You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Star Gymnasts Give Senators an Unsparing Account of FBI's Failures in Nassar Investigation

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/15/2021 Louise Radnofsky
Aly Raisman et al. posing for the camera © Saul Loeb/Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON—In a litany of reports and documents, the four women who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday have for years been referred to by initials or numbers: “Athlete B,” “Gymnast 1”,  “Athlete A,” “Gymnast 3.”

On Wednesday, the women—elite gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman—gave U.S. senators an emotional and unsparing account of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee failed to investigate or act when they emerged as potential victims of sexual assault by former national team doctor Larry Nassar. 

“I can imagine no place that I would be less comfortable right now than sitting here in front of you, sharing these comments,” said Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts in her sport’s history. She then paused in tears, before adding: “To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar but I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.”

Raisman, the captain of the 2012 and 2016 gold-medal winning Olympic team, spoke in the most detail about the impact on her—not just from the abuse, but institutions’ response to it.

“The FBI made me feel like my abuse didn’t count,” Raisman said. “I’m still navigating how I feel from this,” she said later. “I don’t think people realize how much this affects us…I’m often wondering, am I ever going to feel better?… I’m so sick from the trauma.”

The four women were the brightest stars of a generation that gave the United States absolute dominance in the sport. They are also the elite gymnasts first identified by officials in the summer of 2015 as having been sexually abused by the then-doctor to the national women’s gymnastics team under the guise of medical treatment. 

The hearing is coming at a pivotal moment, as decisions loom for the insurers of USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee over their contribution to a proposed $425 million settlement between the organizations and hundreds of Nassar’s victims.

Some gymnasts’ lawyers have demanded separate action against the FBI. Raisman also called for other action by Congress in strengthening anti-abuse measures, and in particular, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the main body charged with responding to abuse reports in amateur sports.

The women repeatedly aimed their anger at both the FBI and the sports organizations under whose banners they won world and Olympic titles. Their remarks drew outrage from both Democratic and Republican senators, much of it aimed at the FBI.

“If allegations raised by well-known, world-class athletes are not taken seriously by the FBI, what hope do other victims of sexual assault have?” asked Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who had pushed for the release of the inspector general’s report. 

Biles focused part of her testimony on USA Gymnastics officials effectively cutting her out of their initial five-week internal investigation, telling senators: “USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge.”

Maroney, who won gold and silver medals at the 2012 Olympics, vividly recalled her abuse by Nassar, but reserved her toughest criticism for the FBI, the subject of a searing report published in July by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General that concluded it didn’t take seriously the allegations against Nassar when USA Gymnastics came to them in late July 2015. 


Video: The Rush: Gymnasts deliver damning testimony about sex abuse, institutional negligence (Yahoo! Sports)

Replay Video

One of the most devastating points in that report involved the initial effort to investigate complaints about Nassar by the FBI’s Indianapolis field office, via a telephonic interview with Maroney in early September 2015. The agent who conducted the interview did not document it until February 2017, which is around the time The Wall Street Journal first documented delays in the investigation. The agent then recorded statements that Maroney says she did not make, and has never made.

“They made entirely false claims about what I said,” said Maroney. “They chose to lie about what I said and protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me, but countless others.” 

Maroney said that “talking about this abuse would give me PTSD for days but I chose to speak about it to try and make a difference and protect others.” To have it “minimized and disregarded” by the FBI was one of the worst things that had happened to her, she said.

“What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer? They had legal, legitimate evidence of child abuse and did nothing.” 

Nichols, a 2015 world champion and subsequent National Collegiate Athletic Association champion, was the athlete whose initial suspicions about Nassar triggered a USA Gymnastics internal investigation and then its subsequent report to the FBI. She addressed the significance of bringing the gymnasts front and center. 

“This abuse did not happen to Gymnast 2 or Athlete A: It happened to me: Maggie Nichols,” she said.

Agents were confused about whether there was a federal crime to investigate, or whether it would fall under their jurisdiction in Indianapolis, the OIG report found. They didn’t document the meeting with USA Gymnastics, or the receipt of evidence in the form of a thumb drive in which Nassar described his procedures in graphic terms and with troubling language. 

The Indianapolis office also didn’t transfer the Nassar allegations to the FBI’s resident agency in Lansing, Mich., which would have been the most likely place to investigate potential federal crimes that had been committed in the area, even though they told USA Gymnastics that they had. 

Nor did the FBI inform state and local authorities of the ongoing threat posed by Nassar, the report said. Senators and the gymnasts focused closely on the fact that dozens of young women were abused by Nassar after he had been reported to the FBI, but the investigation went nowhere. One, the gymnasts said, was sitting in the hearing room listening to them.

Christopher Wray, the director of the bureau since 2017, testified after the gymnasts, as did the DOJ inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who set out the significant sections of his office’s report.

Wray apologized for what had happened, saying the FBI had let people down. He described the report’s allegations as “beyond the pale.”

“I was heartsick, I was furious, I was outraged, I was bewildered,” Wray said. “This is not the FBI that I see every single day.” 

The report said that the special agent in charge of the Indianapolis office behaved inappropriately by contemplating a job opportunity with what was then called the U.S. Olympic Committee, and later mused with a friend about applying to fill Steve Penny’s position at USA Gymnastics after Penny resigned.

The OIG report also said agents made false statements during the investigation into their actions. The special agent in charge of the Indianapolis office is now retired. The supervisory special agent who conducted the Maroney interview, and comes in for much of the blame in the OIG report, was fired within the last week, Wray said. 

Wray said that the FBI had waited to terminate that agent until it had the inspector general’s report and could follow its proper disciplinary process for that to happen. 

“Someone perhaps more cynical than I would have perhaps concluded that it was the hearing here staring the FBI in the face that prompted that action,” responded Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.

Wray also said that the Department of Justice had twice declined to prosecute the agents. Blumenthal and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, also a Democrat, had sought the appearance of Attorney General Merrick Garland or Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who did not come.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal.
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon