An Ohio State team doctor sexually abused at least 177 male students from 1979 to 1996, and school officials failed to take appropriate action despite being aware of numerous reports of the physician’s misconduct over the 17-year period, according to an investigative report released Friday.
The abuse included athletes from at least 15 sports and encompassed other students who saw physician Richard Strauss at the school’s student health center and an off-campus clinic.
According to the report, the school “had knowledge” of sexually abusive treatment from Strauss as early as 1979, “but reports about Strauss' conduct were not elevated beyond the Athletics Department or Student Health until 1996.”
The report found male students regularly complained “that Strauss routinely performed excessive — and seemingly medically unnecessary — genital exams, regardless of the medical condition the student-patients presented.”
Strauss committed suicide in 2005. He was employed by the university from 1978 to ’98 but was suspended from his work as a treating physician in January 1996 after a patient accused Strauss of fondling him during a genital examination. Strauss continued in his role as a tenured faculty member, though, and was allowed to retire voluntarily. The school said it has initiated the process to revoke the faculty emeritus status that was conferred upon Strauss.
“On behalf of the university, we offer our profound regret and sincere apologies to each person who endured Strauss’ abuse,” Ohio State President Michael V. Drake wrote in a message to the campus community Friday. “Our institution’s fundamental failure at the time to prevent this abuse was unacceptable — as were the inadequate efforts to thoroughly investigate complaints raised by students and staff members.”
The report, which is expected to cost the school $6.2 million, was the result of a year-long investigation by law firm Perkins, Coie LLP, which conducted 600 interviews with 520 subjects, including hundreds of former students.
According to the report, “Strauss’ acts of abuse ranged from the overt — such as fondling to the point of erection and ejaculation — to more subtle acts of abuse that were masked with a pretextual medical purpose — for example, requiring a student-patient to strip completely naked to purportedly ‘assess’ an orthopedic condition, or asking probing questions about a student-patient’s sexual practices or performance.”
The investigators heard firsthand accounts of abuse from 177 victims but made clear there could have been more and noted that an additional 38 people reported an abusive experience with an Ohio State doctor but could not identify Strauss with complete certainty.
Much of the report focused on how much school officials knew and whether anyone took appropriate actions to stop Strauss when concerns were raised.
"Many of the students felt that Strauss’ behavior was an ‘open secret,’ as it appeared to them that their coaches, trainers, and other team physicians were fully aware of Strauss’ activities, and yet few seemed inclined to do anything to stop it,” the report stated.
School officials never reported Strauss’s behavior to law enforcement.
“As we suspected from the outset, OSU knew but intentionally failed to act upon the many cries for help by the hundreds of OSU male students who suffered sexual abuse by Dr. Strauss,” said Scott E. Smith, an attorney representing victims who are suing the school. “The systemic sexual abuse, although preventable, was horrifically nurtured by OSU when they chose not to act, turning a blind eye to those they had a duty to protect.”
While some former Ohio State wrestlers have publicly said that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) must have known about the abuse during Jordan’s tenure as an assistant wrestling coach from 1987 to 1995, the report doesn’t mention Jordan by name.
“We’re glad it’s done and we’re glad the university, for those individuals who were harmed, we’re glad the university has agreed to pay for counseling. But it confirms exactly what I’ve said all along: that I didn’t know any type of harm to athletes,” Jordan said Friday. “If I did, I would have done something about it.”
Asked whether the report provided some closure for Jordan and his alleged role in the controversy, the lawmaker said, “I thought it was closed for me a long time ago, and you guys know me — if I thought one of our athletes was being harmed, I’ve taken on the FBI, I’ve taken on the IRS, John Boehner — I’d have done something. But yeah, we’re glad that the report’s done and that people who need counseling and want counseling, the university’s going to pay for that.”
While the report cites numerous instances in which athletic administrators were made aware of questionable behavior by Strauss, the investigators said they “did not identify any other contemporaneous documentary evidence indicating that members of the OSU coaching staff, including head coaches or assistant coaches, received or were aware of complaints regarding Strauss’ sexual misconduct.”
Three groups of plaintiffs have sued Ohio State, and the school says it is actively participating in a mediation process.
