(TW: Sexual assault)
No matter what you’ve heard about Dr. Larry Nassar’s serial abuse of hundreds of gymnasts, you haven’t heard it all. And what you haven’t heard is arguably much worse.
This morning, four young women, all small in stature and none over 27 years of age, laid bare their trauma at the hands of Nassar before the Senate Judiciary Committee, because that’s the only way we get things done in this country. We force victims to relive their trauma over and over and over again. And when enough people are finally outraged, change sometimes happens.
Anyone who has followed the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State University sexual abuse scandal has heard Nassar’s unforgivable sins: the digital peneration of hundreds of athletes’ genitals and anuses, the 37,000 images of child sexual abuse on his computer, his sexual arousal while “examining” his patients.
But if you stopped paying attention after Nassar’s sentencing, feeling some sense of closure, you missed the re-victimization of the athletes at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them — the FBI, USA Gymnastics (USAG), Safe Sport, and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOC).
Gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols, and Aly Raisman sat before a group largely made up of men, some of the most powerful in the world (and a few women), and told Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and the other members of the Judiciary Committee how they tried to prevent the abuse of hundreds of other victims, but were thwarted by the FBI — which Raisman accused of working in concert with USAG and the USOC.
“Not only did the FBI not report my abuse,” Maroney told the committee, “but when they eventually documented my abuse, 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said.” Maroney’s claims of dereliction of duty by the FBI are echoed by the Office of the Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s handling of Nassar.
“I told them that the first thing that Larry Nassar said to me was to change into shorts with no underwear, because that would make it easier for him to work on me. Within minutes, he had his fingers in my vagina,” Maroney recalls telling the FBI in the summer of 2015, during a three-hour interview about her abuse. “The FBI then immediately asked, ‘did he insert his fingers into your rectum?’ I said, ‘no, he never did.’ They asked if he used gloves. I said, ‘no, he never did.’ They asked if this treatment ever helped me. I said, ‘no, it never did.’ This treatment was 100 percent abuse.” Maroney added that speaking with the FBI about the abuse she endured “gave me PTSD for days:”
“I then told the FBI about Tokyo, the day he gave me a sleeping pill for the plane ride, to then work on me later that night. That evening I was naked, completely alone, with him on top of me, molesting me for hours. I told them I thought I was going to die that night, because there was no way he would let me go. I told them I walked the halls of a Tokyo hotel at 2 a.m., at only 15 years old. I began crying at the memory over the phone, and there was just dead silence. I was so shocked at the agents’ silence and disregard for my trauma. After that minute of silence, he said, ‘Is that all?’”
Biles also said that she felt betrayed by the authorities who should have been protecting her.
“I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse,” she told the Committee. “USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge. In May of 2015, Rhonda Faehn, the former head of USA Gymnastics women’s program, was told by my friend and teammate, Maggie Nichols, that she suspected I, too, was a victim.”
Nichols testified that she was told to keep quiet by the head of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny:
“The cover-up of my abuse, and the FBI’s failure to interview me for more than a year after my complaint, are well documented in the OIG report. After I reported my abuse to USA Gymnastics, my family and I were told by their former president, Steve Penny, to keep quiet and not say anything that could hurt the FBI investigation,” Nichols testified. “We now know there was no real FBI investigation occurring. While my complaints languished with the FBI, Larry Nassar continued to abuse women and girls. During this time, the FBI issued no search warrants, and made no arrests. From the day I reported my molestation by Nassar, I was treated differently by USAG.”
And Raisman pulled back the curtain on the seedy underbelly of the US Olympics movement, calling it fueled by favors and friendships and off-the-record meetings:
“The special agent in charge of investigating Nassar met Steve Penny for beers to discuss job opportunities in the Olympic movement,” Raisman told the committee. “Another FBI agent worked with Steve Penny to determine jurisdiction without interviewing the survivors. I’ve watched multiple high ranking-officials at USAG, USOPC, and FBI resign, or, without explanation of how they may have contributed to the problem, some of whom were publicly thanked for their service and rewarded with severance or bonus money. My reports of abuse were not only buried by USAG and USOPC, but they were also mishandled by federal law enforcement officers who failed to follow their most basic duties.”
