Monday, January 18, 2021

One year after Nassar reports, some questions remain

September 6, 2017
<p>Former MSU employee Larry Nassar looks towards the 55th District Court Judge Donald L. Allen Jr. during the preliminary examination on Feb. 17, 2017 at 55th District Court in Mason, Mich. The preliminary examination occurred as a result of former MSU employee Larry Nassar's alleged sexual abuse.</p>

Former MSU employee Larry Nassar looks towards the 55th District Court Judge Donald L. Allen Jr. during the preliminary examination on Feb. 17, 2017 at 55th District Court in Mason, Mich. The preliminary examination occurred as a result of former MSU employee Larry Nassar's alleged sexual abuse.

All eyes are on him as he walks into the courtroom. Clothed in an orange jumpsuit and plastic sandals, he sits next to his attorneys in the hard, wooden chair. He says nothing. The judge enters the room. Plaintiffs, most of them teenage girls, some of them older, enter the courtroom one at a time.

Each time one of the girls sits, attorneys ask her to identify her alleged abuser: Larry Nassar. 

And each time, they point to the man in the orange jumpsuit, sitting in a hard, wooden chair. 

He says nothing.

Fast forward to today, where Nassar now sits in federal prison. The number of women who have alleged he has sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment has grown to 119. 

He faces 39 criminal charges in Ingham and Eaton County courts, with trial dates to come in early 2018. He has also plead guilty to three child pornography-related charges, and his sentencing for these charges is set for November. He’s listed as a defendant in a number of civil cases, many alongside MSU.

But just a year ago, Nassar was a doctor everyone was talking about in the gymnastics community — not only had he worked with MSU as a doctor in its osteopathic medicine department, he worked with the U.S. National Team through USA Gymnastics, or USAG, and young gymnasts from Twistars Gymnastics Club. 

He was “the” doctor for gymnasts to go to, the best of the best. He was, as put by an alleged victim, viewed by the gymnasts as a “god.”

So, what happened?

The doctor

Nassar was hired by MSU in 1997 — shortly after he was hired by USAG in 1996. For 20 years, Nassar built a reputation as the go-to gymnastics doctor, and he had connections not just to MSU and USAG, but a number of other organizations as well.

He volunteered to treat patients weekly at Twistars Gymnastics Club, located in Dimondale and DeWitt, Michigan, and in the basement of his home. He created a foundation, Gymnastics Doctor Autism Foundation, to fuse gymnastics and autism together.

Nassar was also closely connected with John Geddert, owner of Twistars Gymnastics Club, and Kathie Klages, MSU’s former gymnastics head coach. 

Klages was suspended by MSU on Feb. 13 after she was accused of defending Nassar and discouraging athletes from reporting sexual abuse. According to court documents, Klages was reported to have been aware of allegations of sexual abuse as early as 1997. Klages retired the next day.

Nassar’s involvement didn’t end with gymnastics. In November, Nassar ran for the Board of Education for Holt Public Schools in Holt, Michigan, but failed to win one of two seats. 

Nassar was also a catechist for St. Thomas Aquinas Church’s seventh grade class and served as a Eucharistic minister in the East Lansing-based parish.

As his reputation in these communities grew, so did the number of sex abuse allegations against him.

There are now claims that Nassar abused girls at MSU, Twistars Gymnastics Club, his home and while traveling at USAG events. St. Thomas Aquinas Church has avoided addressing ties to Nassar. And his foundation appears to have violated state law since 2014, as it hadn’t renewed state-required registrations but was still soliciting donations.

In 2014, Nassar was investigated by MSU’s Title IX office for allegations of sexual abuse, but the university cleared him and he was required to have a chaperone for all medical appointments.

But according to plaintiff testimonies during preliminary examination hearings this summer, Nassar continued treating patients at his MSU clinic without a chaperone, which would be a direct violation of MSU’s sanction. In the 2014 investigation, it was found Nassar allegedly chose the experts to evaluate him.

Following Nassar’s termination from MSU in September, the Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette took over the MSU police investigation in October. At the same time, Nassar was under investigation by the FBI.

