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Gymnasts’ wrenching testimonies detail doctor’s sexual abuse, cast light on dark Olympic secret

At a remarkable sentencing hearing in Michigan, more than 100 girls and women have confronted the man who abused them sexually for years about the lasting psychological scars. Larry Nassar worked for USA Gymnastics for 29 years, including as a team doctor for four Olympic Games, and at Michigan State University. Judy Woodruff talks with Christine Brennan of USA Today.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A remarkable sentencing hearing in Michigan this week has been described as heartbreaking, angry and cathartic.

    More than 100 girls and women have been confronting the man who abused them sexually for years and about how those experiences changed their lives.

    The man at the center of it all was a once-trusted physician who preyed on young women in the USA Gymnastics program and in his role at Michigan State University.

    One by one, they step forward in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom to face their abuser.

  • Jamie Dantzscher:

    You manipulated me into thinking you were the good guy and helping me, while sexually abusing me over and over and over for your own twisted sexual pleasure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For three days, former sports doctor Larry Nassar has listened to wrenching testimony by dozens of his victims.

  • Jamie Dantzscher:

    I’m here today to tell you face to face that your days manipulation are over. We have a voice now. We have the power now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The women share not only similar stories of abuse, but lasting psychological scars.

  • Nicole Reeb:

    I have been suffering from PTSD for the last 20 years. I am so incredibly angry, angry that this happened to me, enraged that it was allowed to happen to me, furious that I have been dealing with this trauma for over 20 years, and I didn’t even realize it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nassar worked for USA Gymnastics for 29 years, including as a team doctor for four Olympic Games. He also worked for years at Michigan State University.

    More than 140 women have accused him of sexually abusing them under the pretense of medical treatments. The latest was Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles.

    Last November, Nassar pleaded guilty to state charges of sexual assault. In court yesterday, one victim described the shock of hearing the allegations and recognizing her own experience.

  • Gwen Anderson:

    He took that trust and used it to molest not only myself, but over 140 young girls, is something I still can’t comprehend, I still can’t think about without crying. We were just kids. We were just kids.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michigan State had investigated a federal Title IX complaint against Nassar in 2014, but brought no charges, and allowed him to keep working.

    The Detroit News reported today that details of his abuse reached 14 officials at Michigan State at different times over the past 20 years. The university president said she was notified of the 2014 complaint and a police report filed against an unnamed sports medicine doctor, but never received a copy of the report.

  • Lindsey Lemke:

    Michigan State University, shame on you. I went public about my story back in January of 2016, and let me tell you, I was terrified. I was terrified because of what you would do to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In December 2016, Nassar was finally arrested, on federal charges of child pornography, and ultimately sentenced to 60 years in prison. He could be sentenced on the state charges tomorrow, after nearly 100 women have shared their stories, in hopes he will never again walk free.

    Today, the Michigan State student newspaper called for the university president’s resignation.

    Joining us now to talk about all of this and the response by USA Gymnastics and Michigan State is Christine Brennan. She’s a reporter and sports columnist for USA Today, and has long covered the Olympics.

    Christine, thank you for being with us.

    This is just horrible, one after another. It’s almost unimaginable, this story.

  • Christine Brennan:

    This really, if you think about the sweep of the Olympic Games and history of the Games, this is probably the darkest stain in U.S. Olympic history.

    There have been boycotts and other things, but in terms of athletes who were in our living rooms and, of course, athletes we never heard of who were just on a dream trying to make the next level in gymnastics, whether it’s Simone Biles or Aly Raisman or the girl next door.

    It is appalling. It is awful. And the fact that this story didn’t get the attention it should have months, years earlier is another just horrible piece of the puzzle.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And they were just children when they started out.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Right.

    And I think a lot of people ask why. How could this happen? How could there be over a hundred and not one speaking out?

    And I think what you need to understand that is so essential here, Judy, is that we are talking about 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girls. And if they are really good, they are in that Olympic pipeline. That means mom and dad are spending lots of money on this. Maybe the family is moving. Maybe they’re separating to go to a training camp, or at least for many weeks out of the year, they are away.

    And how does that young girl who has got this Olympic dream muster up the courage to tell her mom or dad or, even a bigger deal, to go to the leaders of the Gymnastics Federation and say, this is happening to me?

