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Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney won gold for the US in gymnastics but were ignored or dismissed by the country’s justice system for too long before Larry Nassar, the predator volunteering as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and working at Michigan State University, was put behind bars.
The gymnasts, who included US world championship team alum Maggie Nichols, told lawmakers in agonizing detail about their abuse by Nassar and how he had been able to continue after the FBI botched the first complaints made by Maroney in 2015.
Because the FBI did not follow up, Nassar’s molestation of gymnasts went on, even after more complaints were made. Maroney was already a gold medal-winning gymnast at that point. How did that not create more alarm at the FBI?
What does it mean for victims who aren’t Olympic medalists?
When agents from Indianapolis finally did file a report on Maroney’s allegations, they botched that, too, relying on a page of notes and their memories. Maroney said the agents “made entirely false claims about what I said.”
An inspector general report this year agreed, and accused agents in Indianapolis of failing to properly investigate complaints, failing for more than a year to write a report on an interview in which Maroney had detailed her abuse and then lying to cover up their failures.
“After telling my entire story of abuse to the FBI in the summer of 2015, not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented the report, 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said,” she said.
The agent in charge of the Indianapolis office at the time, Jay Abbott, who actually wanted to apply for a job at USA Gymnastics after the Nassar scandal broke, has since retired. The agent who failed to follow up on Maroney’s accusations, Michael Langeman, was fired last week, before the women testified Wednesday. (Langeman declined to comment to The Washington Post on Tuesday.)
But lawmakers and the gymnasts would prefer criminal prosecutions, something the Justice Department, under both Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump, has so far declined to pursue.
FBI Director Christopher Wray apologized, profusely, on Wednesday for the agency’s failure.
“I’m especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed, and that is inexcusable. It never should have happened, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure it never happens again,” Wray said.
All the women said that either they or people they knew had been molested in the 17 months during which the FBI had failed to act.
Here’s a detailed timeline of those failures published alongside the FBI Office of the Inspector General report. It also suggested policy changes.
“We have been failed, and we deserve answers,” said Biles.
Raisman talked about her own feelings of guilt about the system that had failed.
“So many survivors suffer with guilt and shame and so it takes everything I have to work on not taking the blame for that, because it’s horrific to know that over 100 victims could have been spared the abuse. All we needed was one adult to do the right thing,” she said.
Rachael Denhollander, the first survivor to speak publicly about Nassar’s abuse, is now a lawyer and talked Thursday on CNN about the need for accountability at the FBI.
“If a citizen were to behave – lying to the Department of Justice and investigators – the same way these FBI agents behaved, you can bet there would be grounds for criminal charges,” she said.
But a major problem is the systems built to protect institutions like the FBI, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State.
“For all of us to continually have to keep raising our voices, and fighting not just an abuser but a system that protected him, is exhausting and retraumatizing,” said Denhollander. “It’s a reminder that it’s not just the abuser who is untrustworthy. It’s everybody around you, too.”
There is plenty of evidence for what she says – the abuse scandal at Ohio State University featured another doctor, the late Richard Strauss, but the victims were wrestlers, not gymnasts.
At Penn State, it was assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky abusing young boys for at least 15 years.
At Michigan, as we’ve learned this summer, it was the football coach’s son, Matt Schembechler, who said he was among the team doctor’s victims in 1969. Dr. Robert Anderson would stay at the university until 2003. There are potentially hundreds of victims.
There are much smaller stories too.
Remember Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House? He was disgraced after the allegations in 2015 that as a high school teacher and coach in Illinois he had molested at least four boys.
One of his accusers had demanded hush money from Hastert, who drew scrutiny from the FBI when he withdrew large sums of money.
He actually worked with federal agents to trap the man, accusing him of extortion and recording phone conversations. Until the man told agents Hastert had abused him.
Hastert ultimately served 13 months in prison. He never faced sexual abuse charges because the statute of limitation had expired, but he pleaded guilty in October 2015 to structuring bank transactions in a way that evaded requirements that he report where the money was going.
But the story ended Wednesday: As the gymnasts were testifying on Capitol Hill about their abuse, the former House speaker reached a tentative out-of-court settlement with the man who accused him of abuse.