WASHINGTON – Senators questioned the sincerity of reforms at the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University in the wake of sex-abuse scandals – using legal papers, emails and accounts of conversations to portray organizations that still don’t fully grasp the pain they inflicted.
At a hearing Tuesday in Washington, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut criticized leaders of the USOC and USA Gymnastics for court filings this month that seek to absolve the federations of legal responsibility for Larry Nassar’s sex-abuse crimes.
Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and others blistered Michigan State’s interim president, former Michigan Republican governor John Engler, for insensitive emails and comments he made during negotiations that produced a $500 million settlement with sex-abuse victims who attended the school.
“I think you have some repair work to do here today, to put it mildly,” Hassan said, prompting applause from the 80 or so victims who attended the hearing.
Nassar, a longtime sports doctor at Michigan State who also volunteered as the team physician for USA Gymnastics, is serving decades in prison for child pornography and other crimes after hundreds of women said he sexually abused them under the guise of medical care.
Last Friday, the USOC filed a motion to be removed as a defendant in lawsuits filed by gold-medal gymnasts Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney, arguing that it had no legal responsibility for Nassar’s actions.
“There are all kinds of defenses the parties can make, but there’s also a moral responsibility here,” Blumenthal said. “If you’re serious and sincere, you will withdraw (the court filings). You need to be part of the legal solution, not just come here and apologize.”
USA Gymnastics filed papers in a different lawsuit that also deny legal liability for Nassar’s actions, in part because he wasn’t on the payroll. Blumenthal seized on this wording in the USAG court filing: “USAG denies that Nassar was an employee or agent of USAG.”
When he pressed CEO Kerry Perry on that point, she said she was unaware of the court filing, but that “Larry Nassar was absolutely an agent of USA Gymnastics.”
Also weighing in was Han Xiao, a table tennis player who serves as the USOC’s athletes’ representative. He called the sex-abuse scandal part of a larger problem in Olympic sports, in which the USOC and the sports organizations hold an inordinate amount of power over the athletes.
That power structure, Han said, renders athletes unwilling or unable to complain about issues including sex abuse, funding and training for fear of retribution. He applauded the launch of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, but said it needs additional sources of funding – most comes from the USOC and the sports organizations – to ensure it is independent from the sway of those federations.
“Personally, I don’t think so,” Han answered when asked if he heard anything at the hearing that led him to believe cultural change would occur. “I don’t think so much that it’s a failing organization. It’s a failing of the entire system, the way it’s set up.”
The harshest criticism over the two-hour hearing was saved for Engler, who wrote in an April email that the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, Rachel Denhollander, was likely to get a “kickback” from her lawyer for her role in the “manipulation” of survivors. Engler also was questioned about a conversation with survivor Kaylee Lorincz, in which Lorincz claimed he asked her if she would accept a check for $250,000.
Engler repeatedly denied making such an offer. He conceded the email was a mistake.
“Emotions do get high. It’s an adversarial process,” Engler said. “I confess to getting very frustrated. But at the end of the day, we did get a settlement done, we fixed policies and strengthened accountability.”
Also criticized, but not represented at the witness table, was the FBI, which knew of allegations against Nassar for months before his arrest. At least 40 girls and women were molested between the time the FBI learned of the allegations and when Denhollander went public.
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