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Here's what MSU allegedly knew about claims of sexual abuse by doctor

Michigan State University
John M. Quick
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Lawsuits against the University claim students started reporting abuse as early as 1999.

In 1999, an MSU student athlete says she told her head coach and trainers that Dr. Larry Nassar, then a sports doctor at the school and an Olympics gymnastics physician, “touched her vaginal area although she was seeking treatment for an injured hamstring.”

But MSU didn’t do anything about her concerns, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Nassar and MSU. Over the next 17 years, the lawsuit alleges, Nassar continued to assault women and children (some as young as 11) despite repeated reports of abuse. 

MSU spokesperson Jason Cody says the school is conducting a thorough internal investigation, but as far as they're aware, the school never received any complaints about Dr. Nassar until 2014. Both campus investigators and police investigated that complaint. 

In 2000, a softball player allegedly tells department supervisor about vaginal touching  

Then, the next year, 18-year-old Tiffany Thomas (who'd been recruited from California to play for MSU’s softball team) told her trainer she’d also been abused by Nassar, the suit claims, when he “touched her vagina in order to purportedly heal back pain…”

But the trainer allegedly told her “Nassar was a world renowned doctor, and that it was legitimate medical treatment.” The softball athlete continued to see Nassar for treatment, and she says the abuse increased, with him “inserting his bare, ungloved and unlubricated hand into her vagina.”

"The supervisor...allegedly told the student that what happened 'was not sexual abuse' and that she shouldn't tell anybody about her complaints."

This time, the softball player sought help from a “higher ranking” trainer, the suit says, who agreed that this sounded “unusual.” The complaint was sent up to a department supervisor, who allegedly told the student that “what happened…was not sexual abuse, that Nassar was a world renowned doctor” and that she shouldn’t tell anybody about her complaints, according to the lawsuit.

Lawsuit: supervisors tell Thomas to keep seeing Nassar, and 18 more are assaulted

That supervisor also allegedly told the softball player that she should continue seeing Dr. Nassar for treatment. When she refused, MSU “pressured and coerced” her to “declare herself medically inactive” and “shunned” her from the MSU softball program, the lawsuit claims.

Thomas withdrew from MSU in her senior year, according to her lawsuit, and went back home to California.

"I feel guilty," Thomas said in a press conference in December. "Not because I did anything wrong, but because I was not able to come forward sooner. And perhaps protect other women and girls from Dr. Nassar." 


Lawsuit claims many more were abused because of MSU's inaction 

Because MSU didn’t take any action about the 1999 or 2000 complaints, the lawsuit says, 18 more women and children were “sexually assaulted, abused and molested by…Nassar by vaginal and anal penetration, with the use of gloves or lubricant and groping their breasts.”

Some of the victims were as young as 11 at the time of the alleged abuse. The lawsuit says Nassar would digitally penetrate them, without offering any explanation. “The assaults would sometimes last up to 30 minutes,” which the suit says resulted in one victim developing “severe urinary tract infections, vaginal bleeding, and bleeding while urinating.” Another victim allegedly developed a bacterial infection.

In 2014, MSU investigates – and allegedly dismisses – yet another complaint

This time, the victim said she saw Dr. Nassar for hip pain, when he “cupped her buttocks, massaged her breast and vaginal area, and he became sexually aroused.”

At the time, MSU’s Title IX office looked into the report. But when the schools’ investigators wrote up an initial rundown of the complaint, they left out some key facts, according to this lawsuit: that Nassar was allegedly aroused when he touched her, and that the appointment “did not end until she physically removed his hands from her body.”

"The alleged victim was told there were 'nuanced differences' between sexual assault and legitimate medical care, and that Nassar's treatment was 'medically appropriate.'"

But after three months of investigating, MSU investigators dismissed the complaint, according to this lawsuit. The alleged victim was told there were “nuanced differences” between sexual assault and legitimate medical care, and that Dr. Nassar was “medically appropriate” and “not of a sexual nature.”

