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Opinion The FBI failed up and down the line in the Larry Nassar case

Larry Nassar appears in court for a plea hearing in Lansing, Mich., in 2017. (Paul Sancya/AP)
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If the more than 300 alleged victims of one of the most horrific scandals in sports history had had to rely only upon the doggedness of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Larry Nassar might be in Tokyo today, sexually abusing the women of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, rather than serving a 60-year sentence at a federal prison about 50 miles from Orlando.

That is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from a blistering 119-page report by the Justice Department inspector general’s office. The nation’s premier law enforcement agency failed up and down the line, starting in July 2015, when the FBI’s Indianapolis field office received a report from USA Gymnastics officials that three gymnasts had accused their team doctor of sexual assault under the guise of medical treatment.

The Indianapolis office did not accept jurisdiction, much less open a serious investigation. Nor did it alert state and local law enforcement in the places where Mr. Nassar was still treating young athletes, which included the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center in Texas and Michigan State University, as well as a local high school and a gymnastics club in Lansing, Mich.

Instead, the inspector general found, the head of the FBI’s Indianapolis office, W. Jay Abbott, was jockeying for a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Later, when Mr. Abbott was confronted about his job hunt, he denied applying for a position, despite what the IG report said was “clear evidence to the contrary.”

After eight months of dithering by the Indianapolis office, USA Gymnastics took its complaint in May 2016 to the FBI’s Los Angeles office. Agents there at least began a probe and interviewed several of Mr. Nassar’s accusers, but the office could not decide whether the doctor had broken any federal laws. Agents there also failed to alert state and local authorities. They, too, took no steps to mitigate the threat he continued to pose to gymnasts.

That Mr. Nassar was finally arrested and charged in 2016 owes more to the journalism of the Indianapolis Star and the investigations of the Michigan State University Police Department, which executed a search warrant of the doctor’s residence and found more than 30,000 images of child pornography. In addition to the sentence he is serving in Florida, Mr. Nassar faces up to 175 years on the state charges in Michigan.

In the months between the time the FBI was alerted to the accusations against him and the time he was arrested, about 70 women and girls claimed they were victimized, according to court filings.

Even now, there has been a near-complete lack of accountability within the FBI. The Justice Department has not prosecuted Mr. Abbott, who retired in 2018, or a supervisory special agent who the IG report said made false statements to minimize the Indianapolis office’s errors. The unnamed agent has been demoted but remains employed at the FBI.

After the report was issued, the FBI put out a statement that it "will never lose sight of the harm that Nassar’s abuse caused.” It is to be hoped as well that the agency never loses sight of the harm that was inflicted because of its own lapses.

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