WASHINGTON—Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles told Congress in forceful testimony Wednesday that federal law enforcement and gymnastics officials turned a “blind eye” to USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of her and hundreds of other women.
Biles told the Senate Judiciary Committee that “enough is enough” as she and three other US gymnasts spoke in stark emotional terms about the lasting toll Nassar’s crimes have taken on their lives.
In response, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “deeply and profoundly sorry” for delays in Nassar’s prosecution and the pain it caused.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion—widely considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time—said she “can imagine no place that I would be less comfortable right now than sitting here in front of you.” She declared herself a survivor of sexual abuse.
“I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse,” Biles said through tears. In addition to failures of the FBI, she said USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee “knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge.”
Biles said a message needs to be sent: “If you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough.”
The hearing is part of a congressional effort to hold the FBI accountable after multiple missteps in investigating the case, including the delays that allowed the now-imprisoned Nassar to abuse other young gymnasts. All four witnesses said they knew girls or women who were molested by Nassar after the FBI had been made aware of allegations against him in 2015.
An internal investigation by the Justice Department released in July said the FBI made fundamental errors in the probe and did not treat the case with the “utmost seriousness” after USA Gymnastics first reported the allegations to the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis in 2015. The FBI has acknowledged its own conduct was inexcusable.
Wray blasted his own agents who failed to appropriately respond to the complaints and made a promise to the victims that he was committed to “make damn sure everybody at the FBI remembers what happened here” and that it never happens again.
A supervisory FBI agent who had failed to properly investigate the Nassar case, and later lied about it, has been fired by the agency, Wray said.
McKayla Maroney, a member of the gold-medal winning US Olympic gymnastics team in 2012, recounted to senators a night when, at age 15, she found the doctor on top of her while she was naked — one of many times she was abused. She said she thought she was going to die that evening. But she said that when she recalled those memories in a call with FBI agents, crying, there was “dead silence.”
Maroney said the FBI “minimized and disregarded” her and the other gymnasts as they delayed the probe.
“I think for so long all of us questioned, just because someone else wasn’t fully validating us, that we doubted what happened to us,” Maroney said. “And I think that makes the healing process take longer.”
Biles and Maroney were joined by Aly Raisman, who won gold medals alongside them on the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams, and gymnast Maggie Nichols. Raisman told the senators that it “disgusts” her that they are still looking for answers six years after the original allegations against Nassar were reported.
Raisman noted the traumatic effect the abuse has had on all of them.
“Being here today is taking everything I have,” she said. “My main concern is I hope I have the energy to just walk out of here. I don’t think people realize how much it affects us.”
Speaking alongside senators after the hearing, Raisman called for more investigations of USA Gymnastics, Olympic officials and the FBI. The probes should be independent and go back decades, she said, because there might still be people in positions of power who should be held accountable.
Biles acknowledged in January 2018 that she was among the hundreds of athletes who were abused by Nassar. She is the only one of the witnesses who competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—held this year after a one-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic—where she removed herself from the team finals to focus on her mental health.
She returned to earn a bronze medal on beam but told the committee the lingering trauma from her abuse at the hands of Nassar played a factor in her decision to opt out of several competitions. At the hearing, she said she had wanted her presence in Tokyo “to help maintain a connection” between the failures of officials and the Olympic competition, but that “has proven to be an exceptionally difficult burden for me to carry.”
Democratic and Republican senators expressed disgust over the case and said they would continue to investigate. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said it was among the most compelling and heartbreaking testimony he had ever heard.
“We have a job to do and we know it,” Durbin said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, called Nassar a “monster” and wondered how many other abusers have escaped justice, considering that even world-class athletes were ignored in this case.
The internal probe by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who testified alongside Wray, was spurred by allegations that the FBI failed to promptly address complaints made in 2015 against Nassar. USA Gymnastics had conducted its own internal investigation and the organization’s then-president, Stephen Penny, reported the allegations to the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis. But it was months before the bureau opened a formal investigation.
The watchdog investigation found that when the FBI’s Indianapolis field office’s handling of the matter came under scrutiny, officials there did not take any responsibility for the missteps and gave incomplete and inaccurate information to internal FBI inquiries to make it look like they had been diligent in their investigation.
The report also detailed that while the FBI was investigating the Nassar allegations, the head of the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis, W. Jay Abbott, was talking to Penny about getting a job with the Olympic Committee. He applied for the job but didn’t get it and later retired from the FBI, the report said.
Nassar pleaded guilty in 2017 to federal child pornography offenses and sexual abuse charges in Michigan. He is now serving decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment when he worked for Michigan State and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
Litigation over the abuse may soon be coming to an end after USA Gymnastics and hundreds of Nassar’s victims filed a joint $425 million settlement proposal in US Bankruptcy Court in Indianapolis last month.
Image courtesy of Graeme Jennings