MSU doctor accused of abusing USA gymnasts

Two former gymnasts, including an Olympic medalist, have accused a prominent, longtime team physician for USA Gymnastics of sexual abuse.

One of the women filed a civil lawsuit Thursday in California. The other filed a complaint last week with police in Michigan.

The women, in separate interviews with IndyStar, provided detailed accounts that closely mirrored each other as they outlined their allegations against Dr. Larry G. Nassar. Nassar served as USA Gymnastics' team physician during four Olympic Games and resigned his position last September with little public notice.

Nassar, a faculty member at Michigan State University who has treated the university's gymnasts, has not been charged with any crime. He said in an email to IndyStar that the former gymnasts have a “misunderstanding of my medical care.”

“It saddens me greatly,’’ he wrote, “to think that these gymnasts feel I offended them when I was trying to help them.”

His lawyer, Matthew Borgula, said Nassar “emphatically” denies any wrongdoing. “To the extent he provided medical treatment to anyone, that treatment was always done with consent of the patient,” Borgula wrote in a statement to the Detroit Free Press. “He is proud of his 29 years of volunteer service with USA Gymnastics. He has never been accused of any crime or ever been sued until this current lawsuit, which alleges misconduct that occurred 16 years ago. He plans on vigorously defending himself and his reputation in Court and believes he will be exonerated.”

The women said they were molested during multiple treatments in the 1990s and early 2000s. The two women said the doctor fondled their genitals and breasts. One of them said Nassar also spoke about oral sex and made other inappropriate comments when they were alone, according to court records. The other woman said she told police Nassar was visibly aroused as he examined her during one medical visit.

On Thursday, one of the former gymnasts — the Olympic medalist — sued Nassar and USA Gymnastics in California, where she lives. The woman, who is unnamed in the suit, alleges that the Indianapolis-based organization failed to act on suspicions about the doctor’s conduct. She said USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar to examine her alone in private rooms in violation of best practices and the organization’s current standards of conduct.

The other woman, who lives in Kentucky, filed a police complaint against Nassar last week at Michigan State University. As a teenage gymnast, she was treated there by Nassar, according to medical records.

The university said Wednesday that it has suspended Nassar from "clinical and patient duties" as it looks into his alleged criminal misconduct. University officials also began an investigation under Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs.

In addition to serving as a faculty member at Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, Nassar is a team physician at Twistars Gymnastics Club USA in Michigan and worked until Aug. 30 as a team physician for Michigan State University and at Holt High School

. Officials at Michigan State and Twistars said USA Gymnastics did not inform them of the concerns. Nassar resigned from USA Gymnastics last fall but continued to work with young athletes at Michigan State and Twistars.

Nassar has worked as a team physician for Holt Public Schools as part of a contract the district has with MSU Sports Medicine for a pool of physicians, said Scott Szpara, deputy superintendent. Szpara said the district learned of the allegations late Monday afternoon.

District officials were planning to notify MSU officials Tuesday morning that Nassar is not to be involved with students in the district, “Not only because of the allegations and protecting our students, but also because of the allegations and protecting Dr. Nassar from any additional allegations or awkward situations.”

He said he was not sure when Nassar last interacted with Holt students. “I know historically Dr. Nassar has been involved with our student athletes. Recently we’re not so sure if he has been.”

On Wednesday, USA Gymnastics issued a statement in response to questions from IndyStar:

“Dr. Nassar is no longer affiliated with USA Gymnastics. Upon learning of athlete concerns, USA Gymnastics immediately notified law enforcement. Since then, we have cooperated fully with the law enforcement agency, including refraining from making further statements or taking any other action that might interfere with the agency’s investigation. We are grateful to the athletes for coming forward to share their concerns.”

The organization, which serves as the sport’s national governing body and selects the Olympic team, would not provide further detail.

In August, an IndyStar investigation revealed that USA Gymnastics executives repeatedly failed to forward allegations of sexual abuse at its member clubs to law enforcement authorities. The organization relied on a policy of not alerting authorities unless allegations came directly from an athlete or an athlete’s parent or guardian, according to testimony in court records.

