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6 ways officials failed to stop Larry Nassar’s abuse

Larry Nassar, the former sports doctor who sexually assaulted hundreds of women and girls, “did not operate in a vacuum,” but “acted within an ecosystem that facilitated his criminal acts,” according to a report released Monday.

Nassar is in prison likely for the rest of his life for the crimes he committed while purporting to provide medical care for athletes at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, among other institutions that supported the sport. This new report, commissioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee in February 2018, shows how Nassar was able to abuse so many young gymnasts, over so many years, without substantial intervention

Top officials at the U.S. Olympic Committee, which oversees USA Gymnastics, waited for more than a year before addressing abuse allegations against Nassar, the 233-page independent report shows. The report, commissioned by the USOC and filed by law firm Ropes & Gray, also said across-the-board inaction at the institution allowed “Nassar to continue to have access to young athletes and girls for another 14 months.”

The allegations against Nassar, which were blown open by an Indianapolis Star report in September 2016, ultimately resulted in his guilty verdict and sentencing, and gave rise to hundreds of lawsuits, both against Nassar and the institutions that allowed his abuse to continue.

READ MORE: How the fallout from Larry Nassar’s sex abuse has grown

On Monday, USOC fired sports performance chief Alan Ashley, who the report named as one of the high-level officials who did not do enough to shield athletes.

“Everyone in the Olympic and Paralympic community, including the USOC, must learn from the report and take appropriate actions to strengthen protections,” Susanne Lyons, USOC’s incoming board chairman said in a statement. “We recognize that we must do more, and we will do more.”

The report drew from interviews with more than 100 individuals, the majority of whom were current and former USOC and USAG employees. It also pulled from more than 1.3 million internal documents from those organizations. The report’s investigators requested, but did not receive, material from the FBI, which said it was “exempt from disclosure under applicable law,” the report said.

Here are six things we learned from the investigation.

1. Nassar had access to young athletes for 14 months after officials started investigating

USA Gymnastics was first presented with credible sexual abuse allegations against Nassar no later than mid-June 2015, the report said.

The organization then launched a five-week internal investigation of athletes’ complaints. It contacted the FBI in July.

During that time, USAG kept “the gymnastics community in the dark about the complaints of Nassar’s sexual abuse” by providing false excuses for Nassar’s non-attendance at USAG events, the report said.

But Nassar continued to have access to young athletes for 14 months at several affiliated locations, the report said, including MSU, the Twistars USA Gymnastics Club and Holt High School, located in a suburb of Lansing, Michigan. In September 2015, Nassar was allowed “to quietly retire under the pretense of a long and illustrious career.”

In January, many abuse survivors read statements describing the extent of Larry Nassar’s inappropriate behavior, which was done under the guise of medical treatments. Video by PBS NewsHour

2. Silence went all the way to the top

Monday’s report concluded that the USOC’s former sports performance chief Ashley and former CEO Scott Blackmun, who resigned in February, both failed to take any significant action, such as properly alerting other athletes and leaders at other USOC-owned and operated facilities, or launching an internal review, among other possible measures.

In addition, both men deleted a September 2015 email from Steve Penny, the former head of USAG, about the allegations against Nassar, the report found.

The chief security officer at USOC, Larry Buendorf, reportedly alerted Blackmun after learning about the allegations from Penny. But Blackmun, the report said, told Buendorf “that he was already aware of the issue and neither asked any questions nor sought any guidance from his Chief of Security on appropriate child-protective measures.”

3. The culture at the Karolyi Ranch enabled Nassar

Nassar also had access to top female gymnasts at a national training center located in a remote part of east Texas: the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas.

The facility’s isolation and lack of oversight meant Nassar “had broad latitude to commit his crimes, far from the gymnasts’ parents and unimpeded by any effective child-protective measures,” the report said.

In June 2018, months after his dramatic sentencing in Michigan, a Texas grand jury also indicted Nassar on six counts of sexual assault of a child, for abusing six gymnasts at the ranch. The jury also indicted USAG trainer Debra Van Horn on one count of sexual assault for “acting as a party” during a 2012 incident. One survivor has said Van Horn was present in the room while Nassar abused her on multiple occasions and Van Horn did not take action.

