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What did Michigan State know about Larry Nassar’s abuse?

As sexual assault allegations against sports doctor Larry Nassar became widely known in 2016, Michigan State University officials claimed initially to have had no prior knowledge of his behavior. But several reports, lawsuits and victim testimony allege the university had known about Nassar for years. William Brangham learns more from Matt Mencarini of the Lansing State Journal.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With Larry Nassar now sentenced to life in prison for his sexual assault of countless young female athletes, under the guise of medical treatment, much of the focus has been on what officials at USA Gymnastics knew or should've known about Nassar's actions.

    But, as William Brangham reports, there are also new questions about what was known at Michigan State University, where Nassar has worked for almost 20 years, and where many of his crimes occurred.

  • William Brangham:

    Larry Nassar joined Michigan State University in 1997. He was already a physician and trainer with USA Gymnastics at the time.

    As the allegations against him became widely known in 2016, MSU officials claimed initially to have had no prior knowledge of his behavior. But several reports, lawsuits and victims' testimony allege the university did know of allegations about Nassar for years.

    In just the past week, the university's president and athletic director have resigned. And, today, the state's attorney general, Bill Schuette, said he wants all documents, texts and e-mails from the university about Larry Nassar.

    Joining me now to help unpack all of this is Matt Mencarini. He's been covering the Nassar case for a year-and-a-half for The Lansing State Journal in Michigan.

    Matt, thank you very much for being here.

    Let's just start at the beginning here. In 2016, The Indy Star publishes this big expose alleging — it was largely focused on USA Gymnastics and how they had overlooked allegations about Nassar's behavior.

    The focus was on them at the time. Can you remind us, what did Michigan State University at the time say they knew about his behavior?

  • Matt Mencarini:

    They said very little initially, that they had fielded a complaint. A new lawsuit had been — excuse me — they had fielded a complaint, and a new police report had been filed alleging sexual assaults against him dating back decades.

    They then soon fired him several days after the first Indy Star story. And one of the reasons they had fired him was because he didn't follow protocols put in place after a 2014 internal Title IX investigation and he had not told the university that, 10 years before that, the Meridian Township Police Department investigated him for a sexual assault allegation.

    Those were two of the first times that the university acknowledged that they had some awareness of sexual assault allegations against him before the Indy Star and before Rachael Denhollander in the end of 2016.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you mentioned that Title IX investigation.

    I know you have done a good deal of reporting about that. Tell us what that investigation was triggered by, what it looked into, and how the university responded.

  • Matt Mencarini:

    In April of 2014, a woman who at the time was a recent graduate reported to a university doctor that during an appointment the month prior, a few weeks prior, that Nassar had sexually assaulted her.

    That prompted the university to start a Title IX investigation and contact the university's police department to conduct a separate criminal investigation. The university's Title IX investigation concluded about three months later and determined that what Nassar did wasn't in fact sexual assault, that it was a legitimate medical procedure.

    They reached that conclusion largely from four medical experts who all worked for the university, all had close ties to Nassar. And then, when that wrapped up in July, the police investigation dragged out for another 16 months, during which the university allowed him to see patients, before ultimately the Ingham County prosecuting attorney's office declined to charge him in December of 2015.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the people that they consulted to say were these very physically invasive, now we know of them as sexual assaults, in essence, they — those people were friends of Nassar's or colleagues of Nassar's, and they were the ones verifying that this was OK to the university's investigation?

  • Matt Mencarini:

    Correct.

    They were either colleagues or very good friends. Some were a mixture of that, had known him for a long time, were familiar with the procedures he performed.

    A key detail about that 2014 report and investigation is that is one of the few reported to police or in lawsuits without any penetration. That changes slightly some of the context that it's in and the answers and the input that those four experts gave to the university about what Nassar said he was doing and what the woman said he did to her.

    Both of their accounts were pretty similar to each other. And so the experts were kind of trying to determine if what he was doing could be a medical procedure. The Title IX investigator determined that, based on those conversations with those experts, that it was and that this woman misinterpreted what happened to her as sexual assault, when, in fact, it was a medical procedure.

  • William Brangham:

    And you and others have reported that the university put out its Title IX report and it gave that to the victim herself.

    But then the university had a separate version that had a lot more detail in it, that was somewhat more damning. Can you explain?

  • Matt Mencarini:

    Yes, that's one of the new revelations from the last couple of weeks.

    On Friday, I was able to obtain the full Title IX report with the full conclusion section that had much more detail than the university's analysis of what happened during that medical appointment. It had much stronger language. It found significant problems and it found that Nassar's conduct could present patients, could expose patients to unnecessary trauma from perceived sexual misconduct.

    The report that the woman received had a 41-word conclusion section that just said, thank you for bringing your concerns forward. It has allowed us to look at ways to change policies within the medicine — the medical clinic.

  • William Brangham:

    We know that two senior officials at the university have resigned. We know the state attorney general is now launching an investigation.

    What is the feeling in the community itself on the university and amongst officials about, do they believe the university has done enough, is doing enough, and what's the sense there?

  • Matt Mencarini:

    Tone-deaf is the word that was — or the phrase that was thrown out a lot leading up to the sentencing hearing, which dragged into two weeks. That was what was described of the university response.

    You have seen that start to change as that sentencing hearing hit day five, and six, and seven, quickly followed by a couple resignations from the university.

    The response publicly and in the area, there have been concerns and questions and uneasiness with the way the university has handled much of this case since the first report by The Indy Star in September of 2016.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Matt Mencarini of The Lansing State Journal, thank you very much for your time.

  • Matt Mencarini:

    Thanks for having me.

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