“We hope that the report will force OSU to take responsibility for its failure to protect young students,” Steve Estey, an attorney representing some of the victims, said in a statement. “If OSU refuses to take responsibility the we will continue with civil litigation and put this in front of a jury for the community to judge their actions.”
“The University’s apology to the survivors of Strauss’ abuse would have been hollow even 20 years ago. Today, it is shockingly ineffective,” Adele P. Kimmel, an attorney representing another group, said.
While the abuse spanned nearly all of the men’s sports teams offered at Ohio State, the most instances of abuse involved members of the wrestling program (48 victims). The report described much of Strauss’s alleged actions in detail and said the abuse often took place during athletes’ preseason physicals. Others sought treatment for injuries and illnesses. One reported visiting Strauss with strep throat symptoms and during the exam, “Strauss fondled the student’s genitals to the degree that he brought the student to an erection.”
The report stated that the abuse rarely occurred on an initial visit and often escalated over time. Forty-two students described encounters that included excessive touching or groping. In one instance, Strauss explained his inappropriate actions by telling the athlete he was checking for male breast cancer.
Thirty-one victims told investigators Strauss unnecessarily required partial or full nudity during exams, which often resulted in the doctor caressing or fondling the student. Two victims told investigators that Strauss performed unwanted oral sex.
The report stated that “it was broadly known within the Athletics Department that Strauss showered alongside the male students,” and 84 students described times in which Strauss showered around students or loitered in the locker room as they were nude or undressing.
One gymnast said Strauss showered as many as six times a day, and numerous athletes said Strauss would time his showers to coincide with the school’s various teams, “taking up to 45-minute showers while staring at the wrestlers and their genitals,” the report stated.
While the allegations mostly involved college students, one victim told investigators that he was first abused by Strauss when he was 14 years old in an incident that took place under the guise of a body-fat testing study that Strauss administrated at an area high school.
Friday’s report brought mixed reaction from some of the victims.
“When I first saw it, I was relieved because it validated what we’ve been saying for almost a year and a half,” said Brian Garrett, a former nursing student who worked in Strauss’s clinic. “But now I’m angry because the coverup back then was even worse than we knew.”
While many of the allegations had surfaced in a news accounts and lawsuits, Friday’s report painted a full picture of both Stauss’s misdeeds and also Ohio State’s response. Kent Kilgore, a former swimmer at the school, said the school’s inaction over nearly two decades was particularly upsetting.
“I knew what he did, and I know how many years I’ve had to deal with this,” he said in an interview. “But I’m just stunned by how many others were involved in this and aware of what was going on. I can’t believe they allowed that man to continue for that long.
“I don’t know why years and years ago, when he was doing what he was doing to me, I didn’t pick him up and slam him into the mat. I could’ve stopped a lot of other athletes’ pain. That’s haunted me for 30 years.”
Several victims told investigators the Ohio State athletes talked openly about the doctor’s behavior in front of coaching staff, but “we could not make conclusive determinations about each and every allegation made about a particular coach’s knowledge.”
Twenty-two coaches interviewed by investigators said they were aware of rumors or complaints regarding Strauss. One coach told investigators that he didn’t complain to administrators but did personally confront Strauss about his behavior around his athletes. The unnamed coach “believed that any jokes or innuendo he heard about Strauss were due to Strauss' rumored homosexuality — or simply the student-athletes' discomfort with medical examinations — rather than any abusive conduct by Strauss,” the report stated.
The abuse began in 1979, Strauss’s first year of employment at the state’s flagship university, and the report says athletic department employees were “aware that Strauss was conducting genital examinations on male athletes that were unusually prolonged, and that Strauss refused to allow athletic training staff to be present for these protracted genital examinations.”
It continued even after Strauss was suspended from treating students in 1996. The report says around that time, Strauss opened an off-campus “men’s clinic” where he continued to see patients and abuse Ohio State students. He advertised his services in the school newspaper, offering a “student discount” to test students for sexually transmitted diseases.
“The findings of the report have shaken us to our core,” said Michael J. Gasser, the chair of the school’s board of trustees. “The university is committed to supporting the safety and well-being of our entire community. The lessons of the past will continue to inform our efforts today and well into the future.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.