As gymnastics prepares to return to national prominence at the Tokyo Olympics later this month, the Department of Justice released a report Wednesday hammering the FBI for numerous failures when originally presented with allegations of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in 2015.
The report is the latest reckoning on how individual and systemic failures allowed Nassar to continue his reign of terror, even after being credibly accused by young women who sought him out for treatment only to be assaulted.
Nassar, 57, is currently serving a lengthy federal prison sentence in Florida for possession of child pornography. He faces decades of additional prison time in Michigan on state charges after pleading guilty in 2018 to sexually abusing hundreds of girls and women, including prominent members of multiple U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams where he served as a once-trusted physician.
Perhaps most frustrating to Nassar’s many survivors is that complaints were lodged against him as far back as 1997, when Nassar worked with Michigan State gymnastics near his home outside Lansing.
They continued through 2015, when three complaints were presented to USA Gymnastics, who in turn turned them over to the FBI’s Indianapolis field office, where USAG is headquartered.
Soon after, when confronted by USAG, Nassar resigned his position with the organization, but maintained his positions with Michigan State as well as Holt (Michigan) High School and the mid-Michigan area Twistars USA Gymnastics Club.
He continued to abuse girls.
The DOJ concluded that the FBI “failed to respond to the Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency that they deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and violated multiple FBI policies.”
Of note, the Indianapolis field office “did not undertake any investigative activity” for “five weeks after the meeting with USA Gymnastics.” Even then, the FBI merely interviewed one complainant via telephone and “never interviewed the other two gymnasts who they were told were available to meet with FBI investigators.”
Following that single telephone interview, “the FBI conducted no investigative activity in the matter for more than 8 months,” the report stated.
Even worse, the Nassar victims who did come forward were told to remain silent so they didn’t ruin an “ongoing FBI investigation.” They did as they were told, warning no one else because they thought the situation was in proper hands.
It wasn’t. There wasn’t any semblance of a real investigation.
The full DOJ report, which runs 109 pages long, is littered with painful errors, incompetence, bureaucratic issues, finger pointing, conflicts of interest, track-covering, blame shifting, laziness and, most of all, a general lack of interest or urgency to look into the case.
It paints a picture of dysfunction and disinterest at the FBI over what would become one of, if not the largest pedophile cases in American history. Even when confronted with their failures, Special Agent Jay Abbot “in an effort to minimize or excuse his errors, made false statements [concerning his activities].”
The DOJ report explains that the FBI's Indianapolis field office was notified of the allegations in July, 2015, only to conduct a meager investigation and “did not advise state or local authorities about the allegations and did not take any action to mitigate the risk to gymnasts that Nassar continued to treat."
The DOJ report explains that the FBI's Indianapolis field office was notified of the allegations of three women in July 2015, only to conduct a meager investigation that included a single telephone interview with just one of the alleged victims and “did not advise state or local authorities about the allegations and did not take any action to mitigate the risk to gymnasts that Nassar continued to treat."
As a matter of jurisdiction, the FBI's Indianapolis field office notified USA Gymnastics that it had turned the investigation over to its Detroit field office, only it didn't actually did so.
It does not appear that the Nassar case was taken seriously until after survivor and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander detailed her story to the Indianapolis Star in the summer of 2016, about the same time authorities in Los Angeles and Michigan became aware of the allegations.
“The three women whose abuse had been reported never should have been left alone, treated as if they did not matter,” Denhollander said Wednesday. “Had the FBI done their job I never would have been put in the position of having to relinquish every shred of privacy to stop the abuse and coverup [by talking to the Indianapolis Star].
“The dozens of little girls abused after the FBI knew who Larry was and exactly what he was doing, could have and should have been saved,” Denhollander continued.
Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) issued a joint statement calling for the DOJ to consider criminal charges and demanding a Senate hearing on the report.
“We are appalled by the FBI’s gross mishandling of the specific warnings its agents received about Larry Nassar’s horrific abuse years before he was finally arrested,” the senators said in a statement. “How many athletes would have been spared unimaginable pain if the FBI had done its job? The Department of Justice now needs to decide if it is going to be yet another institution that fails survivors or if it is going to enforce some measure of accountability for these crimes.”
The FBI apparently took no issue with the findings.
“The actions and inactions of the FBI employees described in the report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization and the values we hold dear,” FBI assistant director Douglas Leff wrote in response to the investigation.
Nassar’s abuse went far beyond molestation and rape. He preyed on gymnasts mentally and emotionally, often painting himself as a savior whose magical medical abilities could get them healed and back into competition. It didn’t matter if it was a local 11-year-old girl or the sport’s most-decorated champions.
The betrayal, the control and the deception was often as painful for victims to come to terms with as anything else. That various authority figures, from gymnastics coaches, to USAG officials, to FBI agents had been told for decades about Nassar’s behavior, has served to be another form of abuse.
When not even the nation’s top law enforcement agency can be trusted to take the allegations seriously, let alone take serious action in pursuing them, speaks to how little these girls and their voices were valued.
The Department of Justice autopsy is unlikely to do much to help that suffering. If anything, it should enrage everyone. When “call the FBI” isn’t enough, then what is?
At least the truth is known, though. When it came to Larry Nassar, like so many others, not even the FBI could be bothered.
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