The jury decided to not charge Bela and Martha Karolyi, former coaches to several Olympians and the owners of the ranch. But the report concluded that the culture there, fostered by the Karolyis, “gave rise to a perfect storm of circumstances that facilitated and enabled Nassar’s abuse of elite gymnasts.”

At the ranch, there was an “expectation of absolute perfection and a single-minded and exacting focus on an athlete’s training and performance-readiness to the exclusion of everything else,” the report said.

4. Organizations focused on controlling information about the abuse, not stopping it

The report criticized several organizations for keeping the allegations against Nassar’s conduct secret, exemplified by actions taken by officials at USA Gymnastics.

After outside counsel hired by USA Gymnastics emailed Nassar in June 2015 that his therapy “techniques” were under investigation, they discussed what excuse they would use to explain why he wouldn’t be attending an upcoming gymnastics event.

“Can we just say that i am sick? That would make more sense to everyone. Would that be ok?” Nassar suggested in an email.

Attorney Scott Himsel responded that the medical team would be told that “you weren’t feeling well and decided to stay home.”

“That just makes more sense and honestly since your phone call i have been feeling sick. This hurts beyond hurt,” Nassar said in response.

Former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny, who the report describes corresponding with FBI agents, wrote in a July 2015 email about a “very squirmy Dr Nassar.”

But his “biggest concern” was “how we contain him from sending shockwaves through the community.”

What changes need to be made for U.S. Gymnastics to move forward and prevent future abuse? Olympic gold medal gymnast Shannon Miller joins Judy Woodruff to share her thoughts.

When Nassar announced that he had retired two months later, “he suffered no immediate harm to his reputation and continued to see patients, who believed they were lucky to see such a talented and seemingly well-meaning doctor,” the report said.

Furthermore, according to the report, there was no evidence of discussion between USAG and the FBI “regarding steps to ensure the safety of athletes during the pendency of the investigation.”

5. The FBI investigation had “unexplained delays”

Before the Indianapolis Star broke its early stories on Nassar’s abuse, there were “unexplained delays” in the FBI’s investigation into the allegations, the report said, adding that investigators’ inquiry was “still incomplete” before the newspaper ran their stories.

Early on, the FBI didn’t interview two of the three athletes identified by a workplace investigator hired by USA Gymnastics. When the investigation was transferred from Indianapolis to the Detroit office, it appears to have stalled. In fact, the report said that, “there is no available evidence that the Detroit office interviewed any witnesses or undertook any other external investigative steps with regard to the Nassar allegations” from September 2015 through April 2016.

After not hearing an update from Detroit agents for months on the investigation, Paul
Parilla, then the vice chair of USA Gymnastics, made an additional report to FBI offices in Los Angeles.

Investigators for the USOC-commissioned report had asked for documentation from the FBI about this case, but the agency declined their request, the report said.

“The FBI responded that the requested material was exempt from disclosure under applicable law,” the report added.

6. Survivors’ “clear calls for help” were dismissed

The report’s authors, aware that Nassar’s abuse can be quantified in several ways, said the ex-doctor committed thousands of sexual assaults between the early 1990s and 2016. Nassar abused some women and girls one time and abused others multiple times over many years.

He also “carefully constructed a comprehensive system of abuse,” the report said. That meant maintaining his reputation as a “highly-skilled, well-meaning and caring doctor” who created a trusting cover to survivors and their families and other adults.

In turn, both individuals and organizations “ignored red flags, failed to recognize textbook grooming behaviors, or in some egregious instances, dismissed clear calls for help from girls and young women who were being abused by Nassar,” the report said.

READ MORE: What parents can do to protect their kids from a Larry Nassar

When law enforcement agencies didn’t properly intervene, and the survivors who came forward publicly were shamed and doubted, the report suggested, it created an environment where Nassar’s abuse was allowed to continue, eventually adding up to the worst known case of sexual abuse in sports history.

READ MORE: USA Gymnastics, facing dozens of lawsuits, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy