins, a survivor (molested at age 13 by a priest) resigned in early March from the Commission. The one other survivor serving on the Commission, Peter Saunders, also criticized the Commission for the same reason and left last year. To date no bishop, including Bernard Law who served as Archbishop of Boston for 18 years and made infamous in the film “Spotlight,” has been punished for their complicity. For his sins in 2004 Law was appointed Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome where he served until he retired in 2011. 6
In the Stuart Hall and Jerry Savile cases, Hall, at age 86, was jailed in 2013 for admitting to assaulting 13 girls as young as 10 and Savile was posthumously charged in 2013 with 214 acts of sexual misconduct against boys, girls and women including boys under hospice care. Among other conclusions in Dame Janet Smith’s 2016 “independent review into the BBC’s culture and practices,” she stated flatly, “children were not protected as they should have been.” In response to Smith’s and Dame Linda Dobbs’ companion report, BBC Trust Chairwoman Rona Fairhead stated, “no one reading the reports can be in any doubt that the BBC failed them [the victims].” “It turned a blind eye, where it should have shown a light.” 7
As in the Denis Hastert case, once again Nassar’s alleged sexual abuse is neither the concern of medical or public health professional associations nor the health care media despite the fact, as I noted in my Hastert essay, child sexual abuse is highly prevalent, the CDC estimates one in four girls are sexually abused before reaching age 18, and the health consequences of sexual abuse are frequently extreme. In 2010, after 16-year-old Sarah Burt told her parents she was sexually abused by a USA Swimming coach, she drove to a busy intersection in Illinois, parked, promptly walked into traffic and was fatally struck by a semi. As in the Hastert case, if you search the Health Affairs Blog, Inside Health Policy, Kaiser Health News, The Morning Consult, Politico Pulse or RealClear Health you’ll find no mention of Larry Nassar. If you search the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Public Health Association (APHA), the American Medical Association (AMA) or the American Psychological Association (APA) websites you’ll again find no mention. You will learn that Denis Hastert is still, incredibly, named as the 2006 recipient of the AMA’s Nathan Davis award recognizing his contribution to “the betterment of public health.” 8
Once again, neither the White House nor the Congress has bothered to express concern – with one trivial exception. California Senator Diane Feinstein, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, appeared in a February “60 Minutes” segment where she promised to introduce legislation that would address the problem. On March 6 Senator Feinstein along with 15 other senators introduced an anemic bill – far shorter than this essay – titled, “Protecting Young Victims of Sexual Abuse Act of 2017.” 9 The legislation would require USA Gymnastics and other like governing bodies to immediately report sexual abuse allegations and improve oversight of prevention policies and sexual abuse prevention training. The bill includes no enforcement mechanisms. As noted above “immediate” reporting is already required by law in all 50 states. The bill’s oversight and training provisions are already being addressed by the US Olympic’s SafeSport program initiated in 2012. However, the organization’s effectiveness has been called to task by among others ABC News and ESPN. After examining the program’s effectiveness, one journalist termed SafeSport “PR bullshit.” 10 (The Congress is of course presently attempting to pass health care legislation that would cut $880 billion over the next ten years from the Medicaid program that would leave even fewer therapeutic and social service resources available to victims of child abuse who, not surprisingly, tend to be financially less fortunate.) Legislation aside, as in the scandal involving Penn State Congressional members are still unwilling to hold a single hearing investigating child abuse under organizations the Congress-is-responsible-for-creating, or ask the FBI to conduct an actual investigation. When Representative George Miller now retired, pleaded in 2013 for a hearing and wrote an 11-page request to the FBI to investigate USA Swimming, as noted in my Hastert essay he received a half-page response by the FBI stating the agency had met with USA Swimming officials. The Washington Post’s recent February 20th retelling of the Miller effort, the paper aptly tiled, “Government Probe of Sex Abuse Prevention in Olympic Sports Went Nowhere.” 11
Some argue sexual abuse and witness indifference can be explained or explained away by arguing rape culture. However cynical the explanation, again, one in four girls are sexually abused by age 18 and one in three women experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives. Examples of adult victims of abuse abound: Bill Cosby; Donald Trump; the Baylor football team; and, the practice and known consequences of convincing co-eds to play “hostess” to “entertain” college athletic recruits. Under this lens widespread child sexual is ordinary, it’s commonplace. Even Dame Smith cited cultural factors in explaining the BBC’s bureaucratic myopia. Girls raped by Hall and Savile were not put in moral danger, they were instead viewed by the BBC, Smith stated, “as something of a nuisance.” Survey findings published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2013 found half of young adult perpetrators felt the victim was “completely” responsible. 12 There’s no reason, no believed social responsibility for witnesses to report perpetrators of child sexual abuse or to make them publicly known. Jonathan Frazen captured this reality in his 2010 novel, Freedom. When Patty, a high school athlete, is raped by Ethan, a New Hampshire prep schooler, Patty’s mother argues Ethan should simply apologize. Patty’s lawyer father tells her to “forget about it,” “shake it off.”