However: MSU says because of the nature of the allegations made against Dr. Nassar in 2014, the University told said he couldn't be alone with patients during treatments, had to minimize any touching, and must give both the patient and the observer a heads up about any procedures performed. 

Here's MSU's statement about that:

"Certain performance requirements were put in place after the 2014 investigation, and information was received that indicates those requirements were not consistently met. Those specific requirements focused on protocols to follow when providing medical treatment in sensitive areas. They included: 1. Another person (resident, nurse, etc.) will be in the room; 2. The procedure will be modified to be sure there is little to no skin contact; 3. The procedure will be explained in detail with another person in the room for both the explanation and the procedure."

But now MSU says it's learnign that Nassar violated those rules, and that he lied to campus police during their 2014 investigation. 

On Tuesday, MSU spokesperson Jason Cody said this 2014 complaint is the first record the school has of anyone coming forward to report abuse by Dr. Nassar. Cody says they've now reopened both the Title IX investigation and the police investigation from that time.   

2016: Indiana newspaper goes public with allegations; Nassar is fired by MSU

On September 12th 2016, the IndyStar published an article about allegations of Nassar’s sexual abuse in his role as a prominent team doctor for USA Gymnastics.

USAG and Nassar were being sued by a former Olympian, the article said, over alleged sexual abuse of patients.

On September 20th, 2016, MSU fired Dr. Larry Nassar and launched an internal investigation.

In that article, Rachael Denhollander said she was abused by Nassar when she was a 15-year-old gymnast from the Kalmazoo area. Denhollander says she didn’t report it at the time, largely because of Nassar’s reputation as one of the best, most admired experts in the field.

“"The only conclusion I could reach as a child, was that the fear and shame I felt, was my own misunderstanding,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Still, she says she blames MSU for not removing Nassar sooner.

“MSU showed deliberate indifference to the complaints and to the treatment that Nassar was using,” she says. “This was clearly a procedure he did on a regular basis, and he did it with confidence. And MSU did not listen to the complaints."

In Noveber of 2016, Nassar was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a child under the age of 13. Then in December, he was indicted on federal charges of child pornography. Prosecutors say he had collected “thousands of images” over the years.

What does MSU say about this?

Because these lawsuits are still pending, MSU spokesman Jason Cody says there’s only so much they can say at this moment.

On Tuesday, Cody released the following statement on behalf of the University:

"While we cannot comment specifically on pending or ongoing litigation, we are deeply disturbed by the state and federal criminal charges against Larry Nassar, and our hearts go out to those directly affected. The criminal investigation into Larry Nassar is a top priority for MSU Police. Detectives are vigorously reviewing all complaints and working through them with the state Attorney General’s office and federal U.S. Attorney’s Office. Additionally, the university began an internal review in September, looking at all aspects of operations involving Nassar’s work at the university. It will continue as new information and/or allegations are brought forward. An external law firm is advising MSU on the review, which will result in disciplinary action if appropriate. Also, MSU initiated a separate review looking closely at our clinic policies and operations to determine if there are steps we should take to make improvements. To date, MSU’s review has discovered no evidence that any individuals came forward to MSU with complaints about Nassar before Aug. 29, 2016, other than the 2014 complaint that was investigated by MSU Police and our Title IX office.”

When Michigan’s Attorney General announced criminal charges against Nassar in November 2016, he thanked MSU PD for their help.

“The intensity of this joint investigation by the Department of Attorney General and MSU PD is a reflection of the significance of this case,” AG Bill Schuette said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

At that point, MSU PD said they’d received more than 50 complaints against Nassar since the IndyStar story was published in September. They’re also urging anyone who might have additional information about Dr. Nassar, or may have been abused, to contact them.

We’ll also update this post as we hopefully learn more soon about these past and current investigations.

Note: if you’re a victim of sexual abuse, you can find nationalresources here. If you’re an MSU student who’s a survivor of sexual abuse, the University has several resources for you, including counseling. A list is available here.

Update: we added more information from MSU as we received it from the university's spokesperson. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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