In December, Nassar was indicted for the possession of at least 37,000 images of child pornography and was ordered to be held without bond later that month. His license to practice medicine was suspended in January.

The article

She had waited 17 years for someone to believe her. Waited 17 years for the chance to stop Larry Nassar’s access to young girls, she said. Other than those she was closest to, no one knew about Rachael Denhollander’s allegations that Nassar abused her as a 15-year-old gymnast at MSU in 2000.

A year ago, Denhollander found the opportunity to share her story. After reading part of an investigative series into USA Gymnastics’ failure to alert authorities of sex abuse allegations from IndyStar, an Indianapolis-based newspaper, she picked up the phone and called the reporters.

“If I had seen any chance — any tiny chance — of someone listening for the last 17 years, I would’ve done this years ago,” Denhollander said. “I really would have. But I had no hope of anyone listening beforehand. That IndyStar report was the first chance I saw.”

Denhollander is under a gag order, which limits what accusers and their lawyers can say about criminal sexual assault allegations. All of Denhollander’s comments pertain to what she has claimed civilly, not criminally, she said.

Her call was received by IndyStar reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Tim Evans and Mark Alesia, who worked on the investigative series. The reporters also received three other calls about the investigative series: one from California and one from New York, Evans said. 

Every story was nearly identical — each of the three women claimed Nassar abused her under the guise of medical treatment. 

Each claimed Nassar didn’t use gloves and there were no staff chaperones in the room, a requirement after the 2014 Title IX investigation. These claims have also been made by a number of other women, and additionally, many women have claimed Nassar gave them gifts and digitally penetrated them.

“It seemed so remarkable the stories were so similar — we kind of did background work to make sure that these three people didn’t have any connection, that they were just three independent people, but it just seemed so odd that their stories were so aligned,” Evans said.

Over the next month and a half, the IndyStar reporters worked with the three women, MSU and USAG to create the first article that brought Nassar’s name to light. It featured two of the women who called IndyStar, one of which was Denhollander.

After the article was published Sept. 12, and in response to the article, Nassar was fired by MSU on Sept. 20, 2016.

There was plenty of backlash from supporters of Nassar and from friends and colleagues, Evans said, citing nasty phone calls and emails.

“That reaction stopped after the federal child pornography charges,” Kwiatkowski said. “So we no longer had people calling us and defending him after the federal charges came out.”

The article also generated more calls to law enforcement and attorneys as more women began claiming they were also abused by Nassar.

Denhollander chose to include her name and face in the article, as she said she felt an anonymous voice wouldn’t be enough.

“My hope was that it would help the other women and the young girls who were still silent, still trying to figure out what had happened, that it would give them the confidence they needed to let them know that they would be taken seriously,” she said.

And come forward, they did. Following the IndyStar report, more women filed police reports and lawsuits.

Several women have stated in their preliminary hearings that they related to what Denhollander said in the IndyStar article and thereafter. They said her words encouraged them to report alleged abuse.

“I don’t think I realized how significant that reporting would become until we did that initial story and all the other women started coming forward,” Kwiatkowski said. “So much of the credit, too, goes to those women — in particular Rachael — who shared incredibly personal details of what happened to her, and it was that level of detail that she allowed us to use and that she trusted us with that other women connected to and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, that happened to me.’”

While it was part of Denhollander’s goal to reach other alleged victims, she said it was painful for her to hear their experiences. 

“It shouldn’t have had to happen. It shouldn’t have had to be done this way. Those girls should have been protected when that first report came out in 1999. None of us should have gone through this, but especially not those little girls,” Denhollander said. “And that’s hard. I think about them all the time.”

The institutions

Denhollander’s allegations of digital penetration are similar to claims made by 118 other women and girls. While some women chose to remain anonymous, some like Denhollander have chosen to attach their names and faces to allegations, allowing their alleged abuse to become a public part of their identity. 

“Honestly, I can say that it’s probably been the hardest year of my life,” Denhollander said. “Having to do it very publicly because of the people who surrounded him and the position he was put into has meant a choice to live in these memories and to verbalize and to relinquish every last shred of privacy I had. And that’s been really painful.”

