Grownups got sordid reminders of how much work still must be done to protect the nation’s young from sexual exploitation, as top female gymnasts assailed the FBI and Olympic organizations for allowing the wanton predation of a serial criminal and the Boy Scouts offered yet another billion-dollar proposal to try to resolve tens of thousands of sexual abuse claims against the youth group.
The fierce, courageous, and emotional testimony by Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, and Maggie Nichols before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee (screenshot, right, courtesy Canadian Broadcast Co. video) received extensive media coverage. It reflected their fury at how supposedly elite law enforcement agents heard but ignored their charges against Larry Nassar, the former national women gymnastics team doctor who was convicted of an array of sexual abuse charges and will serve a life sentence in prison.
FBI agents ignored agency practices and policy, learning from multiple women of sexual crimes by Nassar and failing to act, misrepresenting what they were told, and later lying to colleagues and superiors about what Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described as their “dereliction of duty,” “systematic organizational failure” and “gross failures” in the case.
FBI Director says agents fired and retired
FBI Director Christopher Wray, who did not head the bureau during the bungled Nassar case, apologized to Nassar’s victims, saying he was heartsick when he learned of the inexplicable misbehavior of agents. He said the agency, which was lambasted by its inspector general over the case, has learned important lessons. As the New York Times reported:
“Mr. Wray said that as a result of the Nassar case the FBI had strengthened its policies, procedures, systems, and training, including emphasizing that agents report abuse cases to state and local law enforcement. He promised that steps in future investigations would be ‘quadruple checked’ so that there was not ‘a single point of failure.’”
Wray said that the once the bureau’s IG had weighed in, he could and did fire Michael Langeman, the supervisory special agent in the FBI Indianapolis office who helped to interview Maroney, an Olympian in 2012. She provided a detailed, specific accounting of Nassar’s wrongdoing, as did other gymnasts. Here is how Langeman failed the young women, as reported by the newspaper:
“After Mr. Langeman interviewed Ms. Maroney — who was just one of the three elite gymnasts who gave U.S.A. Gymnastics details of Mr. Nassar’s abuse — the agent did not properly document that interview or open an investigation. In an interview report that Mr. Langeman filed with the FBI 17 months after he spoke to Ms. Maroney, who was not named in the report, he included statements she did not make … Like other agents initially involved in the case, Mr. Langeman did not alert local or state officials about the allegations of abuse by Mr. Nassar, violating FBI policy that says crimes against children ‘invariably require a broad, multijurisdictional, and multidisciplinary approach.’ Mr. Langeman later said he had filed an initial report about Mr. Nassar, asking for the case to be transferred to the FBI’s Lansing [Mich.] office. But the paperwork wasn’t found in the FBI database ….”
Langeman was not alone in his misconduct, the newspaper reported:
“W. Jay Abbott, a former special agent in the Indianapolis office, also is no longer with the FBI after voluntarily retiring in 2018. The report said he had made false statements to Justice Department investigators and ‘violated FBI policy and exercised extremely poor judgment under federal ethics rules.’
“According to the [inspector general’s] report, Mr. Abbott had been angling for a job with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, which he discussed with Steve Penny, who was then the president of U.S.A. Gymnastics. Several senators expressed surprise and disgust that Mr. Abbott was able to leave the FBI without being disciplined.”
The consequences of the FBI incompetence were dire — not only for destroying the trust the victims showed in the legal system but also for what ensued, as the New York Times reported:
“The agency’s errors allowed Mr. Nassar to continue treating patients at Michigan State University, where he practiced, and in and around Lansing, Mich., including at a local gymnastics center and a high school, even though he had left U.S.A. Gymnastics under a cloud, with both gymnastics officials and the FBI aware of the abuse accusations. Mr. Nassar was able to molest more than 70 girls and women under the guise of medical treatment while the FBI failed to act, the inspector general’s report said.”
Senators and others have asked a tough question about the mistake-ridden FBI inaction — whether it rose to criminal wrongdoing, and, if so, why formal charges have not been filed. The U.S. Justice Department declined to send a representative to the Judiciary hearing to discuss this issue, the newspaper reported.
Boy Scouts, Mormon Church, and insurers try to settle
While the New York Times described Nassar’s serial molestations as “one of the biggest child sex abuse cases in American history,” the Boy Scouts also hit the headlines with yet another of the group’s efforts to emerge from bankruptcy and to settle tens of thousands of pending claims of wrongdoing by its adult leaders against boys and young men. As the Washington Post reported:
“[T]he Boy Scouts proposed a new settlement — the fifth so far — that includes new money from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more money from insurers. In total, it would give over $1 billion to about 82,500 individuals who allege they were victims of sexual abuse during their time in the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts believe the proposed settlement reaches a resolution that equitably compensates alleged victims, the organization said in a statement … It negotiated with insurers, the Mormon Church, and the Coalition of Abused Scouts for Justice — a group of 27 law firms that represent around 65,000 childhood sex abuse victims to create the fifth proposed settlement. But the court-appointed group working on behalf of those who say they were abused …. and attorneys for other alleged victims say the new proposal does not give fair compensation to each person. ‘As each month passes in this bankruptcy case, the Boy Scout’s bankruptcy becomes less about the survivors and more about how the Boy Scouts will exit bankruptcy at the expense of survivors,’ said Doug Kennedy, vice chair of the court-appointed group … Under the latest proposal, the Boy Scouts would give $850 million to the alleged abuse victims — averaging out to around $10,000 for each claimant.”
The Mormon church’s involvement in the settlement was a new turn in the case, the newspaper reported:
“For the first time in the legal proceedings, the Mormon Church offered to settle all current and future Boy Scout-related claims for $250 million. It was previously the largest participant in the Boy Scouts in the United States, making up nearly 20% of all of the Boy Scouts’ 2.3 million youth members, up until it severed ties with the organization in 2019. Eric Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Mormon Church, said in a statement … that the ‘contribution will provide opportunities to alleviate the suffering of those who have experienced abuse.’ Attorneys representing victims, along with the court-appointed group, believe that proposed amount is not enough … So far, about 2,300 alleged sex abuse victims reported being a part of a troop that was affiliated with the religious organization. But there are many more victims who could qualify in the future, said Jason Amala, a sexual abuse attorney representing 1,000 alleged victims.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on children and youths by trusted adults who are part and parcel of institutions that young people must rely on, respect, and even revere. Alas, in recent times, we have seen horrific breaches of basic human decency by sexually exploitative doctors, teachers, youth leaders, and priests. This wrongdoing occurs in churches, schools, colleges and universities, organized athletics, and youth groups.
Sexual assault happens far too often in our country. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Unfortunately, these sex crimes often go unpunished by the criminal justice system. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators are never prosecuted, let alone sent to jail for their crimes.
While critics may deride the civil justice system, especially medical malpractice lawyers like me, lawsuits can provide a crucial way for victims to hold accountable sexual predators and the institutions that permit them to run amok. Victims also may suffer long-term emotional and psychological, as well as physical harms for which they will need years of costly professional care.
We sadly have seen billions of dollars in settlements now in sexual abuse cases of the young, pointing the way not only to systemic fixes we must make but also the huge work that we all must do to safeguard our most precious youthful, loved ones from perverse predators.