Shaheen: U.S. Olympic Committee should be accountable for sex abuse against athletes

  • Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire (center) and Joni Ernst of Iowa (second from left) unveil a resolution to set up a committee to investigate the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen says that the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics should be held accountable for failing to prevent a top sports doctor from molesting young female gymnasts for decades before taking any action.

The Democrat from New Hampshire teamed up with Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa on Wednesday to unveil a bipartisan resolution to establish a special Senate committee to investigate both organizations.

Former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced in three separate trials over the past two weeks to serve up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 150 women and girls over 25 years. The judge in one of the cases called for a “massive investigation” into why no action was taken against Nassar for years despite accusations of abuse.

Ernst said she’s “so proud of the courageous young athletes who stood up and fought to ensure Larry Nassar can never lay his hands on another athlete.”

“Now Congress has an opportunity to stand up for the brave survivors who came forward, for our athletes, for our children,” Ernst said.

Despite Nassar’s convictions, more answers are necessary, Shaheen said.

“There are many disturbing questions that remain unanswered as to how Larry Nassar was able to freely abuse young girls for decades,” she said.

“Because the U.S. Olympic Committee operates under a federal charter and its athletes compete under the American flag, the Senate has a responsibility to deliver answers and accountability,” she added.

The resolution calls for the special committee to investigate the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and other national sports governing bodies, including USA Gymnastics, to determine “the extent to which these organizations were complicit in the criminal or negligent behavior of their employees relative to sexual abuse.”

“We’re learning this was not a simple case of negligence or failed oversight on the part of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, and other institutions,” Shaheen said. “There is ample evidence that many were alerted multiple times to Nassar’s behavior and they found excuses to look the other way.”

She added that the committee could to compel the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics officials to testify.

The committee would be tasked with identifying and recommending actions and solutions “to the systemic failures” at the USOC and USA Gymnastics.

Shaheen added that the resolution also requires that at least half the members be women.

Shaheen said reports of widespread accusations of sexual misconduct the past three decades by nearly 300 officials associated with U.S. sports organizations are unacceptable.

“We need to change the culture of these Olympic organizations,” she said.

Shaheen and Ernst said that there are 18 senators currently backing the resolution and that they hope and expect “that list will continue to grow.” Both acknowledged they don’t have commitments yet from Senate Republican and Democratic leadership to support the resolution, but they’re hopeful that support will soon come.

The resolution calls on the committee to report its findings by the beginning of next year.

Last week, both houses of Congress passed a bill that would require amateur sports organizations recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee, such as USA Gymnastics, to quickly report claims of sexual abuse to authorities. The legislation, which is now on President Donald Trump’s desk, would also prevent athletes under the age of 18 from being alone with an adult other than a parent or legal guardian.

The case against Nassar began with a 2016 Indianapolis Star investigation of how USA Gymnastics had handled sexual abuse allegations against coaches. That prompted former gymnast Rachael Denhollander to alert the newspaper to Nassar’s abuse.

After the Star investigation, the number of victims coming forward grew, culminating with the recent convictions. Originally, fewer than 90 women and girls were expected to give statements, but hundreds showed up.

The prosecutor in one of the trials told the judge that without Denhollander and the Star’s report, Nassar “would still be practicing medicine, treating athletes and abusing kids.”