USA Gymnastics "failed its most basic responsibility," elite gymnasts testify

WASHINGTON -- Retired star gymnasts testified before Congress on Tuesday that they were sexually abused by a former USA Gymnastics doctor and recommended a bill that requires tougher sex-abuse reporting for Olympic sports.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, and three-time national champion rhythmic gymnast Jessica Howard recounted their experiences before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They told the committee of their abuses by Dr. Larry Nassar, who is in jail without bond in Michigan and also faces federal child pornography charges.

“USA Gymnastics failed its most basic responsibility to protect the athletes under its care,” Dantzscher said through tears. 

“He abused me in my hotel room in Sydney at the Olympic games,” said Dantzscher, a bronze medalist in the 2000 Olympics. “I was disbelieved and even criticized by some in the gymnastics community for bringing this disturbing issue to light. Now I know that I am not alone.” 

Rhythmic gymnast Jessica Howard says she was 15 when Nassar first abused her.

“My post-gymnastics life has been fraught with issues that stem from the abuse I endured as a young teenager,” Howard says. 

Senators called Tuesday’s testimony an act of bravery, but USA Gymnastics was a no show at Tuesday’s hearing, reports CBS News’ Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. The organization said they did not come because of pending ligation. 

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Jessica Howard, three-time Rhythmic Gymnastics National Champion, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual abuse at the hands of a team doctor during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

But that wasn’t enough for Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who said “if they really cared, they would be here.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is co-sponsoring a bill that requires organizations overseeing Olympic sports to immediately report sex-abuse allegations to law enforcement or child-welfare authorities. USA Gymnastics said they support the bill, Dr. LaPook reports.  

The bill and proposed changes to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act come in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal that led to the resignation of USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny.

“They failed to take action against coaches, trainers and other adults who abused children,” Dantzscher said. “And they allowed Dr. Nassar to abuse young women and girls for more than 20 years.”

Penny is a co-defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by Dantzscher, who has accused Nassar of sexual abuse.

Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 gold medalist, described a “culture of fear, intimidation and humiliation, established by Bela and Marta Karolyi.” The legendary coaches are named in Dantzscher’s civil lawsuit for physical abuse.

U.S. Olympic Committee official Rick Adams and Stafford County (Va.) Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen also testified. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee chairman, criticized USA Gymnastics for declining to testify.

Moceanu, now an advocate, spoke about emotional and verbal abuse during her time with USA Gymnastics. She said there is an “urgent need” to change the culture of the organization. 

Howard said, “It has become glaringly obvious that USA Gymnastics has not done nearly enough to protect athletes from any form of abuse.”

Feinstein, who has been critical of USA Gymnastics’ handling of the sex-abuse scandal, said she met two months ago with former gymnasts who were abused as teenagers and carried the trauma with them as adults. Dantzscher and Howard said they didn’t realize as teenagers that Nassar had abused them. 

“Dr. Nassar acted as the good guy, supporting me emotionally and promising me relief from the pain,” Howard said. “Now I know that in actuality he expertly abused me under the guise of ‘treatment.’”

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Dr. Larry Nassar arrives in court.

CBSN

Nassar also was the doctor for Michigan State University’s gymnastics team. He’s been charged with sexually assaulting young gymnasts in the Lansing area and faces lawsuits from dozens of former athletes. He has denied wrongdoing.

As part of the proposed legislation, governing bodies under the USOC umbrella would be required to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement and train employees on how to handle situations. The statute of limitations for victims to sue their abusers would be extended. 

“Young athletes should not have to fear victimization from coaches, doctors and other officials,” Feinstein said at a news conference after the hearing.

Retired gymnast Jeanette Antolin said at the news conference she was sexually abused by her first coach. She praised the proposed legislation, saying “for so long we felt like we had no voice.”

The push for the bill follows an eight-month investigation into sexual abuse in gymnastics by the Indianapolis Star, as well as a 60 Minutes report featuring three women who said the U.S. team doctor abused them. 

Since the Indianapolis Star last year investigated cases in which male coaches, members of the national governing organization USA Gymnastics, were accused of sexually abusing female gymnasts, young women have come forward with accounts of abuse they had suffered within the U.S. gymnastics system for many years as young girls and competitive gymnasts. The new accusations concerned a prominent doctor who’d been working with U.S. Olympic and national teams and other athletes for three decades.

By mid-February, more than 60 women had filed complaints, and some believed that number may reach into the hundreds.