As dozens of women came forward last fall alleging they had been sexually assaulted during routine medical exams by Larry Nassar, the longtime team physician for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, Olympic gymnastics officials stood accused of allowing alleged abuse to occur.
But according to a timeline released by USA Gymnastics on Thursday, the Olympic governing body for the sport first brought Nassar to the attention of the FBI in the summer of 2015.
Nassar, 53, was arrested last November on charges of sexually assaulting a child in Michigan, and indicted in December on federal charges of possession of child pornography. Dozens of other women have come forward in lawsuits alleging Nassar, a former faculty member at Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who treated elite gymnasts on Team USA and across the country, committed assaults during exams ranging from inserting a finger in their vaginas and anuses, and fondling their breasts. Nassar has denied the charges, claiming he was conducting legitimate medical procedures.
The wide-reaching investigation has touched the highest rungs of the sport, rocking the tight-knit gymnastics world. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that investigators have interviewed several gymnasts who have competed for the U.S. national team, including those who won gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
While Nassar remains the subject of the ongoing federal investigation, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State both have been sued by multiple women, who allege each entity’s negligence allowed the abuse to occur. Evidence produced via the Freedom of Information Act show that Michigan State knew of allegations in 2014, but allowed Nassar to remain on staff, treating women. Thursday’s revelations could rebut any claims that USA Gymnastics turned a blind eye to Nassar or was slow to respond to claims of abuse.
According to the timeline USA Gymnastics released Thursday, the organization “first learned of an athlete’s concern” on June 17, 2015. CEO Steve Penny, who was returning home from a pre-Olympic visit to Rio de Janeiro, spoke with an unidentified athlete’s mother days later. USA Gymnastics hired an investigator to conduct follow-up interviews, and five weeks later, on July 24, that investigator recommended the organization contact law enforcement and report Nassar.
Penny, along with USA Gymnastics board chairman Paul Parilla, the vice chairman, and the organization’s attorneys met with FBI agents in Indianapolis on July 28, and the next day Nassar was relieved “of any further assignments,” according to the organization’s timeline of events.
“During the course of the FBI investigation, USA Gymnastics cooperated fully including facilitating interviews and adhering to the FBI’s request not to take any action that would interfere with the Bureau’s investigation,” the organization’s statement read in part. “Keeping athletes safe requires sustained vigilance by everyone – coaches, athletes, parents, administrators and officials – and there is more work to be done. We are determined to strengthen standards throughout the sport.”
According to USA Gymnastics’ timeline, Parilla contacted the FBI in April 2016, when officials became concerned about the lack of updates on the case. The next month Parilla and Penny again met with federal agents.
The accusations would become public less than three months later, though USA Gymnastics did not speak in detail about its role in reporting Nassar to authorities until Thursday.
John Manly, a California-based lawyer who represents more than three dozen gymnasts alleging abuse, including the one who kicked off the USA Gymnastics inquiry, said the six-week lag between USA Gymnastics hearing the initial complaint and then turning to law enforcement is indefensible and inconsistent with the organization’s statement last September that it had alerted authorities immediately after learning of athletes’ concerns.
“They’re actually acting like they’re responsible for him being caught,” Manly said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They delayed this, did their own investigation and then want to blame the FBI for not acting on it for 13 months. . . .”
“The fact that they’re still acting like they don’t have any culpability for this and still being secretive and duplicitous about it is abhorrent.”
Before last year, Nassar was a revered figure in American gymnastics. He is a nationally renowned expert on gymnastics injuries and rehabilitation. He served as the team physician for the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic gymnastics team from 1996 to 2015, working four Olympic Games in that time. He was a sports medicine physician and a faculty member in MSU’s Division of Sports Medicine in the College of Osteopathic Medicine. He taught sports medicine at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, and was the team physician for Michigan State’s women’s gymnastics and crew teams. He treated athletes, with specializations in gymnastics, dancers and cheerleaders, according to his website.
Last September, two former gymnasts – one an Olympic medalist who remains anonymous – told the Indianapolis Star of allegations of abuse by Nassar. The women said Nassar fondled their genitals and breasts during multiple treatments in the 1990s and 2000s. One of the alleged victims, a Kentucky woman named Rachael Denhollander, went to Michigan State police and filed a report against Nassar in August.
Michigan State suspended him and then fired him in September.
Michigan State has confirmed that a former student alleged that Nassar assaulted her during a medical procedure in 2014, and that an investigation was conducted but did not result in a criminal charge. After that incident, according to records in Nassar’s personnel file, Michigan State allowed him to keep his job but put in place restrictions over the treatment he had offered that prompted the complaint.
Nassar was not paid by USA Gymnastics, but his work for the national team was effectively subsidized by Michigan State. Under his annual contracts with the university, records show, Nassar was allowed to spend up to 70 percent of his time doing “outreach/public service” work through USA Gymnastics and local high schools and gymnastics clubs.
His association with the Olympic women’s gymnastics team was central to Nassar’s prominence as a physician. His office was decorated in signed pictures of Olympians, and one alleged victim said Nassar gave her gifts including a commemorative pin he received from USA Gymnastics for participation in the Olympic games.
Two members of the 2012 Olympic gold medal winning team – Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney – credited Nassar’s medical savvy with helping them compete through injuries that year.
“We would never survive without him,” Wieber told the Lansing State Journal in 2012. “He basically fixes you, and it’s almost like magic.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Rick Maese, Will Hobson