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December 21, 2018

An Ecosystem of Willful Ignorance Around Larry Nassar


Sometimes, criminal behavior persists before everyone’s eyes. Last week, independent investigators issued a meticulous 233-page report detailing USA Gymnastics physician Dr. Larry Nassar’s horrific, decades-long sexual abuse of more than 300 women and girls–crimes with lasting physical and emotional scars about which the survivors spoke so bravely in various court proceedings in Michigan.

Perhaps most striking is the report’s justifiably searing indictment of executives at Michigan State University (“MSU”), United States of America Gymnastics (“USAG”), and the United States Olympic Committee (the “USOC”), who enabled Nassar’s crimes to continue for years. Moreover, as the report points out, local and federal law enforcement also failed to act on multiple allegations made against Nassar.

As the report explains, Nassar “did not operate in a vacuum. Instead, he acted within an ecosystem that facilitated his criminal acts. These institutions and individuals ignored red flags, failed to recognize textbook grooming behaviors, or in some egregious instances, dismissed clear calls for help from girls and young women who were being abused by Nassar. Multiple law enforcement agencies, in turn, failed to effectively intervene when presented with opportunities to do so. And when survivors first began to come forward publicly, some were shunned, shamed or disbelieved by others in their own communities.”

In other words, Nassar was hiding in plain sight.

As federal prosecutors who handled many sex crimes cases over many years, the sheer scope and depravity of Nassar’s conduct is unfathomable. But, it also vividly demonstrates what law enforcement and service providers who work on these types of cases know all too well–that child sex offenses are perpetrated by predators from all walks of life–gang members, drug traffickers, but also doctors, teachers, coaches, members of the clergy, and other seemingly upstanding members of society. Because these predators are master manipulators, they not only effectively prey on children’s innocence, but also manipulate well-meaning adults’ common perceptions so as to shield themselves from detection. They are literally able to hide in plain sight behind this wall of deception.

In this vein, Nassar groomed his patients with friendship, support and gifts, much like street gang sex traffickers. He chose vulnerable victims, the young women who were entrusted to his care by parents and schools. And he banked on his word being more powerful than theirs, using his reputation as a prominent doctor to get away with sexual abuse and to silence his survivors. When questioned by the police, Nassar showed a power point presentation, which falsely claimed that his sexual touching of young girls was a form of medicine. The police declined to make an arrest, and Nassar went on his way, free to abuse more young women and girls.

Nassar’s victims believed that no one would take their word, and they were sadly right. Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of assault, said reports like this were “the worst part” of publicly coming forward. “When I read this report I remember the little 15-year-old girl sitting on the exam room table with just an inkling of what had happened to her, with her mind racing with the words,” she said in a press conference. “‘No one will ever believe me. I remember the 17-year-old shaking after I told my parents what Larry had done two years earlier, and I remember telling them, ‘If I speak up, someone will bury this. There is nothing I can do. USOC, USAG and MSU will bury this.’”

And they did. The United States Olympic Committee, the United States Association of Gymnastics, and Michigan State University failed to see countless warning signs that the well-respected physician was, in fact, a serial sexual predator. Many adults and people in position of authority ignored warning signs and credible reports of abuse. Still others attempted to cover up the abuse once it was discovered. These are the very people who were entrusted with taking care of the gymnasts, and who could have stopped the abuse.

Some of the individuals discussed in the report should undoubtedly face criminal and civil repercussions. A Senate Subcommittee has already asked the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate whether Scott Blackmun, the former Chief Executive of the USOC, lied to Congress during its inquiry into the Nassar case. And, Alan Ashley, Chief of Sport Performance, has been fired as a result of the report by the USOC because like Blackmun, he failed to act when he learned about the allegations against Nassar in July 2015.

But that is not enough. It would be a mistake to write off the findings of this report as unique to the competitive, tough world of gymnastics or even Olympic sports. It would be a mistake to write it off as unique to one serial sexual predator. And, while anyone who enabled Nassar should be held accountable, it would be wrong to excuse this complicity as a few bad actors.

Ultimately, Larry Nassar was able to assault over 300 children and young adults over the course of 30 years because we as a society have failed to see this type of crime for what it is–a crime of manipulation, deception, and a failure to take seriously the victims who tried to expose it.

There are concrete steps we can take to help prevent this kind of abuse. Institutions must provide a safe and welcoming environment when concerns are expressed, and take appropriate action despite reputational damage or the inclination to protect one of their own. We must also train law enforcement not to be swayed by the accused’s reputation and to approach such cases with the same diligent investigation they would use in any criminal investigation. Perhaps most importantly, victims of abuse should be encouraged to speak up and speak out. Sexual abuse can be deterred and stopped by an ecosystem of thoughtful vigilance.

Miriam Rocah is a Distinguished Criminal Justice Fellow at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, former Assistant United States Attorney, Southern District New York, 2001-2017.

Anne Milgram is a Professor of Practice at NYU School of Law, former New Jersey Attorney General, and former DOJ Special Litigation Counsel for Human Trafficking.