Inspired by national outrage over the Larry Nassar sex abuse case, a bill that would make it a federal crime for Olympic sports officials to fail to report suspected child abuse to the authorities passed through Congress on Tuesday, advancing to President Trump’s desk.
The bill was first proposed last March by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and passed the Senate in November. A companion bill overwhelmingly passed the House on Monday evening, and the Senate approved the final version unanimously by voice vote Tuesday afternoon.
In a news conference Tuesday, several victims of Nassar and their advocates celebrated the bill’s passage, while expressing hope the renewed interest by lawmakers in the case maintains momentum, and that proposed independent inquiries into any culpability for Nassar’s crimes by officials at USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University come to fruition.
“While we celebrate today … there is still work to be done,” said Jeanette Antolin, a former Team USA gymnast from the 1990s who has asserted Nassar abused her, like many others, under the guise of medical treatment. “There must be a thorough investigation … Time’s not on our side; we must act now.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has sent letters to Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the USOC asking how the organizations responded to prior reports of abuse by Nassar, the former longtime Michigan State and USA Gymnastics sports physician accused by more than 150 girls and women of sexual abuse. Multiple women have claimed they raised complaints about Nassar to a coach and two trainers at Michigan State, where he worked as an assistant professor and sports physician in a campus clinic, as far back as 1997, but those accused of ignoring complaints have denied these allegations.
No victims have come forward asserting officials with the USOC, which oversees Olympic sports organizations, ignored a complaint against Nassar. USA Gymnastics has said it first became aware of complaints against Nassar in June 2015, and five weeks later, the organization reported Nassar to the FBI.
Feinstein’s bill, which also drew support from Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would make USA Gymnastics’ handling of that 2015 complaint a misdemeanor for those involved, punishable by up to a year in prison. The bill mandates adults associated with Olympic and other amateur sports organizations contact law enforcement or child welfare authorities within 24 hours of learning “facts that give reason to suspect that a child has suffered an incident of abuse, including sexual abuse.”
“By promptly, we mean promptly,” Collins said.
Among others speaking at Tuesday’s news conference were Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian and Nassar victim, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer and civil rights attorney who has called for stronger protections for abuse victims in Olympic sports organizations for years.
“One week before [Nassar’s victims] started speaking, nothing was going to happen … This is what it took. It took 156 victims of sexual assault telling their stories,” said Hogshead-Makar, referring to the outpouring of interest and outrage, both nationally and by members of Congress, that resulted from the extraordinary seven-day sentencing hearing for Nassar this month, in which 156 girls and women confronted him with their accounts of abuse. Nassar, 54, who pleaded guilty to 10 sexual assault counts, faces a 40 to 175 year prison term for those crimes, as well as a 60-year sentence for federal child pornography crimes.
As she closed Tuesday’s news conference, Feinstein assured the women that her interest in holding Olympic sports organizations accountable for abuse in their communities would not wane.
“There is a very determined new day coming … We’re on your side, our eyes are wide open now,” Feinstein said. “So things better change.”
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