Gymnastics scandal offers a tragic reminder of challenges in protecting kids

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His basic credentials would come under fire, but they were sufficient for the “doctor” to insinuate himself into major institutions, and, worse, into the lives of hundreds of girls and young women on whom he inflicted a tragic toll. His combination of enthusiasm — he was a rah-rah kind of guy— extreme controlling conduct, and horrific “treatments” never seemed to set off the red flags they should have.

Instead, Larry Nassar — an osteopath who served as an athletics and team caregiver for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University — got away for years with abusing adolescent females put under his  sway. He purportedly provided medical services to them, many in exclusive and demanding athletic camps where young participants were cut off from their friends, family, coaches, and personal physicians. He “treated” aspiring Olympians, at all hours of the night and day, alone and without any other adults around, in their bedrooms, on their beds — not in medical offices or athletic training facilities.

He enthusiastically told his patients, many of whom excelled at their sport because of their willingness to please adults and to be coached, that he could deal with their pains and injuries with what he termed pelvic manipulations in which he digitally penetrated them in their private parts. Without medical cause or justification, he conducted repeated and invasive “exams” of girls and young women’s genitals.

In a legal spectacle, more than 150 courageous victims denounced him in court. Nassar has been convicted of numerous sexual crimes and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Huge questions remain as to how so many adults — including academic and sporting group leaders — failed to protect vulnerable young people from rampant sexual predation under the guise of medical care.

Make no mistake about it: Physicians can sexually abuse their patients, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found in its recently published year-long investigation.

But the scope, duration, and heinousness of Nassar’s abuses, which stretched over decades and were uncovered largely by the Indianapolis Star in its relentless investigation into USA Gymnastics, demand accountability for his enablers and better ways to prevent sexual crimes against kids. Have we learned nothing from the Penn State pedophilia scandal?

The New York Times, in a sad sign of the times, has put out a series of stories that may help grown-ups  talk through a difficult topic like sexual abuse and predation with young people, to answer their tough questions with appropriate candor, and to offer children guidance and comfort. After all, thousands of girls throw their hearts, minds, and bodies into competitive gymnastics, and tens of millions around the globe have been captivated by the sport contested at its pinnacle by its elite young women athletes.

The newspaper also has tackled the thorny question of how adults can protect children from inappropriate and even criminal conduct by doctors, the few grown-ups who most youngsters are taught to allow to touch them in invasive and highly personal ways.

The American Academy of Pediatricians, the New York Times has noted, has put out an extensive, detailed policy paper on protecting youngsters from sexual abuse by health care providers. Reading it and media accounts on this case can’t help but trigger basic, big questions as to how the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, MSU, and an army of adults defied common sense and fundamental integrity in allowing Nassar’s sex crime spree.

Many adults with connections to competitive gymnastics say they long will be haunted as to how they and so many others missed Nassar’s evil-doing. The brave women who stepped forward to end his horrors deserve a salute — and not for their sporting accomplishment in the face of sexual abuse but also for overcoming the psychological torment to confront a medical caregiver who acted with such impunity.

In my practice, I see the huge harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and the painful and unacceptable injuries that can be inflicted by adults on babies and children, including by molesters and other sexual deviants and predators.

Doctors and hospitals must better police their own ranks. They can do themselves favor in doing so, for example, by keeping medical providers with inappropriate training, experience, and credentials from offering specialized care outside their ken. Really, MSU, in the 21st century, you’re encouraging the dubious practice of osteopathy — with its elevation of spinal manipulation and acceptance of “intravaginal massage” for women’s cramps — and welcoming based on little evidence a practitioner like Nassar as an athletic training and care expert?  Many heads, at MSU and in women’s gymnastics, already have rolled. Many others still must.

Photo credit: Michigan Attorney General’s Office via the Associated Press

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