Far worse than the USOC’s failure to fulfill the purpose of the Olympic idea, i.e., to place sport in service to mankind’s development, is the fact we’ve reached a point where moral agency has disappeared. The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote in 1933, “never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.” The willful indifference by the White House, the Congress and any number of medical and public health professional associations along with a blind health policy media has done just that. It’s this kind of callousness where evil becomes banal. We’ve become are our own misfortune.
Final Note: It appears one of Larry Nassar’s favorite molestation techniques was to place his unsanitary, ungloved, non-lubricated hand in a girl’s vagina under the guise of performing an “intravaginal adjustment.” He did this without the consent of the victim, their parent and typically without the parent or another adult being present. In a civil complaint filed by Tiffany Lopez this past December, Ms. Lopez alleged beginning in 1998, while still a minor, Nassar began sexually abusing her, abuse that included performing “intravaginal adjustments.” When Ms. Lopez complained to the Michigan State athletic department she was told Nassar was a “renowned doctor,” to continue to see him and not to the discuss her treatment. In 2001 Ms. Lopez refused treatment from Nassar and left Michigan State. 13
1. The Nassar case has been mostly widely reported by The Indianapolis Star. The newspaper has published approximately a dozen related articles over at least the past seven months. The Washington Post’s reporting has been done largely by Will Hobson.
2. The complaint is at: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3106054-JANE-JD-COMPLAINT-Signed.html.
3. See: https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-levies-historic-fine-against-penn-state-over-handling-sexual-misconduct-incidents.
4. Among other articles see: https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-levies-historic-fine-against-penn-state-over-handling-sexual-misconduct-incidents.
5. See: https://timothyjoyce.wordpress.com/.
6. See: for example, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-vatican-drags-its-feet-on-clergy-sex-abuse/2017/03/12/1efaf566-0443-11e7-b1e9-a05d3c21f7cf_story.html?utm_term=.2386b852bcd6.
7. The Dame Smith report is at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/dame_janet_smith. Fairhead’s statement is at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/news/statements/dame_janet_smith.
8. Denis Hastert is listed as a Nathan Davis winner at: https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/default/files/media-browser/20170317_NathanDavisWinners.pdf.
9. The Feinstein bill is at: https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/default/files/media-browser/20170317_NathanDavisWinners.pdf.
10. See: https://www.outsideonline.com/1927681/should-usa-swimming-go-down.
11. See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/government-probe-of-sex-abuse-prevention-in-olympic-sports-went-nowhere/2017/02/20/75c8b0a6-d287-11e6-9cb0-54ab630851e8_story.html?utm_term=.176d99a140cf.
12. See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/government-probe-of-sex-abuse-prevention-in-olympic-sports-went-nowhere/2017/02/20/75c8b0a6-d287-11e6-9cb0-54ab630851e8_story.html?utm_term=.176d99a140cf.
13. The compliant is at: http://www.contentplace.net/msf/LOPEZ_COMPLAINT_FILED_12.21.16.pdf.