The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.
Once again, Americans — if they will watch and listen — are confronted with gut wrenching testimony of sexual abuse by a powerful man. Worse, that abuse was covered up or ignored by the very entities, including the FBI, that were counted on to protect the safety and wellbeing of the victims.
This time, the testimony is from top American gymnasts, including seven-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles, who told senators their work should be guided by one question: “How much is a little girl worth?”
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, four gymnasts — Biles, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols — tearfully shared their stories and pleaded with senators to do their job of fully investigating how their abuse — and that of more than 100 other girls — could go on for so long, and to hold those who failed to protect them accountable. USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees were created by Congress and are subject to their oversight, authority that was strengthened last year in the wake of the gymnastics sexual assault cases.
In 2015, gymnasts, including Nichols, first reported abuse by Larry Nassar, then a physician for USA Gymnastics, the body that oversees gymnastics in the U.S.
Nassar, who also worked for Michigan State University and a high school and gymnastics team in Michigan, plead guilty to charges of possessing child pornography and criminal sexual conduct, involving 115 victims in 2017. He is serving 60 years in federal prison, concurrent with up to 175 years in state prison.
No officials with USA Gymnastics or the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee have been charged in connection with the abuse. Nor had FBI officials, who mishandled the case and lied about it, been disciplined before last week. The agent in charge of the mishandled FBI investigation was fired shortly before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
A Department of Justice Inspector General report makes it clear that these groups, and the FBI, were aware of the claims of abuse for more than a year before an FBI investigation was launched. This allowed Nassar to sexually abuse more than 70 athletes after the allegations were first made against him, the report said.
“To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar, and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetuated his abuse,” Biles said, her voice cracking, after telling the committee she’d rather be anywhere other than sitting in front of them and sharing her experience.
She is the only survivor of Nassar’s abuse to compete in this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, where she won two medals. Biles told the senators that the year delay in holding the Olympics left her to deal with the scars of her abuse for another 365 days, which was even more difficult when she had to travel to Japan without her family because of COVID restrictions. Biles, the world’s top gymnast, withdrew from several Olympic events to “put mental health first.”
“I am a strong individual and I will persevere, but I never should have been left alone to suffer the abuse of Larry Nassar,” Biles said in her testimony. “And the only reason I did, was because of the failures that lie at the heart of the abuse that you are now asked to investigate.”
Those failures prompted both tears and anger from the four gymnastics, who each spoke eloquently about how horrified they are that Nassar’s abuse continued long after they had reported it.
“In sacrificing my childhood for the chance to compete for the United States, I am haunted by the fact that even after I reported my abuse, so many women and girls had to needlessly suffer at the hands of Larry Nassar. USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the FBI have all betrayed me and those who were abused by Larry Nassar after I reported,” Nichols told the committee. She said she was told by USA Gymnastics to keep quiet about her abuse allegations and that she was ostracized after she reported being abused. She was a two-time national gymnastics champion at the University of Oklahoma.
The women’s testimony elicited a strong promise from FBI Director Christopher Wray.
“I’d like to make a promise to the women who appeared here today and to all victims of abuse: I’m not interested in simply addressing this wrong and moving on. It’s my commitment to you that I and my entire senior leadership team are going to make damn sure everybody at the FBI remembers what happened here — in heartbreaking detail,” he told the committee.
“We need to remember the pain that occurred when our folks failed to do their jobs. We need to study it. We need to learn from it,” he added. “That’s the best way I know to make sure this devastating tragedy is never repeated.”
Wray’s pledge is welcome, if way too late. But, pardon us if we remain skeptical. We have seen far too many instances of abuse that have been covered up for years, decades even. Yes, we must study and learn from these missteps.
But, a simpler lesson is to always take allegations of abuse seriously and to act on them as expeditiously as possible. That’s what every little girl, every child, every person, is worth.