One by one, the women testified that they had been ignored, their abuse minimized not only by the FBI, but also by the USOC and USAG. Each woman testified that they knew of gymnasts who had been abused by Nassar after they came forward and spoke to the FBI. And it was Raisman, who answered more questions from Committee members than anyone else, who spoke to the invisible scars Nassar’s abuse left:
“I don’t think people realize how much it affects us, how much the PTSD, how much the trauma impacts us,” Raisman said. “I used to train, some days, seven hours a day when I was training for the Olympics, and processing my abuse affected me so much. And it is still something I struggle with that I can remember when I first shared my story publicly for a very, very long time. I didn’t even have the energy to stand up in the shower. I would have to sit on the floor and wash my hair because standing up was too exhausting for me. I couldn’t even go for a 10-minute walk outside, and this is someone — I’ve competed in two Olympic Games … I feel like my mind isn’t working. I feel like I have no energy at all. I’m 27 years old and my 80-year-old grandfather has more energy than I do.”
Predictably, having a bunch of powerful men sit there and listen to sexual abuse victims lay their collective trauma before them was unsatisfying. And more than one senator used their time to simply make statements about the women’s “courage” and “heroism.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was the first to bring up his own daughters and spoke about “every parents’ worst nightmare,” but promised nothing in terms of actionable items.
FBI Director Chris Wray acknowledged that the special agents in charge of the case blew it big time, pointing out that one agent was fired and another retired before the investigation into his performance began:
“These individuals betrayed the core duty that they have of protecting people,” Wray said. “They failed to protect young women and girls from abuse. And the work we do certainly is often complicated and uncertain and we’re never going to be perfect, but the kinds of fundamental errors that were made in this case in 2015 and ‘16 should never have happened, period.”
Not a lot was said or contemplated when it came to criminal charges for agents of the FBI, USAG, and USOC, who essentially allowed Nassar to continue abusing athletes for months. That is, except for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who entered a letter into the record asking that others involved in the investigation be criminally charged.
Sadly, there’s not much reason to believe any substantial change will take place.
Gymnastics has long had a problem with abusing young girls, even if the abuse is only verbal or emotional. It’s a sport that forges very young women in fire, and making it to the top requires not only the highest levels of physical talent, but the ability to find a way to get past the mistreatment that far too many gymnasts have had to endure. The scolding of teens for eating “too much.” Forcing them to work out until their bodies shut down. The shaming of a gymnast too afraid to try a new skill.
It’s happening, right now, in a gymnastics club near you.
But while it’s easy to confine the black hole of Larry Nassar and the aftermath of his crimes to the arena of gymnastics, today’s hearing was emblematic of a much larger problem in America: It takes the testimony of dozens, maybe hundreds of women to cast doubt on the word of one man.
And these weren’t just any women, they were America’s best; being groomed for an Olympic spotlight. Certainly, Larry Nassar was far less consequential to USAG than Simone Biles is. And yet people bent over backwards to make sure he kept his position. And for what?
The words the women spoke today were a masterclass in why victims of sexual abuse don’t come foward. Nichols, Raisman, Biles, and Maroney should have had the full force of their parents, their coaches, USAG, and the USOC behind them. The FBI is the premier law enforcement agency in the United States. The one with the most cutting-edge technology, the most up-to-date training, and the best insight into the criminal mind. And, yet, they left victims who were brave enough to come forward twisting in the wind. They allowed dozens of other gymnasts to be abused. They misrepresented what victims told them and lied in official reports.
If US Olympians can’t get the FBI to take their claims seriously, imagine what it’s like for victims without a shot at an Olympic medal to report their sexual assault to local law enforcement? Especially when it’s a small child accusing a beloved teacher or coach or a “regular” person accusing a powerful celebrity?
In case you had any doubt, rape culture is alive and well in America.
If you or someone you love has been a victim of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline for free and confidential advice 1-800-656-HOPE.