The FBI's handling of Larry Nassar's sex abuse is awful – but sadly unsurprising

Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

When she was in Tokyo for a competition, the former Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney told the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she was afraid that she might not survive the abuse of Larry Nassar, the former sports medicine doctor and prolific child molester. “I thought I was going to die that night because there was no way he was going to let me go,” Maroney repeated to a Senate hearing on Wednesday. At the time she gave her interview to the FBI, Maroney was just a teenager. She hadn’t yet told her own mother about the extent of Nassar’s sexual abuse. But the agent she spoke to over the phone, from the FBI’s Indianapolis field office, didn’t seem particularly moved. “Is that all?” she recalls him asking.

Ultimately, the FBI would barely investigate Maroney’s accusations, according to a scathing report issued by the Department of Justice’s inspector general this summer. Allegations against Nassar were largely discarded at first, and a meaningful inquiry was delayed for months. Of the three gymnasts who initially came forward to the FBI in 2015, Maroney was the only one who was interviewed. Her conversation with the FBI agent was not properly documented for 17 months; when it was, the agent who authored the report misrepresented what she had told him. The FBI did not refer the allegations to state and local authorities, as it is required to do in such cases. And one of the agents assigned to the case, W Jay Abbott, seems to have been hoping to get a job with USA Gymnastics or the US Olympic Committee. When internal investigators later asked Abbott about his job queries, he lied about them, according to the report.

The FBI ultimately did not pursue Nassar until the autumn of 2016, when local police found hard drives in his possession that contained more than 37,000 child abuse images. Between when the women initially complained to the FBI and the time the FBI took action, Nassar sexually abused approximately 70 women and girls.

McKayla Maroney, a US Olympic gymnast, testifies before the Senate during a hearing on Wednesday. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The FBI’s handling of the Nassar case reflects a stunning failure of empathy by the agents, as well as a callous abandonment of duty amid the ongoing threat to public safety that Nassar posed. Gymnasts and Nassar victims Simone Biles, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman, along with Maroney, told the Senate on Wednesday that the agency’s derelictions were both procedural and moral. In downplaying their experiences, delaying the investigation, and failing to collect evidence of Nassar’s crimes, the FBI committed a second, additional harm against Nassar’s victims: not only were they abused, but they were insulted and disregarded by those who were supposedly there to help them.

As Maroney put it in her testimony, “What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer?”

Though the FBI’s failures are egregious, they are not unique. Sadly, the handling of the Nassar case is emblematic of broader, systemic failures by law enforcement to properly investigate sexual violence and to treat that violence with the seriousness and rigorous inquiry that it deserves. Women across the country who have reported sexual violence say that police and prosecutors respond with disdain and disregard, and that sex crimes are investigated less thoroughly than other kinds of violence.

It is well documented that sexual violence reports lead to fewer arrests and fewer criminal convictions than other kinds of crimes. But less understood are the failures of police to even investigate sexual violence, a failure that victims say appears motivated by indifference to the specific form of harm that they suffered. Evidence is neglected or destroyed, witnesses are not interviewed, sexual violence incidents are misclassified as lesser crimes, and cases are summarily closed, often without any meaningful inquiry into what happened.

Rape kits, the collections of DNA gathered from sexual violence victims in lengthy, invasive, and sometimes retraumatizing medical exams, often go untested, leading to a nationwide backlog of hundreds of thousands of unexamined evidence kits. Sometimes, police departments and testing facilities destroy those kits before statutes of limitations have even run out – not only ignoring the evidence the kits contain, but actively denying victims the opportunity to make a robust case in court.

In other incidents, evidence is collected, but ignored. That’s what happened to Emily Borchardt, a University of Texas student who was kidnapped in a ride share; a fellow passenger choked her into unconsciousness, then he and the driver took her to a motel and assaulted her. After she escaped, a man she identified as one of her attackers told police he had never met her. Later, his DNA was found in her rape kit, proving he had lied. But the police never arrested him.

From left, US Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols, arrive to testify during a Senate judiciary hearing. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

At still other times, police defer to the accounts of accused perpetrators over those of victims, even when there is little reason to believe that a woman is lying, or that her alleged attacker is telling the truth. That’s what happened to another University of Texas student, whose screams for help were recorded during her rape. But when her attacker, a stranger, told police that the sex had been consensual, they dropped the case.

The police’s credulity towards alleged perpetrators seems to be part of what helped Nassar to evade justice and continue his attacks on women and girls. After all, it was not only the FBI who failed to properly investigate Nassar; he was also reported to local police at least twice, once in 2004 and once in 2014. In those incidents, Nassar claimed that his assaults of his victims were medically legitimate “pelvic floor therapy”, and produced PowerPoint presentations he had made supporting this claim. Medical practitioners could have easily disabused police of this fraudulent explanation, but the local cops did not ask them.

The systemic failures by law enforcement to investigate sexual abuse betray the unspoken belief that undergirds many of our cultural and institutional responses to these incidents: the idea that sexual violence is trivial, that the harm it causes to its victims is beneath our notice. The feminist fight must be not only to convince institutions that sexual violence happens, but also that it matters.

In the Senate hearing, the FBI director, Chris Wray, praised the accusers’ courage, but did not commit to taking the accountability they demanded. He insisted that the FBI’s conduct in the case was not indicative of the character of the institution, but of the individuals’ mistakes. The evidence suggests otherwise. The FBI’s handling of the Nassar case seems less like a mere mistake – and more like an indication of the agency’s priorities.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist

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