The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Larry Nassar’s shadow, a larger sex abuse case at the University of Michigan

A statue of former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler stands outside the building named for him on the Ann Arbor campus. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

U.S. senators listened intently last week as four world-class gymnasts told Congress of the harrowing impact of sexual abuse by former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar.

When the testimony was done, they lauded the women’s courage. The director of the FBI, also at the hearing, apologized for his agency’s shoddy investigation.

“I’m especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols. “And that is inexcusable.”

Sixty miles from Nassar’s onetime office, a similar but much larger case of sex abuse is playing out with little of the same attention. More than 950 people have come forward to accuse the late University of Michigan doctor Robert E. Anderson of abusing them while he was on staff between 1966 and 2003, according to lawyers who represent the survivors.

That total surpasses the scale of the molestation at Michigan State, as well as similar incidents at the University of Southern California and Ohio State University. Attorneys for the University of Michigan survivors contend the allegations against Anderson constitute the largest example of sexual exploitation by one person in U.S. history.

A number of Anderson’s alleged victims, most prominently former football players, have publicly told stories of the physician fondling them and repeatedly performing unnecessary rectal and genital exams during their years at the school. As a result, his conduct over decades as the football team doctor has drawn the most attention since the story broke in February 2020, a dozen years after his death.

But the small group of attorneys bringing the case said they also have claims spanning decades from athletes on the wrestling, basketball, track and field, hockey, swimming and tennis teams. Pilots and air traffic controllers have accused Anderson of abuse during physicals he conducted in his private practice for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Anderson, who died in 2008 without facing charges, also allegedly molested nonathlete students as a physician for the university’s health service; men who sought Vietnam War draft deferments by claiming to be gay; the estranged son of iconic football coach Bo Schembechler, who said he was violated when his father sent him to Anderson for a sports physical at the age of 10; and a former chairman of the university’s Board of Regents, who was a student at Michigan in the 1960s, according to investigative reports and public statements from survivors.

The vast majority of survivors are men, but Anderson also is accused of abusing women, including a player on the first Michigan women’s varsity tennis team in 1973, who has spoken publicly.

In public accounts and two investigative reports, the survivors said they complained to coaches, trainers and administrators, and nothing was ever done. The Washington Post contacted each of the named victims in this story or their lawyers and all affirmed their accounts.

“The university knew, the enabler, the institution — not one time, not 10 times, but knew for decades,” said Mick Grewal, who said he represents about 250 people who have reported abuse by Anderson. “ . . . How can you know this and not report this to law enforcement?”

The university has apologized for the pain survivors suffered and is in mediated talks with their attorneys about how to compensate them. It also has instituted a number of reforms aimed at preventing future abuse.

One factor that unites Anderson with Nassar and other doctors accused of abusing people on college campuses, lawyers and an expert said, is the easy access they had to a large number of young and powerless people.

“Medicine is unique among professions in that every physician has the right to say, ‘Please undress, we’re going to be alone in a room together and I’m going to touch you,’ ” said James DuBois, director of the Bioethics Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis, who has conducted one of the few recent reviews of physicians who commit sexual abuse. “Every physician has the means to abuse that other professionals do not.”

Such abusers prey on people they believe are least likely to report, lawyers said, including athletes required to have physical exams to keep their spots on a team.

“You’re at a very powerful institution, away from home, required to see a prominent doctor, first of your family to go to college, you’re probably under scholarship, and this doctor was able to have his way with you,” said Parker Stinar, an attorney who said he and his colleagues represent more than 200 claimants.

Other students were on their own for the first time in a place that had promised to meet their medical needs.

One woman who alleged she was abused by Anderson when she was a freshman in the 1970s said she had been through a “quasi-legal abortion” after she was raped by an acquaintance during high school and told Anderson about it at the exam.

“He knew two things instantly from my story,” said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “I had no idea what rape was and . . . I had no one in the world to take care of me.” The Post generally does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

Now the survivors of Anderson’s attacks are focused mainly on two issues: Who in the administration of one of the top U.S. public universities allowed Anderson’s conduct to continue for nearly four decades? And how will the school, which has acknowledged his behavior, resolve their claims?

Beyond a financial settlement now under mediation, some survivors want an apology, evidence of culture change, and possibly money for research dedicated to preventing sexual abuse by others.

In response to written questions, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in an email that “we offer sympathy to all of the victims of the late Dr. Robert Anderson. We thank them for their bravery in coming forward. We have repeatedly apologized for the pain they have suffered, and we remain committed to resolving their claims through the court-guided, confidential mediation process that is ongoing.”

