In the News

The Washington Post
Will Hobson

More than a year after he became the first top official to lose his job in the fallout over former Olympic gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar’s rampant sexual abuse of girls and young women, former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny shuffled into a Senate hearing room Tuesday afternoon, struggling with a limp.

Since he resigned in March 2017, Penny has stayed out of the public eye, declining interview requests to explain his handling of prior complaints about Nassar, or to respond to accusations he told others to remain quiet while the FBI worked on an investigation that ultimately languished. Penny played a crucial role in one of the many missed chances to stop Nassar sooner, so his testimony was among the most anticipated as a Senate Commerce subcommittee continued its investigation Tuesday into the circumstances surrounding Nassar’s crimes.

However, after answering one question from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), confirming his dates of employment at USA Gymnastics, Penny repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in response to pointed questions about Nassar, the convicted child molester accused by more than 330 girls and women of sexual abuse dating from the early 1990s.

As Penny walked out of the room, a woman in the audience stood and screamed, “Shame!”

The moment provided another bit of frustration for members of Congress as they continue to seek explanations from officials at the country’s Olympic sports organizations and at Michigan State University for how Nassar escaped detection for so long.

“It’s more than just one person. … It’s a set of institutions — the USOC, USAG [USA Gymnastics] and MSU — that enabled Larry Nassar,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.), who decried the “finger-pointing, stonewalling and shifting of blame” he said he has experienced in response to inquiries.

After Penny departed the hearing, his attorney, Robert J. Bittman, released a statement.

“Mr. Penny has devoted his professional life to promoting the development of athletes at all levels in a safe and positive environment,” Bittman wrote. “He is repulsed by Larry Nassar’s crimes, and he feels nothing but compassion for the victims of those crimes. Today, on the advice of his attorney, Mr. Penny declined to testify before the subcommittee while the matters that attempt to wrongly shift blame for Nassar’s crimes remain open.”

Penny has drawn criticism from Nassar’s victims and their attorneys for his handling of a June 2015 report that three gymnasts had expressed discomfort with Nassar’s techniques, which included an allegation he massaged a gymnast near her groin to treat a knee injury. Rather than report Nassar immediately to law enforcement, USA Gymnastics commissioned an internal investigation that lasted five weeks and then contacted the FBI’s Indianapolis field office in July 2015.

USA Gymnastics ended its relationship with Nassar, who treated national team members as a volunteer, but did not inform Michigan State, where he worked full time and treated university athletes and local gymnasts at a campus clinic for another year.

In their testimony, officials with other organizations through which Nassar accessed victims offered partial apologies, while also deflecting blame in ways that offered insight into how the serial pedophile wasn’t brought to justice sooner.

In her testimony, former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in January during Nassar’s sentencing hearing, repeated the university’s lawyer’s defense that “no MSU official believed that Nassar committed sexual abuse” before a victim contacted police in 2016, a statement that avoided allegations made by several victims that multiple current and former university officials failed to act on complaints or signs of Nassar’s predation as far back as 1997.

Former U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun, who resigned in February, submitted written testimony in which he apologized for Nassar’s abuse, but then included a four-page explanation of how, because of the intricacies of a federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations, the USOC really had no authority over or responsibility for Nassar.

And Martha Karolyi — the former Olympic coach whose Texas training camp allowed steady, private access to dozens of young girls to Nassar, who wasn’t licensed to practice medicine in the state — condemned the disgraced doctor’s abuses but asserted that sex abuse prevention and oversight of the team doctor ultimately fell to USA Gymnastics officials.

“My primary duties were confined to the gymnasium,” wrote Karolyi, who was not in attendance.

Not present at Tuesday’s hearing were any officials with the FBI, which has yet to explain its failure to stop Nassar’s abuses. USA Gymnastics reported Nassar to the FBI’s Indianapolis field office in July 2015, but the investigation languished for unexplained reasons. USA Gymnastics officials made a second report to the FBI, in May 2016, at the Los Angeles field office. Nassar wasn’t arrested until November 2016, after another victim filed a complaint with Michigan State police and then told her story to the Indianapolis Star.

Nassar, 54, is serving an effective life sentence that includes a 60-year term for federal child pornography crimes and a 40- to 175-year sentence for assaulting nine girls and women in Michigan. Last month, Michigan State agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits brought by Nassar victims. The USOC, USA Gymnastics and Martha and Bela Karolyi are among those still facing lawsuits over Nassar’s abuses.

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