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“Systemic Failure”: Top Gymnasts Blast FBI for Bungling Sexual Abuse Probe of Dr. Larry Nassar

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This week some of gymnastics’ biggest stars shared scathing testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the FBI’s failure to stop Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor and serial sexual abuser. 

Lawyers say that after the FBI was first told of Nassar’s crimes, he abused another 120 people before his 2016 arrest. We feature the testimony of Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, who is widely considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time, and speak with gymnast Rachael Denhollander, who was the first to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse and says the case exposes a systemic failure to take sexual abuse seriously. “Something we need to be asking as we’re watching this unfold is: What are we not seeing?” Denhollander says. “What happens to the survivors who don’t have an army of 500 women? What happens to the survivors who don’t have Olympians headlining their case and raising the profile of the gross negligence and corruption that’s taking place in our system?” We also speak with Mark Alesia, who was an investigative reporter at The Indianapolis Star in 2016 and helped to break the story about Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts. “The FBI did not take the gymnasts’ complaints seriously,” Alesia says.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Some of gymnastics’ biggest stars offered scathing testimony Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the FBI’s failure to stop serial sexual abuser, USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Lawyers say in the time between when the FBI was first told of Nassar’s crimes and his 2016 arrest, Nassar abused another 120 people. FBI Director Christopher Wray apologized to the gymnasts in the Senate hearing. Last week, the FBI fired an agent involved in the investigation into Nassar. Both the gymnasts and senators on the Judiciary Committee called out Justice Department leadership for failing to appear at Wednesday’s hearing. Attorney General Merrick Garland is expected to testify next month.

This is the testimony of Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, who is widely considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time.

SIMONE BILES: Over the course of my gymnastics career, I have won 25 World Championship medals and seven Olympic medals for Team USA. That record means so much to me, and I am proud of my representation of this nation through gymnastics.

I am also a survivor of sexual abuse. And I believe without a doubt that the circumstances that led to my abuse and allowed it to continue, are directly the result of the fact that the organizations created by Congress to oversee and protect me as an athlete — USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee — failed to do their jobs.

Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” It is the power of that statement that compels and empowers me to be here in front of you today. I don’t want another young gymnast, Olympic athlete or any individual to experience the horror that I and hundreds of others have endured before, during and continuing to this day in the wake of the Larry Nassar abuse. To be clear — sorry.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Take your time.

SIMONE BILES: To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar, and I also blame an entire system that enabled and [perpetuated] his abuse.

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 the USA Gymnastics Women’s Program, was told by my friend and teammate, Maggie Nichols, that she suspected I, too, was a victim. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what all was happening until The Indianapolis Star published its article in the fall of 2016 entitled “Former USA Gymnastics doctor accused of abuse.” Yet, while I was a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, neither USAG, USOPC, nor the FBI ever contacted me or my parents. While others had been informed and investigations were ongoing, I had been left to wonder why I was not told until after the Rio Games.

This is the largest case of sexual abuse in the history of American sport. And although there has been a fully independent investigation of the FBI’s handling of the case, neither USAG nor USOPC have ever been made the subject of the same level of scrutiny. These are the entities entrusted with the protection of our sport and our athletes, and yet it feels like questions of responsibility and organizational failures remain unanswered. As you pursue the answers to those questions, I ask that your work be guided by the same question that Rachael Denhollander and many others have asked: “How much is a little girl worth?”

I sit before you today to raise my voice so that no little girl must endure what I, the athletes at this table and the countless others who needlessly suffered under Nassar’s guise of medical treatment, which we continue to endure today. We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers.

Nassar is where he belongs, but those who enabled him deserve to be held accountable. If they are not, I am convinced that this will continue to happen to others across Olympic sports. In reviewing the OIG’s report, it truly feels like the FBI turned a blind eye to us and went out of its way to help protect USAG and USOPC. A message needs to be sent: If you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday about the FBI’s failure to stop serial sexual abuser, USA Gymnastics doctor, now imprisoned, Larry Nassar. Biles mentioned Rachael Denhollander, who, in 2016, was the first gymnast to publicly speak out against Nassar. On Thursday, Rachael Denhollander spoke to Democracy Now!

RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: I am so proud of the athletes who testified and the light that they’re shedding in these dark spaces. But to see over and over and over again the depth of systemic failure and just the incredible damage that was done to them and to all of the survivors who came after they reported, when that didn’t need to happen, is a very heavy burden to bear.

And I think something we need to be asking as we’re watching this unfold is: What are we not seeing? Because the reality is, most survivors of sexual assault who report will tell you that this is a story that they could tell, too. It is very difficult to get law enforcement to take reports of sexual assault seriously, to pursue the case with diligence, to prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law. And we need to start looking at what we saw yesterday and ask what we’re not seeing. What happens to the survivors who don’t have an army of 500 women? What happens to the survivors who don’t have Olympians headlining their case and raising the profile of the gross negligence and the corruption that’s taking place in our system? …

In 15 months, the FBI did absolutely nothing, except allow over a hundred little girls to continue being abused. … So we need to be looking at what has to change in this case, but it’s not just a problem with this case. We’ve got to start asking: What’s got to change in the system, so that survivors that we don’t see aren’t going through what these women went through, and have a justice system that they can truly rely on? Those are hard questions, but they’ve got to be asked. And these words are cheap if they’re not followed by action.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to speak out publicly against Larry Nassar.

For more, we’re joined by Mark Alesia, who Denhollander first contacted in 2016, when he was part of the investigative team at The Indianapolis Star. She told him, quote, “I am willing to do anything you need. I want this to end.” Mark’s team then broke the story about Dr. Nassar’s abuse. He is now director of university communications at Indiana State University.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Mark. We talked to you just after Nassar’s trial and sentencing, that remarkable moment when one woman, one gymnast after another stood up and talked about how he had wrecked their lives, but talked about surviving. Now we have the top gymnasts, some of the most famous women in the world, like Simone Biles, testifying before the Senate. They specifically focused on the FBI. Tell us this story from the beginning. You were there. How is it that the FBI dropped the ball so completely? And are we going to see criminal charges against FBI agents?

MARK ALESIA: Well, I don’t know if we’re going to see those charges, but I think it was Senator Leahy who said there are a whole lot of people who ought to be in jail after this.

What happened was, the FBI did not take the gymnasts’ complaints seriously. They didn’t — offices in different cities didn’t communicate with each other. And there were conflicts of interest. There was an FBI agent who was talking to the president of USAG, Steve Penny, about getting a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee, and that they were so chummy that in one of the emails, Steve Penny told the FBI agent that he would like to, quote, “body slam the reporters” — myself, Marisa and Tim. That’s Steve Penny. And, by the way, he’s one of the people who isn’t in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about why Indianapolis is so important. You mentioned the U.S. Olympic Committee. Talk about who first came forward to the FBI and what happened to that complaint.

MARK ALESIA: That would have been, I believe, McKayla Maroney, very early on. She wasn’t taken seriously. I think she testified that the agent said, “That’s it?” And then —

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go — I want to go to the Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney testifying before the Senate Wednesday.

McKAYLA MARONEY: This was very clear, cookie cutter pedophilia and abuse. And this is important, because I told the FBI all of this, and they chose to falsify my report and to not only minimize my abuse, but silence me yet again. I thought, given the severity of the situation, that they would act quickly for the sake of protecting other girls. But instead, it took them 14 months to report anything, when Larry Nassar, in my opinion, should have been in jail that day. The FBI, USOC and USAG sat idly by as dozens of girls and women continued to be molested by Larry Nassar.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Mark Alesia, talk about how you got involved, the tip, how you ended up going down to Louisville to interview Rachael Denhollander.

MARK ALESIA: My teammates and I, Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tim Evans at The Indianapolis Star, we did a story. The first one was right on the eve of the Rio Olympics in 2016. And after that story came out, we received an email from Rachael saying, “I wasn’t abused by a coach, but this was a doctor. And if you’re interested, I will speak out, and I will speak out by name.” I drove down to Louisville, and I interviewed Rachael. She came off as intelligent, sincere, passionate, utterly credible. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Then a lawyer and a mother of three.

MARK ALESIA: And a lawyer and a mother of four now, I believe. And, yes, everything.

And what really, I think, bothers me — well, it angers me; it doesn’t just bother me. It’s five years after that. It’s five years after that, and those women had to show up in front of a congressional committee and bare their soul again to make people understand what happened. These survivors, five years later, they are still looking for answers. They are still looking for justice. And that’s outrageous.