Neither side would discuss the mediation between attorneys for the survivors and university lawyers, which is being overseen by a federal judge.

On July 15, Michigan announced “sweeping revisions” to its approach to sexual misconduct, including “the creation of a new unit focused on care, education and prevention, in addition to investigations; a cultural change journey; new policies that prohibit supervisors from engaging in romantic relationships with those they may supervise; and other changes” to university policy, Fitzgerald said.

Two investigations released over the past 19 months — one by a university detective and another by the law firm
which was hired by the school but given free rein in its review — as well as the public firsthand accounts provide strong evidence that school officials were repeatedly alerted to Anderson beginning in the late 1960s.

At least four people claim they personally complained to Schembechler — the late coach immortalized by a larger-than-life statue outside the university’s football headquarters — among them his estranged son, Matt. Others said Don Canham, the athletic director who, with Schembechler, built the modern Michigan football program into an athletic and economic powerhouse, was also made aware. Canham is also dead.

One administrator told investigators he walked into Anderson’s office in 1979 and fired him after hearing accounts of his conduct. But records show Anderson never left the university’s employ. The discrepancy remains unexplained. The administrator died in February.

On team after team over nearly four decades, Anderson’s behavior was so widely known and openly discussed that the WilmerHale report called athletes’ trepidation “an open secret, or perhaps no secret at all.” Nicknames for Anderson abounded, including “Handy Andy” and “Dr. Drop Your Drawers Anderson,” the report noted.

The Schembechler and Canham families defended the now-deceased athletic officials, saying neither knew about the doctor’s behavior.

Members of Schembechler’s family said in a statement that “Bo had a clear and compelling sense of right and wrong: he would not have tolerated misconduct, especially toward any of his players, family members, coaches or to anyone associated with the University of Michigan’s football program. If Bo had known of inappropriate conduct, we are certain that he would have stopped it immediately, reported it, and had Dr. Anderson removed from the University.”

The Canham family said in a separate statement that Don Canham “sent many of his family members to Dr. Anderson without reservation — something he would not have done had he been aware of the allegations. It is our belief that, had Don known of any allegations of improper conduct, he would have investigated them fully and taken all appropriate action to protect the student athletes to whom he dedicated his life and career.”

Anderson remained a university physician — while also at times maintaining a private practice in town and training young doctors from Michigan’s medical school — until he retired in 2003, five years before he died.

There were “people with authority at various levels, up to the highest levels in some of these institutions, who knew and covered up and failed to protect,” said David Share, a physician and retired executive for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, who has accused Anderson of abuse.

Now 70, Share said Anderson assaulted him shortly after he arrived as a freshman at Michigan in 1968, when he went to the student health service complaining of a sore throat. He became somewhat withdrawn that year, he said, and suffered psychological problems for decades.

“It’s really important to understand how large, powerful, moneyed institutions behave, for good and for bad, how they go astray, and how people are harmed,” Share said.

Survivors tell their stories

In February 2020, the Detroit News asked the university about a claim of sexual abuse against Anderson that dated to 1971. The accusation came from former Michigan student Robert Stone. Prompted by reports of sexual assault by Nassar, Stone told the newspaper, he had reported Anderson to the university in the summer of 2019, but was stonewalled when he sought to learn what had been done. That’s when he brought his story to the newspaper.

Within hours of receiving the inquiry, university officials told the newspaper that a campus detective had conducted a secret, exhaustive investigation of Anderson that began in 2018, based on a tip to the athletic department from former Michigan wrestler Tad DeLuca.

Although the investigation turned up account after account of Anderson’s alleged abuses, county prosecutors had determined that no charges could be brought because of time limits on prosecution set by the law at the time. Victoria Burton-Harris, the county’s chief assistant prosecutor, said the decision was made by a previous administration, but if new evidence is brought to her office about criminal sexual conduct, it would be reviewed. Steven Hiller, who held the job when the decision was made, declined to comment.

The university put out a call for complaints of abuse by Anderson after revealing the investigation. Over the next 18 months, reports — most private but some eventually very public — poured in. Lawsuits followed.

DeLuca, for example, detailed his 10-page letter to his wrestling coach, written in 1975, which complained of the multiple “genital, hernia, and prostate examinations” he received from Anderson when he sought treatment for cold sores and a dislocated elbow. The letter was forwarded to Canham, according to the WilmerHale report and DeLuca’s own public comments. DeLuca was booted from the team over ongoing conflict about his injuries and stripped of his scholarship before he hired a lawyer and won it back.

