‘It is very possible that the FBI investigation of Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations was just as flawed, just as constrained, just as inappropriate’
At Wednesday’s Senate hearing on the FBI’s failure to act on reports of sexual abuse against Larry Nassar, several high-profile gymnasts and survivors, including Maggie Nichols, McKayla Maroney, Simone Biles, and Aly Raisman, made an appearance. And what an appearance it was. The sportswomen delivered searing indictments on how the justice system, as well as national gymnastics and Olympics organizations, not only failed to protect them but took deliberate steps to protect their abuser. It was not just a question of inaction, eles disseram: it was a question of intent. The testimony is a window into how institutions at every level do not just enable abuse, they empower it.
Rhetorically, we align rapists and pedophiles with murderers as the worst of criminals. Yet nearly every institution of power has mechanisms to protect abusers and perpetrators of sexual assault. And for all FBI Director Christopher Wray’s insistence that the FBI’s actions in this case are an aberration, and not reflective of the “ferocious dedication” he sees from other FBI agents every day, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed him on the FBI’s many failures to adequately pursue sexual assault cases, or even take them seriously. One question repeated by the gymnasts as well as Senators was why the FBI agents responsible had not been held to account.
In their opening statements, Nichols, Maroney, Biles, and Raisman each emphasized how it was not just Nassar who failed them. It was many powerful institutions who were supposed to protect them — the FBI, USA Gymnastics (USAG), and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) — instead worked together to protect each other at their expense. Victims had reported Nassar’s abuse to the FBI in 2015, yet it took over a year for them to act on these reports. The Inspector General’s investigation into the FBI found that the agent in charge of the case, Jay Abbott, had been angling for a job within USAG.
“Just as it is naive to assume the problem only lies with Nassar, it is unrealistic to think we can grasp the full extent of culpability without understanding how and why USAG and USOCP chose to ignore abuse for decades and why the interplay among these three organizations led the FBI to willingly disregard our reports of abuse,” Raisman said in her opening statement. Biles also questioned why neither USAG nor USOPC have been subjected to the kind of thorough and independent investigation the FBI was subject to: “These are the entities entrusted with the protection of our sport and our athletes. And yet it feels like questions of responsibility and organizational failures remain unanswered.”
“USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the FBI have all betrayed me and those who were abused after I reported,” said Nichols. And Maroney put it even more bluntly: “USA Gymnastics, in concert with the FBI and the Olympic Committee, were working together to conceal that Larry Nassar was a predator.”
This case, in which several institutions in tandem knowingly allowed one man to sexually abuse hundreds of children, is hardly an aberration. We can find examples of systems working to protect abusers at the expense of sexual assault victims in practically every institution in the country, from Hollywood to college campuses to religious institutions. In questioning Wray, Senator Whitehouse brought up one particularly salient example of the FBI’s mishandling another case of sexual assault — Dr Christine Blasey Ford. “It appeared to me then, and it appears to me now, that her testimony was swept under the rug in a confirmation stampede,” Whitehouse stated. “It is very possible that the FBI investigation of her allegations was just as flawed, just as constrained, just as inappropriate, as the investigation in this case. We don’t know because we don’t have answers.”
But this problem is hardly confined to the FBI. The Catholic church, a self-governing body with its own hierarchies and political power, was dogged in its efforts to conceal generations of sexual abuse of children, abuse and coverups we have every reason to believe still occur today. And as Senator Mazie Hirano noted in Wednesday’s hearing, the US military is another venerated institution that has historically refused to take sexual assault seriously or hold the accused to account.
“Why would the FBI lie to OIG investigators? Why would the FBI not properly document evidence that was received? Why would the FBI agent be interested in the USAG presidency?” Nichols asked. “These questions remain unanswered. And the survivors of Larry Nassar have a right to know why their wellbeing was placed in jeopardy by these individuals who chose not to do their jobs.”
Perhaps it is simply because these institutions, and the powerful men (and some women) who operate within them, are trying to protect their own hides. Talvez, even more simply, it is because they do not consider sexual assault as serious a crime as they say. Raisman testified, “The agent diminished the significance of my abuse, and made me feel my criminal case wasn’t worth pursuing.” Likewise Maroney, after detailing the harrowing testimony she gave to FBI agents about the abuse she endured, recalled the agent simply asking, “Is that all?” in response. “To have my abuse be minimized and disregarded by the people that were supposed to protect me just to feel like my abuse was not enough. But the truth is my abuse was enough, and they wanted to cover it up,” she stated.
Victims of sexual assault who do report their abusers are regularly subjected to this kind of scrutiny. Rapes become “misunderstandings” and rapists become “promising young men.” I’m reminded of the original prosecutor in the case against Bill Cosby, who told his victim that the evidence she gave just wasn’t enough.
“We are deluding ourselves if we think other children can be spared the institutionalized tolerance and normalization of abuse that I and so many others had to endure,” Raisman said. Biles summed up the essential question nicely when she asked: “What is a little girl worth?”