What You Need to Know About the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Sex Abuse Case

For starters, the sentencing hearing involving 163 brave survivors and their relatives—and one very badass judge

A portrait of Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles

Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles is one of dozens of gymnasts who say they were sexually assaulted by Larry Nasser (Photograph: Getty)

In one of the biggest cases of sexual abuse in sports history, former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar has been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for molesting young female gymnasts for 20 years under the guise of medical treatments.

Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty in November to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. His sentencing hearing for the assaults started over a week ago.

Over the course of seven days, a Michigan courtroom heard 163 victim impact statements from gymnasts, student athletes and their parents, some of whom were in the room while their daughters were being sexually abused by a doctor with a sterling reputation. High-profile Olympians, including multi-gold medallists Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, have also come forward to say they were assaulted by Nassar.

 “You played on everyone’s vulnerability. I’m not vulnerable,” Justice Rosemarie Aquilina told Nassar Wednesday after he apologized in court. “As much as it was my honour and privilege to hear the sister survivor [statements], it is my honour and privilege to sentence you. Because you, sir, do not deserve to walk outside of a prison ever again.”

The judge’s decision to open up the sentencing hearing to survivors beyond those connected to the charges was a significant move in the time of #MeToo, as women’s experiences are being listened to in new ways. Here’s what you need to know about the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case:

The Allegations Against Larry Nassar

For decades, Larry Nassar was a sought-after osteopathic doctor in the world of women’s gymnastics, and he became a trusted figure for many of his patients and their families. He was the national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics and served as team doctor from 1996 to 2014. He also worked as an osteopathic doctor at Michigan State University while running a clinic and gymnastics club there.

The women who came forward about Nassar said he would penetrate their vaginas and anuses and fondle their breasts and genitalia during what he deemed were routine medical treatments. He would provide some of these treatments for free, and sometimes in the basement of his family home, while regaling his patients with stories of his experiences treating athletes who’d gone on to be champions and Olympians.

How The Allegations Came To Light

On August 4, 2016, the Indianapolis Star published “Out of Balance,” an investigation into USA Gymnastics’ policies for handling sexual abuse complaints, which allowed predators to continue abusing minors after the organization had been warned. Gymnast Rachael Denhollander of Louisville, Kentucky emailed the paper and said she had been abused by Nassar during five doctor’s visits in 2000, when she was 15. About two weeks later, Olympic medallist Jamie Dantzscher came forward to say she’d been abused by Nassar too, followed by USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer and national champion Jessica Howard. All three made very similar allegations, which were published in the Indianapolis Star in September after Denhollander became the first complainant to go to the police (and the first to allow her face and name to be published) and Dantzscher filed the first lawsuit against Nassar.

On the day of publication, Nassar and his lawyer told the paper that his medical procedures were being “misunderstood.”

By Sept. 25, 2016, 16 more women had gone to the police about Nassar. In the end, 125 women filed criminal complaints with police, and 140 people filed civil lawsuits against Nassar and his employers, including USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. 

Nassar was formally charged on Nov. 22, 2016 with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person younger than 13.

Then, on Dec. 16, 2016, Nassar was indicted on federal child pornography charges after police found more than 37,000 explicit photos on his computer. He pleaded guilty to those charges and in December 2017, he received a sentence of 60 years for those crimes.

Who Knew What, When

When Michigan State University fired Nassar after the Indianapolis Star story came out, it was because he had failed to comply with requirements given to him after a 2014 sexual abuse allegation filed with the university. Nassar was cleared of that complaint, and allowed to keep working in his clinic—he just had to wear gloves when working in “sensitive areas,” and a nurse had to be present in the room.

Some of the women accusing Nassar of sexual abuse said that coaches and administrators knew about complaints against Nassar, but nothing was done to stop him.

“A question that has been asked over and over is: How could Larry Nassar have been allowed to assault so many women and girls for more than two decades?” Olympian McKayla Maroney asked in her statement. “The answer to that question lies in the failure of not one but three major institutions to stop him — Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Community.” Maroney, who said she was abused at the gymnastics training camp in Texas when she was 13 or 14 and again on a trip to Tokyo, also pointed out that neither the national team nor the Olympic committee were told about the 2014 investigation at MSU.

What Happened In Court This Week

Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina gave ample time for victim impact statements, and opened the court to survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, whether they had filed official police complaints or not.

Over seven days, women gave emotional impact statements detailing the physical and mental abuse they endured . “From the day I heard you denied it, I began to question my own memories,” a young woman named Charla Burill said in her statement. “Now I don’t know: Did you molest me, or was it treatment? A person should not walk around wondering if she was molested or not. But because of you, I do.”

The statements ended Wednesday with final words from prosecutor Angela Povilaitis, who called Nassar “possibly the most prolific child sex abuser in history,” and Nassar himself, who apologized in court.

In response, Judge Aquilina—who has been hailed as an advocate for the survivors of sexual abuse who spoke in court—read a letter Nassar submitted to court two months after his charges came down, in which he was defensive and expressed little to no remorse.

“There has to be a massive investigation as to why there was inaction, why there was silence. Justice requires more than what I can do on this bench,” she said, after urging other victims of childhood abuse to say something.

“I’ve just signed your death warrant,” she said as she delivered his sentence — a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 175 years. The judge also deemed Nassar “still a danger” to the public.

The courtroom erupted in applause as Nassar exited. He has 21 days to appeal the sentence.

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