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With Ohio State facing latest sex abuse suit, attorney says May report ‘barely scratches the surface’

Ohio State is facing 13 lawsuits from more than 300 people who claim they were sexually abused by former school doctor Richard Strauss. (AP Photo/Angie Wang)

An investigation this year found more than 177 former Ohio State University students were abused by a former school doctor over a 17-year period, but recently filed lawsuits allege there were far more victims and more severe offenses than the findings by the independent law firm that conducted the probe on behalf of the university.

“That barely scratches the surface,” said Ilann Maazel, a New York-based attorney who’s part of a legal team representing more than 80 alleged victims. “One hundred and seventy-seven is a tiny fraction of the number of people who were abused by this man at Ohio State. That’s becoming absolutely obvious.”

Nearly 300 alleged victims have joined more than a dozen lawsuits to say they were victimized during their time at Ohio State. Five lawsuits were filed last month alone, according to the Columbus Dispatch, and a 13th was filed Thursday morning in federal court. Most involved athletes who say they were examined and assaulted by Richard Strauss, a doctor who was employed by the school from 1978 to 1998. The latest complaint was filed in U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of 43 people who levied an array of detailed charges against the university and Strauss, who committed suicide in 2005.

“OSU employed this monster,” the latest lawsuit states. “OSU gave him a position of authority. OSU promoted him. OSU even honored him. … This is perhaps the greatest sex abuse scandal in American history. It is without question the greatest scandal in the history of American higher education.”

In an emailed statement sent Thursday afternoon, Ohio State said that since learning in spring 2018 of the allegations against Strauss, the school has been committed to a complete finding of all facts and to a transparent process.

“Ohio State has implemented multiple additional safeguards in the 20 years since Strauss left the university and is committed to appropriately addressing Strauss’ abuse from decades ago,” the statement concluded. “Richard Strauss’ actions are reprehensible, and we remain deeply concerned for all those who have been affected by Strauss.”

In May, Ohio State released results of the independent investigation, which was conducted by Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, and made clear there could have been more victims than the 177 who spoke with investigators. Since that time, lawyers say dozens more have stepped forward, including athletes from at least 15 sports.

“The sheer volume of sexual abuse committed by Richard Strauss over a 20-year period is staggering,” said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the Ohio State Accountability Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that has run TV and radio advertisements in Ohio demanding further accountability from the school. “With every lawsuit filed and report released, we learn that hundreds of teenage students were abused multiple times and that Ohio State University was aware and did nothing.”

Several former students told Perkins Coie investigators that Strauss showered with athletes, fondled them during exams, unnecessarily requiring full or partial nudity. Two alleged that Strauss performed unwanted oral sex.

Last month, the school issued its annual crime report and revealed that it is now aware of 1,429 instances of fondling and 47 instances of rape involving Strauss. The school used the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of rape, which includes digital and oral penetration.

The latest federal lawsuit includes an allegation by a former Ohio State wrestler who was also a walk-on football player. In the suit, the unnamed player — referred to as John Doe, like many of the alleged victims — recalls an incident in 1979 in which he was dehydrated after a workout and visited Strauss after falling ill.

Strauss administered pain medication, and the player blacked out shortly after, according to the complaint.

“When [the player] came to, he was not sure how long he had been unconscious. He found himself face down on the floor experiencing extreme rectal pain,” the complaint states. “As he came to, he realized the pain was because Dr. Strauss was lying behind him, anally raping him.”

The complaint states that the player was bleeding from his anus and he “also saw that Dr. Strauss’s penis had blood on it.” The complaint further states the player reported the assault the next day to the school’s wrestling coach, Chris Ford, who accused him of lying, resulting in an argument. The complaint states that no corrective action was taken. Ford died in 2016.

Many of the lawsuits cite incidents in which athletes said they reported abuse to coaches, trainers or athletic department officials, yet the university allowed Strauss to continue treating students at the school until a January 1996 complaint that he fondled a patient during an exam. He continued in his role as a tenured faculty member and was allowed to retire voluntarily two years later.

In a message to the university community in May, Ohio State President Michael V. Drake acknowledged “the inadequate efforts to thoroughly investigate complaints raised by students and staff members,” but the legal complaints say the school hasn’t done enough to support victims.

“The nature of Ohio State’s wrongdoing is far more egregious than what’s been reported previously,” said Washington attorney Adele Kimmel, whose filed two victim lawsuits along with Maazel. “Up to this point, it’s been treated akin to negligence. But it’s really a coverup by the university.”

The latest lawsuit, which charges Ohio State with a “culture of institutional indifference,” notes that the school destroyed patient health records, even after launching an investigation into abuse allegations against Strauss. The Perkins Coie report notes that the school has had document retention policies that call for the destruction of athletic department records “8 years after last activity” and student medical records “10 years following last visit for care.”

“Those records would have helped identify whom Dr. Strauss abused,” the lawsuit states. “Those records would have substantiated survivors’ complaints about Dr. Strauss’s unnecessary medical exams. By destroying those health records, OSU further concealed Dr. Strauss’s sexual abuse.”

In its statement, Ohio State said it “maintains records in accordance with a publicly available records retention schedule. Records are never destroyed except in accordance with this schedule. The university shared hundreds of thousands of records with the independent investigators and no records pertaining to Strauss were destroyed during the investigation.”

Ohio State has added resources to respond to complaints of sexual violence and harassment and changed some policies within the athletic department, but attorneys for alleged victims also note that the school has declined to support a bill in the Ohio state legislature that would eliminate the statute of limitations for Strauss’s survivors. The university submitted a letter to lawmakers in September saying it could not take a position because of “ongoing confidential mediation.”

Ohio State is the latest university to face high-profile litigation related to years-old sexual abuse. In May 2018, Michigan State University agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits filed by 332 alleged victims of former sports physician Larry Nassar. Penn State has paid out more than $109 million to more than 30 people who say they were abused by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

James Khalil, a former Ohio State club hockey player who comes from a Buckeyes family, recalled the school doctor approaching him in a locker room 27 years earlier, telling the player he needed to undergo a physical. Strauss performed the exam there in the locker room, Khalil said, where he instructed the player to pull down his pants and then began fondling him.

As others came forward in recent months, Khalil decided to join the suit filed Thursday.

“Right now the university is saying this happened in the past, time has elapsed, we’re not owning it. Well, that’s the most hurtful thing ever,” Khalil said in a phone interview, “because you can’t heal until that happens. You can’t move on. Until Ohio State really takes ownership of it, embraces it, they’re gong to continue to be a disturbed culture and one that breeds this negative atmosphere.”