The Ugly Case of Olympic Doctor Nassar: How Our Culture Enables Medical Monsters

Olympic team victims complained for two decades. Nobody cared much. How dare they question a doctor?

For 20 years he was an extremely well-known sports physician in the tight-knit community of world-class gymnastics. He routinely treated many of the finest female athletes on the planet. He was the USA team doctor for gymnasts at 4 Olympics in a row. So nobody really wanted to know that he was a sexual predator behind closed doors.

Dr Larry Nassar

U.S. Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar at work

His name is doctor Larry Nassar, and now his impossibly successful career has come crashing down around him. Today, Nassar is in federal custody on felony charges of Child Pornography, and faces numerous charges of Criminal Sexual Conduct involving a child over a 6-year period. Several dozen other women and girls are alleging sexual assault dating back to at least 1994 and continuing into last year.

Investigators now know that the doctor deleted evidence of child porn on his laptop computer as he was under investigation last September. Nassar, age 54, has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.

Dr L NASSAR

Perhaps the most exasperating aspect of the now-exploding sex scandal is that it took two decades of complaints for Nassar to finally be arrested. Some of the apparent victims say they were reporting their shocking experiences, for years, to coaches and counselors, parents and others. What exactly were they saying? That Nassar was placing his fingers into their rectums and vaginas, for treatments that were supposed to address leg, hip and back injuries.

The upcoming trial does not merely reflect on Larry Nassar’s reputation. Also involved in the controversy is Michigan State University, where Nassar was a faculty member from 1997 till 2016. And USA Gymnastics, for whom Nassar functioned as chief medical coordinator; and Twistars, a major gymnastics training facility in Lansing.

In late 1997 one athlete told police she complained to her coach Kathie Klages. She was upset about the way the doctor conducted his “treatments.” She now alleges in a civil lawsuit that coach Klages discouraged her from filing a formal complaint.

In 1997, one parent complained to Twistars owner John Geddert about the doctor’s “inappropriate touching” of his daughter. Geddert not only refused to look into what was claimed, but continued to support Nassar as team physician.

In 1999, a track athlete reported that the doctor was “putting his fingers in my vagina” during treatment for a leg strain. She was reportedly told her that Nassar was “an Olympic doctor and knew what he was doing.”

In 1999, an MSU softball player said she told three MSU athletic trainers that Nassar was sexually inappropriate during medical treatments. All 3 trainers dismissed her concerns, and one of them told her that she should feel grateful to be treated by a world-renowned doctor.

In 2000, gymnast Rachal Denhollander says she was abused by Nassar when she was 15 years old at the MSU sports medicine clinic. When she reported what happened, the coach advised her to keep quiet.

In 2004, a criminal complaint was filed with Meridian Township Police by a Nassar patient alleging sexual abuse. Police won’t say why they closed the case without seeking criminal charges.

In 2014, another police report filed by a different woman alleged abuse during medical treatment. The case was referred to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to press charges after they recognized “it could be a legitimate medical procedure.”

In the summer of 2015, USA Gymnastics finally terminated Nassar when the talk of “athlete concerns” got louder. But Michigan State University says they were “never told” of those concerns. So Nassar continued to touch the female athlete’s MSU’s sports clinic for another year, as well as treating girls from Twistars.

USA Gymnastics said in a statement the organization contacted the FBI “immediately” in 2015 after they learned of allegations and relieved Nassar of duties.

Gymnast Rachal Denhollander told investigators she failed to call police for more than 15 years because, “I was 100% sure that I would not be believed.”

Nassar “was USAG’s golden boy,” she said. “He was so loved in the community that I was very sure . . . I would be crucified and he would end up empowered, knowing he couldn’t get caught.”

Denhollander finally came forward in August 2016 after she read an Indianapolis Star story on USA Gymnastics‘ apparent mishandling of sexual assault complaints. She contacted police, which led to a news story in which Denhollander and another former Olympic medalist detailed their reported assaults by the doctor.

As of last month, at least 50 women and girls have filed criminal complaints. They are being investigated by the Michigan Attorney General’s office, and at least 26 women have filed lawsuits.

“This was all avoidable, if someone had just taken action back in 1997 when this was first reported. When you’ve got teenage girls telling coaches that a doctor is putting his hand inside their vagina for 30 minutes, with no gloves or medical reason, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out your next step.” (an attorney familiar with the case)

 

One former Olympic gymnast from Los Angeles told authorities she first came into contact with Nassar in 1994, as a young teen. She said the doctor told her she needed “intravaginal adjustments” – treatments involving vaginal and anal penetration, performed without gloves and with no one else in the room, her lawsuit says. Some of these treatments occurred in her hotel room while traveling for competitions.

Criminal complaints were brought before police at least twice. Neither investigation resulted in charges being filed.

The first occurred in 2004, when a report was filed with Meridian Township police by a 16-year old student athlete, claiming Nassar touched her vagina and breasts, according to a lawsuit. Police confirm the existence of the report, which was closed without charges being sought, but say it cannot be released because of the current criminal investigation.

USA Gymnastics did not tell Michigan State in 2015 about allegations involving Nassar, who continued seeing patients at MSU until he was suspended in August 2016, shortly after Denhollander filed a police report. As more complaints flooded in, Nassar was fired 3 weeks later.

Our culture of enabling medical monsters

“This whole epidemic of sexual abuse was entirely preventable. It should have been stopped after the first athlete made a report. It certainly should have stopped after a second athlete made a report.” (the prosecution)

And so now, Doctor Larry Nassar – longtime doctor at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, has been ordered to stand trial on charges of sexually assaulting 6 young gymnasts, who said he molested them while they were seeking treatment for various injuries.

 

(We are indebted to investigative reporters Julie Mack and Emily Lawler for their terrific research)

 

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2 thoughts on “The Ugly Case of Olympic Doctor Nassar: How Our Culture Enables Medical Monsters

  1. Ron Slade, Pharm.D. says:

    There are times I suspect I have a chip on my shoulder. I saw doctors do things I wouldn’t have thought possible over the 40 years I spent working among them. Sexual harassment of nurses, drug addiction, incredible arrogance, theft and their fear that Communists were hiding behind every tree waiting to impose “socialized medicine” on them were common, as was marital infidelity. One such case involved an ophthalmologist chasing a proctologist around a patient on a gurney shouting, “Are the son-of-a-bitch who’s been fucking my wife?” The wife in question was an anesthesiologist and, yes, he was.

    The irony in all this is that the free market capitalist approach they championed eventually ate their lunch, and the private practice of medicine they loved has become an anachronism.

  2. I really admire the respect you have for women and girls!

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