Chuck Christian, a Michigan football player in the late 1970s and early 1980s, filed a lawsuit in May 2020, contending that Anderson subjected him to painful rectal exams during his physicals. For many years, he avoided prostate exams until symptoms forced him to take one in his 50s, he said. He now has terminal prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of his body, according to his lawsuit against the university.

At a news conference in June, Richard Goldman, a student radio broadcaster from 1981 to 1983, said Anderson grabbed his genitals, tried to remove his pants and began to perform a physical exam at his three visits to the doctor for treatment of migraine headaches. Goldman said he confronted Canham about Anderson’s conduct after each incident.

After Schembechler heard the commotion of the last confrontation in Canham’s office and demanded to know what had happened, the coach engaged in a shouting match with Canham, Goldman said. But nothing changed, even when Schembechler succeeded Canham as athletic director in 1988.

At another June news conference, former football players Daniel Kwiatkowski and Gilvanni Johnson said they suffered repeated abuse by Anderson. Kwiatkowski said after the first assault he told Schembechler, who warned him to “toughen up.” Johnson recalled coaches threatening players with a visit to Anderson if they weren’t working hard enough.

Also in June, however, more than 100 former members of Schembechler’s teams signed a letter defending him. They contended that if he had known about sexual abuse, he would have immediately halted it and made sure anyone responsible was removed from the program. Current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who played for Schembechler in the 1980s, has said the same thing.

Asked for comment from Harbaugh, Fitzgerald cited the coach’s June 3 response to another reporter. “I can tell you this: Bo Schembechler . . . he never sat on anything, he never procrastinated on anything. He took care of it before the sun went down. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know.”

Women said they also were abused by Anderson. The woman interviewed by The Post said the doctor had her take off her clothes during a freshman-year visit and subjected her to an extremely painful vaginal exam, telling her he had purposely squeezed her ovary. The woman said the trauma contributed to a suicide attempt in her 20s and has affected her to this day. At the time, she told only her boyfriend, she said.

In another interview, Michigan tennis player Cathy Kalahar said Anderson fondled her breasts during her first physical exam of freshman year. He suggested she have them reduced or become a lesbian because men would not like breasts as large as hers, she said. He referred her to a therapist who told her the events did not occur and were a sexual fantasy, she said.

Demands for accountability

When a team led by DuBois, the Washington University researcher, who also consulted on the WilmerHale report, looked at 101 doctors who had committed sexual abuse, they found remarkably few “red flags” that could be used to predict such behavior.

“Cases commonly occurred without obvious signs of a personality disorder, they occurred in both solo and larger medical practices alike, and they involved patients who were particularly vulnerable, as well as patients who exhibited no special vulnerabilities other than being a patient,” his team wrote in a 2017 paper.

DuBois found that all the doctors were male, the vast majority were older than 39, and most abuse occurred in private doctors’ offices, rather than in academic settings. Virtually all the cases involved multiple victims and incidents of abuse continued for more than a year.

DuBois said the first instance of abuse is very difficult to stop. But institutions need to make reporting sexual assault easier and must believe victims when they speak up.

“Where we could do a lot better is the repeat offenses,” he said. Survivors “don’t know who to report to. And the people who receive it don’t know what to do with it.”

The result is legal and criminal sanctions that are imposed years, and sometimes decades, after the fact, if at all.

Nassar, the Michigan State doctor, is now in prison, essentially for life, and Michigan State has agreed to pay his victims $500 million. Richard Strauss, who abused Ohio State wrestlers from 1979 to 1996, died by suicide in 2005. Ohio State has paid out more than $40 million to survivors so far. At USC, George Tyndall, who allegedly assaulted young women seeking gynecological care, was dismissed, and USC has agreed to pay more than $850 million to survivors.

Tyndall faces 35 criminal charges. Leonard Levine, Tyndall’s criminal attorney, said the doctor continues to deny the accusations and intends to take the case to trial.

The university’s Board of Regents was scheduled to hear from survivors at its meeting Thursday. Some filed a lawsuit contending the board is illegally limiting the number of speakers at the session but withdrew it Wednesday.

Many want the administration to stop blaming a dead doctor and coaches, more fully acknowledge the impact of the abuse and institute additional reforms that will keep this from happening again.

“This goes well beyond Dr. Anderson as an individual,” Stinar said. “It’s an institution that failed their students, their athletes and members of the state of Michigan. My clients want accountability and change.”