Senators from both parties are calling for creation of a select committee to investigate the U.S. Olympic Committee and Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics after the sentencing of a former sports doctor who admitted molesting female gymnasts for years under the guise of medical treatment.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the Senate should review how Dr. Larry Nassar was given unsupervised access to the gymnasts. Nassar was sentenced Wednesday to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 150 women and girls over 25 years.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, also backed the special committee, saying that “while some justice has finally been served, there are a great deal of questions that still remain” about how Nassar was able to continue his abuse for so many years.
The senators’ request comes as House leaders prepare to take up Senate-passed legislation intended to prevent predators from abusing young athletes. The bill, set for a vote Monday, would require amateur sports groups recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee to promptly report claims of sexual abuse to police. The House passed a similar bill in May, but the legislative language is not identical.
“The crimes committed against these young women are atrocious and rattle us all to the core,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “The fact that it went unreported to law enforcement is intolerable — and I’'s a huge wake-up call.”
In sentencing Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina called for “a massive investigation as to why there was inaction, why there was silence.”
Shaheen made a similar point in calling for a special Senate committee.
“Larry Nassar will spend a lifetime in prison, but enormous disturbing questions remain as to how he was able to freely abuse young girls for decades,” she said.
Nassar’s victims “deserve answers to these questions,” Shaheen said, adding that lawmakers would be putting other young athletes at risk “without institutional accountability” if they don’t investigate the U.S. Olympic Committee and its member organizations.
“The USOC is a federally chartered institution and its athletes compete under the American flag, so the Senate has a clear responsibility to expand this investigation beyond the narrow criminal charges adjudicated in Michigan,” Shaheen said.
The investigation should include subpoena power for lawmakers to compel amateur sports organizations to produce relevant documents and internal communications, she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said Congress needs to act immediately. “The time to pass our bill is now,” said Feinstein, who met last year with eight survivors of Nassar’s abuse.
“I made a promise to those women that I would act … to prevent what happened to them from happening to anyone else,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, used that platform to address the situation as the panel delayed a vote on Indianapolis attorney James Sweeney II and other federal court nominees Thursday.
She said she learned of the depth and breath of the abuse when a 28-year-old gymnast sat in her office recounting her experience and sobbing. “It’s a stark event in American history and certainly for these women,” the senator said.
Feinstein’s bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support including from Indiana senators Joe Donnelly, Democrat, and Todd Young, Republican.
In addition to requiring claims of sexual abuse to be reported to police, the bill also bars athletes who are under 18 from being alone with an adult who is not their parent or legal guardian.
The bill is supported by 270 individuals and organizations, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children's Advocacy Institute and dozens of former Olympic gymnasts and other athletes, Feinstein said.
Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., the lead sponsor of the House bill, said the Olympic community had clearly failed to protect its athletes and must do better. Legislation is important, "not only to provide victims with the justice denied to them for so long, but also to protect future generations of Olympic hopefuls," she said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., requested a separate investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Bishop's district includes Michigan State University, where Nassar worked when much of the abuse took place at a campus clinic or at his home basement.