Women at Nassar sentencing also take aim at MSU, USA Gymnastics

LANSING - With the nation watching as more than 100 women and girls describe the abuse they suffered by Larry Nassar, the institutions that connected themselves to him for two decades have been pulled into the courtroom.

Even as Olivia Cowan wept about the toll on herself and her family, she had sharp criticism for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, both of which gave Nassar access to the women and girls speaking this week.

"I've gone from a raving fan of MSU to now seeing green and white in the very same way I see Larry Nassar," Cowan said. "I want MSU and USAG to know what they have done is on the very same level of accountability as the crime Nassar has committed."

She spoke on Tuesday, one of the first of an expected 101 women and girls who will give victim impact statements in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's courtroom during Nassar's four-day sentencing hearing. 

"As if the struggle of what Larry Nassar did isn't bad enough, it's horrifying that MSU and USA Gymnastics are not stepping up to the plate to admit their wrongdoing," she said.

Cowan is not the only speaker to share her anger before the national audience.

Nassar's guilty pleas in November renewed calls for independent investigations of MSU and what university officials knew about Nassar. Some have called for MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign.

Last week, Simon and Board of Trustees Chairperson Brian Breslin considered attending the hearing in person, but ultimately decided against it. Tuesday evening, MSU spokesman Jason Cody noted that Simon and Breslin had viewed live media coverage from the the first day of the four-day hearing.

On Wednesday, as the afternoon session began, Simon entered Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's courtroom and took a seat in the back row. 

During a mid-afternoon break, Simon was surrounded by reporters and cameras, a crowd that filled a doorway into the courtroom. 

“I didn’t want to be a disruption but you guys are reinforcing my view that I am a disruption for processes for victims and survivors,” Simon told the media crowd. “This is not about us and MSU today. That’ll happen, not today.”

MSU spokesman Jason Cody said Tuesday afternoon that women's statements at the hearing were "heartbreaking" and "words cannot express the sorrow we feel for Nassar’s victims."

He also reiterated that "any suggestion that the university covered up Nassar’s horrific conduct is simply false. Nassar preyed on his victims, changing their lives in terrible ways."

The university set up a $10 million fund this month to provide counseling services to women and girls who say Nassar abused them at MSU. The gesture did little to quiet the criticism of how the university handled sexual assault reports against Nassar.

Near the center of the criticism of MSU is how the university handled a 2014 sexual assault report against Nassar by Amanda Thomashow, who spoke in court on Wednesday. That report prompted both a criminal investigation by police and a Title IX investigation by MSU. The university's three-month Title IX investigation cleared Nassar, in part, by relying on the medical opinions of four MSU employees who all had close ties to Nassar. The Title IX investigator's determination was that Thomashow likely misinterpreted the legitimate medical procedure as sexual assault because she didn't understand the "nuanced difference" between them.

Even though he was cleared, the university implemented protocols for Nassar before he could resume seeing patients. Those protocols included no mechanism to ensure compliance. His boss later told police he didn't see the need to follow up to ensure compliance. 

In court on Wednesday, Thomashow said she thought her report to MSU would stop Nassar. 

"But I was wrong," she said. "The investigation done by MSU was brief and sloppy. It left me feeling disposable and worthless."

The MSU police investigation from her report took 16 months longer than the Title IX investigation, during which the university allowed Nassar to see patients. 

At least a dozen women and girls have told police that Nassar abused them after the university concluded it's Title IX investigation, records show.

Kerry Perry, appointed in November as president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, sat in the back row of the courtroom gallery on Tuesday and was there again on Wednesday,

Gina Nichols was the first woman to give a statement on Wednesday, during the second day of Nassar's sentencing. She read a statement from her daughter, Maggie Nichols, who in 2015 reported to USA Gymnastics that Nassar had abused her.

hen she finished reading that statement, Gina Nichols spoke for herself,

"Shame on MSU, USAG and the United States Olympic Committee for this gross, inexcusable negligence, for allowing this pedophile to flourish for this long, and for all these poor victims to be abused," she said. 

Gina Nichols then turned around to address Perry, telling the USAG official  she didn't want to hear anymore statements about changes and new safeguards because it's too late.

"We need to make a safe place," she said. "But all the people at USA and MSU and the United State Olympic Committee who covered it up and allowed this negligence and abuse to happen to children are responsible. And they have to take responsibility for it."

In a statement released after Tuesday's court session, Perry said, "We are absolutely disgusted by his abhorrent actions. We are very sorry that any athlete has been hurt by the despicable crimes Larry Nassar committed. Our hearts break for these athletes and we deeply admire their courage and strength in sharing their experiences. 

"USA Gymnastics will keep their words and experiences at the core of everything we do as we remain focused on our highest priority – the safety, health and well-being of our athletes and creating a culture that empowers and supports them."

Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney alleged in a lawsuit filed last month that USA Gymnastics paid her more than $100,000 to stay silent about sexual abuse she suffered from Nassar. The lawsuit said the payment came in December 2016, three months after an Indianapolis Star investigation first exposed Nassar publicly.

In 2015, USA Gymnastics informed the FBI of sexual abuse allegations against Nassar five weeks after top gymnastics officials were first alerted to suspicions about him. The sport's national governing body said last year that it conducted an internal investigation before contacting the FBI on July 27, 2015.

Around that same time, MSU police finished their investigation of Thomashow's 2014 report, and submitted a warrant request for a sexual assault charge to the Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. On Dec. 15, 2015, prosecutors declined to charge him. Eight months later, Rachael Denhollander reported her abuse to MSU police, which sparked the new criminal investigation that led to Nassar's guilty pleas.

Nicole Soos said on Tuesday that the nightmares about what happened to her have haunted her "night after night." She was a figure skater when she saw Nassar for treatment.

"It is imperative to show our society that sexual abuse will not be tolerated, and that we value the importance of bringing proper justice to those who have suffered by the actions of others," she said. 

"But we cannot stop here. Those who have enabled Larry Nassar and his Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle need to answer to us as well. Michigan State University must take accountability for their absence in putting an end to this abuse scandal." 

Soos then referenced a December 2017 letter from Patrick Fitzgerald, a former federal prosecutor MSU hired as outside counsel, to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who had sought records related to an internal investigation

"We believe the evidence will show that no MSU official believed Nassar committed sexual abuse prior to newspaper reports in late summer 2016," Fitzgerald wrote. 

Soos said on Tuesday that she thinks MSU officials did have knowledge and failed to act.

"If this had been appropriately addressed," she told the judge, "I wouldn't be talking to you here today. Something has gone severely wrong at MSU. They have ignored us and their lack of action shows us that they stand behind a serial sexual abuser.

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Lansing State Journal


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