And there’s another piece to this, too. The survivors also have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get Michigan State University to release 6,000 pages of documents from an investigation into Nassar that they are withholding because of attorney-client privilege.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is amazing. Michigan State, the president has had to resign, but he wasn’t criminally charged. That’s where the, you know, U.S. Olympic Committee’s doctor, Nassar, worked, at Michigan State. And he abused these girls, these young women, for decades.

MARK ALESIA: Right. And it’s also important to understand that for about maybe 10 or 15 years earlier, adults — or, gymnasts had come forward to adults to complain about Nassar, but it always went nowhere. That included one situation with a law enforcement department. It included a Michigan State coach, a gymnastics coach. It included people who couldn’t possibly believe that that great, wonderful Larry Nassar could do such a thing. Adults had failed these children at every level. This is just an absolute tragedy. And again, it is outrageous that five years later it’s still going on, with so many unanswered questions and so many people who were responsible for allowing Nassar to continue going without being held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the three-time Olympic gold medal gymnast, two-time Olympic team captain, Aly Raisman, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

ALY RAISMAN: It is unrealistic to think we can grasp the full extent of culpability without understanding how and why USAG and USOPC chose to ignore abuse for decades and why the interplay among these three organizations led the FBI to willingly disregard our reports of abuse. Without knowing who knew what when, we cannot identify all enablers or determine whether they are still in positions of power. We just can’t fix a problem we don’t understand. And we can’t understand the problem unless and until we have all of the facts. If we don’t do all we can to get these facts, the problems we are here to address will persist, and we are deluding ourselves if we think other children can be spared the institutionalized tolerance and normalization of abuse that I and so many others had to endure.

AMY GOODMAN: That is three-time Olympic gold medal gymnast, two-time Olympic team captain, Aly Raisman, who has really been the forceful leader of this movement to bring Nassar down, but not only him, because, as Simone Biles says, the whole system is broken.

But, interestingly, the attorney general, Merrick Garland did not appear, though the head of the Justice Department was asked to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Apparently, he’s going to appear in October. Christopher Wray did, the head of the FBI, and apologized, though he said he wasn’t there at the time. He said it was abhorrent, what had taken place. What do you make of this, Mark?

MARK ALESIA: Well, I just — again, I feel so badly for the survivors. I believe it was Aly Raisman who said it’s going to take her months just to get over the experience of testifying before the committee. But I’m sure she felt she had a duty to do that. And I would hope that the people at the very top of our judicial system will recognize their duty to these women, who have represented our country so well on an international stage.

But, you know, I think it’s also important — Rachael Denhollander, kind of typically for her, she can cut straight to the crux of an issue, but she’s not just looking at abuse in gymnastics. She is talking about the ordeal of women who report sexual assaults and what they go through in all walks of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Especially, I mean, you’re talking about gold medalists, world-renowned women; if they are not taken seriously, what is everyone else supposed to think? The last point, Mark Alesia, and it’s one you made with us right after the trial, is that these women came forward — it’s not like they run track, where it’s very clear who wins first, second and third. The whole sport is judged by committees. And that’s where they were incredibly brave in coming forward, because when you rock the boat, these committees don’t have to take your scores, your speeds; they can decide if you’re a troublemaker or not, and ice you out.

MARK ALESIA: Right. And I think by the time a lot of the people who had testified at the Nassar sentencing, they were probably done or close to done with their gymnastics careers. But that’s certainly just sort of one factor in a system where people are sort of groomed to be pleasers and, as you said, not to rock the boat, certainly not with their coach.

AMY GOODMAN: And you could extend that coach to the workplace. You could extend it certainly to communities, to places of religious worship, and beyond. Well, this may well just be the beginning. We’ll see where this Senate Judiciary Committee goes. Mark Alesia, we want to thank you so much, reporter with the investigative team at The Indianapolis Star which broke the story in 2016 about Dr. Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts. His team helped to expose USA Gymnastics’ failure to report allegations of sexual abuse by coaches and authorities. Now he is no longer with The Indianapolis Star.

Coming up, as Congress debates a $3.5 trillion bill to expand the nation’s social safety net and to increase taxes on the rich, we look back at Occupy Wall Street, which began 10 years ago today. Stay with us.

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