USA Gymnastics informed the FBI of sexual abuse allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar, a longtime national team physician, five weeks after top gymnastics officials were first alerted to suspicions about him -- contrary to earlier statements that they had called law enforcement "immediately."
The sport's national governing body said Thursday, for the first time, that it conducted an internal investigation before contacting the FBI's office in Indianapolis on July 27, 2015.
Nassar left USA Gymnastics later that year. The FBI investigation was transferred to Michigan, then California. The FBI didn't launch a formal investigation for nine months after being notified, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Nassar continued to treat patients at Michigan State University until August 2016.
Nassar, 53, is in jail in Michigan on state charges of criminal sexual conduct with a person younger than 13 and federal child pornography charges.
He was arrested Nov. 21, two months after IndyStar first reported allegations from two former gymnasts, Rachael Denhollander and an unnamed Olympic medalist, that Nassar sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment. Denhollander said she was emboldened to contact police by an August IndyStar investigation revealing USA Gymnastics' failures to report some sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement.
More than 60 people have since contacted law enforcement about Nassar. Many of their complaints allege Nassar used his finger to penetrate their vagina and anus for his own sexual gratification. Numerous plaintiffs in civil lawsuits said the doctor didn't wear gloves, didn't obtain consent and often was alone with minor patients while performing the procedures. Nassar, an osteopathic physician, has claimed he was performing a medical procedure that his patients misunderstood.
Attorney John Manly, who has filed four civil lawsuits against USA Gymnastics and Nassar, said issues with the doctor came to USA Gymnastics officials' attention in June 2015. A coach overheard the U.S. national team member, who is Manly's client, and another elite gymnast discussing the doctor at the Karolyi Ranch, the women's national team's training center in Texas.
The coach reported the conversation to USA Gymnastics senior vice president of women’s program Rhonda Faehn on June 17, 2015, according to USA Gymnastics, and Faehn immediately called Steve Penny, the organization’s president.
Within days, according to USA Gymnastics, Penny spoke with the coach and the gymnast’s mother. According to Manly, the gymnast's mother claimed Penny told her, “I don’t think the police need to be involved right now.” The mother felt Penny was discouraging her from reporting to police, Manly said.
“This family is upset at Steve Penny,” Manly said. “He let them down. And he let those girls down. His staff at the ranch should have called the police immediately. They had an obligation under Texas law and Indiana law to notify the authorities, and they didn’t do it. And there ought to be an investigation. They waited six weeks to call anybody. Not OK.”
USA Gymnastics vehemently denied that characterization. Its statement to IndyStar said the FBI assured the organization that it handled the matter correctly. The FBI declined comment on any aspect of its investigation.
“To the contrary, as soon as Steve Penny learned of a concern, he began frequent communication with the mother," the organization said in a statement to IndyStar. "USA Gymnastics worked closely with the family to arrange the interview, and found the mother to be cooperative and understanding of what we were doing. This was a serious matter, and our two guiding principles were to do the right thing and protect the athletes’ privacy. After we reported Dr. Nassar to the FBI, USA Gymnastics alerted the involved families to that fact and that he had provided their contact information to the FBI.”
USA Gymnastics also posted a statement and timeline on its website.
USA Gymnastics' first response was not to contact the FBI. The organization said it hired an investigator who interviewed multiple gymnasts over the next few weeks. It was only after completing that investigation that USA Gymnastics reported the allegations to the FBI.
Every state has laws requiring who must report allegations of child sexual abuse and when. Both Indiana, where USA Gymnastics is based, and Texas, where the allegation took place, require reports to be made "immediately."
At the time of IndyStar's first article about Nassar in September, USA Gymnastics said it did just that: "Upon learning of athlete concerns, USA Gymnastics immediately notified law enforcement."
But in its statement Thursday the organization said, “When USA Gymnastics learned of an athlete’s concern about Dr. Nassar, we hired an experienced female investigator who conducted an interview with the athlete and her mother at a date and time conducive to the family’s schedule.
After this interview, the investigator recommended additional athlete interviews, which took place during the next two weeks. When the investigator completed the recommended interviews, she reported to USA Gymnastics that it would be appropriate to notify law enforcement and report Dr. Nassar and that is what we did. We contacted the FBI on the next business day, Monday, July 27, to report Dr. Nassar."
Shelley Haymaker, an Indiana attorney who represents abused and neglected children in court cases and is familiar with reporting laws, criticized USA Gymnastics' handling of the situation.
“Nowhere in the statute does it say to hire your own investigator,” she said. “It says to report immediately."
Furthermore, Haymaker as well as other experts have told IndyStar that such investigations are best handled by law enforcement experts, not by organizations that might have a conflict of interest or whose investigation might impede a subsequent criminal investigation.
According to USA Gymnastics, after reporting the allegations to the Indianapolis FBI, the case was transferred to another jurisdiction. The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, reported Thursday that the FBI didn't begin a formal investigation for nine months after being notified.
"As time passed, USA Gymnastics became concerned that it had not received any updates about the investigation," it said in its statement Thursday, adding that the group's board chairman, Paul Parilla, contacted the FBI office in Los Angeles in April 2016.
Parilla and Penny met with two FBI agents from that office in early May 2016 and continued cooperating with the FBI. USA Gymnastics has said the FBI instructed it not to discuss the allegations against Nassar.
It's unclear what happened from then until IndyStar's first report about Nassar in September. Days after that article, Michigan State fired Nassar. In November, he was arrested on state charges in Michigan. Federal authorities later charged him with possession of child pornography.
Nassar's attorneys declined comment to IndyStar. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.