Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 30, 2021

The FBI's handling of the Larry Nassar case reflects a deeper problem within the justice system

By JOSH FELTON | September 22, 2021

gymnastics-photo

AGÊNCIA BRASIL FOTOGRAFIAS/CC BY 2.0

The FBI’s treatment of the survivors of sexual abuse under Larry Nassar is evidence of the lack of empathy by law enforcement of the highest power.

Last week was a momentous event in one of the biggest criminal cases of the past decade. Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols represented themselves and hundreds of unnamed athletes before the Senate Judiciary Committee seeking accountability from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The agency failed to properly handle the investigation into Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor of Team USA who sexually assaulted at least 265 young women and girls.

Years ago, Maroney had reported to the FBI that her life was in danger at the hands of Nassar. At the Senate hearing, Maroney said, “I thought I was going to die that night because there was no way he was going to let me go.” Maroney felt there was a lack of urgency from the FBI when the first reports of Nassar’s abuse appeared in 2015. At the time of her report to the FBI, she was just a teenager.

According to a report by the inspector general of the Department of Justice, the FBI would hardly investigate Maroney’s accusations against Nassar. The accusations against him were dismissed for months; in fact, Maroney was the only gymnast who came forward in 2015 that was actually interviewed by the FBI. To make matters worse, her interview was not even documented properly for a year and a half, and her statement was misinterpreted.

Raisman told the Senate that it took over 14 months for the FBI to actually take action after she reported Nassar to them. In this time from July 2015 to September 2016, Nassar sexually assaulted as many as 70 young girls until Nassar was fired by Michigan State University after a police report was filed accusing him of sexual assault during a medical exam.

“By not taking action from my report, [the FBI] allowed a child molester to go free for more than a year. They had legal evidence of child abuse and did nothing,” Maroney said at Wednesday’s testimony.

FBI Director Christopher Wray made an appearance in which he apologized to the victims, acknowledging that the FBI made huge mistakes and ruined the trust of the public.

“The kinds of fundamental errors that occurred in 2015 and 2016 should never have happened,” he said. “I'm especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster in 2015 and failed. It never should have happened. And we're doing everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.”

The biggest takeaway from Wray’s statement is that while he did apologize to the accusers and acknowledge their courage, he never committed to taking the accountability the survivors demanded.

The FBI’s treatment of these young women’s accusations against Nassar reflects a deeper problem within the justice system: a lack of empathy by law enforcement of the highest power. This handling reflected a clear disregard for the safety of the vulnerable. Biles told the Senate that the FBI’s decision to ignore the reports was procedural and could have been avoided.

Sadly, this FBI mishandling is not new. Sexual assault reports lead to fewer arrests and convictions than other crimes. 

Nassar was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in 2017 and up to 175 concurrent years in 2018 for crimes related to sexual assault, child pornography and tampering with evidence charges. However, the safety and privacy of hundreds of young women were threatened and compromised because of a systemic failure to address one of the most serious issues in the criminal justice system.

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