    Because, if they did that, they would have been just taken right out of the pool and they would have brought another kid up. And I think that is why this could continue in the way it did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, I think it is so hard for people to hear this, Christine, and ask how could it go on and on for years and years and years without complaints, until just the last few?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Well, and then the leadership.

    I mean, we heard the story of Michigan State, and the president in 2014 got this Title IX complaint, and said that she said it was handled straight up, she said. But she said that she never saw the report. 2014 is, what, two-and-a-half, three years after the Penn State horrors, Jerry Sandusky.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     Right.

  • Christine Brennan:

    If you are a university president, how can you not want to get that report and find out what is going on, on your campus?

    Because, again, this is a two-pronged story. This is USA Gymnastics. It’s also Michigan State, because that is where Nassar — he was working for both.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, explain that, because there were people who were responsible for these young women in both of these institutions, at the University and at USA Gymnastics.

    What — what does it say about the structure of how this whole thing is organized and the oversight?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Well, exactly.

    And they failed. Let’s just say this right off the bat. They failed these young people. And in the case of USA Gymnastics, they did get rid of the CEO. He resigned, Steve Penny.

    They brought a new person in, Kerry Perry, a woman. And she, of course, is supposed to have a clean slate. And yet they just announced that they — the Karolyi Ranch, that they’re not going to be using it anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Instead of being proactive and saying that a few months ago, the new CEO just announced that that was going to happen today, that they are not use the ranch anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Well, why did that happen?

    Because Simone Biles, in her statement the other day, Olympic gold medalist, one of the stars of the Rio Olympics, when she went up and gave her statement and saying that she in fact also had been a victim of Nassar’s abuse and sexual assault, she said it would be very difficult for her to go back to the ranch and train there. It would bring back all those bad memories.

    Why wasn’t USA Gymnastics talking about this several months ago? Like, where is the proactive leadership? And, to your point, whether it’s Michigan State or USA Gymnastics, these adults failed. Time and time again, they failed these kids.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, is it — how many of the adults, Christine, who are in charge are now out? And how many are still around who haven’t answered all these questions?

  • Christine Brennan:

    I think we can say not enough are out.

    Again, the big one was the CEO of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Christine Brennan:

    But, no, there are a lot of people at USA Gymnastics. I’m surprised they haven’t completely cleaned house.

    This is such a house of horrors. This is such a horrific event. And then, as far as Michigan State, so far we’re seeing several leaders, we’re told, knew of these things, not just the university president.

    And my sense is, as outrage continues to grow on this story — and it is seeming to build momentum — that maybe we will see more resignations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is the future for young women gymnasts in the U.S. program? Because, if you look at this, you think, why would I want my child to go to something like this?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Well, again, and here’s Americans cheering their lungs out for these great gymnasts in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and then you hear these stories.

    Yes, why would any parent do this? The U.S. Olympic Committee has started something called SafeSport, it seemed to me quite late in the game, but where you can — the idea it is a clearinghouse, independent. And if there are concerns, you could call or be anonymous and start to report these things.

    It is a good first step. But you have to keep in mind that these kids who are trying for the Olympics have such pressures on them that to be able to step out of that world, as you would hope they would, they don’t have the maturity. And they know that they could lose their spot.

    So, there have to be advocates. And I would say from the U.S. Olympic Committee to every sport — USA Swimming has also had issues in the past. They have to look at everything at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was just going to say, finally, Christine, this has to be personally difficult for you, because you have interviewed many of these young women over the years.

    And as you think — as you look back on it now, you know that this was going on at the same time you and other journalists were talking with them.

  • Christine Brennan:

    You know, we were talking to them about the pressures of trying to win gold medals at the 2012 Olympics in London, Judy, and we had no idea what was happening behind the scenes and what they were dealing with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Christine Brennan:

    And let’s just say how amazing these young women were to be able to compartmentalize and to continue to do the great things and win the Olympic gold medals that they did, not only for themselves but for their country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You’re right. It makes us even more admiring of these remarkable young women.

    Christine Brennan, thank you. It’s a terrible story, but thank you very much for being here.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thank you. My pleasure. Thanks.

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