Reckless Disregard: Senate Hearings Showcase the FBI's Doltish Indifference to Predatory Molestation of Gymnasts
Last week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the sexual molestation of dozens of young female gymnasts combined the unfamiliar appearance of congressional bipartisanship with the sobering story of an FBI whose gross indifference to a physician's rampant abuse of his patients fully warranted Committee Chair Dick Durbin's verdict. The shoddiness, the insensitivity, the disinterest and the bureaucratic buffoonery displayed by the world's preeminent law enforcement agency in the face of evidence that Dr. Larry Nassar had subjected minor athletes to sexual assault was, Durbin said, "a stain on the Bureau."
The case of Nassar and his large-scale sexual abuse of young gymnasts under his professional care became national news in 2016. Nassar, an employee of Michigan State University, was also USA Gymnastics' National Medical Coordinator and responsible for treating young athletes. In July 2015, the president of USA Gymnastics, located in Indianapolis, brought the results of an internal investigation documenting Nassar's serial sexual abuse of children to the FBI's Indianapolis field office.
What happened then is detailed by the inspector general of the Justice Department, who this summer issued a withering report. The FBI waited six weeks before conducting a single telephonic interview of one of the athletes and failed to document either its meeting with USA Gymnastics or its interview with the victim. On the basis of this poor excuse for an investigation, it concluded that there was no basis for federal prosecution and declined to notify any state or local authority that would clearly have jurisdiction to prosecute or to take any steps to protect the gymnasts entrusted to Nassar's purported care. Because Nassar treated the gymnasts at Michigan State, the Indianapolis United States Attorney's office advised the FBI to transfer the matter to its Lansing, Michigan, field office. The FBI told USA Gymnastics that it was doing so -- and then didn't.
After eight months in which nothing happened, USA Gymnastics contacted the FBI's Los Angeles office. That office inquired with its Indianapolis counterpart -- which falsely represented that they had transferred the matter to Lansing. The Los Angeles office thereupon opened an investigation, but like Indianapolis did nothing to move against Nassar, or notify any state or local law enforcement agencies that they could do so, or do anything at all to protect Nassar's victims, many of whom were being subjected to ongoing victimization while the FBI dithered.
It wasn't until September 2016 that anyone acted to stop Nassar from abusing children, no thanks to the FBI. A separate complaint was filed with the relatively lowly Michigan State University Police Department, then dozens. It was the MSUPD that executed a search warrant at Nassar's residence, leading finally to his arrest. In between the time that the FBI was provided with detailed and wholly accurate evidence of Nassar's crimes in July 2015 and his arrest in September 2016, an estimated 70 young women were subjected to life-scarring abuse at his hands.
The inspector general found not only gross negligence on the FBI's part in handling -- or mishandling -- the Nassar case, but corruption as well. It is not a pretty picture: falsification of official documents, lying aplenty and a particularly tawdry account of the head of the Indianapolis FBI office meeting with the head of USA Gymnastics about a potential job, discussing the latter's concerns about the public image of USA Gymnastics while burying the case.
At last week's Senate hearing, gymnast McKayla Maroney described the lone telephonic interview conducted by the FBI, in which she recounted "all of my molestations in extreme detail." She went on: "I cried and there was just silence on the part of the agent." It would be over a year before anyone did anything about that molestation or the molestations of so many others.
Among the obvious questions left by the inspector general's report and the Senate hearings is this one: If this was the response of the FBI to evidence of sexual abuse, what do we suppose is the response of state and local law enforcement when victims come forward?
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.