Denhollander said she fully expected the issue to grow to the magnitude it did. When she was abused, she said, it was clear Nassar’s actions were regular and rehearsed. 

“The parents and the children did not have the medical knowledge to realize that what Larry was doing was not medical. But you know who did? His colleagues did,” she said. “They’re the ones who had the expertise needed to be able to tell that kind of thing and they didn’t. They could have stopped him.”


She believes the only way for MSU to move forward from the crisis is to demonstrate “real leadership,” where an organization and its leaders can acknowledge their failures and identify steps to move forward, she said.

“As long as the people who are directly involved with the cover-up for 20 years are still in positions of authority and that recognition (has) never been made by MSU, I have no confidence that they would do it differently the next time.”

The response

MSU has been in hot water for the past year, accused of playing party to Nassar’s alleged abuse. Following Nassar’s termination, MSU has released statements, details on investigations and a website with the purpose of keeping the public informed.

The biggest changes are outlined on MSU’s “Our Commitment” website, which was created in April to provide the MSU community with information on MSU’s efforts to combat sexual assault, improve patient care and protect youth on campus.

Some of those major changes for combatting sexual assault include an expedited external review — of which the status is “scope of review being finalized and qualified reviewers identified, strengthening mandatory reporting compliance — where policy revisions were said to be completed Aug. 30, making Title IX program improvements and increasing transparency and communication.

Several attempts were made to contact MSU for this article. All interview requests were directed to two university spokesmen who, at the time of publication, did not return requests for comment.

There are still questions the university has yet to answer, Jeff Caponigro said.

Caponigro is president and CEO of Caponigro Public Relations, Inc., in Southfield, Michigan. Caponigro was formerly chairperson of Central Michigan University’s Board of Trustees and is the author of the book “The Crisis Counselor: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing a Business Crisis.”

Caponigro said although MSU doesn’t necessarily have the responsibility to lay out everything that was learned in the past year, it should answer these questions.

“There’s a fine line between being transparent and being overly — to over-communicate to the point where it’s needlessly or certainly, hurting the reputation of the university,” he said. “There’s also legal vulnerability here as well, and what to communicate and what not to and how it might interfere with any other investigations or the legal case when it goes into litigation.”

Caponigro said if MSU administration or spokespeople are unable to communicate about something, they should explain why.

“In this case, obviously, they want to get this behind them,” Caponigro said. “The university wants to get this behind them, but at the same time, (it) has to be able to say what we learned from this.”

The future

From looking at MSU’s “Our Commitment” website, it appears MSU is moving forward since everything came to light a year ago. But Caponigro said the situation, like any crisis, could have the potential of causing long-lasting damage.

“There are some things there that still need to be communicated, and until the doctor’s case is settled in court and with law enforcement and he is sent to prison and civil cases get settled, this probably will continue,” he said.

Over the past year, many have criticized MSU and USAG for facilitating cultures of abuse. Denhollander said she believes this culture can be seen at both organizations.

“The culture of abuse is a societal response,” Denhollander said. “It’s how you respond to the warning signs of abuse. It’s how you respond to the reports of abuse. It’s how you respond to the person who’s been accused of abuse. It’s how you respond to the victim. And that culture of abuse, that’s how you keep the predator in the position of authority. That’s what keeps the victim silent.”

It’s important to continue to go back to what MSU stands for and look at what MSU wants to be known for, Caponigro said.

“What principles do we consider to be most important? And those typically are honesty, safety, the safety of our students and others who are on our campus, and you know, that means we have to do whatever we can possibly do to uphold those,” he said.

One year after she came forward, Denhollander said the 119 women and 42 charges provided her clarity with respect to what can be learned from such a widespread crisis.

“The biggest takeaway is set an example in your institution and tone in your institution that this will be taken seriously,” Denhollander said. “And that people who do not properly handle warning signs of sexual abuse and reports of sexual abuse will not be tolerated in the organization. There’s no wiggle room for that.”


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