The two women independently came forward with allegations against Nassar after reading IndyStar's investigation. IndyStar is not naming the California woman at her request and because she was identified only as "Jane Doe" in the lawsuit. The other, Rachael Denhollander, said reading IndyStar's investigation inspired her to speak out.

"Over the last 16 years, I've realized I have a responsibility, and the question about whether or not to speak publicly cannot center around what's easy for me,” she said. “This isn't something I want to do.”

‘Damaged goods’

Denhollander filed a criminal complaint against Nassar last week with Michigan State University Police, alleging the doctor sexually assaulted her when she received treatment for lower back pain as a 15-year-old club-level gymnast in 2000. University officials confirmed that police are conducting a criminal investigation.

She said Nassar gradually became more abusive over five treatments, massaging her genitals, penetrating her vagina and anus with his finger and thumb and unhooking her bra and massaging her breasts. She said she also relayed those details to police.

Denhollander said her mother was present during Nassar’s treatments, but that he positioned himself and her in such a way that only her head and back were visible.

"I was terrified,” she recalled. “I was ashamed. I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be. He's this famous doctor. He's trusted by my friends. He's trusted by these other gymnasts. How could he reach this position in the medical profession, how could he reach this kind of prominence and stature if this is who he is?”

She said she figured the problem must be with her.

“Part of that, I know now, is a very common response that victims have,” Denhollander said. “It's much easier in some ways to hide from what's happening and just go somewhere else mentally. It was easier to not have to verbalize and recognize what was happening."

Years later, while Denhollander and her husband, Jacob, were dating and contemplating a future together, she nervously told him about the alleged abuse. They were on swings at a playground.

"She was telling it from the perspective of feeling that she was damaged goods, that she was broken, and would I put up with that,” Jacob Denhollander said. “To me that was one of the most heartbreaking things, to hear that had been her experience, and her perspective was, 'I'm dirty because of it. I'm damaged.'"

Rachael Denhollander said she knows that if her case is prosecuted, she might be called to testify publicly in court about deeply personal and sensitive experiences.

"I hate that idea,” she said. “I hate it. But if I don't, he can continue."

‘Instrumental to the success’

Nassar, 53, has been a high-profile figure in gymnastics for decades. During one of the sport’s iconic moments, U.S. Olympic team officials handed over gymnast Kerri Strug to Nassar after she performed on the vault with an injured ankle. At the time, it was believed to be the performance necessary to secure the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny once praised Nassar as being “instrumental to the success of USA Gymnastics at many levels, both on and off the field of play.” In that 2014 news release, Penny added that Nassar’s “contributions over the years are immeasurable and will continue to be so.”

Nassar is president of the Gymnastics Doctor Autism Foundation, which helps gymnastics clubs establish programs for special needs children, and his Facebook page is filled with tributes to him.

“He’s an extremely professional physician,” John Geddert, the 2012 Olympic team head coach and owner of Twistars Gymnastics, told IndyStar. “Very competent and goes above and beyond the call of duty in treating athletes. He’s probably one of the most respected gymnastics professionals I’ve ever had to deal with.”

Nassar worked with 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber of DeWitt, both with the U.S. program and Twistars Gymnastics near Lansing.

“Larry was always very professional in treating Jordyn throughout the years,” Wieber’s mother, Rita, told the Detroit Free Press.

IndyStar was unable to find any other allegations of sexual misconduct against Nassar in civil or criminal court records.

In 2014, he posted on Facebook that he said he would continue working with women’s artistic gymnastics “for as long as the program feels I can be an asset to them.” In June 2015, Nassar wrote a Facebook post saying he intended to stay on as U.S. Olympic team doctor through the Rio Olympics.

Yet three months later, Nassar quit his job as team doctor. Last month, Nassar explained on Facebook why he wasn’t at the Rio Olympics. He said he retired so he could run for a school board position in Holt, Michigan.

“I knew that if I dedicated the time needed to be at the 2016 Rio Olympics, I would not be able to prepare a campaign for the school board,” he wrote.

Borgula, his lawyer, said Nassar’s retirement had nothing to do with allegations of sexual abuse, but he did acknowledge that USA Gymnastics had informed the doctor of potentially criminal allegations prior to his resignation.

USA Gymnastics would not tell IndyStar which law enforcement agency it reported to. And Borgula said no agency ever contacted Nassar concerning the allegations USA Gymnastics said it forwarded to police.

How many athletes expressed concerns to USA Gymnastics, and when those concerns were received, is unclear. The two athletes who approached IndyStar said they did not report their concerns directly to USA Gymnastics.

In the California lawsuit against Nassar, attorney John Manly disputes USA Gymnastics’ contention that it promptly reported concerns about the doctor.

The lawsuit was filed in Sacramento County against Nassar, USA Gymnastics and the organization's past three presidents, including Penny. None of the individuals was mentioned by name, but Manly confirmed the identities of the defendants targeted by the suit. The unnamed plaintiff claims USA Gymnastics received warnings about Nassar and failed to report them to authorities. The lawsuit does not cite specific evidence of prior warnings and, in an interview with IndyStar, Manly declined to elaborate on what information he has.

“I’m not going to get into the details because, frankly, it would give the defense an unfair advantage,” he said.

The lawsuit claims USA Gymnastics not only hid complaints about Nassar, it failed to adequately supervise his activities. Manly’s client said Nassar penetrated her vaginally with his fingers during treatments meant to treat hip, pelvic and back pain.

One legal expert who spoke to IndyStar said cases such as Manly’s can be extremely complicated because of conflicting accounts of doctors and patients. Such cases can be stronger if they involve multiple victims, said Nicolas Terry, executive director of the William S. and Christine S. Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

Terry also said such suits often hinge on debates over what constitutes a legitimate medical procedure.

Dr. Mark Cantieri, president of the Indiana Osteopathic Association, said he had no knowledge of the allegations against Nassar and would not comment specifically about Nassar’s case. Cantieri did, however, say there are legitimate intravaginal procedures, including for chronic pelvic pain, but those procedures are not frequently used.

When the procedures are used, he said they should be conducted according to widely accepted standards. Among them:

  • What the procedure involves should be explained to the patient and, in the case of a juvenile, the parent or guardian. And prior permission should be granted.
  • It should be performed with another person of the same sex as the patient in the room.
  • Gloves should be worn and a lubricant should be used.
  • The doctor should advise the patient when penetration is about to occur.

“You should have, at least, verbal permission from the patient that it’s OK to proceed,” Cantieri said. “If it’s a minor, they’re going to have a parent in the room, and their approval.”

Cantieri said he personally would not generally use such a procedure for hip or back pain.

In her lawsuit, the California woman claims Nassar ignored most of those standards.

The lawsuit claims Nassar “would do anal and vaginal examinations of Plaintiff and other gymnasts in the care of (USA Gymnastics) without gloves, a chaperone, and/or any form of lubricant.”

The suit also said the plaintiff and Nassar were alone in a room for most treatments.

The California woman told IndyStar she didn't report the alleged abuse at the time because she didn't know it was wrong. According to the lawsuit, the abuse started when she was 12 or 13 and continued until she was 18.

“It felt like a privilege to be seen by him,” she said. “I trusted him.”

Her lawsuit said the procedures Nassar performed were “well outside any recognized and/or accepted technique and were done for the Perpetrator’s … own sexual gratification.”

Nassar would “fondle and grope Plaintiff’s feet, ankles, thighs, buttocks, hips, waist, breasts, arms, shoulders and neck, placing Plaintiff under the impression this inappropriate contact was part of treatment,” according to the suit.

The lawsuit also claims Nassar talked to the California gymnast about sex, describing oral sex and telling her that other underage gymnasts are doing it.

The California woman told IndyStar it took her more than a decade to understand what Nassar had done. She never told anyone until July. And she wept as she tried to talk about how it affected her life.

The lawsuit says she "suffered immensely" from anxiety, depression, a lack of trust and "self-medicating behavior."

“It’s a lot,” she said.

IndyStar will continue to investigate this topic. If you have information you would like to share, please email investigations@indystar.com or call (317) 444-6262.


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